Beginning a New Season of Music – Under the COVID-19 Pandemic.

14/09/2020

It has been quite the summer for everyone, but especially so for musicians. With all the of the ups and downs, shutdowns and restarts, controversies over mask wearing, and a summer spike in infection – right here in North Texas – things have remained constant for musicians. As our work requires the gathering of our audiences (and for us too!) the reality is that we will not be able to return to work like normal as long as the Pandemic continues. After the shock of the shutdown last spring and finding an immediate response to it, this summer began the work for us forging a path FORWARD.

With each of our performing ensembles, we are working to address this “new normal” for the upcoming gig season.  We are doing this with every single contract, every single group we represent, to face this unprecedented crisis for our industry. Our major challenge is to keep musicians employed as much as possible while working to ensure everyone’s safety and health. For months now we have been working in this area with other professionals to learn as much as we possibly can about the virus and how it affects our very unique workplace and industry. We were on the forefront of this effort as we worked out safety plans for symphonic services in June with both Dallas and Fort Worth Symphonies. The process was a work of collaboration between everyone: managers, healthcare experts, lawyers, legislative experts, other union officers (across the entire nation), and most importantly our rank and file committees.

In July, I took part in a total of no less than four virtual conferences including consultations with legal, health and labor professionals. I have also been working with the managers as we look into such an uncertain season before us. Each group has its own unique set of circumstances which makes its plan of moving forward different from others. And crazier still, every day our circumstances change. A plan made and finalized one day will have to be completely scrapped the next day, because of some change. (For example, we here in Texas were restarting aggressively in the beginning of June, only to capture national news with the spiking of the virus in our own communities. This roller coaster ride has certainly affected our ability to plan and negotiate).

One thing that is understood across the industry is that for us to survive this, we must all work together. On the 4th of July, the Fort Worth Symphony televised on WFAA and provided an on-demand streaming of a live performance to an empty arena. It was the first time the orchestra had been seen together in over 3 months. The Dallas Symphony also began an early restart in June with live performances of small ensembles to very small audiences, which were all captured and are available to see and hear on mydso.com.  For both orchestras, the musicians were all masked, seated a minimum of six feet apart, and shielded by walls of plexiglass in many cases. And detailed safety plans of operating specific to the venues had been agreed upon and developed together through medical and scientific consultation. On July 4, I nearly wept seeing my colleagues making music again after months of being shuttered. Seeing these two ensembles making music through such difficult circumstances provided some hope that our ingenuity, collaboration and perseverance can indeed get us through this.

Now that a new performance season is beginning, not only are the Dallas and Fort Worth Symphonies putting together seasons with performances to small audiences as we continue to tweak safety plans to minimize the risk of infection, other regional groups are also working out innovative ways to bring music to audiences. In August both the Lewisville Lake Symphony and the Lawton Philharmonic Orchestra played concerts to empty venues, while streaming and/or broadcasting the performances to audiences through AFM agreements. The AFM has been working hard since last spring to work out ways to use streaming to facilitate live performance, while gathering audiences is restricted, whether for orchestras or for freelance gigs.

Many of our groups have postponed the bulk of the seasons to next spring as we continue to work out new ways to find ways to perform safely through the Pandemic, discuss streaming, and explore new performance possibilities. Some of our Managers have stepped up to do all they can to keep musicians working safely and connected to audiences, and others have behaved poorly and used the pandemic to extract cuts and other concessions. It is just part of the challenge that these times bring, and we persevere.

Freelance Performance Sponsored by MPTF

With the shutdown, we lost our entire festival season where are members are featured in festivals like the Main Street Fort Worth Arts and the Denton Arts and Jazz Festivals. As bars, restaurants and clubs have been opened – at best – under great restrictions, our gigs have disappeared or musicians are asked to play for tips, or nothing at all. Since the traditional festival is no longer possible for the time being, we are now working out alternative ways to use MPTF support to make safe gigs happen. This month we have begun a new “Musicians in the Park” series in Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park on Thursday evenings. The performances are socially distanced in the open air and weather permitting will be live streamed through MPTF’s social media platforms. We also have a partnership worked out with Steve’s Bar in Denton for MPTF supported programs. While the bar will not be open to the public yet, visitors will be able to view the shows regularly performed on Wednesday nights from an open patio, as they will also be livestreamed to a larger audience. In addition to the regular live performance wages, musicians will be paid media payments as part of an AFM streaming contract. All of this has been made possible by the AFM’s work, at putting together a framework to use streaming to support live performances while not compromising media rights and payments.

Certainly, live streaming and coming together virtually has become a lifeline for us in this era. While we work to adapt and innovate, we must also hold onto our standards.  Once this wave of adversity has passed, it will have been necessary that we protected our wage standards for live performance as well as for media use. More than ever it is critical that we respond with flexibility and creativity, while also planning for the POST-COVID future of our industry.

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