Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
About a week ago, I got a call from a bride-to-be. She and her fiancé were taking their third shot at their nuptials that coming Saturday, and they wanted to hire my company to run karaoke for their after-party. Apparently their previous two shots were whittled down from a few hundred guests in May to about 75 in August and then to fewer than 50 that weekend. But they wanted to do it, and they wanted karaoke.
To most sane people, my own mother included, passing a microphone around in a crowded room in the midst of a surging pandemic may not seem like the brightest idea. But this would be just the third gig I’d done since March. There was no way I was going to pass. More to the point, there was no way I could pass.
I guess you can call me “Mr. Superspreader,” at your service. In spite of hand sanitizer, masks, microphone “condoms” for each singer, and valiant attempts to remain socially distant from everyone as much as possible, I have to admit there’s still more than a little truth to the fact I’m knowingly putting myself, and others, at risk. I’d like to think of myself as a pretty compassionate guy who’d never intentionally harm anyone. So, consequently, to feel less guilty, I’m constantly playing defense attorney in my mind, asking myself, what choice do I have? The alternative seems pretty clear: Pass on the few gigs that come along, and go broke.
In the past, I would’ve thought that, if given the chance to choose between my livelihood and my health, I’d choose my health every time. But, what if getting sick wasn’t guaranteed? What if it’s just a possibility, but a much more real, pressing possibility is bankruptcy? Bankruptcy, which cannot be mitigated, because bankruptcy doesn’t give a shit how many feet apart you are.
What if, despite a month or two grace period way back, your bills are now coming in, unabated, as if this thing ended months ago? What if there is no help on the horizon? What if, due to your incredible respect for the doctors and nurses on the front lines, you decide to be as safe as possible and pass on the few gigs there are, and then you wind up contracting COVID anyway, from someone in the express line at the supermarket? Suddenly, the choice is easy. Bye-bye, health, hello, immediate survival.
Welcome to the world of the performer in 2020. Outside of hosting karaoke nights, my other gig is performing with cover band. As the frontman/guitarist for one of the busiest wedding/event bands in the tri-state area, it was already heartbreaking that the karaoke/DJ business was such a struggle. But then the pandemic came, and my bandmates and I lost 90 percent of our already-minimal gigs and corresponding income. The two-dozen weddings scheduled from April–October, gone. Private events, gone. The bar gigs, gone. St. Paddy’s, Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, Halloween, corporate holiday parties, birthdays, fundraisers, etc., all gone. A normal nine-month stretch would see us doing about 75 gigs. This pandemic has seen us do about 10.
Ten gigs in the midst of an all-consuming plague might not seem that bad, but keep in mind, due to bars and restaurants being forced to operate at a mere fraction of their capacity, the ones still standing—the ones offering us these gigs—are not able to pay us anything remotely resembling our regular rate. It now takes me about five gigs to earn what I’d normally earn from one. Weddings are even worse.
Taking anything we can get, our band members have spent the past several months intentionally putting ourselves into all kinds of stupid situations. We’ve played at bars in Wildwood, to a few hundred unmasked, non–socially distanced crowds, twice. Once, we insanely agreed to play a last-minute gig outdoors, on the water, in 40-degree wind chill, for four hours. We needed the money. Luckily, no one—band or patron—has gotten sick. At least as far as we know.
I don’t know if it’s COVID fatigue or what, but there’s definitely a part of me that puts myself in these risky situations just to feel some sense of normalcy. My sister, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist, agrees. She says the damage this apocalyptic Groundhog Day is doing to performers’ psyche is as bad, if not worse, than the financial hardships we’re facing. After all, for many of us professional entertainers, our work is also intertwined with our social lives. It’s much more than just a paycheck. It’s the dependable, addictive, weekly adrenaline rush. It’s an outlet for our stress, a way to make new friends and see old ones. For instance, if, as in my case, you go from being onstage every week, performing in front of a few hundred adoring fans and hanging around until the wee hours chatting it up, to the definition of a “fun Friday night” being a trip to Stop & Shop, depression is constantly there, trying to talk you into following it down the rabbit hole. The only thing that can kill it is a gig. Conversely, the main thing that can kill me is a gig.
In order to keep what’s left of my marbles, I’ve been going into the studio and recording original stuff as much as possible. The problem is that studio time costs money, which means that every visit, while deeply restorative, sees my bank account shrinking more and more. But at this point, I’ve decided that I’d rather be a creatively satisfied, typically broke musical cliché than a lost, emotionally bankrupt, financially stable shell of my former self. At present, I feel like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove: riding the bomb to certain doom, hooting and hollering all the way down.
Imagine if, instead of an annual salary, you were paid only for the days you worked. Now imagine only working 10 days since March. How would you cope? Would you take work that barely pays anything but also forces you to put yourself, and others, in harm’s way? You might think you wouldn’t, but what else are we who make our living off performing supposed to do? Even though I’ve been playing music professionally for more than 20 years, I don’t have 10,000 followers signing on to watch my socially safe Facebook Live acoustic jams each week, eager to donate to the cause. Nor would I feel comfortable asking anyone for money in the midst of an economic crisis.
I didn’t apply for the first benefits because, among other things, I was certain, even with the worst president in history at the helm, that we’d have this contained by Labor Day. Not to mention I assumed, because I don’t have a “real job,” I wouldn’t qualify. Turns out, most gig workers do qualify. My bad. Surely, a second stimulus is coming our way any day now? My bad, again.
The couple who hired me for their third try at celebrating their union will have to try for a fourth. New restrictions on indoor dining have forced them to cancel for a third time. And you may say that this is the right choice for public health, and that may be, but the wedding industry has been completely decimated too. Even if you miraculously book something, it’s always up for cancellation at a moment’s notice. That’s not cheap, either. You never know when the other shoe’s is going to drop.
The only thing to do is wait—to wait until there is a second round of stimulus, to wait until there is a new president with an interest in actually containing this virus, to wait for a vaccine. So that’s what we’re doing, me and my performer friends and agents, and managers—waiting, and twisting in the wind.