Chelsea Crowell and Erin McAnally of the Artists Rights Alliance in East Nashville’s 5 Spot, shuttered since March. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Ashleigh Caudill already had an idea the COVID-19 pandemic was going to hurt the music industry when a gig she’d booked to play with a Nashville songwriter in Madison, Wisconsin was cancelled at the last minute in mid March.
Caudill remembers returning from Wisconsin and talking to her husband, who also works in the music industry, in the kitchen of the Joelton home they had recently purchased.
“I just remember the texts came in one by one,” Caudill recalls. “We would say to each other, ‘Well at least we still have this gig,’ and then that would be cancelled. It was just text after text, ‘This is gone. Now this is gone.’”
So Caudill, whose 2020 was poised to be her most successful year in the industry after earning her way up the ladder and carving out a niche as a bass player and multi-instrumentalist, was left to figure out how she and her husband Daniel Rice would pay their new house payment, put food on the table and survive.
The months ahead were daunting as Caudill tapped into savings and navigated an unemployment system not exactly friendly to musicians thanks to a payment system that can be informal and backlogged.
“I had paid taxes on all of my gigs, but the people paying me didn’t always have their tax forms, which are the ones I needed to show the government to get the unemployment benefits, together,” Caudill said. “It made it complicated for sure.”
Nashville’s economy reached its boom-time status thanks largely to its music industry, which has an annual direct economic impact of $9.8 billion according to a 2014 study by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. The COVID-19 pandemic ripped the rug out from under the industry, leaving established executives without jobs, completely silencing the concert industry and pushing working-class professionals like Caudill to desperation.
In response to the bleak situation confronting Nashville’s music community, the nonprofit organization Artist Rights Alliance in partnership with MusiCares, the charity arm of the Grammy Awards, has developed a proposal for a microgrant program. The nonprofits are asking for $1 million from Metro Nashville’s CARES Act funds to provide up to $1,000 grants to music industry professionals.
Erin McAnally and Chelsea Crowell, who lead the grassroots and educational efforts of the Artist Rights Alliance, say the grants would be a lifeline to working-class professionals as Congress ponders a second pandemic aid package. The concept is not new. MusiCares executed a nearly identical microgrant program for the city of Austin, another international music hub.
My greatest regret is that we didn't get on the microgrant program sooner. I had this feeling that we're Music City. Of course somebody is going to put this together.
– Chelsea Crowell Artist Rights Alliance
But, the request, which will be submitted to Metro this week, comes at a bad time as the city is confronted with a possible referendum over its recent property tax increase. The referendum has thrown Metro’s finances into upheaval and Finance Director Kevin Crumbo instructed the CARES Act oversight committee to hit pause on spending more money. The CARES Act required those funds – Metro has about $28 million remaining – to be spent by Dec. 31.
McAnally and Crowell have emerged during this pandemic as vocal advocates for Nashville’s creative class. They authored an op-ed in the Tennessee Lookout that went viral pushing to close lower Broadway after media coverage showed throngs of maskless tourists traipsing around the honky tonk district. In the early months of the pandemic, they used their connections to help out-of-work musicians pay for groceries and other necessities.
“My greatest regret was that we didn’t get on the microgrant program sooner,” Crowell said. “I had this feeling that we’re Music City. Of course somebody is going to put this together.”
Debbie Carroll, vice president of health and human services for MusiCares, said the Austin program was a success, but that microgrant initiative was structured differently. In Austin, the government sought to partner with MusiCares instead of a nonprofit going to the city for help as is the case in Nashville.
Carroll said Austin aimed its microgrants at its live music industry, offering the grants as a sort of safety net to the musicians most impacted by government shutdown orders that closed concert venues because of the virus.
The Nashville microgrant proposal would make the funds available to any professional who makes their living from the music industry, including tour bus drivers, caterers, makeup artists, in addition to musicians and office professionals.
“I think that makes the most sense for Nashville in particular because Nashville is Music City and there are so many professionals here,” Carroll said, adding that Grammys saw a surge in requests for help in March. MusiCares responded by providing direct aid to the industry. “We talk about it as an organization often. We announced our $2 million effort on March 17 with the notion we knew the industry was hit very hard and the need was going to be extraordinary. But, we had no idea how deep-seeded the need really was. We distributed more funding in four months than we typically do in a three-year time frame.”
Tatum Hauck Allsep, executive director of the Music Health Alliance, a Nashville-based nonprofit that helps working-class music professionals with health insurance and other healthcare needs, pivoted as soon as the pandemic clobbered Nashville.
Allsep said the organization was astonished at how quickly and urgently musicians started asking for help.
“I’m talking people needed diapers, formula, medicine and food,” Allsep said, adding that the requests for help came in waves. First musicians, then lower level Music Row executives facing furloughs. Now established musicians and veteran executives are asking for help.
Allsep said her concern is that music industry workers have gone through savings, exhausted the increased unemployment benefits and the second shoe is about to drop, meaning more people will need help. Allsep said with health insurance enrollment underway, she’s worried some Nashvillians will have to decide whether to keep their coverage or spend money on groceries.
The music industry has been hit hard, because concert venues were forced to close since crowds couldn’t gather. The industry as a whole has been disproportionately reliant on concerts to make money. But, recording budgets, marketing budgets and virtually every other aspect of the music industry has been decimated.
The music industry was the first to shut down and it’ll be the last to reopen.
“We’re the first to be asked for help when there’s a flood or some other disaster,” Allsep said. “I can’t imagine not helping our music community now when it needs it the most.”
McAnally said their grant request would reach every corner of the industry, with an administrative and marketing strategy to reach mariachi bands, gospel music professionals and workers at all levels of the industry. MusiCares has experience overseeing the applications and vetting those seeking aid.
“We want to get this done as quickly as possible,” McAnally said. “They already have the applications built; that’ll save time. This will be for anyone who lives in Davidson County and we want to make sure it is dispersed equally across the city.”
Amberly Rosen, a professional fiddle player who made her living playing for touring artists and worked on the General Jackson riverboat shows catering to tourists, said $1,000 may not seem like a lot. But, Rosen said musicians are pivoting and working to pick up the slack as best they can.
She’s offered more violin lessons to children, performed several live streamed concerts and started to play for wedding bands as health orders allow more larger gatherings.
“But we are not whole by any means, and I think $1,000 would be everything. It would fill the gap for several months,” Rosen said.
The problem is the city only has so much money left. Mayor John Cooper asked Gov. Bill Lee for some of the pandemic relief funds that went directly to the state. Lee chastised Cooper for the request and said he thinks Nashville should spend its money on businesses impacted by the shutdown orders. Metro Council has already approved a $2 million lifeline from CARES Act funds for music venues, and some of that money can be spent on payroll for laid-off workers. However, the musicians, sound engineers, touring support workers and booking agents wouldn’t benefit from the funds for the concert halls.
McAnally and Crowell say their microgrant program does that, since most professionals who would be helped by the program are independent contractors who function as mini-standalone businesses.In response to whether the microgrant proposal, which hadn’t yet been sent to the city, is something the mayor would support, his spokeswoman said: “While the letter from Director Crumbo last week asked the (oversight) committee to preserve the remaining balance of unallocated funds, the committee is continuing to hear requests so they have a full picture of what is still being requested from the community and they will be prepared to made any recommendations once we have additional clarity related to the potential referendum.”
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