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Apocalypse Wow

Victoria Wasylak • May 2020The Last Word • April 29, 2020

Image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay

By the time you read this, the coronavirus outbreak may or may not be peaking. What is for sure is that this bio-nightmare has been the most challenging thing to happen to musicians since the player piano. Beginning in mid-March, city and state governments began first strongly recommending, and then in some cases flatly ordering, music venues to be shut down. These ranged from concert halls to burger-and-beer joints with a postage-stamp stage, but collectively it closed the lid on what had become the financial saving grace of musicians in the 21st century: making a living playing live music.

At a time when Spotify and the rest of the streaming-music industry had already turned into a more euphonious version of “the rich get richer,” with streaming-payment levels barely registering for most musicians, live music presented a survivable alternative, with new music venues opening weekly around the country as playing out became the lifeblood of the industry.

The closure of music venues of all types as the coronavirus’ contagion grew put an abrupt end to that for most musicians. Those musicians are the customer base of the MI retail industry, and when they’re not gigging, they’re not buying strings, much less new guitars. They’re not taking lessons, or bringing friends along who might one day become musicians too.

One small drum shop in Nashville is the trope for all of this. Drum Supply House, which had already survived a $2,000 theft earlier in February and then was barely missed by the tornadoes that ripped through the store’s East Nashville neighborhood in early March but which kept the store closed for days, was then facing the implications of a citywide shutdown at the end of that month. With walk-in customers kept away by a “perfect storm” of twisters and plague, owner Andy Foote shifted to phone and online sales, making many same-day deliveries himself. “I converted my car to a mobile drum supply shop so that I can be ready for orders and get things out quickly,” he told a local paper. He also began promoting gift cards for customers. But day-to-day tactics can’t eliminate the larger problem he and all other MI retailers face. “Left and right, musicians are losing gigs, tours are postponed, and that trickles down heavily to music stores [like] us,” Foote said. “They don’t need the supplies they needed last week and don’t have income, so it might put a damper in sales for a while.”

The ubiquitous nature of this shutdown extends far beyond typical music venues. Churches are now streaming their services, often with recorded music. Schools are closed and with them their music and band departments – all are significant MI retail customers. And as revenues get strained further in other economic sectors, the installed-AV divisions that many MI retailers have expanded into in the last two decades will also find less need for services and products they sell.

No one knows how long the coronavirus catastrophe will take to pass. We don’t know if this is 2008 all over again, or 1918, or a kind of disaster for which the playbook has yet to be written. The circumstances are very different, so there’s no template for recovery. Even the kinds of interim solutions of the Great Recession a decade ago no longer available – with restaurants closing and no one going out, musicians can’t wait tables or drive for Uber, the go-to fill-in gigs for them in the last decade. Lessons are moving online, as are live performances, but not everyone can leverage that transition to the point where it replaces what’s being lost.

What we do know is that there will be a vaccine in the next 12 or so months [Hopefully – Ed.]. So the real unknown for MI retail and everyone else is, how many weeks and months can each business survive in the meantime? There is no one answer for that, only the quiet calculations that each shop and each teacher will make each day. Unfortunately, as critical as music will be for pulling the country through this disaster, music stores have not been deemed “essential” in government assessments. On the other hand, gun stores are. Res ipsa loquitur.

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