The Empty Bandstand

For many professional musicians, it was a long spring and summer of no work and no paychecks. Many are turning to work in other fields. Recently, several Northeast Ohio musicians shared stories with The Land of what life has been like in an industry whose outlook can seem bleak.

Mourning [A] BLKstar-photo -Makayla Brown.jpeg

With concerts, clubs dates, weddings, musicals, and other playing opportunities canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus, musicians have struggled to make ends meet. Many have started looking for jobs outside of their chosen field. While summer brought about a small amount of outdoor performances, and some clubs and other performing venues have taken steps to present live music, for most musicians it appears that drought of gigs is extending into fall and beyond. 

Even if the musicians are able to weather the storm over the next several months, the question remains, if and when things return to normal, will there be any place to play? Many of the spots where the musicians perform either remain closed or are open with a very limited capacity.

Recently, several Northeast Ohio musicians shared stories with The Land of what life has been like in an industry whose outlook can seem bleak.

Are you really Kyle Kidd, or just pretending to be Kyle Kidd?

Kyle Kidd balances a solo career with being a member of the acclaimed Northeast Ohio based band Mourning [A] BLKstar. Kidd is also a teaching artist in Northeast Ohio schools. In March, Kidd was in New York rehearsing an opera to be performed in London when their manager called saying that a mutual friend’s major tour was cancelled due to COVID-19. 

Kyle Kidd. Photo by McKinley Wiley.

Kyle Kidd. Photo by McKinley Wiley.

Kidd played a gig in New York City, then came home. Within 72 hours, all of Kidd’s booked performances as solo performer and Mourning [A] BLKstar band member were cancelled or postponed through early October.

The shutdown hit at a particularly bad time for Mourning [A] BLKstar; the group was preparing to embark on a five week tour, culminating in the release of their fifth album “The Cycle.” 

Kidd said they didn’t panic at first, but certainly realized the severity of the situation not only with regard to the health crisis, but their ability to make a living. Kidd had quit a full-time job 2 1/2 years ago to pursue music full-time, so they knew that no income for the next several months was a distinct possibility.

Kidd put performing and music writing on the backburner, instead devoting the first few months of the shutdown to applying for grants and looking for any emergency relief funds that might be available to artists.

Kidd applied for the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program, but then a problem arose. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Kidd’s interview to gain EBT was over the phone. All of their paperwork had been approved, but the case worker asked if Kidd were really Kidd or just pretending to be them. 

“I said ‘this is really me,’ and she said ‘our records say Kyle Kidd is a male and just from the sound of your voice, this is definitely not a man’ and then hung up on me,” Kidd said.

Having had social service jobs including working with young people in the foster care system, Kidd, who identifies as non-binary when it comes to gender, wondered how many other people had also been rejected on similar discriminatory mistakes. 

“When you’re dealing with a vulnerable population, you need to make them feel secure and that you are really there to service them, so that really made me feel upset. On top of that, I’m in a vulnerable place, because I don’t know how things look like for me,” Kidd said.

Kidd posted about their situation on Facebook and received help from friends, including Lakewood City Council President Dan O’Malley who helped them cut through the red tape to obtain EBT.

Kidd was able to qualify for assistance through the CARES Act which kept them afloat until the program ended at the end of July, leaving them with only a small amount of unemployment money they received from the state.

Kidd thought about looking for work outside the music world, but friends convinced them to focus attention on trying to make money through their creative skills. Working with a close family friend, they started a line of merchandise, including a line of stylized non-binary streetwear. Other opportunities have arisen, including working as an educator in the schools with Roots of American Music, (ROAM), as well as a recent gig at the Bop Stop. Kidd is also lining up a show at Mahall’s celebrating the late 1970s singer Sylvester, but haven’t yet set a firm date.

From March until now, Kidd’s acquired a different mindset about the pandemic and their position in it.

“I’m very optimistic about what the future holds. I realize that might not be the opinion of other people, but all of our situations are different. I think this is divine opportunity. I have the chance to step outside of what my life was an artist. I was traveling nonstop, always moving. I never had the time to reflect and to see where I can improve. I have this time to just step back to take a break. I think the culture of the city is going to change. I think musicians are going to get back to playing in small clubs, so I’m excited.”

A Brick Wall

Jordan Cooper’s dance card was full. A veteran musical director for Northeast Ohio theatres ranging from Cleveland Playhouse to Cain Park to Lakeland Civic Theatre, Cooper was booked for shows nearly two years in advance. On March 16, 2020 things changed drastically for Cooper, when the state went into lockdown.

Jordan Cooper

Jordan Cooper

“I hit a brick wall. The very first thing that happened was that I was doing some after-school programming at Near West Theatre and it was cancelled. I started getting phone calls and emails left and right. Everything was gone, not just for the next couple of months, but everything through the end of the year was taken away. This is the longest I’ve been without work in a really long time,“ Cooper said.

Not sure what to do, Cooper turned to those he had assisted over the years and asked if they could do the same for him. 

“I posted on Facebook saying ‘for all of you who I helped by providing piano accompaniment, or have given sheet music or helped prepare an audition for free, I’m going to put up a virtual tip jar, if you can afford to throw in ten bucks or whatever, that would be great.”

Cooper received enough financial support through those donations to sustain him over for the next few months. However, that money wouldn’t last forever. Like many in his field, Cooper works as a contract employee, so he wasn’t able to file for traditional unemployment. He did qualify for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which helped keep him afloat through August, but that too eventually ran out, leaving Cooper in a position he never thought he would find himself.

“I had to bite the bullet and look for jobs outside of my career. I recently took a call-center job. This is the first time I’ve worked outside the theatre since 2005.”

Cooper did receive some good news – in the spring, he will be an adjunct professor at Baldwin-Wallace University. While he’s grateful for the opportunity, he admits it’s still not his career. 

“As a theatre person and a musician, there’s been a big connection between what I was doing and education, but it’s still not what I’ve been building toward.”

The toll the pandemic has taken Jordan extends beyond on loss of income.

“In January, I was at the height of my career. I was working on four shows at once and prepping a ton of stuff for the rest of the year. When that gets taken away, you spend a lot of time telling yourself to not get a job at Starbucks or Amazon. There’s a saying in theatre that if you have a fallback, you are going to use it. It’s like living hungry and living for your passion and when it’s pulled out from under you, it’s really damaging.”

Cooper was so distraught he went through several months of not talking with friends, but they reached out to him to encourage him to not retreat into despair. Taylor’s heard talk about theatres re-opening, but has his reservations about whether it’s realistic to think it can work with limited audience capacity. For now, it’s “wait and see.”

“I’m very happy about the teaching opportunity at B-W, and the call-center is great place. I have a few projects on the horizon potentially for the spring, but everything is uncertain … A year ago right now, if someone had said to me ‘we’re going to do a show in January,’ that’s a verbal contract in theatre. I could have counted on that time and would have gotten paid, but right now I can’t trust it.”

The Blink of an Eye

Like Jordan Taylor, Matthew Dolan is a music director. He derives about 50% of his income from freelance jobs at places like Blank Canvas Theatre, Dobama and Beck Center. He makes the remainder of his money as a music director for a church in Rocky River.

Dolan was in the midst of a production of “Mama Mia” at Saint Ignatius high school, when the shutdown order came.

Matthew Dolan

Matthew Dolan

“One day we thought we might be able to make this happen, and the next day we had to shut down the school, “Dolan said.

“I had a great year planned. I was booked out until June 2021, with a couple of world premiere musicals, as well a couple of regional premieres and it all went away in the blink of eye. Back then I thought maybe we’d have two weeks off or maybe a month, but instead we’re living in this time of uncertainty, especially in the performing arts.”

When Dolan decided he wanted to have a career as a professional musician, he knew that freelance work would have ups and downs, so he made sure to have at least one steady musical job. Having studied choral music in college, he used that knowledge to land the church job for a stable source of income.

For the church, Dolan played three services a weekend, with the attendance at around 100-150 people. They had already been streaming services, so the infrastructure was in place for that to continue. When they closed the building to worshippers, the musicians formed a quarantine pod. They would play the services at the church to a camera. The church has begun to offer a parking lot service, as well as a very limited indoor service, with just Dolan and the organist playing keyboards. They recently added a vocal soloist, who sings with a mask, while standing fifty feet away from the congregation. 

Dolan was able to receive pandemic unemployment but said it was a huge hit when it ran out. He’s also had to draw on his savings, something he said he had been planning for, given the nature of what he does, but he knows it’s not sustainable.

Dolan was hoping he would be able to wait things out, but with the Broadway League’s recent announcement that no shows would be happening any earlier than possibly next summer, he feels the kinds of theatres he works in will follow that model, which means he has had to start looking for work outside of his field.

“I’ve been so lucky that out of college, I’ve always been able to find work in my field. I’ve had to redo the resume to not just list the shows I’ve played, but rather re-tool it to show how these things I’ve done transfer outside of theatre. I’ve had to repackage myself to sell it to a different market, which is new and challenging.”

Dolan misses working with people with whom he has built close relationships both musically and personally. 

“When I got together with some of these folks to play a benefit for Blank Canvas Theatre recently, I was giddy because it was like going back home.”

Dark Thoughts

Until the coronavirus hit, the dues Joe Miller paid over the years were paying off. Known as a “commercial player,” Miller was a fixture in the Playhouse Square pit playing for touring Broadway shows, which can run for weeks at a time. Those shows can be among the better paying freelance jobs around town. The musicals, along with other gigs, provided Miller with about 65-70% of his yearly income, with the remainder coming from teaching.

Miller’s work dried up in March and since then not much has happened.

Joe Miller

Joe Miller

“I started thinking about it, really once we got into May and June, this just isn’t getting any better. We weren’t taking any cohesive action, in this country anyway, to stem the tide.”

Miller’s only income is from teaching, mostly individual students, as well as at the Music Settlement.  With school back in session this fall, he has resumed some instructing at Cleveland State.

Miller tried to obtain money through the CARES Act, but was told he didn’t qualify because he was still teaching students.

“I didn’t get it and it still befuddles me. I’m the prototypical gig worker with four jobs. The teaching is minimal at the Settlement, it is like six kids. I do teach at Cleveland State, but never over the summer and when I did, was it just fill-in money.”

Unable to get the CARES money, Miller was able receive a small amount of regular unemployment for a short period, but that soon ended.

Miller’s puzzled at what he sees as a lack of support for the entertainment industry.

“We’ve been turned into buskers, begging for donations online. It baffles me how far behind the entertainment industry is these days. People only see the gleaming top part like Beyoncé, but the real industry is underneath that and it is billions of dollars. The fact is that there is no plan for the industry as a whole. In Great Britain, they passed a 2 billion dollar rescue package for the arts, because they know how important it is.”

Miller said he has considered working outside his industry, but admits it’s difficult to contemplate a non-music job.

“Playing music is a profession, it’s a craft, and it’s an obsession, and part of your identity. It’s more than a normal job. The dark thoughts I sit around with every day is that my career is done, because I can’t see full-scale stage productions coming back any time soon. Those thoughts are hard to carry around, and I’m not in my 30s anymore.”

I Saw My Calendar Clear

Like many freelance players, Aidan Plank is always hustling from one job to the next. An acclaimed jazz bassist, Plank is a member of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, leads his own groups, and is an in-demand sideman, providing him with at least 50% of his income. Plank earns the remainder of his money as a private educator, and teaching at Kent State University and Cuyahoga Community College.

“The night before the shutdown, I played a fun if not very lucrative gig. The next day people were getting in touch with me to say the performances I was to play had been postponed, then a few weeks later, they would call to say it had been canceled. It was hard. I saw my calendar clear in around three weeks,” Plank said.

Aidan Plank

Aidan Plank

Plank has tried to obtain PUA, but described the process as “a mess”, saying to this point, he hadn’t received any support.

Plank has played a handful of outdoor shows, but it wasn’t anywhere near the amount of work he would have during a normal summer.

“I tell people as a freelance musician, there are seasons where you work a lot, and ones you don’t work a lot. The summer and holidays, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day are high volume periods for work. You depend on the summer months for a huge portion of your income as a freelancer, and that just didn’t happen. The weddings, musicals, the summer social gathering concert series in parks throughout the area, those things just didn’t happen.”

Plank was able to continue his teaching assignments online, and now has also been doing some in-person instruction, but married with a young son, he has really been contemplating looking for work outside the music world to support his family.

“Every day, the thought crosses my mind, but I haven’t reached that point, yet, but is certainly something I’m thinking about.”

For his own mental health, Plank has tried to not let his identity become too wrapped up in his music, saying he doesn’t want to fall into the trap of feeling like he’s a miserable person, if he has an off-night on the bandstand. However, now that something he has done on a daily basis has gone away, he’s felt unnerved, as if something wasn’t quite right.

“I think a lot of musicians feel that way, you just get so used to doing things, and it’s pretty hard when you don’t. The first time I played out during the pandemic, I was almost late for the gig because I had forgotten how long it took me to pack my bass and equipment into the car, which seems funny, but I showed up right down to the wire. Prior to this, I was on such automatic pilot in timing all that, but I had gotten out of the swing of that in a short period of time.”

Northeast Ohio club owners and promoters, including the Beachland Ballroom’s Cindy Barber, Happy Dog’s Sean Watterson, The Bop Stop’s Gabe Pollack and Mahall’s Kelly Flamos have all been prominent in lobbying members of Congress to pass the stimulus bill which includes the “Save our Stages” Act. The act would create a $10 billion dollar Small Business Administration program to provide grants to live venue operators, promoters, producers and others in the industry with money that would cover six months of operating expenses and offset the economic impact of COVID-19.

Dan Polletta is veteran Northeast Ohio broadcaster and writer. He has written extensively about arts and culture, with a special interest in jazz.

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