The Journal Gazette
Friday, February 12, 2021 1:00 am

Local artists show resiliency

Weather 'weird' year hoping to stay in industry

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Local musician Todd Harrold says that, like many people, he had “a real weird year” in 2020 as he wondered how he was going to pay bills, keep his house and support his family. The 56-year-old has relied on drum lessons and music gigs to make a living since 2003.

After the pandemic's initial shutdowns, Harrold was able to play a good number of shows July through October, but then everything started to shut down again as COVID-19 positivity rates increased late in 2020.

An example of his weird year: He recently performed at The Club Room at the Clyde and realized he forgot what order to put everything in the car so all his gear would fit.

He doesn't have to worry about sorting all that equipment with a series of shows he started in January at Club Soda with Eric Clancy. In those shows, which he is booked for through this month, Harrold is only singing. Count that as another example of how weird the pandemic has made things for him – this is the first time since he started his career in 1981 that he has performed without also playing drums.

But work is work, and a lot of his regular restaurant and bar venues aren't having live bands at the moment. If they aren't operating at larger capacity, restaurants can't afford to pay a band hundreds of dollars to perform for a night.

That's among challenges faced by local independent musicians.

Safety is key

As much as Harrold wants to perform – he calls himself the kind of guy that needs to stay busy – the musician also recognizes the times we're living in. He played a couple shows in November where he looked out from the stage area and for the first time didn't feel safe. Before that, he says he had always been in the mindset of “the show must go on.”

A key for musicians to return to the local scene is that they feel safe in the spaces, Harrold says.

For example, Harrold says Club Soda has been creative in using the piano to create distance between him and the audience. The Club Room at the Clyde has a back door that musicians can enter and go directly to the stage, minimizing their contact with diners and restaurant staff.

In an era where safety is a top priority, virtual performances might seem like the best bet. Some local musicians did offer online streaming performances with virtual tip jars at the start of the pandemic, but in most cases that couldn't replace revenue from lost gigs.

Virtual performances also have a very different vibe for musicians and audiences.

Local musician Alicia Pyle, a Wednesday night fixture at The Club Room, values the connection with the audience that can only come from live performance. That connection – even interacting with hecklers – doesn't exist in a virtual performance. You don't know if your set is going over well – after all you can't read the room if there is no room, she says.

Nonetheless, she is thankful for virtual options. Pyle recently wrapped a second round of her “Fort Wayne Freelance Musician Fundraiser” effort to aid local independent musicians with live stream performances with guest artists.

Combined with an initial round of streams last year, the fundraising sessions raised more than $15,000 and benefited more than 60 local musicians.

In addition to raising money, the project was also about raising awareness of the local music scene and the challenges its gig workers are facing. While some organizations are focused on bringing in larger acts to the area, Pyle says, it is local musicians that live here, work here, have kids that go to school here and spend their money here. It is important to support them.

Community support of local musicians and businesses is key, Pyle says. Supporting local restaurants, for example, has a trickle-down effect because many of those restaurants and bars support local musicians by hiring them to perform.

Stick it out?

A statewide study released in 2017 by the Indiana Arts Commission and Arts United showed 528 self-employed musicians and singers were part of northeast Indiana's creative economy. Musicians and singers were the third-largest group of the region's self-employed creative occupations, behind photographers and writers.

Harrold knows musicians in some other cities have it worse than those in Fort Wayne. Friends in Chicago and New Orleans, for example, are facing tougher restrictions.

Harrold has seen a few local musicians quit the scene, or at least question their place in it as they ponder if the pandemic is the universe's way of telling them to do something else. When you aren't doing gigs every weekend, you have a lot of time to think, he says.

Pyle says some musicians have made pivots to other jobs, but others stuck it out and made it work in the warmer months when there were more performance opportunities.

When artists are lost – whether it be to death, more reliable jobs or even moving out of the area on the hunt for greener pastures – part of the city's story changes, she says. Artists and musicians tell the story of a city, and they mentor young artists and pass the torch to a new generation of storytellers.

Well-established local musicians also have loyal fan bases that show up at various venues and festivals to hear them perform. But a lot of those die-hard fans and arts supporters are older and fall into higher-risk categories for COVID-19, Pyle says. That means those supporters will likely be among the last that are willing to come back to live shows.

Art adds to the value of our community, Pyle says. She hopes that older arts supporters are teaching their children and grandchildren to support and advocate for the arts.

Not just musicians

It isn't just music artists struggling during the pandemic. Painters, sculptors and other art creators have seen almost all their in-person sales opportunities such as festivals and arts fairs dry up during the pandemic.

Garrett Museum of Art is among organizations trying to help. The museum has been doing pop-up galleries featuring affordable art by local artists at the historic Buchtel House, 217 W. 7th St. in Auburn. The next pop-up is 7 to 9 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

The museum has also helped serve the community by hosting a couple of fundraisers that benefited area food banks. At the first fundraiser, an area artist offered 200 mugs that were sold out in 45 minutes. Events like that and the pop-up galleries show there is still an appetite for buying artisan products, which is a good sign for local artists, gallery coordinator Angela Green says.

Changes are also being made at the museum itself.

Memberships were a key part of the museum's budget, but they are being phased out this year, Green says. Instead that museum will be putting an emphasis on corporate and private donations and sponsorships. Previously, artists had to be members to show work at the museum, but this opens up the museum to more artists and allows them to take a bigger slice of sales.

The idea to end memberships was around before the pandemic, Green says. Now seemed like the right time to institute the change because it is a way to benefit the artists at a time many are hurting.

Green has heard some artists say they just aren't as motivated to create work during the pandemic. But she has also seen artists become inventive on how they market themselves and sell their work on virtual platforms such as Instagram and Etsy. Many artists didn't realize they could sell as much as they have through those avenues.

She is optimistic for what the local arts scene will look like a year from now.

“My true feeling is that they are going to be resilient and we're not going to see that many of the artists in our area just totally disappear,” Green says. “I think they're going to stick it out and they're going to make it work and they're going to come out of this stronger than ever.”

More grants given

The Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne and Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne this week announced a second round of grants from the organizations' Artist Relief Fund. Support from the fund can be sought by self-employed artists of all disciplines, artists contracted by or formerly contracted by arts and culture nonprofit organizations, and employees who have been laid off or furloughed by a nonprofit arts and culture organization or venue, according to a news release.

Grants of up to $500 are available to cover basic needs. “Reimagining Your Artistic Practice” grants of up to $2,000 are intended to provide support for new technology, personal protective equipment and other supplies for artists looking to adapt their business during the pandemic.

In its first round between May and August, the Artist Relief Fund distributed 89 grants with a total of $57,410.

Any financial support is welcomed by local artists.

Harrold is among recipients of aid from Pyle's fundraising effort, and has gotten help from family and even fans who know he has struggled. He says he was not able to get assistance from programs by Arts United or unemployment, which in 2020 was made available to many independent artists for the first time.

Prior to the pandemic, he played about 150 shows a year.

Harrold says he doesn't normally play for less than $100 per performer, either solo or in one of his group combinations. Before the pandemic, a gig would usually pay $300 to $600, but he has worked with restaurants to bring that price down during the pandemic. Playing a wedding brings in about $1,000 for his band.

He says he doesn't know how long he can keep going with things the way they are. All he can do is hope places open back up and hire live musicians, though he suspects not all of them will.

Many local musicians, including Harrold and Pyle, also give lessons. Pyle has 85 music students and about 25% of her lessons are digital now.

Pyle knows she is lucky to be financially stable and have a strong teaching business. She isn't taking many bookings for herself or her bands, but is instead giving out referrals to friends with the hopes of spreading that work around.

When people, businesses or organization are suffering financially, they aren't going to be hiring musicians for events, Pyle says. In event planning, live music is often the first thing to go when budgets are tightened.

She thinks this is going to be a rough year for local musicians, but she also has faith in their ability to fight through challenges presented by the pandemic.

“I think local musicians in Fort Wayne are some of the coolest, scrappiest people I know,” Pyle says. 

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