In the weeks since the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, our lives have changed dramatically. Countries around the world have scrambled to contain the virus and “flatten the curve” by restricting travel and large gatherings, advising (and in some cases ordering) residents to stay at home, closing restaurants, venues, and other “non-essential” businesses, and canceling major events (for good reason). In a world that can feel so divided—by physical boundaries, political disputes, beliefs and practices—where our day-to-day lives often times seem more different than alike, these last few weeks have forced upon us a shared experience that no one asked for, but that none of us will soon forget.
At a time when we are especially reliant on the news for vital information, and on music, television, movies, books, video games, and other forms of entertainment for some semblance of normalcy, it has become more apparent than ever just how vital creators are to each of our lives. We’re able to escape to other worlds through their stories and adventures, take refuge in their words, and find solace in their melodies, but the individual creators, small businesses, and the thousands of others it takes to make the works that enrich our lives are struggling financially.
Most creators are not rich. In fact, most full-time creators would be classified as working class. On average, musicians in the U.S. earn $35,000 per year, and photographers earn $34,000. The median income for authors is $20,300. As John Legend explained, “most artists are not millionaires. Most are living paycheck to paycheck like much of the rest of the country, and the paychecks aren’t even on a regular schedule.” Most creators are a part of the “gig economy,” meaning they don’t have access to regular paychecks, health insurance, workplace protections, and unemployment checks that are often available for workers classified as “employees.” When a “gig”—like a concert, wedding, photo or video shoot, speaking engagement, festival, workshop, assignment, or other contractual event—is cancelled, so is the income they hoped to receive from that gig. As the Recording Academy explained in a letter to Congressional leaders, for the music industry, “[t]hese cancellations don’t just affect famous featured artists and headlining bands. They impact thousands of songwriters, session musicians, live musicians, backing vocalists, audio engineers, studio mixers, and other individuals who make a living by making music.” When movies and TV shows cancel or delay filming, that means lost wages for the entire cast and crew (most of whom are regular people, not celebrities or millionaires). But the bills don’t stop just because the checks do. They still have rent or mortgage to pay, groceries to buy, and numerous other day-to-day expenses.
The reality is, in a world where piracy runs rampant, most creators were struggling long before COVID-19. But the economic challenges posed by this pandemic have turned a hardship into a financial catastrophe for creators. Organizations including those representing photographers and songwriters, and a broad coalition from the music community, sounded off in a big way, urging congressional leaders to step up and help creators during this difficult time. In response, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, will provide $1,200 stimulus checks for individual taxpayers earning less than $75,000 per year (with additional funds for those with children), expand eligibility for unemployment benefits to self-employed workers (including freelancers and gig workers), and offer disaster loans, grants, and other assistance for small businesses.
In addition, the creative community has come together to provide economic and career support programs, relief funds and donations to independent creators who are struggling. Relief funds for musicians have been established by the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Foundation as well as the Blues Foundation. The Foundation for Contemporary Arts’ relief fund “will disburse $1,000 grants to artists who have had performances or exhibitions canceled or postponed because of the COVID-19 virus.” Similar funds are also available for writers through the Authors League Fund, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Carnegie Fund, and for actors and performers through SAG-AFTRA and other organizations. There’s even a gofundme page (and corresponding stipend application) for LA-based entertainment industry support staff (assistants, production assistants, coordinators, readers, etc.) affected by the COVID-19 shut downs.
There’s something intrinsically social and communal about the creation and enjoyment of art. From choreography, to music, to visual art, to storytelling, to theatric performances, art has a way of bringing people together—both literally and figuratively—and documenting history as it unfolds. Perhaps it’s something deeper than boredom or “cabin fever” that pushes us toward various forms of art in this time of social distance; perhaps it’s our desire to feel connected. We have creators to thank for giving us the art and entertainment that connects us in the midst of such disconnect. Let’s not forget them when they need our support the most.