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June 2021 Issue [Report]

Stages of Grief

What the pandemic has done to the arts
Illustrations by Diana Ejaita

Illustrations by Diana Ejaita


Stages of Grief

What the pandemic has done to the arts

It doesn’t take a Leonardo-level intellect to figure out that the pandemic has been devastating for the arts economy. Live events were the first things to stop, and they will be the last to return. That means musicians, actors, and dancers, plus all the people who enable them to take the stage—playwrights and choreographers, directors and conductors, lighting designers and makeup artists, roadies, ushers, ticket takers, theater managers—have no way to make a living from their work, and haven’t for more than a year.

Still, I don’t think most of us appreciate just how bad things are. The crisis goes well beyond the performing arts. Surveys published last summer found that 90 percent of independent music venues were in danger of closing for good, but so were a third of museums. In a survey by the Music Workers Alliance, 71 percent of musicians and DJs reported a loss of income of at least 75 percent, and in another, by the Authors Guild, 60 percent of respondents reported losing income, with an average drop of 43 percent. During the third quarter of 2020, unemployment averaged 27 percent among musicians, 52 percent among actors, and 55 percent among dancers. In the first two months of the pandemic, unemployment in the film and sound-recording industries reached 31 percent. Meanwhile, as of September, gallery sales of modern and contemporary art were down by 36 percent. What has been happening across the arts is not a recession. It is not even a depression. It is a catastrophe.

There is another thing the rest of us, the audience, do not fully appreciate: the crisis is rooted in the destruction that was visited upon the arts even before the pandemic—that is, in the scandal of free content, which has been going on for more than twenty years and which implicates us all. The trouble began in 1999 when Napster came along, creating not only the possibility that music could be free, but the belief that it should be. First the price of music was driven to zero or near zero, then so was the price of work in nearly every other medium: text, images, video. Revenues plummeted across the arts. By 2010, sales of recorded music were down by 69 percent.

Artists adapted, because we left them no choice. They learned to make their money from things that can’t be digitized. That meant physical objects and events—especially events. Musicians tour until they drop; two hundred dates a year is typical for an emerging band. With book advances pulverized by Amazon and freelance rates decimated by Google and Facebook (not to mention non-subscribing web readers), authors hit the lecture circuit. Like a lot of visual artists, many writers also teach classes, give workshops, and do residencies. Musicians and comics play cruises and corporate gigs. In an age when everything is mediated, audiences crave events, too. Festivals have multiplied, and so have fan conventions.

As for physical objects, they are often not distinct from events as a revenue stream so much as ancillary to them. Merchandise—posters, T-shirts, stickers, CDs—is a high-margin category for musicians and other performers, but most of it is sold at shows. For authors, talks and workshops juice the sales of books; for visual artists, appearances boost sales of calendars, cards, mugs, and anything else that’s big enough to put an image on. Events are also key to building a base of superfans, people who love your work enough to purchase anything you can sell them. Harness that audience through crowdfunding platforms or other means, and you can garner enough support to stay afloat.

Artists have adapted, yes—the way you adapt to losing a limb. The growth in ticket sales, for example, is still billions of dollars less than the decline in sales of recorded music. There is also the blockbuster phenomenon to consider. Internet traffic is driven by network effects, which means, to put it simply, that the big get bigger and the small get smaller. In 1982, the top 1 percent of musicians earned 26 percent of concert revenue. By 2017, the top 1 percent earned 60 percent. And so it is across the arts: the bestseller lists are dominated by a shrinking number of authors and books; the box office, by an endless procession of big-budget, mega-grossing franchises. And in the visual-art world, as of 2018, just twenty individuals accounted for 64 percent of global sales by living artists. Aside from stars and superstars, nearly everyone is making do with less.

Of course, artists don’t make money from art alone. Many hold day jobs too, and those are also getting worse. There’s a reason artists often work in the service industry, as waiters, baristas, or bartenders: such jobs offer flexible hours, and they don’t require much in the way of specialized skills. But pay in the service industry is tied to the minimum wage, and the federal minimum wage has lost more than 18 percent of its value since 2009, the last time it was raised. And if you work, as artists increasingly do, for one (or, more likely, several) of the endlessly proliferating gig-economy platforms—Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Postmates, TaskRabbit, Amazon Mechanical Turk—then the minimum wage may look pretty good compared with what you actually take home.

There is a belief at large, spread by Silicon Valley and its useful idiots in the media, that there has in fact never been a better time to be an artist. Thanks to faster computers, better software, ubiquitous phones, and the internet itself, production and distribution—of your self-recorded album, self-published novel, independent movie, digital art—are now, respectively, cheap and free. But as any artist can tell you, the biggest expenses involved in making art are not production and distribution—they are staying alive while you do your work and becoming an artist in the first place. In other words, rent and tuition. And those costs, of course, have been soaring for years. Since 2000, median rent has gone up 62 percent in real dollars and student debt has roughly quintupled.

Not only do artists earn less and have to spend more than they did before the platforms came along, they work even harder. Because it’s not enough anymore just to make your art—already a difficult task if you’re going to do it well enough to have a career. The same forces that have bled the incomes of artists have also shrunk the profits of the companies—publishers, record labels, and so forth—through which they earn, or used to earn, their living. As the culture industry contracts, artists are left to replicate its functions on their own. Artists are now single-person small businesses, complete with marketing, accounting, and logistics departments. They not only create and perform, they produce, design, manage, distribute, and publicize incessantly. The idea persists that artists are lazy. In fact, the ones I’ve talked to work as hard as anyone I’ve ever met, often all day, every day, for years on end. Their life is a constant hustle and—thanks in great measure to Silicon Valley and to an audience accustomed to free art—often a constant struggle, too.

So that’s where things stood before the pandemic. Now imagine what happened when we went into lockdown. It wasn’t just that theaters closed, idling actors, dancers, orchestras, and opera companies. There were no shows, no talks, no classes, no cruises; no Bonnaroo or Comic-Con. Galleries went dark. Museums shut their doors. Film and television production froze. Day jobs vanished. Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops closed; Uber and Lyft ridership plunged. Nonprofit arts organizations, which not only present artists’ work but employ many of them, saw their revenues dry up. Business in general slumped, which meant less advertising for newspapers and magazines, which in turn meant less freelance work for writers, photographers, and illustrators.

Arnulfo Maldonado is an award-winning set designer for off-Broadway and regional theater productions. On March 12, 2020, he was at MCC, a leading off-Broadway house, about to start a rehearsal for a world premiere by the acclaimed playwright Jocelyn Bioh. “Literally minutes before the run started,” he said, “everyone got an alert on their phone, everyone looked at their phone, and everyone saw that Broadway was shutting down”—which was a harbinger of all of New York theater shutting down. The company did the rehearsal and got together for a meeting afterward. “In our naïve brains, we were like, we’ll take two weeks off, we’ll be back, we’ll tech the show. And to this day, that set is still sitting in that theater collecting dust.”

Maldonado had also nearly completed a set for a show at Playwrights Horizons and had another seven projects in the pipeline, five of which he had already finished designing. The nature of artistic work is such that you often don’t get paid, or paid very much, until a project is complete: until the show opens, the painting sells, the screenplay is optioned. If it doesn’t work out, or if the plug gets pulled, you end up not only with little or no money, but with no audience for your work. “Everything slowly either got pushed back and/or was just canceled,” Maldonado said. “And you have no control. You put all this work into it, and now it’s just gone.” The second wave of COVID-19, in the fall, he said, was “a second wave of grieving.” Projects had slowly started moving over the summer, but were again put on indefinite hold.

Several artists I talked to over the past few months described similar experiences. Craig Brodhead plays guitar and keyboard for Turkuaz, a nine-member funk band that has been active since 2011. At first they thought that their upcoming shows would get bumped a couple of months. “And then a couple of months turned into four months,” he told me, “and four months turned into eight months, and eight months turned into sixteen months, and the whole thing is just kind of flying away from you.” When he read an epidemiologist’s prediction that performances would not return until the fall of 2021, he said, “I pretty much just collapsed on my bed and cried. And I think I slept for two days when that really sunk in.”

You can’t just pick up your art career, eighteen months later, from the place you dropped it. There’s no job to go back to; the job is you. Momentum, once lost, must be laboriously regained. You’re the only one pulling the cart, and the cart starts rolling backward the instant you stop. After hustling nonstop for fifteen years, Maldonado was close to making it to Broadway, where the pay is many times better than what he had been earning. Turkuaz toured relentlessly when they were starting out, logging as many as 260 days a year on the road. They started getting real traction around 2015, selling out thousand-seat theaters and receiving prominent billing at festivals such as Red Rocks, near Denver, and Jazz Fest, in New Orleans. In 2019, Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads chose Turkuaz to collaborate on a fortieth-anniversary tour of Remain in Light, the band’s landmark 1980 album. Like scores of other dates the band had planned for 2020, that breakout opportunity, of course, was postponed.

Mamie Tinkler, a painter living in New York, grew up in Tennessee without a lot of money. She has always had a full-time job—in a gallery, as the coordinator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and now as the studio manager for the artist Matthew Barney—which means that she has never had as much time as wealthier peers to develop her work. At forty-two, Tinkler opened her first solo show in New York, a milestone in the career of any artist, on March 14, 2020. The next day, the gallery closed to the general public.

The paintings were “by far the best work I had ever made,” Tinkler said. Not that she had been hoping for miracles; she’d been around the art world long enough to temper her expectations about what the show would accomplish. There’s always a voice inside, she acknowledged, that says, “Oh my God, everybody’s going to finally realize what a great artist I am,” but realistically, “it’s more a feeling that you want the work to start working for you instead of you having to constantly be out in the world pushing your work forward.” It was “profoundly disappointing,” she said, to have the show “just disappear like that.”

For every production that comes back after the pandemic, Maldonado said, there’s another one that will never happen. And when things that have been on hold—his play at MCC, Turkuaz’s tour with Jerry Harrison—finally proceed this fall or next winter, other opportunities and other aspirants will inevitably be crowded out. Andrew Neel, a writer, director, and producer of television and independent film, told me: “You’ve got to keep going, but missing one of those big ones, that’s really tough. It changes the trajectory of your entire career.”

Illustrations by Diana Ejaita

Artists have adapted. That is what they do. Brodhead has been using his time to practice his skills as a DJ and producer. Artists are getting by with less. That is also what they do. “In our business,” said Neel, who had gone for more than a year without a paycheck, people prepare themselves for stretches where they are “lost in the desert.” You have to save your nuts for winter, and you don’t know when winter is coming. Artists are persisting. “The amount of resilience and perseverance,” Brodhead said of Turkuaz, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I mean, you have no idea. It’s like, remember the time we broke down in a snowstorm in Iowa, with no cell service and a busted trailer? We’ve done this many times.” But insofar as artists manage to survive with their careers intact, they’ll do it largely on their own.

Artists have figured out ways to put their work online: Zoom concerts, Zoom plays, Zoom stand-up sets, Zoom choreography, Zoom book talks, Zoom gallery shows. But by and large they haven’t figured out how to make money from it. Because the one thing we won’t do for the art that we enjoy online is pay for it. This is in part because of expectations that were established early on in the pandemic. Musicians, especially famous ones, jumped online to do free shows—for morale, for the novelty factor, for attention—and that set the going price at zero. The same went for classes, webinars, and talks. But mostly, people aren’t paying for content now because they weren’t paying for it before. More content, different content, even better content: none of that was going to change our habits.

Some artists, a minority, have been making online events work, at least temporarily. Jeffrey Foucault, a veteran singer-songwriter with a small but solid following, has been giving a concert each month where he chooses one of his albums and plays through it in order. The shows bring in about $4,000 apiece, he said, which just about replaces his normal net income, since expenses are negligible compared with touring with a band. (That $4,000, it’s worth mentioning, represents about 250 contributors per show, or something like 2 to 3 percent of the people who tune in, and Foucault is pretty sure that it’s the same 250 every time.) The experience has been strange, he told me. Accustomed to playing intimate shows in front of people he could see and hear and feel, he has had to teach himself to communicate emotion to a faceless audience through his phone.

Still, Foucault is one of the lucky ones, as he is the first to admit. When the pandemic arrived, many thought that the restrictions would be over in a few months; artists were unprepared for them to last any longer than that. The same was true of the financial expedients thrown together to help them make it to the other side. A wide range of nonprofits, municipalities, and states established emergency funds, but the grants were typically only for a few thousand dollars at best, and the programs were quickly exhausted. They were designed to help people get to the fall of 2020, not the fall of 2021.

As for federal help, the supplemental unemployment benefit of $600 a week provided by the CARES Act, the first relief bill, expired in July. As self-employed individuals, many artists aren’t covered by unemployment insurance to begin with—one of the numerous ways that the pandemic has underscored the preexisting problems of the arts economy. The CARES Act did establish a separate program to cover the self-employed—Pandemic Unemployment Assistance—but the red tape has been a nightmare: The program is administered by the states, which means fifty different sets of guidelines. State unemployment offices aren’t set up to handle income from 1099s as opposed to W-2s. Artists who are self-employed often earn income in more than one state, and their income can be hard to document. Many artists waited months to see money from PUA, if they ever saw any, and many more—those covered through unions such as Actors’ Equity—lost their health insurance or saw their premiums skyrocket.

The pandemic will likely extinguish thousands of artistic careers. And the devastation will extend to the businesses and institutions that connect artists to audiences. The big players with deep pockets—Live Nation, the mammoth concert, ticketing, and artist-management company, or Gagosian, which operates galleries in seven countries—will survive. The entities that founder will be the smaller ones—mid-tier galleries, independent music venues—the kind that are crucial for helping emerging artists gain exposure, for sustaining serious creators and performers who won’t or can’t sell out to the commercial mainstream, and for keeping alive the spirit and soul of the arts.

“You don’t have a Bruce Springsteen without the Stone Pony in New Jersey, and you don’t have Lady Gaga without the Bitter End in New York,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, the communications director for the National Independent Venue Association. NIVA, which has three thousand members, was formed in April 2020 to lobby Congress to provide relief for independent music and comedy venues, which had not been included in the CARES Act. Hundreds of venues have gone out of business, including beloved establishments such as Boot & Saddle in Philadelphia, Jazz Standard in New York, and the Satellite in Los Angeles. Revenues have disappeared, but expenses have not: rent and mortgage payments, utilities, taxes, liquor-license fees. Some places have tried livestreamed or drive-in concerts, but, Schaefer said, those “will not save a business, and they certainly will not save an industry. It’s like a grain of sand when you need two buckets of sand.” And when venues close, especially in the kind of bustling downtown neighborhoods that their presence often helped create, they aren’t replaced by others. Schaefer mentioned that James Murphy of the band LCD Soundsystem has compared the situation to the disappearance of coral reefs. “Those places are not going to be swapped out with another music venue,” Schaefer said. “They’re going to be swapped out with condos.”

But shutting down is not the only hazard. The more financial pressure artists, especially performers, feel, the more likely they are to endanger their health by going to work when it’s not safe. This was already a problem before the pandemic, said Erin McAnally and Chelsea Crowell, advocates from Nashville who work with the Artist Rights Alliance. If a musician has to cancel on a recording session, they explained, they’ll simply be replaced. If they have to cancel on a tour, they might get sued. “Musicians are put into very, very perilous situations,” Crowell said. “They’re often asked to choose the work over their health.” Even as cases surged last fall, Nashville remained open for business. Restaurants and bars, including the city’s famous honky-tonks, were still in full swing, endangering the people onstage. McAnally told of older session players who had ended up on respirators. Music City didn’t care about musicians; it cared about tourists. The Country Music Association Awards took place downtown, largely without masks, the night before we spoke. “You [saw] artists like Charley Pride, who is eighty-six years old, being put at risk,” Crowell said. One month later, Pride, country music’s first black superstar, died of complications from COVID-19.

What will the arts economy look like once the pandemic is over? Indications so far are not good. Live Nation plans to cut financial guarantees to artists by 20 percent this year, and to introduce a penalty of twice the agreed-upon fee in the event that an act needs to cancel, something previously unheard of in the industry. These changes, according to Billboard, will “shift the balance of power back to promoters in the post-pandemic world.”

A lot of galleries may seem to be holding on, Tinkler said, but, as she saw after 2008, collapse happens slower than you think, as owners gradually exhaust their lifelines—savings, loans, emergency purchases from friendly collectors. The crash arrives when no one’s looking. As for independent venues, they had actually been thriving before the pandemic. Musicians Brodhead has met around the world invariably marvel at the event industry that sprang up in the United States after digital demonetization shifted revenue from recorded music to tickets. That industry, of course, is now in jeopardy. Independent bookstores, after being crushed by Amazon for years, had rebounded over the past decade. Now they’re on the ropes again, as the online retailer has sucked up everything in sight.

But the most frightening prospect is precisely the degree to which this crisis has entrenched and extended the power of the platforms: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook; YouTube, which is part of Google; and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Because it is that power that is ultimately behind what has been happening to artists. Art hasn’t really been demonetized. For the companies reaping the clicks and streams, free content is a bonanza. Along with Spotify and a few other players, the tech giants are diverting tens of billions of dollars a year away from creators and toward themselves. They have been able to do so only because of their size, which has given them leverage over labels, studios, publishers, publications, and above all, independent artists, and because of the influence it has given them in Congress. And while almost every other sector has been suffering, the pandemic has functioned like a hormone injection for Big Tech. At the start of 2020, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft—the Big Five—had a combined market value of just under $5 trillion. By the end of the year, that already terrifying figure had grown to more than $7.5 trillion.

There’s been a lot of talk about using the pandemic as an opportunity for a reset. In music, in the worlds of theater and dance and visual art, the feeling is the same: we can’t go back to business as usual. But wishing will not make it so. Society is not a laptop; you can’t reboot it by turning it off and waiting a few seconds, or a few months.

Fortunately, artists are using the pause to organize. New advocacy groups have emerged, including the Music Workers Alliance, which helped lobby for an extension of PUA, and the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, which similarly pushes for fairness in the digital marketplace. Another new program, Artists at Work, is intended to be a “WPA for the 21st Century,” employing artists to work on projects of immediate social benefit. Not giving them grants—the old model—but hiring them with salaries, benefits, and the recognition that, as artists, workers is precisely what they are.

There have already been some big successes. NIVA, starting from scratch last April, organized a nationwide campaign that persuaded Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act, which allocated $15 billion in emergency funds for concert venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions. Congress also passed the CASE Act, which established a small-claims court for copyright infringement (something artists had long been pushing for), and the Protect Lawful Streaming Act, which made it a felony to engage in mass streaming of copyrighted material without permission—two laws that will allow creators to crack down on piracy and defend the value of their work.

Unfortunately, those steps, while valuable, are nowhere near enough. The arts economy is broken; the pandemic only showed us just how badly. Nothing less than a wholesale reconstruction is required. We need to reform our labor laws—including making something like PUA permanent—to better protect the self-employed. We need to increase public funding for the arts. As of 2019, support for the arts at all levels of government came to $1.38 billion per year, or $4.19 per person. We need to implement, if not a universal basic income for artists, then something like the system in Ireland, in which the first 50,000 euros earned from creative activity is exempt from income tax. We need to hold online platforms accountable for piracy. And, of course, we need to break up Big Tech—dismantle the companies themselves and, by regulating their core platforms like utilities, force them to pay creators a fair share of the revenue generated by their work.

Those are large-scale reforms. Is there anything that the average person can do? You can start by valuing artists as much as you value what they make. Some years ago, the Urban Institute published a survey with a remarkable pair of findings. When asked whether they value the arts, 96 percent of respondents said yes. But when asked whether they value artists—think they “contribute ‘a lot’ to the general good of society”—only 27 percent said yes. Is there any other field in which there’s such a monumental gap between what we think of a thing and what we think of the people who bring us that thing? Art is loved; artists are disdained, disregarded, even despised. We need to acknowledge two points that ought to be obvious: if we don’t have artists, then we won’t have art; and the overwhelming majority of artists are not celebrities or superstars, not dilettantes or dabblers, but ordinary people who work hard to bring something valuable into the world. Then we need to do something with our newfound appreciation by actually paying for art, for all that great free stuff we get online. I know, I know—you’ve heard that before. But really, enough is enough. We’ve spent two decades pretending that it’s possible to get something for nothing with no consequences. Do we really suppose it can go on forever?

We need an art movement like the one we have for food, a movement for responsible consumption. Just as there are animals and farmers at the other end of the food supply, so are there human beings at the other end of the art supply. Just as with food, paying more (or paying at all) would get us superior products. If artists didn’t have to frantically churn out material and flog their work online, they’d have the time to make better art.

Raja Feather Kelly is a brilliant young choreographer, the founder of his own dance company, the feath3r theory. Like pretty much every artist I’ve talked to, he has been working nonstop since he got out of school—in fact, since before he got out of school, because he founded the company while he was still in college. The pandemic’s forced pause has brought him some realizations about himself and his peers. First, that “if we don’t create, then there’s nothing.” Second, that “my creativity is something that I cultivate, that is mine,” and that he therefore ought to be in charge of it. And finally, that while the current situation may be awful, “we’re not hustling. We’re creating for ourselves right now. And we should always be doing that.” Artists, in other words, have gotten a glimpse of what their world could look like, of what it should look like. That is the reset, the post-pandemic future, that they want to see: not to be hustling all the time, but to be free to create the best work they can. That, rather than free content furnished by predatory monopolies, is the freedom we ought to endorse.

 is the author of The Death of the Artist. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Ready for Prime Time,” appeared in the November 2016 issue.

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