WASHINGTON — For more than a year now, the state of America's live music industry has been a grim one.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw hundreds of thousands of musicians, roadies and other touring industry professionals out of work, according to the Country Music Association. In Tennessee alone, the industry's unemployed number around 50,000.
Compounding the problem, the jobs in restaurants and other hospitality businesses that have long sustained out-of-work entertainers were drastically slashed, too.
Now, in response to the crisis, the music association is expanding its efforts to help the industry's needy. It's announcing Monday that it will provide 4 million meals in cities with large populations of musicians and music industry professionals in a new partnership with Feeding America.
The trade organization’s foundation will also launch a donation challenge to fund an additional 1 million meals throughout all of Feeding America's food banks. And its Music Industry COVID Support (MICS) Initiative will help those in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon.
All of that will come on top of $3 million that the CMA has invested in numerous nonprofits that serve music professionals.
“Nobody wants to think about their friends or colleagues going without food,” said Sarah Trahern, the association’s CEO. “But I’ve been out at a couple of the food banks that we’ve done work with over the last year, and it’s us. As people, you think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”
“I feel like by next year we’re going to be in good stead,” she said. “But a lot of those people will have gone 18 months to 24 months without salaries in their chosen fields. And then you can’t put a roof over your head or put braces on your kids or put food on the table.”
The need to help those musicians and music industry professionals make it through the next few months is why the CMA opted to expand its MICS initiative. And it’s why country superstar Blake Shelton said he is proud to have been part of the initiative in helping drum up financial support for the food banks.
“There are a lot of people struggling in our country, and COVID has only made that worse,” Shelton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “People are going to bed hungry at night now more than ever, and I just can’t live with that. I’ve been passionate for a long time about helping folks get the food they need.”
Since beginning his recording career in 2001, Shelton has never been off the road for as long as he has now, though his work on “The Voice” has kept him busy when he hasn’t been on his Oklahoma ranch with his fiancée, Gwen Stefani, and their families. He said he feels fortunate to have been able to keep paying his band and crew over the past year, allowing his band members to be “busy working on different musical projects, keeping their skills sharp!”
“This pandemic has affected people all across the country, working in all different kinds of industries, from restaurants to schools to travel,” Shelton said. “What more can be done? The world is starting to open up again, and tours and shows are being announced daily. So go support your favorite artists, bands, orchestras, theaters. Of course, do it safely, but let’s have some fun again!”
That’s what Amberly Rosen yearns to do. Rosen, one-half of the folk-dance duo The Rosen Sisters, has toured with numerous artists. She has played arenas and major festivals with country star Terri Clark and “Late Night with David Letterman” with Maddie and Tae. And she wants very much to get back to entertaining people.
"There was a ton of disappointment last year,” said Rosen, a violinist who was trained at the Berklee College of Music and now lives in Nashville. “I can’t wait to have joyful moments with people again, when we can be with each other just a little bit.”
Rosen remembers the day early in the pandemic when she received one call after another canceling concerts, tours and other gigs for months into the future. When even her backup job as a violin teacher slowed to a crawl, she grew worried.
“It was totally terrifying,” said Rosen, 34. “I’ve always worked in music. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. All of a sudden, I couldn’t do my job.”
As she looked for ways to cut costs, Rosen heard about a program from Musically Fed, one of the initiatives the CMA began supporting in 2020, that would give unemployed musicians $100 vouchers to spend at a local farmers market.
“It was so helpful, and I was so grateful to have that,” Rosen said. “But it was a personal struggle because I worried, ‘Am I needy enough for this?’ I’ve always been capable of taking care of myself, but this time there were really no jobs in my field.”
That’s a common feeling, especially during the pandemic, when so many found themselves so quickly in need, said Nancy Keil, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, one of the nonprofits that will benefit from the expanded MICS initiative.
About 40% of people who visited food banks in the past year, she said, had never come before. Part of her group’s challenge is to educate people to accept help when they need it.
“When people just don’t have jobs, you have a need,” Keil said. “You can’t just find food somewhere. You need someone to help. It’s so basic.”
Second Harvest, it turns out, needs some help of its own. In 2020, the food bank experienced a 50% increase in demand for its services — which, Keil said, meant that about 450,000 more people in Middle Tennessee became food insecure. Financial donations rose last year. But they didn’t completely cover the costs of increasing staff and buying more supplies because food donations from now-closed restaurants tumbled.
“This funding support from the CMA is going to be huge,” Keil said. “When we looked at the numbers from the last recession, it took 10 years to get back to pre-recession numbers. We’re hoping that this time it will take much shorter.”