Local Current Blog

‘I’m completely unsure’: Behind-the-scenes music pros hang in pandemic limbo, hope for change

The Fitzgerald Theater and, below, Varsity Theater photographed in March 2020 after closing due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Lucy Hawthorne for MPR)

“When it all started happening, I had reached a point — the first time in my life — where I was making a living solely through doing sound and other music projects,” said Ian Sutherland, “and had just kind of come to the realization that I’d finally reached that little goal of mine. And then, all of a sudden, the pandemonium around the pandemic started.”

Sutherland, 23, is a sound technician at Part Wolf, a bar and music venue in the space formerly occupied by the Nomad World Pub. Like so many others in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sutherland and countless other workers across various sectors of the economy were left stranded. Given that the virus feeds off crowds, it’s unclear when live music professionals will be able to get back to work.

Much has been made of artists, even those with a national profile, struggling to deal with the financial fallout of cancelled tours. While many musicians have been turning to livestreams to connect with audiences (often pro bono or for charity), the vast majority of musicians and music-adjacent workers rely on the next gig to get through the month; all the while, streaming giants like Spotify continue to expand their vast influence on the industry as a whole.

Furthermore, huge swaths of the industry aren’t the faces you see on stage. They are tour managers, sound technicians, bartenders, and lighting experts. These workers are just as vulnerable as your average singer-songwriter, but their plight is less visible. Many of these vital workers perform in the shadows of the sound booth or the dim lighting of the green room.

“It all happened really fast, and I didn’t really have a lot of time to process it, but there definitely was a lot of fear because my livelihood was about to just kind of get pulled out from under me,” Sutherland said of the days leading up to quarantine. 

“Luckily, we have a very supportive management system at Part Wolf, and they were able to provide us with some good resources,” Sutherland continued. “They helped me kind of figure out how to get on unemployment, which was great, but I still was getting less from that than I did [made when working].”

As other sectors of the economy return to work, and with the pandemic-bolstered unemployment checks set to expire on the 31st, Sutherland and other music workers are facing the possibility of having to abandon their careers for the foreseeable future.

“There will certainly be people who find other careers,” said Mat Terwilliger, a business representative with IATSE Local 13, a Minneapolis union that represents entertainment workers — from stage hands and projectionists to TV crews and convention coordinators. “Whether it’s a temporary gap job [where] they intend to return to the entertainment business afterwards, or whether they decide that they’re gonna move on to something different.”

“It’s definitely been strange seeing a sense of normalcy come back to a lot of people’s lives and still being in that position where I’m completely unsure of what my future and my job looks like,” said Sutherland.

“I think that will certainly be a challenge in the long run. What happens to the workforce that exists in this industry?” Terwilliger said. “We will almost certainly be the last industry to return to full strength when we come out of the pandemic, and people are going to have to find other options in the meantime.”

“The tech folks really suffer,” said Molly Maher. “It’s not like they can stream a selfie concert showing their tech skills. Although that might be kinda cool. ‘Did you see so-and-so’s lights last night online? Epic fading in and out.'”

Maher, a musical pocket knife who does everything from play with her blues band the Disbelievers to booking shows and fixing guitars, has always dealt with the uncertainty of working in music. “Obviously everyone has to get creative,” she continued, “whether that’s finding a new platform to host live music or expanding into other areas of the business.”

With their employment on hiatus, behind-the-scenes music professionals are also challenged to find and afford healthcare.

“The United States is fairly unique among Western industrialized nations, in that we tie health care and access to health care to employment status and particular employer relationships,” said Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition (FMC). The FMC is a musician advocacy group that seeks to promote the fair treatment of musicians and music workers.

“For workers of any kind that don’t structure their employment that way, but are working with a bunch of different business partners to bring their work to the market, or, are freelancers — including sound engineers — part-timers, people who are not eligible for employer-provided health insurance: they have been left behind,” Erickson explained.

Even in the best of circumstances, workers like sound and lighting technicians who tour with artists can be hard-pressed to find adequate care. “For people who tour,” said Erickson, “it can be difficult to find a plan on the [healthcare] marketplace that covers you while you’re out on the road. The sort of out-of-network, regional coverage is something that not every plan covers.”

Molly Maher hopes that this challenge will lead to meaningful change.  

“I’m inspired by the new voices that are shaping the scene. Where will they take [us]? The model that I grew up in doesn’t work. [It] wasn’t working great pre-pandemic, and now they get a fresh mold [to] make it [sustainable],” she said.

Erickson points to countries like the United Kingdon, who have explicitly invested in protecting arts in the time of COVID, as admirable examples. “In the long term,” he said, “when we’re thinking about broader systemic changes on the other side of this crisis, certainly one priority needs to be making unemployment assistance available to self-employed people, or hybrid income people, people of any type of employment, not just in disasters.”

Erickson and FMC board members, like Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards and Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, have made it clear that the state infrastructure and funding is paramount to preserving the workforce that makes up the music industry. 

“I think there’s a clear need for technology upgrades,” said Erickson. “There’s so much diversity. [FMC] and all of the other organizations representing different kinds of cultural workers suddenly found ourselves in the position of trying to figure out how to navigate 51 different unemployment systems at the same time, and one of the things we quickly observed was that there are just vastly varying technological capacities. Some of them have really, really old, bad legacy systems that they’re running everything on and they’re just badly out of date.”

“I do think labor reform is well past due,” said Sutherland. “I agree with the sentiment that the streaming services do sometimes take advantage of artists and people in the arts community. The way art and artists have helped people get through this situation, I just hope people can have a greater appreciation for the help that is provided by artists and the people who help them perform.”