Perspectives on music education. Have a point of view? Let us know. You're amongst friends.
By: Tom Baggott
On March 5 we launched our Music Empowers® Artist Ambassador program. That was barely a month ago, but after 29 days of hunkering down, practicing strict social distancing with my wife and two teenage daughters, it seems like a year has passed. I'm sure you can relate...
As part of the ambassador program rollout, we were going to announce our first ambassador tour dates (Ani DiFranco's North American tour) a week later. Like countless artists, festivals and other events, we had a well-conceived rollout plan that was based on a typical March 5, in a typical year. The Artist Ambassador program was unveiled through our newsletter, which included my last blog—"On the Road Again... and again... and again...", which—if you have not read it—is still a good read, but it's now better suited for a history lesson than a perspective on the touring business. Only a month ago, I wrote, "...for nearly all but the major stars at the top of the heap, touring accounts for roughly 75% of a professional artist's revenues today...it's a "tickets and t-shirts" business that relies on touring." The irony is almost overwhelming...
"On March 5 it didn't seem possible, as we proudly launched our new initiative, that the entire thing and the thing it was based on could implode in a week, but it had."
Other than the launch of the Music Empowers® Artist Ambassador program, there were other noteworthy events or milestones on March 5. For example, it was also the day that cases of COVID-19 topped 100 in the U.S. I had been closely watching the coronavirus with some concern since early January, but with matters like this, be they war, drought, hurricanes or any other crisis, there always seems to be a disconnect between what is happening and what that means for your own reality. Thus, despite what I knew about the threat of the novel coronavirus, our national preparedness, and the impact this could have on the music business, I was still launching this program that relied entirely on the concert business because I really didn't think we would be shutting down the live music business for half a year, at least... but that very evening, SXSW (South by Southwest) —one of the largest music industry, film and media events on the planet—announced they were canceling the entire event, scheduled to start the following week. On March 10, both Coachella and Stagecoach—two massive, bellwether events—were postponed, leading to a wave of cancelations and closures of events and tours, over the next two days, comparable only to a precipitous market selloff (which, incidentally, happened two days later when the stock market had its worst drop since 1987). By March 12, there had been exponential growth, in one week, of official COVID-19 cases in the U.S., which now numbered over 1000. On March 5 it didn't seem possible, as we proudly launched our new initiative, that the entire thing and the thing it was based on could implode in a week, but it had.
Other than my own kids—and I recognize how fortunate I am to have a job I can perform from the safety and comfort of my home, with my daughters and my wife who is also able to work from home—I was personally most concerned for the up-and-coming artists and small club owners—who are among the most vulnerable, under-represented, under-capitalized and under-the-radar businesses out there—and the kids who relied on their extracurricular music programs for more than music education. These programs provide mentorship, tutoring on other subjects, and even a meal, in many cases. Many of the students they serve need a safe place to go after school, where there are encouraging role models and an Internet connection. I took comfort knowing that dedicated, compassionate, smart program directors and community leaders were looking out for their kids, providing a sense of stability in the midst of a crisis and coming up with ways to continue their programs virtually, but I was going to bed at night and waking up in the morning thinking about the artists and smaller promoters and venues, as these had been my clients, customers, peers and friends for the last 25 years, and—although I never had to come into work to cancel and then re-book two to three entire seasons of touring in a matter of days—I could relate a bit and it seemed absolutely overwhelming.
Like everybody else, we had to make a quick adjustment to reality. On March 17, my team and I decided to launch Virtual Connections, an initiative to facilitate remote music instruction and create a regularly updated clearinghouse of virtual music education resources to serve our students and help out-of-work artists, while introducing them to our online community as we joined the rest of the world in a pivot to virtual life. Whereas virtual instruction is not a solution for some students who may not have access to the Internet or computers, nor is it a true, long-term solution for touring artists, this initiative was something that at least played to the strengths of our organization and our community, and could hopefully help some kids and artists.
A day later, the U.S. passed the 10,000 official cases mark—another exponential leap—and most schools around the country were closed or closing, along with bars, nightclubs, theaters and eat-in restaurants. In a matter of thirteen days, we went from going about our business to having all live entertainment shuttered, entire industries decimated, the majority of Americans under a shelter in place recommendation from their state governments and a historic stock market crash. Thirteen days...
In what can only be seen—and hopefully will be seen, in the future—as a magnificent and inspiring effort to deal with a crisis, philanthropic funding organizations and nonprofits across the globe stepped up to do what they could to help by shifting the focus of their missions to address immediate needs, changing their processes to quickly administer emergency funding or simply reassuring grantees that their funding commitments were still in place. Program-based nonprofits also sprang into action: MusiCares, the Recording Academy's charitable foundation, launched the COVID-19 Fund to provide direct financial assistance to artists, while the organization Backline quickly launched their "Come Together: Crisis Initiative" to address the growing mental health crisis among artists and workers in the touring industry who suddenly had their jobs pulled out from under them. TeachRock and Little Kids Rock, among many, many others launched free online education resources and virtual learning curricula, while other community-based groups sought to put their programming online, learning on the fly and teaching others how to do the same.
"Touring artists are problem solvers," says Luke, "and as I watched all of my dates getting canceled, I figured, I have this degree in music from Berklee, so I may as well put it to good use."
SpreadMusicNow's response to the COVID-19 crisis—our Virtual Connections initiative—was launched to help promote or facilitate these efforts, along with anything else we can find to help, by providing information, tools and assistance, and exposing artists who offer lessons through the page to our community. I am happy to report that the Virtual Connections page is getting a lot of traffic, and it has been the most visited page on our website since the day it went live. Even more reassuring is the fact that there are a lot of other organizations out there doing the same thing, sharing each other's resources across social media in the hope that the most information will reach the most people who need it.
However, before programs like this were live—and the response time from organizations was, indeed, incredibly fast—many artists were already taking action on their own, seeking to make the best of a bad situation by tapping into their own individual social networks and offering their services as instructors. Luke Bemand, bassist for lespecial—one of our Artist Ambassadors—immediately started reaching out on Facebook, offering affordable online music lessons. "Touring artists are problem solvers," says Luke, "and as I watched all of my dates getting canceled, I figured, I have this degree in music from Berklee, so I may as well put it to good use. I've built up a solid group of students that I'm working with online now, and I'm also putting myself out there through the Virtual Connections program to see if I can cast a wider net and be a part of something bigger than myself, and the SpreadMusicNow mission resonates with me." He is but one example of touring artists showing their resourcefulness and grit. On the other end of the spectrum, programs like the School's Out initiative, organized by Megadeth bassist David Ellefson, offers music students in self-isolation the opportunity to learn from some of their metal heroes, via free online lessons and education. "When one person suffers, we all suffer, and this is an unprecedented moment in history when all of us around the world are united for a common cause," Ellefson said. "Music and the arts have always been some of our greatest healers in a way none other can."
Here is where the plot twist comes in, however: in a bizarre way, the coronavirus crisis may have a lasting positive impact on artists' ability to make a living long after a vaccine is found. Just as the technological and cultural changes brought about by Napster and streaming revolutionized the music business, forcing the majority of artists to rely on tour revenues to make a living, the cultural shift brought about by COVID-19 and the technology that enables the virtual education space may have provided a new option for supplemental revenues, and maybe even an alternative to touring for some artists. Prior to coronavirus, these artists were more likely to take time off or work in the studio when they got off the road. Until there was necessity, most really hadn't considered the teaching option, or the viability of virtual events, and were stuck relying on live show tour revenues to pay their bills. "This is not a temporary thing—we're building this for the future, even when tours are happening again," says Marc Brownstein, the bassist for Disco Biscuits and co-founder of livelessonmasters.com.
At SpreadMusicNow, we're also building for the future. The touring business will come back eventually, and we will pick the Music Empowers® Artist Ambassador program back up where we left it on March 5. Then we will continue to expand it, as planned, and in the meantime we will continue to do what we can to support the efforts of so many great people and organizations working to provide music education for underserved communities. We just want to help, and we know you want to help, too.
"... now is the time to make sure we are sticking to our mission, supporting our students and working to provide equity for our artists, even as we understand how critical it is to support health care workers and other essential jobs."
We also know there are countless worthy causes you can support that address the immediate needs of this crisis, but you may not have considered how our programs are also addressing this crisis today. Angie Durrell, who runs the Stamford, CT based program INTEMPO, which is one of our grantees, sees it this way: "Our work is important today, tomorrow and the day after that, as the parents who are working to provide essential services—the grocery store clerks or delivery people or nurses—are really happy that the virtual programs are helping kids to have a sense of stability in these uncertain times. They are still getting their music education, and this simple fact is providing hope. So now is the time to make sure we are sticking to our mission, supporting our students and working to provide equity for our artists, even as we understand how critical it is to support health care workers and other essential jobs. If working parents are too busy trying to feed their families and cannot think about education, we need to be thinking about it for them, so things are still working when we settle back to a more normal state."
March 5 was a little more than a month ago, but so much has changed. One thing that has not changed is our commitment to our mission. We are really proud to provide funding for programs like INTEMPO, and we ask that you consider including SpreadMusicNow among the groups doing good work that you will support with your generous financial donations.
Tom Baggott joined the SpreadMusicNow team as Executive Director after being moved by both a personal connection to the mission and the impact of the Music Empowers brand. A music industry veteran, he brings his passion and support for youth culture, education and the community at large to the organization. Tom lives in Colchester, VT with his wife and two teenage daughters, two cats, and a rescue dog.
To learn more about Tom, visit our leadership page.