By Melanie Carbery
To the unfamiliar northerner, more accustomed to distinct seasons, spring in New Orleans seems to be nothing more than a whisper. If you aren’t paying close enough attention, you just might mistake it for an early arm of summer. For those more acquainted with the city, spring is easily recognizable by the smell of the blooming flowers, the increasing tide of crawfish boil invitations, and the cacophonous excitement and ire the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival lineup incites on Twitter every year. 2020 started no differently, but now it seems that spring will pass without even a whisper in the ears of the natives as COVID-19 has forced the hands of festival organizers and venue owners alike, shutting them down and stifling the sound of music in the city. Though the disappointment felt by festivalgoers and music lovers is tangible, the magnitude of COVID-19’s disruption of the festival season will have far more significant repercussions for those that make most of their livelihood during that time.
For Robin Barnes, jazz singer and ‘Songbird of New Orleans,’ and her husband, bassist Pat Casey, COVID-19 has replaced the stability of residencies and gigs with a series of question marks. “My husband and I are both musicians and new parents… so it’s the uncertainty of ‘ok, how much money do we have left in savings? How do we make money? How do we provide for our child? How do we pay our bills?’” Her voice does not waver over the phone; she has a warm confidence and a laugh that asserts her commitment to positivity in difficult times, but the uncertainty in her words is undiminished.
This uncertainty is not unique to Barnes. DJ Soul Sister; New Orleans native, live DJ, radio programmer, and student of musicology, doesn’t mince words about it. “Everyone needs help. It’s musicians, it’s journalists, it’s media, it’s stage technicians, and other technical festival professionals and freelancers, it’s caterers and food service.”
And she’s right. According to the oft reported figure from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation website, Jazz Fest has an estimated economic impact of $300 million per year in New Orleans. In an economy built on tourism and independent contracts, Jazz Fest and other musical events held before the summer slowdown are responsible for a huge portion of many people’s incomes. Without it, everyone in the music and festival industries in New Orleans will be affected. Unfortunately for a large portion of these people, filing for unemployment isn’t an option to help their situation as many don’t have access to the funds altogether.
Information concerning unemployment benefits for independent contractors and gig economy workers has been murky at best, as Barnes has experienced. “A lot of fans are like, ‘Hey, did you file for unemployment?’ and I have actually, I applied because I thought as an independent contractor I could, but actually, at the moment right now, I still can’t get unemployment.”
For her and many like her, it is unclear about when and if things will change and if they will ever see any money from the government. The Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, which became law at the end of March, does offer some potential expansion of benefits to gig economy workers and independent contractors, but it is administered by the states, meaning that benefits vary depending on location. Furthermore, roll out has been slow, so even if funds may be technically available, many musicians in need may not be able to access them in a timely manner.
Nicholas Payton; multi-instrumentalist and founder of the #BAM (Black American Music) Movement, is aware that this problem belongs to all Americans, not just musicians or people that work in the industry in other capacities. “A lot of America lives from check to check, and people are, as is referred to as the invisible homeless, a paycheck or two away from not being able to make it. So, that said, that’s where we are, and musicians are no exclusion to that.” While their struggle is much the same as any other American’s in this time, musicians are in a special position in some ways. They can offer something special in a time of great need: emotional respite, healing, and a sense of community.
Payton’s contribution to the healing process is an album called Quarantined with Nick. Created with collaborators Sasha Masakowski and Cliff Hines in the days leading up to the total shutdown of the city and released during the last weekend of March, the album feels like it is experiencing the present right along with us. The words “50 million people quarantined right now…that’s the largest quarantine in human history” ominously waver over the second track, “Population Control,” like a news broadcast in the background while you’re cooking dinner. They bleed over into the next track, “Tenderona,” stuttering and breaking as they fade into the sound of the music, less prominent but ever-present, becoming a part of the song’s structure. The whole album has an undertone of uncertainty, a frenetic energy, until the final track, “Social Distance,” which is, simply, 19 seconds of uncomfortable silence. According to Payton, “I always aspire to make a timely work, work that speaks to the energy at the time of its creation. I feel like this work is, more than any other thing, is so real time, so in the moment, even down to the computers that we used to make the album.”
His voice is consistently calm and cool, but there is a little bit of a laugh as he describes a glitch in the click track they were using to record, causing it to speed up and slow down by its own accord. “As opposed to fixing all these glitches, I said, you know, ‘let’s leave them in because the world is kind of glitchy right now. I want the sound of all these things, all the mistakes, all the hiccups, all the little distortions, all the little things, because that’s where we are right now.’”
For Barnes, ‘where we are at right now’ takes on a whole different meaning, as it has for many parents quarantining with young children. Being that she has a new baby at home, “There is no ‘I’m just gonna let you sit here for 45 minutes and try to write a song.’ It is, every ten minutes, she needs me.” But her situation in quarantine has impacted her music no less because of her more limited time. “I am very grateful to have a baby. A lot of people can be very much stuck in their needs and it can suck you in and take you down a very, very dark hole of depression and sadness. By having this little smiling baby who doesn’t know what’s going on, and you have to smile and when you see her smile… She inspires me to want to have hope, to write happy music, to write happy songs. So yes, I don’t get to write as much because of her, but when I do its fully inspired in love because of her. We just have to mentally be okay for her.”
Barnes is working towards a new album, which will hopefully be released in the coming months, but, until then, she is helping the healing process by performing for fans on Facebook and Instagram live every Monday at 7 PM (those that are interested in watching can find her on Facebook @RobinBarnesMusic or on Instagram @NewOrleansSongBird). For someone who had never performed over social media before, the experience was strange at first. “I’m so used to seeing people because that’s how it is in New Orleans, you see the person. You see their reactions; you see their joy.”
Live music is the lifeblood of New Orleans, and there is no way to really replace it for artists like Barnes. Yet, despite the fact that comments and heart emojis are not effective stand-ins for faces in a crowd, there are still some unforeseen benefits of moving performances to social media. “Monday has been a special time for me to connect with my fans. All my fans, they’ll see me once in a blue moon and that’ll be it, they’ll buy my music, but they’ll never see me unless they come back to New Orleans.” The livestreams have allowed Barnes to connect with fans well beyond the city limits, even well beyond the country’s borders. Recently, a fan from Australia who had seen Barnes three years ago reached out to tell her how grateful they were for the livestream, thinking that they’d never see her again otherwise. “I think even after this is over, my husband and I are going to continue with Mondays. It’s been so special for other people and it’s been special for us.”
While it is special for now, it is undeniable that New Orleanians, musicians and music lovers alike, are eager to return to their usual practices. Yet, the question continues to loom: what will that look like? Will it ever actually be the same as it was before? DJ Soul Sister expects the process of coming back after quarantine to being something like “a Katrina memory. You do something you think ‘Oh, but Katrina taught me that I should do it this way instead,’ so now, I feel like that’s going to affect everything in terms of large group gatherings.” Fear may be something that we will have to live with for a long time going forward. It is uncertain now what things will look like in the fall, much less next spring.
Yet, one thing is certain: people need the arts, perhaps now more than ever. As Payton says, when gathering becomes safer and restrictions start to ease up, “people are gonna be starved for the arts. They’re gonna want it more than ever. It might be a better climate because people will appreciate it more, you know. Sometimes it takes losing something before you reflect on it.” Right now, all we can do is remember that if musicians can’t make it through this time, there will be no return to normal in New Orleans in the end.
So, for those of us that are able, how can we help to keep musicians ‘in business,’ so to speak? Payton has a simple recommendation: buy albums, don’t just stream them. “Streaming is convenient, but that doesn’t pay at the same rate as if you purchase the artists album, so please buy the album, if you feel like streaming for convenience, cool.” If you’re financially able to, Barnes recommends donating directly to artists. “Buying a CD or something on iTunes is great, but iTunes takes a cut of that. I say donations because that can go directly into an artist’s bank account and help them pay bills.” It’s easy to do so, as many artists leave their PayPal’s and Venmo’s in the descriptions of their livestreams, like a digital tip jar. In Barnes’ eyes, it’s a fair transaction. “If I’m performing for you; you’re donating to me. I think this is a time where, if music can really save lives, it’s really music saving the life of someone who’s really down, and that person is saving their favorite musician by giving.”