Coronavirus taking financial toll in bluegrass UPDATED

IBMA is closely monitoring the coronavirus outbreak but isn’t taking action just yet related to the 2020 World of Bluegrass celebration in Raleigh this fall.

“As of right now, there are no plans to cancel” the conference, IBMA said in a statement issued by Executive Director Paul Schiminger. “Given the level of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, we do not want to make any rash decisions about an event so far in the future.” The Association is still deciding whether to delay the start of ticket sales and hotel rooms, scheduled for April 7.

But another major event with bluegrass ties, MerleFest, pulled the plug on its festival at the end of April. The festival’s hand was pretty much forced by yesterday’s de facto prohibition of gatherings of more than 100 people by Gov. Roy Cooper. That position was firmed up Friday by county officials who control the community college that hosts one of the largest annual showcases of bluegrass and Americana music.

“While this decision is disappointing for all of us, we fully support the directive from our county officials,” MerleFest organizers said in a statement. “The health, safety and well being of all involved with MerleFest is, and always will be, our primary concern.”

UPDATE 7:30 – MerleFest 2020 has now been cancelled.

The decision was the latest in a string of closures and postponements leaving bluegrass artists, promoters and fans facing uncertainty and economic loss at a time of year when the music season is just revving up.

Among other casualaties announced in recent days: WinterWonderGrass California and the DC Bluegrass Union Festival in suburban Washington, DC, both scheduled for the last weekend in March. The Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival, set for the same weekend in Wilmington, Ohio, will be rescheduled.

Many smaller events and venues are also canceling shows, leaving musicians to fret about how to pay their bills and sweating out whether some events that are still on the calendar will disappear in the coming days.

It’s not just bluegrass feeling the pinch. Broadway shows, professional sports teams, and other musical genres are being hit as well. But the drain in bluegrass, a small genre to begin with, is magnified. Even in good seasons, some artists, festivals and venues can’t stay afloat.

The biggest issue is no one knows for sure whether business as usual will resume in a few weeks or many months from now. There is plenty of speculation – but so far few facts – on either side of the equation. Some optimists suggest warmer weather will stop the virus in its tracks and allow it to be controlled rather quickly. Others see a drawn-out process, leading to mushrooming infection rates and death tolls. (No need to get into all of that here. There are plenty of other places to become informed, and like everything in the social media environment these days, some are more credible than others).

The late September date for IBMA’s weeklong business conference and music festival buys the Association some time. By then the worst of the mess could be in our collective review mirror.

But here’s the rub: IBMA tickets and hotel rooms are scheduled to go on sale for members on April 7. Rooms in the two main hotels, the Marriott and Sheraton in Raleigh, usually sell out on the first day or two of sales, helping IBMA meet its guarantee of a sizeable room block in exchange for a big discount on rates. Even in a best-case scenario, getting an upper hand on the virus might not happen soon enough for bands and fans to commit to laying out a chunk of change for registrations and hotel rooms in just a few weeks. A decision to delay sales would have to be made relatively quickly.

IBMA also added a Bluegrass Community Resource page to its website to pass along travel advisories and safety information, and to recommend alternate revenue streams to help bluegrassers make up for canceled gigs.

But while IBMA has time on its side for the situation to improve before the fall, many others didn’t have that luxury.

“We’re canceling,” said Matt Slocum of the DC Bluegrass Union, referring to the March 28 festival that was to be headlined by the Claire Lynch Band. “It’s just not the atmosphere to promote an event, in just about every regard.”

But, he added, “We’ll be back, for the community, the musicians, and our own sanity. Music is essential, and live music is the only remaining authentic way it can be experienced.”

At WinterWonderGrass, organizers ran up against a mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsome that gatherings of more than 250 people be canceled or postponed.

According to festival founder Scott Stoughton, “The last thing we wanted to have to do is postpone WinterWonderGrass California and simply writing these words breaks my heart. Our deepest thoughts go out to you—our fans, our community, the hardworking artists that will struggle with cancellations, the production and operations crews whom count on the work, our volunteers, vendors, sponsors, the locals who’ve been so supportive, and our core team, which has been working on this event, non-stop, for nearly a near. We are all equally disappointed, mad, sad and frustrated.”

He said the same artists, including Billy Strings, Peter Rowan and the Infamous Stringdusters, will be invited back next April.

Timing and government orders also led to postponement of two gigs this weekend for the Kruger Brothers. The shows, in Baltimore and Westminster, Md., were part of the spring concert series run by Common Ground On The Hill, a music and visual arts organization that also sponsors summer camps. Executive Director Walt Michael told the Common Ground community that the shows would be rescheduled when possible. And the band was paid its minimum guarantee for this weekend’s show as a binder on the future dates.

It’s not just US-based bands having to wrestle with government decrees. Red Wine members just returned to Italy after a short U.S. tour, when in the words of mandolinist Martino Coppo, “the thing hit the fan badly.”

Public events of all sorts are canceled, bars and restaurants must close at 6pm, and travel is restricted to work, hospitals and grocery stores. The country is essentially in lockdown.

“Red Wine, luckily so far, had to cancel only a couple of local gigs,” Coppo told us. “But we have many friends who had to cancel tours and gigs and are now facing heavy financial issues.”

Coppo said he hoped to provide better news “in the new future.” Until then, he noted he would “stay home and play mandolin as much as I can.”

Other US bands took the lead in backing out of gigs before venues or governments acted. Boston-based Mile Twelve recently announced that it would work to reschedule three New York shows that were on tap for this weekend. “We want our fans, friends and families to be safe and stay healthy, and we feel like right now, this is the most responsible thing we can do,” the band said.

Large organizations often have insurance to help cover cancelations or postponements, but bluegrass musicians don’t have that luxury. After some initial handwringing, some of them have advertised their availability on Facebook for online lessons, songwriting tutorials and livestreamed living room performances.

Joe Newberry, a well-known banjo picker and songwriter, decided to explore streaming performances after his gig on a cruise starting next week was scratched. “Stay tuned,” he wrote. “Of course, with an online concert, you can sit as close to me as you want, with only a screen between us.” Or he joked – and heaven knows we can use a little levity right now – “I can come serenade people beneath their windows (larger fees apply).”

Without shows, at least in the short run, fans can still help their favorite bands. One great way is to buy those CDs, t-shirts, hats and other merch that bands stocked up on in anticipation of hitting the road. Please don’t stream right now on Spotify or other platforms, and if you use Apple products, buy songs and projects on iTunes rather than stream them on Apple Music. Apple Music pays artists and songwriters better than most streaming platforms, but it’s still fractions of a cent. Buying directly from artists on their websites or fan pages puts more money in their pockets faster, when they really need it.

Buy “tickets” to the virtual shows that Newberry and others are putting together.

And, yes, pull those instruments out from under the bed, dust ‘em off, tune ‘em up, and take online lessons. Skype and others offer stable platforms for virtual lessons, and some of the top pickers in the business are giving them. Again, your money goes straight to the artists when other income streams are running dry.

It’s going to be a tough spring. And maybe not such a hot summer. That’s really out of our control. But music is a healing salve, and it is within the control of each of us to apply it liberally in whatever form it can be applied. 

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.