We Need Food and Shelter, But We Need the Arts, Too

Report From an Unemployed Musician & Gig Worker

I have been warned all my life that music is not an easy career. It is a constant hustle. We teach, we take whatever gig we can, we do not know the meaning of vacation. For most of us we keep a side job to help pay the bills. In a normal week I teach 10 violin lessons, play 1-3 shows, and work 2 days pouring pints at a pub. I have been told by my predecessors that musicians never retire, they just slow down. 

Then comes COVID-19 and our delicately balanced lives come tumbling down. My side job at the bar is closed. My gigs are cancelled because we can no longer gather in groups. I lose students due their own financial ruin, and now my main breadwinners of the summer, the music camps, are shut down. It is like watching the domino effect, everything I have built is tumbling down one after the other. Luckily I am eligible for unemployment which means I can keep the roof over my head, but is that enough? All the momentum I have worked hard to build up, all those contacts, the networking, it is on hold and I may not get it back. 

I am not alone. It turns out millions of people are cobbling together a living with gig work, musicians included. Many of us are stuck balancing multiple precarious jobs to get by. This situation was not created by a pandemic, but by a society that puts profits before people. So many of us cannot find full-time employment, and jobs with benefits are about as common as unicorns. We are all hustling to make ends meet and it is barely working.

But it is working for one group, the capitalists. Trillions of dollars in stimulus money have gone to enrich big corporations and the banks. The government has made sure to bail out the airlines and the fossil fuel companies. Jeff Bezos is billions of dollars richer. Meanwhile regular working people are watching their lives fall apart with limited social safety nets to ease their suffering. Local treasures like the Starry Plough in Berkeley, which has been around for over 40 years, are being forced to use GoFundMe campaigns to stay afloat. 

It does not have to be this way. Being a musician should not mean a precarious living, nor should anyone be forced to live precariously. All people deserve, as a given, not only food, water, and shelter, but the arts as well. We can all be taken care of. Music is fundamental to our humanity. We need it more than Jeff Bezos needs to make 1.5 billion dollars a week. It is time for the capitalists to stop getting rich at our expense. We need a system that works for everybody. We need socialism. 

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