Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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A ‘great cultural depression’ looms for legions of unemployed performers

The New York Times reports:

In the top echelons of classical music, the violinist Jennifer Koh is by any measure a star.

With a dazzling technique, she has ridden a career that any aspiring Juilliard grad would dream about — appearing with leading orchestras, recording new works, and performing on some of the world’s most prestigious stages.

Now, nine months into a contagion that has halted most public gatherings and decimated the performing arts, Ms. Koh, who watched a year’s worth of bookings evaporate, is playing music from her living room and receiving food stamps.

Pain can be found in nearly every nook of the economy. Millions of people have lost their jobs and tens of thousands of businesses have closed since the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States. But even in these extraordinary times, the losses in the performing arts and related sectors have been staggering.

During the quarter ending in September, when the overall unemployment rate averaged 8.5 percent, 52 percent of actors, 55 percent of dancers and 27 percent of musicians were out of work, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. By comparison, the jobless rate was 27 percent for waiters; 19 percent for cooks; and about 13 percent for retail salespeople over the same period.

In many areas, arts venues — theaters, clubs, performance spaces, concert halls, festivals — were the first businesses to close, and they are likely to be among the last to reopen.

“My fear is we’re not just losing jobs, we’re losing careers,” said Adam Krauthamer, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in New York. He said 95 percent of the local’s 7,000 members are not working on a regular basis because of the mandated shutdown. “It will create a great cultural depression,” he said.

The new $15 billion worth of stimulus aid for performance venues and cultural institutions that Congress approved this week — which was thrown into limbo after President Trump criticized the bill — will not end the mass unemployment for performers anytime soon. And it only extends federal unemployment aid through mid-March.

The public may think of performers as A-list celebrities, but most never get near a red carpet or an awards show. The overwhelming majority, even in the best times, don’t benefit from Hollywood-size paychecks or institutional backing. They work season to season, weekend to weekend or day to day, moving from one gig to the next. [Continue reading…]

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