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New York Music Workers Seek Eligibility for Pandemic Relief Grants

New York touring musicians – led by the Music Workers Alliance – are seeking additional pandemic relief from the state after a tumultuous touring season this winter.

Musicians including Esperanza Spalding and Marc Ribot are advocating on behalf of New York’s touring workers to be included in the New York State Legislator’s Small Business Recovery Grant — included in the New York State Senate’s budget proposal — as micro-businesses. Inclusion in the grant program would give music workers — or “independent arts contractors,” as they’re described in the budget — access to possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in relief funds.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) ended in September 2021. Shortly thereafter, touring musicians were inundated with another wave of cancellations due to the unprecedented increase in COVID-19 cases brought on by the Omicron variant.

Touring, particularly for smaller artists, can be a business of tight margins. If one member of a band, crew or team contracts COVID-19 and one or more shows are canceled, it can mean the difference between being paid to go on tour and paying out of pocket to be on tour. Additionally, 67% of NYC music workers rely on live or touring income and not recorded music, according to a 2019 survey of American Federation of Musician Local 802 members by the Indie Musicians’ Caucus.

Ribot, who is a founding member of the Music Workers Alliance, says touring during the omicron wave was like “swimming three feet ahead of a shark.”

“Berlin shut down two nights after we did our gig there [this winter],” Ribot says. “It’s not only the gig cancellations. It’s the travel disruptions. It’s the border restrictions. It’s new testing requirements. You haven’t lived until you’re told the night before entering Switzerland that you need a PCR test to get in.”

While the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and Paycheck Protection Program have helped venue owners and other live music businesses, those funds were not awarded directly to performers, touring musicians or other individual music workers. In the 2022 MWA Lost Wages Survey, 77% of respondents said they lost over 50% of their income in the last year compared to pre-pandemic levels. Music workers also felt the need to turn down touring opportunities due to the risk of cancellations and sunken costs.

“Hotel, travel, testing, all that stuff – venues and promoters aren’t going to cover those on gigs that are canceled,” says Entourage Talent Associates booking agent Nathaniel Marro, who also chairs the policy and politics committee for MWA.

Under the Small Business Recovery Grant program, music workers would be eligible for grants between $5,000 and $50,000 depending on their annual gross receipts for 2019, which could make a significant impact on New York’s arts and entertainment community that saw an employment decline of 66% — the largest of any work sector in New York City, according to State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

“A lot of the legislators and the common people don’t understand how music workers live. It is a mystery to them,” says Olympia Kazi, founding member of the NYC Artist Coalition and MWA. “In many ways, what we are doing is educating, and if we win this money, that’s proof that they got the lesson. So in the future, we have the benefit of getting quality programs that help this industry.”

According to Kazi, the state Senate has already included music workers as eligible entities for the grant, and several Assembly members – who are next to weigh in on the budget – have also voiced support for their inclusion. On April 1, the budget will be finalized and approved by New York governor Kathy Hochul, the state Senate and the state Assembly.