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When Musicians Lose their Audiences


The Rumberos perform at Havana Central restaurant in Edison, NJ. Bass player Charlie Poe (left) and band founder Paul Nieto accompany the author. Photo by Christopher Rybin.

Performers are coping with canceled gigs by shifting to streaming services

When I got a text message from our band leader that all of our gigs had been cancelled, it was a suspension of momentum and possibility, of gaining experience with a new band, and of simply doing what I love

I was the new lead singer with The Rumberos, and looking forward to playing my first full gig. Now, I’m not sure when that will happen. 

At first I thought the coronavirus might just close down schools for a few weeks, and maybe limit mass gatherings. I never expected it to shut down the world. 

Or to interfere with my musical life. 

Musicians sidelined

But musicians all over the world have found their livelihoods threatened.

“A lot of them are getting really depressed, and wondering where their next money is coming from,” said MD25 music publishing CEO John Velasco. 

Multi-instrumentalist Charly Poe started playing bass for The Rumberos four years ago, after moving to the United States from Cuba. He’s been struggling to find solid ground. 

“Musicians have to reinvent ourselves online, borrow money, and everyone is crowdfunding to make ends meet,” he said. 

Our band leader Paul Nieto is keeping busy, but not by playing music. He owns the New York City guitar shop GuitarTech, and has been overwhelmed with calls from musicians wanting to repair their instruments.

But he still feels the earthquake in his musical life, and is upset over the repercussions for his friends and bandmates. 

“[The Rumberos] was nonstop for four years,” he said, noting that the group had secured a regular gig at the restaurant Havana Central, in Edison. “We were a working band, and it’s really hard because for the members of the band, this is their only livelihood.”  

Drummer, producer and music director Charlie Z is used to traveling the world, and to playing a gig every night. Even if he can manage to stay solvent, his reality has shifted. 

“I have no gigs for two months,” he told me.

Live music establishments are also fighting to survive. 

 “The venues that I’ve played, some are probably going to go under…it’s going to be a tricky thing to make everything balance,” Z said.

And music learners are losing out on experiences they’ve been preparing for their whole lives. 

The New Jersey Youth Symphony’s 92 members had been scheduled to tour Italy in March.   

The New Jersey Youth Symphony’s was forced to cancel its planned tour of Italy. Here, the group performs at Princeton University. Photo by Jack Sicat.

“I had planned the entire season around the tour: every piece chosen had to do with Italy,” said NJYS conductor and artistic director Helen Cha-Pyo. “The disappointment is unspeakable, and monumental for all of us.” 

The young musicians have still only received 85 percent of refunds of the fees they’d paid toward the trip — just one example of the difficulties traveling and touring musicians are experiencing. 

In the rehearsal after the cancelation, Cha-Pyo asked the members to write down how they felt about missing out on such a special performance opportunity. 

Though confessing to feeling disappointed, one student wrote: “I’m just so grateful to be safe in NJ, and to be cared for by the staff here and abroad!”

New Jersey Youth Symphony students were asked to react in writing to the cancellation of their planned Italy tour. Photo Courtesy of Helen Cha-Pyo

Most bands have already cancelled, or postponed, their summer concert tours, and music lovers who had pre-booked are struggling to get their money back. 

Julie Reardon of Wayne, NJ, is an avid concert-goer and follower of the band The Wallflowers. She’d bought tickets with her son for the band’s August 4 show at the Cellairis Amphitheatre in Atlanta, Georgia. 

“The anxiety of it being cancelled and not being able to see my favorite band is annoying, but thank God for iTunes,” Reardon said. 

Streaming: a saving grace

The music industry is now eyeing a collective shift to streaming. 

Despite the drawbacks for individual musicians, Velasco believes the future of the music industry is more promising than ever. 

“There’s a lot more money to be made if it’s handled correctly, especially with publishing…especially with streaming,” Velasco said. 

A musician at Velasco’s company has created an online platform,  iConcert , for artists to make money through streaming, 

I worked with Indimusic TV to enable artists to not only stream, but make a direct earning, which no other stream can do,” Velasco explained.

And offers of help are emerging, in the form of  national relief funds, such as The Recording Academy’s MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund, and state-by-state aid packages and fundraising programs. 

The  $2.2 trillion federal aid package also includes relief for the self-employed, musicians among them.  

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers was one of the lead music organizations that sent letters to Congress to make this happen. 

“I want to remind you that even in these challenging times, we are a unique creative community, and we are all in this together,” ASCAP President Paul Williams wrote in a message to its 800,000 members. “You are not alone!”  

Musician Charly Poe’s Home Studio. Photo Courtesy of Charly Poe.

“This is the time that artists should really look at their careers and see where they want to go, [because] people need escapism…in wartime or times of crisis is where major entertainment steps have been made,”  Velasco stressed. 

Poe is now producing his own music with his group Caribbean Sea Sound, and is live-streaming through YouTube. 

Nieto continues to send us music suggestions.

He thinks the crisis will give musicians a chance to evolve, and to gain inspiration.

“They can now make music about someone they can’t be close to, that they are missing…about what actually matters in life,” he reflected. [outquote]

Charlie Z is finishing his new album, and making plans to promote charity, with catchy and fun K-Pop song and dance, Lucky Cat (which was to be released April 17).

“We have to keep making art, keep bringing joy and hope and happiness and laughter into the world,” he said. “And hopefully by the end of the year, we’ll get to a new normal.”   

The cover of “Escape From NYC,” an album by Charlie Z. Photo by Biruta Freimane.

Each member of NJYS is finding a way to stay creative, and the group is now planning an orchestral live stream. 

Social media challenges for artists to sing while washing their hands (Gloria Gaynor washes hands to her iconic song ‘I Will Survive’), music promoting coronavirus charities, and online concert events have been circulating online.

The Global Citizen Festival has a #TogetherAtHome concert series inspiring others to take action through music. iHeartRadio, along with Elton John, put together a living room concert with today’s biggest pop stars to gather funds for the coronavirus.  

The Internet is not the only place people are gathering. People are singing and performing on their balconies in Italy, Spain, and many other affected countries to extend positivity and hope to their neighbors. 

“This is a time to pause to think about what’s important…The whole world is coming together virtually, on balconies, in music during this difficult time,” NJYS’s Cha-Pyo said. 

I may be stuck at home, but I’m not freezing my musical journey, either. I’m enhancing it with the thrill of creating, and the art of listening. And you can too. 


About Post Author

About the Author

Sophia Angelica Nitkin
Linden, N.J.

Professor: Mary D’Ambrosio
Class: Magazine Writing

As a singer-songwriter and creative activist, I felt it necessary to tell the stories of struggling musicians who are finding ways to share their music during the pandemic. While writing this story, I noticed the many similarities between all of us, and discovered our shared humanity. Musicians who have a true passion for music make their voices heard during this time, whether it's on the balcony of a building or a global online platform, and those who are struggling are able to get back on their feet as a result. I was able to uncover the healing power of music during a time where life seems to be taking a wrong turn, and the way a world can come together through art even if we are social distancing. It was truly inspiring, and solidified the reason that I have been doing this for so many years as well: to inspire and help through music.