Portland music professionals persevere

Local music industry continues to grapple with the impact of COVID-19

On the afternoon of March 9, 2020, Jason Powers, a local audio professional, sat down with me at the Albina Press on SE Hawthorne. We briefly chatted about how we thought coronavirus might affect live events, unaware that a few days later, life in the United States would change drastically. 

That was a mere two days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic; The New York Times was reporting only 201 new cases of the virus in the U.S., and both Powers and I were planning on attending a live music event in the coming weeks. Today, Powers can be found mixing and mastering albums from his home, something he wasn’t planning on doing at all in 2020. 

Powers is one of the thousands of music professionals affected by the collapse of the live events industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Music Portland is a local non-profit supporting Portland’s independent music. Their executive director, Meara McLaughlin, currently estimates that 30,000 people in the greater Portland area make some or all of their income through professional music. 

For Powers, the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S. led to weeks of canceled tours. “I lost about five weeks of touring in March and April, and another few weeks that were supposed to happen in November,” Powers said. That’s to say nothing of shows and tours that hadn’t even been scheduled yet. Most notably, the festival Powers manages audio for, Pickathon, was physically canceled. 

Other people working in the local music industry have had similar experiences, including some PSU students. Before March, Brittani Wert was working 20 hours a week as a Sony Music marketing representative and offering her services as a freelance concert photographer and journalist. Her work required she attend two to three music events around Portland every week. However, from June–August, her hours at Sony were cut in half and all of her freelance work was canceled or went remote. 

Student employees Jae Lacio and Duggan Beckhouse-Prentiss from the university’s Campus Audio and Visual Event team (CAVET), also had a weeks-long period where their hours were significantly reduced. Not everyone has been as lucky. McLaughlin mentioned she has seen “[full time performers] delivering groceries and working online jobs to survive.”

Music professionals have also faced hardships when trying to claim unemployment benefits. Many make their money through a variety of mediums. Some are employed by studios, venues, labels or other music businesses. Others also receive income from freelance and gig work. Those who make a significant amount of money both ways fall into a mixed-income category, which can disqualify them from getting full unemployment benefits. “Musicians who make $40,000 per year from their music might have worked for two months as a barista while not touring,” McLaughlin explained. “Current benefit rules will pay them only a minimum for those two months of W-2 work and ignore the 1099 earnings [they received as musicians.]” 

Even for those who haven’t faced this obstacle, there have been delays in unemployment benefits and financial support for music industry professionals. McLaughlin said she has seen it take over six months for some workers to receive money and Lacio has stated that she feels the original stimulus package “was nowhere near enough to offer any sort of functional, long-term stability for anyone aggressively impacted by COVID-19.” Furthermore, the Oregon Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PAU) benefits supporting local freelance workers are scheduled to stop at the end of this year on Dec. 26, 2020. 

Unfortunately, live music is not likely to return at full capacity anytime soon. As it stands now, COVID-19 cases are rising in over 40 states. While some local restaurants have tried to reintroduce music into their spaces, Music Portland’s “surveys confirm that musicians are anxious for their own safety and patrons are concerned about transmission by a performer as they sit eating, unmasked,” according to McLaughlin.

Despite this bleak outlook, the Portland music community has come together to try and support opportunities for its workers. Although Pickathon was canceled, the festival got funding to support the production of four months’ worth of live performance videos. Extra funding meant Powers and a few other audio professionals on the team had steady mixing work for a few months.

Wert’s work has shifted to digital campaigns and has helped her recognize the importance of digital marketing for artists. Lacio said the pandemic has made it clear that she wants to pursue a career in live audio. The CAVET team has been able to pivot to “offering assistance with events taking place on Zoom meetings and webinars” and “AV support for professors new to Zoom and those using PSU’s new Zoom classrooms.” Beckhouse-Prentiss even mentioned since March, they have gotten “really into streaming DJ sets and connecting with the electronic music community on Twitch and Discord,” which they wouldn’t have discovered if not for the quarantine.

Live-streaming has also exploded, presenting unique opportunities for music professionals and audience members. “Just last week DVSN held a drive-in concert in Toronto where folks got assigned parking spots at an outside venue,” Lacio said. “Full production, lights, sound, everything, and on top of that, I was able to join via Twitch from my home in Portland while doing homework, [which I thought] was very innovative.” Major-label artists such as Billie Eilish, Niall Horan and Sam Smith have also begun announcing ticketed livestream shows. 

For now, live music remains on pause for Portland and beyond, and many music professionals are continuing to feel the effects. However, McLaughlin pointed out a few ways the public can help support their favorite artists. “Take some time during [COVID-19] to find and connect with incredible Portland talent,” she said. “Become evangelists for your favorite local bands and promote their livestreams and music. Also, remember your favorite local music venues [and support them] so they are still there when music comes back.”