COVID-19 taking heavy toll on B.C.'s working musicians

COVID-19 struggles: pandemic strikes sour note for working musicians

B.C. blues musician Brandon Isaak has been performing for a living for close to 35 years, and he’s never taken a hit like this one.

“I’ve seen all sorts of cycles and ups and downs of the business, but this is a new one,” Isaak told Global News on Saturday.

“Before COVID hit, I was probably gigging four or five times a week.”

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Those gigs included anything from bars, pubs, clubs and festivals to private parties in people’s homes.

With COVID-19 restrictions in effect, the work has dried up. He estimates he gets maybe two gigs a month now, and for less pay.

“I’m probably one of the more busy working musicians out there that I know,” he said.

Veteran talent agent Bruce Allen said the live performance industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

While big stars have been able to step back and make do with their royalties, working musicians — sometimes even those big stars’ band members, have been left in the lurch.

“They’re working in a gym, they’re working for Uber, they’re maybe teaching people how to play instruments, they’re scrambling,” Allen said.

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The biggest hit came over the summer, according to Allen, when many of those middle-tier musicians make the bulk of their annual income.

“They need that summer income, because that’s when all the chili cookoffs are, the parties are, all the things that people do in different towns, and that disappeared,” he sad.

“It’s been devastating for them. All the jobs they had for last summer disappeared.”

Talent agent Kelly Daniels books artists at music venues across Western Canada, but said the offers have almost completely dried up.

According to Daniels, the musicians feeling the biggest pressure are, ironically, the ones who were successful enough to quit their day jobs.

“There’s certainly a huge range of people who are freaking out,” she said.

“A lot of people get used to gigging all the time, and they become really dependent on that as a regular living, and it’s been devastating for a lot of people.”

Allen told Global News he’s optimistic about the future of the industry, with a massive wave of pent-up demand for live music once pandemic restrictions have been lifted.

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But in the meantime, Isaak said he’s worried a generation of musicians could be wiped out.

“You’re getting all the hardcore pros like me putting the guitar under the bed,” he said.

“We’re going to become extinct like the dodo bird.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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