Local Music During the Pandemic

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Washington, DC -The inability of crowds to gather safely because of COVID-19 put the world of live music in a coma almost overnight. Musicians often receive the bulk of their income from live shows. Production staff, who are the foundation and the glue of many events, depend on those performances and events for their livelihood.

Now that restrictions are being lifted in many states throughout the United States, tour buses and tractor trailers can begin to line the loading docks and alleyways of concert halls, dive bars and arenas. As vaccination rates rise and concert goers flock to venues, an often less recognized yet essential class of industry professionals are emerging from the trenches: Local working musicians.

What does that mean? Isn’t any musician who gets paid technically working? The term working musician can be applied in many contexts. In this case it is the tried-and-true local performers, the gigging veterans, who fill the bars and restaurants with original compositions as well as songs people know and love. Live music is not only a vital part of defining the culture in a community but is essential to maintaining a vibrant nightlife that supports the local economy. “Music is the cornerstone of what we do [and] something we can’t live without,” says Rohry Flood, co-owner of Cult Classic Brewing, Kent Island Maryland. Once a grocery store, it is now a successful brewery, bar and restaurant that houses a professional concert venue.

Danah Koch is a Maryland-based artist on the front lines, playing the dock bars and main street taverns that line the eastern and western shores of the state. “People want to get back to life” she says, describing the general atmosphere. With turnout often reaching pre-covid levels, many patrons are returning with not only enthusiasm but a new sense of existential appreciation.

In the midst of hope and positivity, causes for concern are not being ignored. Ms. Koch, who had contracted COVID-19 and is now vaccinated, worries about a “false sense of security” among people. Conscious of the potential for bringing the virus home to family and friends, performing mainly outdoors is one way she mitigates the risk.

Also concerned about safety, P.J. Thomas, a musician based in Anne Arundel County, Maryland and Vice President of the Annapolis Musicians Fund for Musicians (AMFM), recalls a time when she wouldn’t hesitate to closely mingle with crowds and have impromptu duets with strangers. Thomas now emphasizes, “I’m always very careful.” Cautious, but not a cynic she trusts that “people are coming at this from a good place.” The AMFM has paid out around $200,000 in relief to local performing artists during the pandemic.

Despite legitimate causes for concern, local musicians and venue owners share stoic-like perseverance, laced with hope, which sets an inspiring tone for an uncertain future. “If we can survive this last round, we can survive anything,” says Flood with a thoughtful laugh. “Eternally optimistic” is how P.J. Thomas describes herself, and speaks with reverence about “love for one another among musicians.”

Looking out for each other and never hesitating to lend one another a hand is the hallmark of a successful music scene. The drive and passion artists have to perform is cyclical with the audience’s desire to experience it. In this sense, live performances are not just entertainment but enhance quality of life, a cycle that not even a global pandemic can break.

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Stephen Szybowski is a songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist based in the DMV.

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