The Day the Music Died: Dallas Musicians Face Uncertainty in a Gig Economy

LockJohnson Playground artist showcase has rocked Louie Louie's Piano Bar every Sunday for about the last two years. Now it's closed.
LockJohnson Playground artist showcase has rocked Louie Louie's Piano Bar every Sunday for about the last two years. Now it's closed. Steve Glick
The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the music industry has been nothing short of cataclysmic. The ripple effect has reached A-listers and the leviathans at Live Nation and AEG, but local artists have been especially vulnerable.

“I have gigs canceled through June,” says Dallas-based keyboardist Poppy Xander. “Mostly big city gigs. The ones that pay bills.”

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LockJohnson Playground artist showcase has rocked Louie Louie's Piano Bar every Sunday for about the last two years. Now it's closed.
Steve Glick

Indeed, music is Xander’s sole source of income, and even with a wide branch of revenue streams, opportunities remain scarce. One of her bands, The Polyphonic Spree, was initially slated to perform a two-night stand at the Kessler Theater over the weekend, but it has since been postponed to Friday, Aug. 21, and Saturday, Aug. 22. Other bands of hers — including cover bands such as PriMadonna and Panic (a tribute to The Smiths), and originals such as Helium Queens and Levi Cobb & the Big Smoke — have been affected.

Still, Xander sees such cancellations as a responsibility. “We don’t have a government that can say, ‘Everyone must stay home.’ So we have to take it upon ourselves.”

This is also a duty that Sam Damask of Grand Commander and In10City Band takes upon himself.

“It's a perfect storm,” he says. “People need to perform events, [but] they can't because they are canceled, and also the safest possible thing to do is stay inside. So the ones who go out and ‘brave the storm’ are contributing to the spread of the virus because their survival depends on making money, even though that adds to the spread.”

While Damask has said explicitly that he doesn’t want to contribute to the risk of the coronavirus, he sympathizes with artists who are “braving the storm,” conceding, “I can't fault people for needing to make money.”

Xander is just as wise to the gravity of this conundrum. “Making that decision isn’t easy when it comes to your livelihood," she says.

Acclaimed keyboardist Kwinton Gray is a permanent fixture in the Dallas scene, whose gigs range widely from local jazz shows to accompanying Janet Jackson in large arenas.

"We are all losing business, which is the sad part, everyone in the live entertainment industry is suffering," he says.

Gray says fans and friends can support their artists friends by streaming their music and buying merch.

Dallas DJ Blake Ward has corroborated the difficulty of a decision like having to cancel gigs. “I usually DJ five to six times a week, and this is the season where the high-dollar gigs come in, ” he says.

Amid such economic strain, Xander and Ward are both forced to use online resources creatively.

Xander is relying a bit more on giving private music instruction, which has typically been a side hustle for her, via Skype. She also plans on making more use of her personal Patreon page. Meanwhile, Ward has launched a Kickstarter campaign to support a YouTube channel that will stream sets from local artists at venue Double Wide.

"This is the season where the high-dollar gigs come in." — Blake Ward

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“[Double Wide] will not be taking any money for the show, just providing a space and support,” he explained in a Facebook post. “Most of the money will go directly to the performers, and the production people who spend time on the show.”

Concert promoter Mike Ziemer of Third String Productions is also trying to help local creatives via a GoFundMe page titled “DFW Musician & Gig Worker Fund,” which is geared toward helping full-time artists and “gig workers” (i.e. box office employees, audio engineers, stage hands) who have no alternative sources of income.

“If you feel like you are okay, have money saved up, and can make it through this time, we ask that you allow us to help those most affected first,” pleads Ziemer in the campaign page.

Ash Studios co-founder Darryl Ratcliff has also launched a GoFundMe page with a similar objective. His campaign, dubbed “Dallas Artist Relief Fund,” is specifically aimed to low-income freelancers who are people of color and/or LGBTQ+. To better assess and prioritize those at greater risk, Ratcliff has created a survey linked within the page for potential recipients to take.

As people pool together financial resources to assist North Texan music industry professionals who were forced to cancel or postpone shows, some artists still have shows on the books. On Friday, Reverend Horton Heat attracted controversy when they announced via Facebook that they wouldn’t be canceling any shows. The post (presumably made by Jim Heath himself) continues, “I encourage everyone who lives in a jurisdiction where local governments are restricting rock and roll to push back. Write emails and call your local government agencies to remind them that we have the right to assembly. They can’t stop rock and roll!” Many commenters responded by calling the band “selfish” and “irresponsible.”

But not every persisting artist is “braving the storm” out of brazen disregard for public safety. Celina country band Southern Brave is headlining a show at Legacy Hall this Thursday, just five days after playing an acoustic set in Keller. Guitarist Michael Logan acknowledges the severity of the coronavirus threat but says the show can go on, provided that there is caution.

“Band members, restaurant/bar owners, servers [and] sound guys all depend on [performers] to show up for them to pay rent,” he argues. “It’s no secret that the threat is out there. Our audience is educated enough to make a risk assessment themselves.”

Katrina Cain, a DFW native and popular contestant on The Voice who now lives in Los Angeles, says that most of her gigs canceled through April and that she's lost $1,700 just in two days. Still, Cain says she's most concerned about the empty shelves in grocery stores.

"I'm worried about other people going absolutely fucking nutso," she says.

Gino “LockJohnson” Iglehart, who hosts a popular weekly jam at Louie Louie's Piano Bar in Deep Ellum, says this is a good time for musicians to work on other skills.

"Making good use of our time and seeking out new opportunities is going to be important right now — create, create, create," he says.

While there has been considerable division on the risk of not canceling or postponing shows during the coronavirus outbreak, people on both sides seem to arrive at a consensus when it comes to two points: The coronavirus is devastating the livelihoods of creatives in the local music scene, and as such, all participants need to stick together.
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.