As the country begins to reopen, government officials are hoping that industries battered by the COVID-19 crisis will start to rebound. But for people who work in the arts, it may still be a long while before things are normal again.
That’s a harsh reality for musician Zoë Keating. Last year, the cellist earned almost half her income from live concerts, but now she is preparing for the possibility that it may be another 12 months before she can perform in front of a full, live audience again.
“It’s one thing to go into survival mode for a while, but how do you do that for a year?” said Keating, who lives in Vermont. Even if concerts could be held sooner than that, Keating’s booking agency told her it’s better to take a wait-and-see approach as opposed to agreeing to the first gigs that become available. No one wants to schedule a performance that people aren’t ready to attend yet. And even if there were concerts and people showed up in big numbers — data suggests that people aren’t ready to attend large events right away — Keating said she would worry about the health of her fans.
Keating’s concerts give her a sense of community — similar to attending a church service. “Being with my audience is so special, and it fills me up every time I do it,” she said. Playing for people on social media has felt good, too, but she said it doesn’t bring the same sense of fulfillment that an in-person concert does.
Keating had already been trying to rely less on concerts and tours for her income. As a widow and single parent of a young son, it wore on her to be on the road for too long at any one time. So she had been devoting more time to composing music to license for film and TV scores, which made up a little less than 20 percent of her income in 2019. The problem there, of course, is that the TV and film industry is also in limbo at the moment, so there isn’t as much demand for music.
While things are undoubtedly rough for most in the music business right now, Keating has had a handful of saving graces. Because of the way royalties work, she’s just now getting money from the international television shows that featured her music. She has a big social media following, which helps in terms of her streaming. (That accounts for 10 percent of her earnings.) And she’s been pleasantly surprised by the fact that many fans have bought her music through an online music company called Bandcamp, which at times has agreed to waive its share of revenue, instead letting artists hold on to the sales. “We get way more from [Bandcamp] than we do from Spotify or Apple,” she said.
Keating’s adjusted gross income was about $89,000 in 2019. She received a stimulus payment from the government and is seeking assistance in navigating her unemployment eligibility. “None of the forms seem to fit my situation,” she said. “And it’s weird because I am getting paid, but this is for work I did last year. And the main source of my income [live performances] isn’t there anymore.”
While she estimated that her income is down about 50 percent so far from last year, Keating said she is positioned pretty well from a savings standpoint. That careful and sometimes frugal approach almost certainly stems from her life experiences. She was working a day job with a software company when the tech bubble burst in 2000. (She used the loss of her job — and the payout that allowed her to survive without it — as an opportunity to take a bigger risk and get her music career off the ground.) And during the economic downturn in 2008, her husband, Jeff, lost his graphic-design job, making her the sole breadwinner. The pressure increased yet again in 2015, when Jeff died of cancer.
Keating, whose monthly expenses include $2,600 for rent and $650 for health insurance for her and her son, had been aiming to finally buy a home in Vermont this spring after three years of careful saving. “So on the one hand, I have enough savings,” she said. “But on the other, I might end up having to burn through a lot of it to make it through the next year and may not have enough to buy a house anymore.”
She could still try to make the leap into home ownership now. But she said she was apprehensive about doing so without knowing what the music industry, or her life generally, would look like a year from now.
Her booking manager has talked about the potential of partnering with venues for performances with only a number of videographers present to create high-quality recordings. The idea of “micro-concerts,” with just 25 or 30 people in attendance at a local venue, has also been discussed.
Keating is hearing out all the ideas, but she’s also thinking about the possibility that the industry will never return to normal. She finds herself fascinated with the way cities are laid out and would consider enrolling in an urban-planning master’s program. She wouldn’t stop making music, necessarily. Instead, this new focus could spark different passions and create opportunities for her that aren’t as dependent on the marketplace.
She realizes that many of her questions — about when concerts will happen again, or whether they can realistically be held the way they were before — are ones she can’t answer. So, for the time being, she’s focused on making this rough patch as normal as she can for her son, who recently celebrated his 10th birthday.
“His psychological well-being is the biggest thing because this is so hard for children,” she said. Keating arranged a birthday party for her son on Zoom and filled their house with giant balloons from Party City. And because he thoroughly enjoys watching “The Great British Baking Show,” they spent the better part of the day making “a ridiculous number of desserts.”
“We then ate them all over the next week,” she said.