Miami's Music Scene Faces Existential Threat From Coronavirus Fallout

The coronavirus pandemic and mass concert cancellations have swiftly harmed Miami's music scene.
The coronavirus pandemic and mass concert cancellations have swiftly harmed Miami's music scene. Photo by Olivia McAuley
Financial stability has never been synonymous with creative professions. Historically, music and arts programs — state-funded or otherwise — have disproportionately endured the effects of funding cuts, often because they were deemed "inessential." Well before the globe was thrown into coronavirus-induced chaos, dedicating one's life to creative pursuits was considered brave (or stupid). It turns out the age-old parental advice to become a doctor or lawyer is not without empirical merit: In the face of the world's recent upheaval, job security has become a particularly notional concept for the majority of artists, musicians, concert promoters, and venue owners around the globe.

Miami's music community is no exception: Much of the city's economy depends on tourism, an umbrella label that encompasses visitors spending money on hotels, bars, restaurants, shops, transportation, and attractions. As social distancing becomes the new normal in the wake of travel bans and mandatory closures of bars, restaurants, and venues, Miami is left in unprecedented territory for which it was unprepared.

No line of work is immune from the economic impacts of COVID-19. But few career fields are more vulnerable, in both the short and long-term, than those reliant on bars and venues consistently keeping their doors open.

Take, for example, Miami's local music scene.

“The uncertainty is terrifying,” says Andrew McLees, marketing manager for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, founder of Look Alive Fest, and member of local noise rock act Other Body. McLees was recently forced to cancel a concert scheduled to take place at Churchill’s Pub. The show was meant to be a fundraiser for the Blue Wave Coalition, a Florida organization committed to electing principled and progressive leadership locally, statewide, and nationally.

Speaking to New Times about the potential impact the pandemic will have on Miami's music scene, McLees points out that the majority of the city's musical life is generally considered a subcultural endeavor.

“This unique make-up has always made it difficult to trust the government to support us when we need it," he says. "The arts have always been subsistent on the milk of human kindness. This pandemic lays bare all of the issues our community already faces.”

Artists have long had to rely on crowdsourcing just to get by. Platforms like GoFundMe, Kickstarter, and Patreon are oftentimes the only means bands and musicians have of generating capital for new projects or weathering catastrophic developments such as equipment theft.

Now faced with a crisis of unparalleled scale, it seems the already-fragile industry has nowhere left to turn.

Miami-Dade County recently enacted an ordinance requiring the mandatory closure of all bars and concert venues, effectively shutting bar staff, bouncers, stage crew, engineers and gigging musicians out of earning a living. Owing to the music industry's precarious nature, many who work within it tend to supplant their income with freelance gigs, meaning a substantial number go without health insurance or benefits.

Sound engineer Rick Carmona says all his work has been postponed until May; he projects he has lost anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 in earnings. A member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees labor union, he found little solace in receiving an email from the group that encouraged fellows to apply for unemployment and provided few updates on their lobbying efforts to include workers from the live entertainment sector in financial relief legislation.

“I've been on the phone for three days trying to understand what the state, what the city, and what the federal government is going to do to help, and nobody seems to know,” says Adam Gersten, owner of Wynwood-based bar and music venue Gramps.

Heeding warnings from Italy, which has been ravaged by COVID-19, Gersten closed Gramps’ doors well before the City of Miami pushed through emergency orders to shut down all bars and restaurants. Given the city's relative inaction, he felt the burden of responsibility had very much fallen on him.
click to enlarge Gramps has been forced to close due to COVID-19 - PHOTOGRAPHY BY MONICA MCGIVERN
Gramps has been forced to close due to COVID-19
Photography by Monica McGivern
“The city wasn’t doing anything substantial to mitigate what was happening,” Gersten says. “I just couldn’t be part of the unfolding disaster. If it wasn’t for concern for my employees’ financial well-being, I would have closed two weeks ago. Everyone was thinking too short-term. At first, I was monitoring the situation, but then the scales tipped. When Saturday night was as crowded as it was, I said Hell no. You can’t cash a paycheck if you’re dead.”

Mikey Ramirez, the owner of independent record shop Technique Records, has tried to remain optimistic through the unfolding debacle. With a healthy sense of gallows humor, he's been pondering the little ways he can help his small team through this difficult period.

“This is not the time to be an asshole," he says. "What this is going to do to our local economy is sad.” Ramirez has been personally driving to deliver records to people's houses and is putting more of his efforts into his e-commerce platforms; he is not charging for shipping in the U.S.

Mario Arango of Heroes Live Entertainment presented Berlin and Big Country at Club Space sub-venue the Ground on Saturday, March 7 as coronavirus and the panic surrounding it began proliferating in the U.S. The event served the official pre-party for The 80s Cruise, which departed with both bands in tow on the day after the show. Although the concert and the cruise went ahead as scheduled, Arango says sales were affected, with only half of the expected attendance.

His next show — Clan of Xymox on Saturday, March 21 at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach — has been canceled. Arango expected it to sell out, seeing as it would have been the goth rock band's first South Florida performance in 29 years. The promoter was instead forced to refund all his ticket sales.

“The artist lost money; I lost money in marketing and promotion; the venue was affected," Arango shares. "I can relate, as a former live music venue owner of Grand Central, to the importance of keeping staff employed while maintaining patrons’ safety. During a time like Miami Music Week [Grand Central] welcomed thousands of guests to our events.”

As the pandemic plays out, the future of live shows remains uncertain. However, John McHale of Breakeven Booking notes that the hazardous nature of South Florida’s music scene is nothing new.

“When you book shows you’re used to taking hits here and there; this is a giant hit," he says. "Miami is an isolated market as it is. The only reason touring bands come down this far is because Miami has garnered some hype over the last few years. Anywhere in the Northeast can do double what we can do here. A lot of that is based on local geography.”

Though many have used phrases such as "postponed" rather than "canceled" to describe their now-pending events, McHale points out that this poses a logistical conundrum when it comes to rescheduling. “Everyone’s projecting to move all these tours to later in the year, but there’s already stuff planned for later in the year. South Florida can’t handle that kind of volume.”

Gigs have dropped off the map while venues have closed, and most musicians — sensibly — are too afraid to even meet up and practice. Even while stuck in this unfamiliar and indeterminately long purgatory, there is still a strong sense of community among Miami's creative community. 

“I’m humbled and thankful for the support [Technique] has been getting over the last few days,” Ramirez says. “We are all in the same boat right now: we’re all in deep shit.”

Even with the collective displays of solidarity, Ramirez isn't just fearful of the immediate threat of the virus. “I’m not worried about today or tomorrow,” he says. “I’m worried about two months from right now when we’re all broke. That's what I’m concerned about.”

While artists and audiences are taking to the virtual world to find temporary comfort — livestreaming performances to get their fix of human connection through music, or exchanging payments via Cash App or Venmo — the long-term viability of these options remains unclear. Although musical acts can potentially have a much larger reach through an always-online and captivated crowd, there is a pronounced risk of oversaturation in content. Likewise, consumers’ ability and willingness to pay will likely be constrained as the economic crisis deepens and they face their own financial strains. Making matters worse, digital streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify cannot fill the gap left by local live music scenes for those employed in production and other service industries, to say nothing of the artists themselves.

The Power of Live, a global study conducted by Live Nation, examined the trends and behaviors of more than 20,000 live music fans between the ages of 13 and 65 in 11 countries. According to the study, even in our digital age, people place a high premium on live experiences, as “Two-thirds of Gen X, Y, and Z attend at least one concert or festival each year, with a majority going to multiple events.”

There is no doubt that the appetite for live events will only grow during their absence, and once it safe to do so, fans will rush out immediately to see their favorite bands and share their love of music publicly.

Both locally and nationally, there are several grants making the rounds designed to alleviate the immediate financial stress musicians are feeling. Meanwhile, streaming services and vendors like Bandcamp have begun to waive all revenue fees, in turn allowing artists to receive all the proceeds from their own music.

It seems, for the time being, that creative forces will have to turn to one another on how to troubleshoot this mess.
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Olivia McAuley was born and raised in London, England. After studying at the University of Miami, she worked in music PR and marketing before joining Miami New Times as the club listings editor. She also writes about music and anything and everything that's going on in her adopted city.
Contact: Olivia McAuley