200327 Coronavirus Entertainment 1

Steve Price stands outside of the Shoals Theater that is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus. The sign on the marquee sums up the current situation for musicians: "Even the darkets hour only has 60 minutes. Be strong. The show will go on." [MATT MCKEAN/TIMESDAILY]

Shoals Theatre Manager Steve Price said the shutdown of music venues, theaters, art museums and other attractions due to the cornavirus is like a modern day version of "The Day The Music Died."

The phrase was tied to the Feb. 3, 1959, deaths of musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson in an airplane crash, and immortalized in Don McLean's hit song "American Pie."

It's just as relevant in March 2020 as the impact of COVID-19 has basically shut down the entertainment industry.

"Everything came to a screeching halt," Price said.

The Shoals Theatre, a venue for live music and theater in downtown Florence, was forced to cancel concerts and plays since crowds were limited to 100, then 50, then 25 and finally 10.

On Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey ordered all non-essential businesses, including theaters, attractions and music venues, to close.

The governor's order shrinks the number of people allowed at non-work gatherings from 25 to 10, and violations could mean a $500 fine.

"If you had to write a science fiction novel about the death of the music industry, you very well could base it on an invisible virus that attacks people when they gather together," said Reed Watson, a drummer and label manager for Florence-based Single Lock Records.

Musicians, he said, must rely on touring and merchandise sales to remain afloat, since the cost of consuming music has plunged, and the cost of making, manufacturing, promoting and releasing music has remained the same.

Watson said being unable to tour and make a living will have a "swift and severe impact."

"Taking March, April, May, June and potentially July and August off the touring calendar is catastrophic for musicians," he said.

Shoals guitarist Will McFarlane said live and session gigs he had booked for the next five weeks have been cancelled. That not only includes his solo gigs and Fathers and Sons shows, but studio sessions and two gigs he was looking forward to at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, one of the most popular festivals in the country.

Like many concerts and festivals, Jazz Fest has been postponed until fall.

"Every musician I've talked to has taken a hit right now," McFarlane said. "I've lost an enormous amount of work."

Music, Watson said, is a communal activity, whether you're creating it, buying it or watching it be performed. 

"If you can’t go to the local club or the record store, you can’t consume music," Watson said. "If you can’t get together in a room, you can’t record it. If the news cycle is solely focused on one really bad situation, you can’t really promote it. And it just trickles down from there."

Then there is the domino effect where the shutdown impacts restaurants, bars, venues, clubs, sound engineers, techs, roadies, drivers, lighting engineers, recording engineers, record shop owners, manufacturers, security personnel, ticket sellers, publicists, promoters, radio stations and record labels, Watson said.

"It’s sort of a worst-case scenario in a lot of ways," he said.

Guitarist Travis Wammack said he's continuing to carefully buy and sell old records and guitars, but playing live has come to a halt.

He said the pandemic could change the way artists like himself interact with the fans, not just in the U.S., but all over the world.

"I like to go out into the crowd and hug them and shake their hands," Wammack said. "It's going to be hard to do that anymore."

Wammack uploaded a video to his Facebook page of him playing a coronavirus blues song, and a coronavirus instrumental is one way to bring music to the fans.

Many musicians are hosting live events from their homes through various streaming services.

"My gigs are cancelled for the foreseeable future," said Shoals singer/songwriter Mike Ledbetter "We'll see how it unfolds, but many of us are already doing some live-stream shows from home. It's been a really good thing seeing everyone support each other and come together."

Ledbetter had a regular gig at the Swampers Bar & Grill at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa.

McFarlane said many artists have set up digital tip jars where fans can donate money to help their favorite musicians.

As far as lost income goes, that's something Ledbetter and his wife are still trying to come to terms with.

McFarlane said he worked so much in the fall, he was able to stash some money away for a rainy day. He didn't expect to have to dip into it so soon.

"Thankfully, I feel good and my family feels good, that's the good stuff," he said. "I've had a couple of grandkids over here lately. That's been a special something that wouldn't have happened otherwise."

He's also been eating take-out meals to try and help save some of his favorite local restaurants.

At The Shoals Theatre, Price had to cancel several shows, including a Mickey Buckins 75th birthday show and a Secret Sister show. He had to cancel plays, including "Robin Hood," which would have brought scores of school children to the theater.

Guitarist Kirk Russell has seen not only gigs dry up, but his job at NuWay Vinyl in Muscle Shoals was impacted by the pandemic shutdown. 

"I've been out since last Saturday," he said. "All the gigs I had on the foreseeable horizon are on hold until this passes. I'm sitting here with what's left of my tax return ready to shell it out, and crossing my fingers for the unemployment to kick in."

Russell is a single father raising his son. He said after April 6, schools will begin to send homework to students to complete since schools are closed for the rest of the year.

Watson said it's likely many of our favorite musicians live paycheck to paycheck.

"Chances are, this is not because of their poor financial management, either," he said. "It’s because they are artists in a moment where their business has not caught up to their needs.

"You can’t have America without the arts, but the artists are living in fragile situations."


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