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With Tours Cancelled, Working Musicians Face Uncertainty At Home

With restrictions on crowd size under social distancing rules, the coronavirus outbreak has halted live performances and sent bands and entertainers home. WAMC’s Lucas Willard spoke with several working musicians who depend on touring and are wondering what to do next.

Philadelphia-based rock band Mannequin Pussy kicked off a nationwide tour on February 28th. With a slot opening for indie favorites Best Coast, the group was leaving Chicago on March 13th when Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order banning gatherings more than 250 people.

Marisa Dabice sings and plays guitar in the band…

“We were on our way to Detroit, and then, since we’re from Philly, it’s about 10 hours from Detroit, we were like, ‘You know what? Let’s just drive home.’”

Just a few days earlier, organizers of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California postponed their event. With a third album released last year, Mannequin Pussy had been scheduled to perform. With the spreading virus, the band couldn’t continue.

“That first part of a tour is when you’re making up all your expenses still. You’re not quite out of the hole.  So it takes time to kind of climb out of there. And I think right at the point that bands were starting to break even on their expenses is when everything got shut down,” said Dabice.

This spring could have been a jumping-off point for Brooklyn-based trio THICK, which released its debut full-length album earlier this month after years of generating buzz in New York City.

Nikki Sisti, THICK guitarist and vocalist, said it felt like all the stars were aligned.

“We were working with a booking agent, so we booked this awesome national tour. We’ve never really done a national tour, let alone supporting a bigger act,” said Sisti.

But as the days passed, the virus got worse. South by Southwest, the Austin, Texas event that draws bands, fans, and labels alike, was cancelled. THICK, planning to play during the event, called off the tour.

“It kind of feels like we’ve hit a brick wall.”

Kate Black, who plays bass and sings in THICK, said the band had to make huge changes to their personal lives before embarking on their first national tour.

“There’s a ton of fear involved when you choose to leave stability and once we made that choice the rug was pulled out from beneath us. It looks like we’re going to be figuring it out a little bit longer,” said Black.

For working bands that rely on touring for their income, cancelling shows is a major hit. Meanwhile at home, musicians often rely on the service industry.

“I’m a bartender at one spot and a server at another place, and both of them are closed indefinitely."

Becca Ryskalczyk is singer and a guitarist in Brookyln-based band Bethlehem Steel, which also cancelled its tour.

“Like, we work fexible jobs so we can do these tours. Like, I recently had set myself up a karaoke business,” said Ryskalczyk.

Ryskalczk had hired and trained her first employee to take over while she was planning to be on tour. But with social-distancing in effect, karaoke is by its nature, not very possible.

With canceled tours and non-essential businesses closed, musicians, like everyone else, are in a bind.  

“I definitely understand where this is a time where everyone is going to be under a lot of financial strain."

Izzy True, who was set to play with Chicago-based group Tencion tour, says fans can support musicians even if they can’t see a show.

“Listening to music. Talking about it with your friends. Buying physical media is really important for a lot of people, even more so than digital,” said True.

True says to try to buy music directly from bands or their labels. Digital music hosting website Bandcamp, where many independent musicians put their songs up for purchase, withheld all fees for 24 hours last Friday.

And some labels are finding other ways to showcase their musicians. On Monday, Izzy True’s label Don Giovanni hosted a livestream concert with several groups.

The band members in THICK say they want to find a way to broadcast a session on social media, but right now, Kate Black says they are keeping apart as a precaution.

“We’re even removed from each other, let alone the rest of the world. Which is definitely…might be the most difficult part of all of it,” said Black.

Music heard in piece: 

Drunk II by Mannequin Pussy
Bumming Me Out by THICK

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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