Q&A: Playing Music Through A Pandemic

by Genevieve Schwietzer

With the closure of live performance venues in the age of coronavirus, many musicians have found themselves struggling to stay afloat. In fact, a recent study by the nonprofit Freelancers Union found that 93% of self-employed musicians have lost work due to the pandemic. 

Genevieve Schweitzer interviewed Bay Area reggae-soul artist Jethro Jeremiah, who is dealing with his loss of employment through creative online performances and tips. Jethro talks about what it means to be a musician right now, how we can support artists during this pandemic, and what the future of music looks like.

Genevieve Schweitzer: Can you introduce yourself and your background in music?

Jethro Jeremiah: I am a musician here in the Bay Area and have been living here for about 25 years. When I graduated high school and came to San Francisco, I taught myself how to play guitar and started performing with folks on Haight Street, and then I never stopped. Eventually, I was able to get a band together and figured out that I can sing a lot better than I can do a lot of other stuff, so I might as well stick with it. 

GS: How did you first react when you learned about the shutdowns in California? 

JJ: I guess I was a little scared and unsure of what it’s going to mean for everybody with first clubs closing, and then all the venues and public spaces closing. This obviously means for me in my music world that all of a sudden I’ve lost two months of gigs. That is a huge bummer. But I know that people have to be safe. So unfortunately, we have to let go of many things that mean a lot to us. 

GS: So then how are you making money now? 

JJ: Good question. I ain’t. [Laughs] 

I mean, I’ve made a little bit. I’ve done about three livestream shows online and they let you have a virtual tip jar that goes to your Venmo or PayPal. You know, every little bit helps. I’m just dealing with what I have left in my savings and hopefully something will come through from grants that people are doing for artists. So, yeah, I’m not dead yet. 

GS: What do you mean by “grants for artists”? 

JJ: There are funds for anyone who needs assistance. So there are just nice people and foundations, maybe even branches of the government, which have set up certain programs to help out artists who need compensation after losing gigs. My bandmates just sent me a form and I filled it out. I might get like 500 bucks and that’ll definitely help go towards rent, food, and stuff. It’s not a lot, but it’s also not a little. 

GS: How else can the public help to support our local musicians? 

JJ: The simplest, most direct way would be to tune into some folks’ live streams and try to find artists you haven’t checked out yet. Hang around for a few songs and throw them a dollar or two, whatever you can spare. 

GS: Besides the money aspect, how do you think COVID-19  has impacted you as a musician?

JJ: In my perspective, this whole thing might make clubs respect and miss their musicians a little more. I do have sympathy for music venues, because without people coming in, a lot might go out of business. But before the coronavirus, I feel like clubs had their hands on musicians’ necks — they make the rules and we just have to either deal with it or not have the gig. The shutdowns are making people appreciate musicians a little more because they realize they need us. So there’s a lot of good that’s coming out of this along with the bad. I just wrote a song about this called Silver Lining. You know, every dark cloud has a silver lining. 

GS: That’s so funny, because my next question was: have there been any silver linings to this whole experience?

JJ: Ayy! For me, it’s inspiring a lot of music. I’m working on a few songs on my own, and I also have a friend who got back in touch with me, wanting to make music together over the internet. He sends me an instrumental track, I do some lyrics and harmonies, and then we send it back and forth. It’s turned out to be like seven tracks. We’re just goofing off, making an LP or an album, but you never know. 

So it’s been igniting my creativity which is awesome. It’s like when there’s a fire and the next day, all of a sudden, you see new little trees and branches growing up everywhere. 

GS: With clubs closing and the possibility that people won’t want to be in close contact even after shelter-in-place ends, what do you see for the future of music? 

JJ: You know, all this time that we are being locked down and not hanging out, I see it as a water balloon that’s filling up. As soon as this is over it’s going to burst. Maybe people will be tentative and hesitant at first, but then people are going to want to scream and dance and play music. There’s only so much you can do with a live stream or with your housemates. Like, I know I’m going to either want to go dance my butt off at a show or else play my butt off at a show and sing. When you got it in, you got to get it out.