Rapper J. Cole performs during halftime during the NBA All-Star game in 2019 in Charlotte. Coronavirus forced the Fayetteville native to cancel his North Carolina music festival Dreamville in 2020. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) North Carolina Music
Rapper J. Cole performs during halftime during the NBA All-Star game in 2019 in Charlotte. Coronavirus forced the Fayetteville native to cancel his North Carolina music festival Dreamville in 2020. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The pandemic upended an industry dependent on touring revenues, forcing artists, venues and fans alike to adapt. 

North Carolina indie pop band The Collection was poised to leap onto the national stage last spring. 

It wasn’t just that the Piedmont and Blue Ridge-based group had signed with internationally-known Paradigm Talent Agency, home to established artists such as Billie Eilish, Black Pumas, First Aid Kit, and Ghostface Killah. It wasn’t that they were booked to play in front of thousands of fans opening for the rising Los Angeles band Magic Giant.

The year 2020 was also when all six members, who are spread out from Saxapahaw to Asheville, thought they could commit to the band full-time, leaving behind the service jobs or music lessons that paid the bills. 

But then came COVID-19. Since then, they’ve been lucky to hold onto their day jobs. And the future is foggy. 

“This has just been a real blow to all the momentum we were feeling,” said The Collection’s keyboard player and backing vocalist Sarah Grace McCoy. “It just seemed like all these things were falling into place.”

How North Carolina is Facing the Pandemic
Sarah Grace McCoy of North Carolina-based indie band The Collection. Coronavirus upended the state’s once-booming music industry in 2020, but the band, like many in the state, is targeting summer 2021 to return to live music. (Image via The Collection)

The Collection’s new booking agent landed them gigs at casinos and festivals that represented a new level of income, after all the years of sleeping on floors. Songwriter David Wimbish had been the only one working full-time in music because of recurring studio work. McCoy and Linhart, The Collection’s drummer, had both trained on their instruments at Mars Hill University, with eyes toward careers in music.  

“The past year and a half or two years we’ve just kind of been in that in-between of like really going for it and taking the jump to paying everybody out more,” said McCoy. “We were seeing that financial gain and were hoping to make it sustainable for all of us.”

When the pandemic arrived in March, she was able to move most of her 20 piano students online, and after a few months she went back to work part-time at All Good Coffee in Weaverville.

Her husband had a harder time. All of his work outside of The Collection was in bars shuttered by the coronavirus. He received unemployment checks, and eventually found another service job at a zip-line course. The couple got by. But there was no relief program for the emotional toll – the fear that the jobs supporting their dreams might not have dreams left to support.

“He’s definitely struggled. Some weeks it’s like, ‘Is it worth it to hold out hope for this band thing and work such terrible jobs in the meantime?’” McCoy explained. 

“A lot of sleepless nights”

The Collection is a microcosm of North Carolina’s music industry in 2020 and 2021. It’s been a year of dreams deferred and livelihoods lost to the pandemic. The coronavirus has crushed the proud North Carolina music industry. 

North Carolina-based festivals like MerleFest, Dreamville, Shakori Hills, Festival for the Eno, LEAF, Wide Open Bluegrass shut down or went virtual. Renowned NC venues like the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro and the Orange Peel in Asheville have done the same.

Musicians scrambled too. North Carolina natives like country star Eric Church and piano-pop stalwart Ben Folds canceled or rescheduled in-person concerts, the lifeblood of the music economy in the streaming age.

No one knows exactly how much money NC music has lost, but the damage is deep and wide. The economic cost is likely in the billions.

Since last March, COVID has cut employment for fine and performing arts professionals in half, according to the NC Arts Council

“The statistics are staggering with how many people are out of work in the industry,” said Selena Hodom, who directs festivals up and down the East Coast, including the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, a roots-music festival typically held twice a year in rural Chatham County. 

“Everybody’s holding on, doing what they can with hopes to come back,” said Hodom. “It’s a special breed of person that gets involved in the music industry. You have to be tenacious.”

“That’s a big, big void,” former News & Observer critic David Menconi, who has written about NC music for three decades, said of the pandemic’s impact on the state’s music scene.

“The reverberations for this are going to go on for a while. I don’t think there’s going to be any going back to whatever normal was before. I’m really not sure how any nightclub is going to survive this for very long. The landscape, the business and venues, is just kind of transforming. It’s just going to be a super-awkward transitional period.” 

In 2017, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated the value of NC’s arts and culture sector at $15.3 billion, or 2.9% of the state’s economy. Jobs in the arts had grown by 27% over the previous decade, to nearly 200,000. 

These are not just musicians. This includes sound and lighting technicians, stage crews, ushers and door-people, talent buyers, bartenders, agents, managers, box office staff and a whole lot of people doing a little bit of everything. Many of those people who were working behind the scenes are musicians themselves, waiting for their break or just trying to balance their art with making a living.

“It’s been rough. It’s been tragic,” said Dolphus Ramseur, whose Concord-based record label and management company works with Southern artists like the Avett Brothers, Bombadil, Sierra Ferrell and Amythyst Kiah, among others. “It’s taken a toll on everyone. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights in this whole thing.”

The industry is targeting summer or fall 2021 when people are immunized so that fans, players and crew can all feel safe gathering again. Meanwhile, advocates have pushed for government relief so that artists and other freelancers can stay afloat until that time. 

This month, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, extending pandemic unemployment assistance through Labor Day for gig workers. Benefits provided under last year’s federal COVID relief bill expired Dec. 31.

The latest round of federal relief also added a bump of $300 a week on state-level benefits, replacing the $600 federal boost that expired at the end of July. Last April’s federal CARES Act marked the first time freelancers had ever had access to unemployment protection.  

“We all need to find ways to be supportive of the arts as soon as we possibly can, to help these people get back on their feet,” said Ted Hagaman, director at Wilkesboro’s MerleFest, which drew more than 73,000 fans in 2019, generating more than $12 million economic activity, employing hundreds of musicians and industry pros and raising $479,178 for 80 local nonprofits who provide volunteers.

Recent federal legislation also includes the Save Our Stages Act, providing $16.25 billion in targeted relief for independent venue operators, producers, promoters, and talent representatives.

“I’m incredibly grateful, and think it will be a huge help, but we’ve dug a deep, deep hole,” said David Brower, the former program director at NC Public Radio. Brower took over in the fall of 2019 as executive director at the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music (PineCone). 

Months later, the pandemic forced his organization to plan a virtual version of its annual Wide Open Bluegrass festival with the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).  In 2019, the IBMA’s conference, awards and festival attracted more than 200,000 fans and generated almost $19 million in spending, much of it in downtown Raleigh’s bars, restaurants and hotels.

“There needs to be a big-ass bailout for venues – like a Chrysler-sized bailout,” Brower told Cardinal & Pine. “It’s real, because we will lose some institutions. I fear for some it’s too late.”

Amythyst Kiah
Amythyst Kiah, a Grammy-nominated folk artist managed by North Carolina-based Ramseur Records, is one of many emerging musicians forced to adapt to the pandemic. Kiah told C&P she’s focused on improving her videos. (Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither)

No one has a solid grip yet on the overall economic impact of the pandemic for music venue owners. But there is some eye-popping data already. 

The NC Independent Venue Association (NC-IVA) surveyed 30 for-profit music venues and found they’d generated $25 million in revenue in 2019. They’d lost all but about 5% of that in 2020, according to Richard Emmett, who owns The Ramkat in Winston-Salem and contributes to the national IVA’s Reopening Task Force. On average, that’s almost $800,000 in 2020 revenue lost for each of these small businesses, what Emmett called “an avalanche.” 

Emmett, in a statement with his Ramkat partner Andy Tennille, said the COVID relief passed by federal lawmakers can at least temporarily keep venues from going out of business. 

“As grateful as we are, this isn’t a payday; it’s a lifeline,” Emmett and Tennile said. “Until a large portion of our country has been vaccinated, we believe that many folks will still be fearful to gather together in large groups and in close proximity.”

Americans for the Arts, which as recently as 2015 had valued NC’s nonprofit arts sector at more than $2 billion a year, found that by Thanksgiving, organizations like NC’s local arts councils had lost more than $6 million in attendance and $89 million in revenue. As a result, they laid off, furloughed or froze more than 2,200 jobs. 

“North Carolina contributes to the nation’s cultural economy in small, medium and large ways,” said Tess Mangum, founder and CEO of Sonic Pie Productions, a Durham-based concert and festival production company. Mangum is also the and former concerts director at the Carrboro Arts Center in Orange County.. 

“Who’s going to be left standing?” said Mangum. “It’s not just what’s going by the wayside, what’s closing, what’s disappearing. It’s also what is not being planted, what is not blossoming, what is not being started because of what’s going on.”

Organizations like Sonic Pie, Midwood, Ramseur and Grassroots Festivals have kept what employees they could through the federal CARES Act and its Payroll Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. They and their workforce also relied on public and private grant money, fundraisers and unemployment insurance. 

But the music industry is an ecosystem. As venues struggle or fail, the artists suffer too, and vice versa. Case in point: McCoy may never have joined The Collection if she and her husband, Joshua Linhart, hadn’t developed their craft playing in their own band Whym at now-closed venues like The Mothlight. The Mothlight, which spent seven years in west Asheville’s bustling arts district, closed last summer after the pandemic struck.

Some of Ramseur’s artists experimented with live-streaming or socially-distanced outdoor shows, but he called the whole year “a wash,” having to postpone recording sessions because they require multiple people working together in small spaces. 

Ramseur pushed back release dates for clients like Ferrell and Kiah, both up-and-coming Southern artists who signed to Rounder Records in the past couple of years.  Kiah landed a 2019 Grammy nomination for her song “Black Myself,” which she first recorded with North Carolina’s Rhiannon Giddens and Our Native Daughters and then re-released it this month ahead of her own upcoming album. 

“My biggest challenge was really just not being able to travel like normal,” said Kiah. “I had to make the transition from touring musician to content creator in order to develop compelling content for virtual shows. Despite a pretty big learning curve, I have been able to improve my video and audio quality, which I’m really proud of.”

Ramseur has been able to keep all five of his employees, from Concord to Los Angeles. But he’s relied on government loans and taken big losses. Some of his artists took part-time jobs outside of music to support themselves. Many musicians have had to make similar choices.

“What does my livelihood look like going forward? How much do I want to invest myself in this?” said Taylor Winchester, a Charlotte songwriter who plays mandolin in the folk band Elonzo Wesley. Winchester also works in music marketing and events with Charlotte-based Midwood Entertainment. 

“The scary part about it is that there are probably going to be a percentage of those that are maybe having to reconsider (music),” said Winchester.“What that means is, it undermines culture. I have the hope that art will prevail in the long run.”

Dreams Deferred

Blue Cactus
North Carolina band Blue Cactus (Steph Stewart, left, Mario Arnez, right) geared up for a spring 2020 tour, but the pandemic shuttered most shows. (Image via Blue Cactus/Photo Credit: Roxanne Turpen)

Last year was going to be a big one for Blue Cactus too. 

The North Carolina-based cosmic country duo fetched good reviews from roots stalwarts like No Depression magazine for their 2017 debut. Vocalist Steph Stewart left her teaching job the previous summer. They had a poster-sized wall calendar to keep track of about 50 anchor gigs – the festivals and popular music series that paid well enough to build tours around. That calendar was a kind of ledger for their entire livelihood.

As last March turned to April, Stewart had to start crossing off shows cancelled by COVID. She finally just took it down when she started nixing concerts booked for October. 

“It’s really a source of trauma,” said Mario Arnez, the other half of the band and Stewart’s life partner. “You invest what feels like all your waking hours to get to that time so that you can at least get up on stage for an hour. In one fell swoop, you lose all of that.”

The band adapted when they could.

“Initially, we kind of made an effort to do one live-stream a month,” said Arnez. “It sort of felt like, ‘Well, this is the thing to do now, and we’ve got to take a stab at it.’ And then at a certain point we were kind of losing the drive to chase that.”

Federal COVID relief offered no aid to the band. Even though the CARES Act made self-employed workers eligible for unemployment, you had to be able to document your 2019 income as an independent contractor. If you’d transitioned to rely on that self-employed income in 2020 or even late in 2019, or if you hadn’t kept solid records, it was hard to qualify, and many musicians didn’t. 

 “We were ineligible because we didn’t make enough money,” said Stewart. “Ironic, I know.”

Instead, Blue Cactus survived the spring on about $1,500 in grants from the Orange County Arts Commission, crowdfunding via Patreon and donations from fans watching their live-streams. But the gifts came with a sting of dependency. 

The pair had built up their bookings to the point where they could live on the negotiated guarantees, tickets and merchandise sales. Now they were going back to playing for tips. “We were excited to be out of that place in our careers,” Stewart said. 

They were also tasked now with running not only their own sound, but new layers of digital technology to make sure the live-streams looked and sounded professional. 

“On the day of the broadcast, it’s like, ‘I hope everything works,’” said Arnez. “How are you supposed to have fun playing music at the same time all that other stuff is going on? I’m kind of looking at us on the webcam, and the screen looking back, and it was like, ‘This is not what this year’s supposed to be,’ and then just kind of a downward spiral internally.

“Loss of income is one thing, and then loss of lifestyle is a whole other thing,” he said. “It’s your life and what you think you’re going to be doing is spending a lot of time, going out, meeting new people, or spending more time with the bandmates, and that’s what you hope your life is gonna be.”

“It’s a career, but it’s also a big part of your identity,” said Stewart. 

Blue Cactus and many others started noticing “live-stream fatigue” among both fans and artists. The couple decided to go in a different direction. They both took part-time jobs at the local food co-op Weaver Street Market and invested themselves in racial-justice organizing in Alamance County. They didn’t give up. They’re just focused on life-giving activities like songwriting and making music videos while waiting out the virus. 

“The only thing that we can control right now is our own creative output,” Arnez said last fall. 

“We’ll know when the time is right again,” added Stewart.

This spring, with coronavirus numbers finally descending in North Carolina, Blue Cactus announced a new album and has started booking again. 

“Losing your cultural center”

Blue Cactus wasn’t the only band adapting. In the Triangle, the old-time revival duo Chatham Rabbits played almost 100 evenings outdoors, on a flatbed trailer on neighborhood streets, with solar panels powering a sound-system from atop their van. 

Listeners gathered in front yards and on porches. And on the internet, artists like Time Sawyer, Curtis Eller, Jonathan Byrd, Travis Shallow, Emily Stewart and David Childers have been meeting fans at least once a week in live-stream concerts.

Ramseur, with his eponymous record label, hosted 1,500 carloads of Avett Brothers fans for drive-in shows in August and October at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

“For the here and now, this is what we’ve got,” said Ramseur. “This is how we’ve got to keep soldiering on, how we’ve got to adapt and keep staying in the game.”

But these innovative pivots are not the whole story of COVID-19. The loss is not just livelihood. For many, live-streams and distanced concerts are reminders of what’s been lost as much as they’re substitutes. 

“There’s something very special that happens when people come together for a shared cultural experience, when you’re standing shoulder to shoulder in a sweaty room,” said Brower. “ It’s not just the social thing, and it’s not just a hobby, but it feels like it feeds a part of me that’s going unfed these days. I think we are lesser as a people without it. We need to figure out how we can do a show where I’m not sitting in my car looking through my gross windshield.”

“There are people who are still in mourning,” added Brower. “It is a real community, and it’s a sense of identity. It’s kind of like how I’d imagine church folks really losing your cultural center. That’s real, and it’s going to take time to recover.”

Menconi said drive-ins, distanced “pod” shows and live-streams will only ever be facsimiles of the concert experience. 

“2D is just never going to quite do it the way 3D does,” he said. “There’s just something about being in the same room and breathing the same air.”

Kiah agreed. “When I was able to travel and record in July, I wasn’t weary from touring,” she said. “I was well-rested, eating better and taking better care of myself, all which allowed me to make the album that was meant to be made. … I’ve had a lot of great things happen career-wise over the past year but it’s been bittersweet because I haven’t been able to gather with my closest people to properly celebrate.”

“The biggest hope” 

That’s also how The Collection’s McCoy thinks about her life as a musician and what’s currently missing from it. More and more North Carolinians are receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations. And state leaders have been gradually lowering restrictions as new coronavirus cases decline. 

Live music, for the first time in a year, seems a possibility. Indeed, The Collection recently announced its first post-pandemic show for June 5 at Salvage Station in Asheville.

“We’re so excited to tour again, and I think that’s just the biggest hope,” McCoy told Cardinal & Pine. “Just being able to see each other regularly, just that forward motion, the relief and the respite that comes with making music. That feeling is what I’m most looking forward to. I don’t know how realistic this is, but I guess my hope is that we can just kind of pick up where we left off.”

“We want each other to be our best selves and not feel like we’re always waiting for something to happen,” McCoy said. “Reminding each other of those small moments when you felt fulfilled, which is so easy to lose sight of right now. Reminding each other of how much it has meant and will mean but also just trying to be where we are and notice it is hard right now.”

McCoy pointed to the pre-chorus section of The Collection’s 2017 song “You Taste Like Wine” as one of those moments. Guitars, bass, drums, trombone and keyboard break down to a half-time rhythm. They emphasize and syncopate the third beat with the vocals. 

“No matter how many times, I will always get chills playing it,” she said. “That’s a moment that the crowd always gets into as well.”

She didn’t mention the lyrics. And while the band’s songwriter, David Wimbish, wrote them long before the pandemic, today they feel oddly prescient. 

“Am I lost or found? Or am I just here, waiting around until someone comes and tells me it’s okay to move?”