By Maggy Donaldson
After four years of work, composer Paola Prestini was just a week away from premiering her commissioned opera with a company in the US state of Minnesota—before coronavirus abruptly halted performances worldwide.
The global pandemic has effectively shut down live music everywhere from prestigious houses to indie venues, Broadway to festivals, and left artists in the United States like Prestini with an unclear path forward in a country with a minimal safety net for anyone, let alone creatives.
The New York-based musician, who also co-founded Brooklyn’s popular arts institution National Sawdust, said learning that production of her opera “Edward Tulane” was postponed until 2021 was a moment when “your heart stops.”
“Being a new music composer and a woman, it’s like these opportunities that we’ve fought for years and years and years to have, and working so hard to get to this point -- it’s heartbreaking,” she told AFP.
“The ripple effects of this are going to have a really huge impact on the industry at large,” Prestini said of the virus that has all but ended public life across many nations and infected at least 209,500 people globally, leaving more than 8,700 dead.
Coronavirus hit pause on scores of concerts as music venues fell like dominoes, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, where Prestini’s husband, a cellist, also lost a show.
A similar pattern played out elsewhere, as countries including France, Italy and Spain went into strict lockdown.
Institutions across the globe are encouraging ticket holders not to ask for refunds, or to pay it forward with donations or by purchasing gift certificates.
“I think every company is doing their best to honor artists and pay them,” said the 44-year-old, who was born in Italy and raised in the US.
“But what we’re seeing is these really fragile ecosystems being exposed,” she said.
“It’s a real come-to-your-knees kind of moment.”
Keeping arts institutions—especially small ones that often lack the wealthy donor support older stalwarts rely on—afloat is tough in any environment, and the current crisis has laid bare an already precarious situation, Prestini says.
“There’s just very little backbone for artists in general. It’s a completely unrealistic system to create in, I’m not going to lie,” Prestini said.
On Wednesday France’s Minister of Culture Franck Riester announced an initial “emergency aid” of 22 million euros to support music, entertainment, publishing and visual arts.
Not so stateside, where much of the country’s workers including artists rely on “gig economy” jobs to skate by, and where paid sick leave is a luxury.
Amid shutdowns vocalist Emily Cavanagh left New York for her hometown Chicago to be with family—and to reassess how to keep up music career as the virus spreads.
“I want to stay optimistic,” she told AFP. “But I still had to pay my rent before I left town... it was like, this is all the money I have to my name right now.”
“There is no real safety net when you make music for a living,” the 36-year-old said.
“It’s about what we value as a society—we value music but we don’t want to pay for it; we value art but we want it for free.”
This week MusiCares—the charitable arm of the Recording Academy, the body behind the Grammys— launched a $2-million coronavirus relief fund for music industry workers.
Eligible music professionals—those who have had at least five years of employment in the music industry, or six commercially released recordings or videos—can apply for funds, and show proof of concert cancellations over coronavirus.
It’s a start—but artists like Prestini wonder where the government support is in this “unsure landscape.”
In order to retain its community National Sawdust aims to start a digital platform, first putting up archived content for free and once public health constraints allow it letting artists stream live shows, viewable for a fee, to keep momentum.
“Once things are healthier, I think people will want to convene, people will want to be together,” Prestini said.
“That’s what cities are made for—people coming together and colliding with new ideas.”
She and Cavanagh both said that despite the current chaos, their circles have been beacons of support.
Cavanagh said a stranger who listened to her on Spotify found her Venmo handle and sent her money on the payment app, as a friend vowed to hold a house concert for her post-pandemic and sent her $500.
“I do think that people more than ever want to find a way to support their community,” she said. “On the more hopeful side of me... artists are really good at being resilient.”
“I think it’s just part of the job.”