Roots Musicians Struggling as Financial Inequities Grow During Pandemic, Survey Finds

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Long before the pandemic devastated musicians in virtually every genre, roots artists were already living with chronic income instability.

However, the COVID-19 shutdown further decimated the livelihood of many of the musicians— many of whose music is not viewed as commercial as pop, rock or hip-hop—leaving some of the artists with as much as a 75% cut in already meager incomes.

Those are among the results of “Turn Up the Mic, Tune Up the Future,” an online survey of more than 1,200 professional working roots musicians conducted this spring by Slover Linett Audience Research.

Whippoorwill Arts, an organization devoted to providing a support system for working roots musicians through ethically paid performances, fellowships and other means, funded the survey in an effort to understand the needs of artists in the Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk, acoustic and other roots music communities.

Among Whippoorwill’s partners in the research and in encouraging their members to participate were American Federation of Musicians Local 1000, Americana Music Assn., the Blues Foundation, Folk Alliance International, Globalfest and the International Bluegrass Music Assn.

Joe Whitmer, chief operating officer of the Blues Foundation, hopes the survey “bring(s) awareness of the inequalities of the profession and to find ways to provide a level playing field for all working musicians.”

The organizations’ endorsement and help was “critical,” says Whippoorwill Arts co-founder Hilary Perkins, “to reach roots musicians and to tap into the music eco-system to include labels, agents, and others. We also wanted to reach musicians who do not belong to any member organizations. They constituted about 40%.”

Today, the results of the survey, provided exclusively here, will be released in a private webinar to the stakeholders and participating musicians before being made public on Friday (Oct. 22).

The survey aimed to reach professional roots musicians rather than hobbyists, and focused on the small-to-medium artists, not the top income-earners. Almost 75% earned all or more than half of their income through music and more than 50% had been working professionally as musicians for at least 21 years.

The vast majority (81%) performed in venues 500-capacity and smaller, such as coffeehouses and small theaters. The average age of the respondents was 51 and the 80% were white.

Among the starkest results were how badly the pandemic had affected the full-time musicians, many of whom make the majority of their income from playing live. Pre-pandemic, musicians 41 years and older made between $40,000-$50,000 per year. For those over 57, during the pandemic that tally dropped to under $10,000.

Also revealing was how little these artists make from streaming. Even pre-pandemic, the median streaming income for roots musicians 18-40 was $501 to $1000 annually and only $101-$250 for those 41 and up. For some musicians, that figure during the pandemic dropped to under $100.

“What surprised us the most was how long this has been declining and just how many musicians are impacted. This validated our thoughts and we’re hoping the awareness raised by this survey will bring to light what artists like us are facing on a daily basis,” says Deanie Richardson, a member of Sister Sadie who participated in the survey.

Perkins tells Billboard she and her partner, Jim Nunally, had wanted to do the survey for three years as they saw roots musicians struggling with no relief in sight. When the pandemic hit, the importance increased. “First was the pandemic and seeing musicians performing and dying; it became urgent to check in with performers,” she says. “Second, reading articles about how artists were really enjoying the time off. While that may be true for those who had the economic wherewithal to live on savings or a partner’s income, this myth did not at all match what we witnessed in the community of professional working musicians whose livelihood disappeared.”

Perkins was also concerned that Save Our Stages, an initiative launched by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) to help independent venues, promoters and festivals survive during the pandemic, did not include support for musicians. “I just wondered who will perform on those stages?” she asks. “Let’s talk to musicians and find out how they are doing and what they need.”

In order to have a thriving music ecosystem, the artists surveyed cited the need for economic equity (the ability to make a living through music), professional protections (through policies and practices already common in other professions), and collective effort (through membership organization or union and legislation).

For the next steps, the survey identified several actionable areas, including guaranteed minimum pay for performances, more performance opportunities, accessible venues for people with mobility issues throughout the venues, including backstage; significantly increased streaming revenue for music creators with fairer and more transparent royalty compensation, and, lastly, government, corporate, foundation and other funnels of support for performance and professional development.

While there are a number of non-profits already providing funding for musicians in need, including MusiCares and Academy of Country Music’s Lifting Lives, armed with concrete proof of the need as put forth in the survey, Perkins hopes to launch an effort called Save Our Musicians, which will raise money for struggling artists.

NIVA’s executive director/co-founder Rev Moose is attending today’s seminar, and Perkins says, “We have been in touch with RIAA and other [Save Our Stages] leaders to get advice and discuss areas of common concern and they were all generous and friendly. We are reaching out to members of Congress as we speak … Our project Save Our Musicians is seeking to transform an eco-system that has been increasingly inequitable for four decades. Lobbying Congress for a relief package will not achieve our long-term goals. The musicians told us what they need in their own words. Musicians want to be ethically paid for their work, it is an American value: you work, you get paid.”

The report revealed a lack of diversity in the roots field, another area Whippoorwill is committed to changing. “Walk your talk people. There is racial, gender, age, LGBTQIA+ and disability inequity throughout the music eco-system we surveyed,” she says. “Change has to be at every level: the industry organizations, the venues and agents, and bookers…Our personal networks can be limiting and homogeneous and we don’t even think about it. It takes effort and it is worthwhile to expand our networks and communities to broaden opportunities for all.”

The survey provides a way forward in helping protect artists contributing to this vital art form, a move that Perkins considers essential. “We are not talking about the 10% most famous and rich, but the people who teach us and our children, who play the small venues we love and can walk to and bring our kids and grandparents, who write original music and interpret traditional music that tell the stories of our lives,” she says. “This is an American cultural treasure worth preserving.”

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