Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

12/06/2021

The original gig workers: the music business re-emerges from a pandemic.

By MICHAEL SHOEHORN CONLEY //  Who has come back and who has not.

In spite of the significant financial footprint it has in Oregon, the music business seems largely overlooked by local and regional governments responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the State Employment Department, leisure and hospitality businesses employed an average 160,200 workers in 2020. Of those, roughly one out of eight were employed in arts, entertainment, and recreation. Musicians struggled to obtain unemployment benefits, and venue owners fought for relief during the Covid-19 closures of 2020-21. Only recently have major venues such as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall begun hosting Oregon Symphony concerts and touring acts.

I spoke with Jim Brunberg, president of the Independent Venue Coalition, which was registered in Oregon in May of 2020. Brunberg is a musician, songwriter, and co-owner of Mississippi Studios, Revolution Hall, and Polaris Hall. Plus, he's in the house band and is a producer for the syndicated NPR program Livewire. He went on to lobby Oregon senators Wyden and Merkley in coordination with the National Indepenedent Venues Association, (NIVA) which went from formation to successfully pushing legislation in only eight months, resulting in the passage of the Save Our Stages Act, officially named the Shuttered Venues Operation Grant Program, which was signed into law as part of the second Covid-19 relief bill with bipartisan support.

Also in May of 2020, Brunburg penned a guest editorial for the Portland Mercury passionately advocating for the region’s independent venues. Contemplating the potential for permanent closures, he wrote “And what a tragedy it would be for the local economy! For every dollar spent on a ticket, it's estimated that many more dollars are spent with other local businesses: You go out to see a show, you get drinks, you get pancakes at midnight, you buy snacks at Plaid Pantry, you catch a cab—this is commerce, and this is what makes Portland vibrant.”

According to NIVA’s website, their research showed 90% of independent venues were on the brink of collapse within several months of the shutdown. While legislation was passed and funds allocated, the money has been slow in reaching its intended recipients. Brunberg, who still meets a couple of times a week with the Small Business Association, says “It's taking them going on 11 months to get the funding out that was voted in by Congress back in December 2020.” Essentially, the promise of funding has kept many of these businesses alive while waiting for disbursal.

Large venues such as Revolution Hall, which book national touring acts, have been slower to return to business-as-usual compared to Brunburg's other businesses. “We have about half as many shows as we were doing before". Mississippi Studios has “had to reopen and close again several times, and opened in earnest in the beginning of September. As a musician, I'm just today sitting down to finally getting back on the road". When asked about staffing difficulties, he says his core team have stayed around, but they lost a lot of good employees who transitioned into different careers during the shutdown phase.
Individual artists also waited a long time for relief from effects of the shutdown protocols, often on the phone.

Brunberg wrote lyrics to the hold music for the unemployment telephone line that many of our musical colleagues had transcribed out of boredom. Many players, including this writer, keyed in the number for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) hundreds of times before getting into the phone system, and literally waited hours listening to that 8-bar loop when trying to obtain benefits.

“There were some that certainly just gave up because there were so many issues with the system.”, according to Bruce Fife, president of American Federation of Musicians Local 99, who is also the AFM National vice-president. Reached via email regarding the AFM’s efforts to assist members, he wrote “Two things gave the Local a leg up. First, nationally, in partnership with the AFL-CIO, the AFM lobbied heavily for unemployment benefits for our gig workers, those that are normally not covered by unemployment because as Independent Contractors, they don't pay into the system.”
Beloved neighborhood haunts such as the Laurelthirst Public House and the Blue Diamond, both on the central East Side, have also survived, each by very different paths.

The Blue Diamond was able to take over street space behind their building and has been staging outdoor shows since last year. The Laurelthirst took time to update some of its equipment and rebuild the stage and has only recently opened its doors again for live shows, having hosted some streaming events. All of the venues mentioned in this article require vaccination or negative test records for entry, according to their websites.
Individual players, especially freelancers, had broadly different responses to the pandemic work situation, and now gigs are very slowly coming back. Musicians who teach a lot seem to have been able to pivot to lessons via platforms such as Zoom, but ensemble rehearsals, so vital to honing a band’s sound and skills, faced technical hurdles to meeting online.

Some players have yet to return to a club or event space, while others busied themselves with outdoor performances sponsored by various businesses and agencies such as Pioneer Courthouse Square, which commissioned an art installation of giant polka dots where hundreds of local performers did socially-distanced performances, including this writer.

Sources: Oregon Employment Department https://www.qualityinfo.org/-/oregon-s-leisure-and-hospitality-industry?redirect=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.qualityinfo.org%2Fed-ewind%3Fp_p_id%3D3%26p_p_lifecycle%3D0%26p_p_state%3Dmaximized%26p_p_mode%3Dview%26_3_groupId%3D0%26_3_keywords%3Dhow%2Bmany%2Bpeople%2Bwork%2Bin%2Bthe%2Bmusic%2Bindustry%2Bin%2Boregon%253F%26_3_struts_action%3D%252Fsearch%252Fsearch%26_3_redirect%3D%252Fed-ewind&inheritRedirect=true

https://opengovus.com/oregon-business/167529495#overview

https://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2020/05/05/28382525/guest-editorial-save-our-music-venues-save-our-souls

https://mississippistudios.com/ Jim Brunberg, Mississippi Studios (503) 288-3895

Bruce Fife, AFM Local 99 503-235 8791

NIVA https://www.nivassoc.org/

IVC https://www.voicevenues.com/


https://laurelthirst.com/

https://www.bluediamondpdx.net/

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