Portland’s Music Industry Has Already Been Hit Hard By COVID-19 Closures

“We’re doing our damnedest to keep our creditors at bay while we coast on fumes. This is really scary shit.”

A week ago, Bart Blasengame knew money would be getting tight at his St. Johns music venue, the Fixin' To. But at least he thought they could stay open.

Well before Oregon placed a ban on large gatherings in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus, Blasengame was taking steps to ensure the safety of his customers. He lined the bar with pumps of homemade hand sanitizer, and even attached a bottle to the onstage subwoofer for artists to use. He had servers wipe down tables and booths with bleach throughout the day and made a sign for the bathroom that read, "If you have 20 seconds to do cocaine, you have 20 seconds to wash your hands."

Given that the initial ban capped public events at 250 people—far under the Fixin' To's maximum occupancy—Blasengame had planned on continuing to host shows for as long as possible. As a small, neighborhood dive that books mostly local musicians, he wasn't sure the venue could afford to close.

Then, on March 16, everything changed. Governor Kate Brown ordered the wholesale closure of bars and restaurants, mandating that spaces like the Fixin' To shut down for the next month. "We're doing our damnedest to keep our creditors at bay while we coast on fumes," the venue wrote in its announcement about the closure. "This is really scary shit."

"It's really stressful," says Blasengame. "The last few days, you don't want to pick up your phone."

As Portland shuts down to suppress the COVID-19 outbreak, the city seems to be on the precipice of an economic depression. And from clubs to artists to crew, the local music industry is among the hardest hit.

"It's just staggering amounts of money [lost]," says Meara McLaughlin, executive director of Music Portland, a nonprofit that collects data on the local music economy. "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of impact."

Portland's music venues are still scrambling to address the crisis, and many declined to share the specifics of the losses they are incurring. (McMenamins, which runs prominent venues such as Crystal Ballroom and Edgefield, announced that it is laying off 3,000 employees across the entire company.) Based on close to 1,000 survey respondents, Music Portland estimates that Oregon's music industry workers—including sound engineers, roadies and the musicians themselves—have already lost a total of $3.4 million due to canceled shows. And those figures only account for direct losses: Factor in lost investments in future performances, like the cost of PR for defunct tours and shipping vinyl to venues where bands were scheduled to play, and the number is likely much higher.

Along with the gig workers who are now out of work, venues around the city have furloughed employees, and are unsure of what their future will look like.

"Venue and event spaces are taking a huge hit," says Jim Brunberg, who co-owns Mississippi Studios and Revolution Hall. "Without support from the public, many are in jeopardy of closing permanently. For every musician or band that plays in any venue, there are eight to 15 other people whose livelihoods depend on that show."

For months, Maria Maita-Keppeler seemed poised for a breakout. The Portland musician, who records as Maita, has built substantial hype for the April 3 release of Best Wishes, her debut album on the legendary Kill Rock Stars label. Her confessional-yet-visceral singles earned praise from national outlets like Billboard, Consequence of Sound and NPR Music, and comparisons to indie star Mitski

On March 27, Maita-Keppeler and her band were scheduled to play in Immendingen, Germany, the first night of a 20-date European tour. As the COVID-19 outbreak became more dire in Italy—where the tour was scheduled to wrap up—Maita-Keppeler began to suspect that the tour wouldn't go as planned.

Late last week, the band finally made the decision to call it off. The group was able to refund or receive credit for certain travel expenses, including plane tickets. But the band lost hundreds of dollars that aren't refundable, like the PR campaigns targeted at overseas shows.

Maita-Keppeler says that without much precedent, she's struggled to determine "what's ethical and what's responsible and how to balance that with the financial burden. It's just a really difficult call to make."

Portland surf-psych stalwarts the Shivas were booked for two major festivals this month that were canceled due to concerns over the virus: South By Southwest in Austin, Texas and Treefort in Boise, Idaho. Initially, the band was planning on going to Texas anyway to play the shows that they'd booked around SXSW. The members had banked on making most of their income this year from touring, so cancellation didn't seem economically feasible.

Less than a week before the first show, the band received a cancellation email from a hotel in Austin where the Shivas were scheduled to play. Only 20 minutes later, another venue notified frontman Jared Molyneux that the Shivas' concert was canceled.

"Within that 24 hours," says Molyneux, "it had gone from looking possible to looking completely impossible."

Like many other Portland musicians, the Shivas now plan to use their unexpected downtime to write new music, increase online merchandise sales and perhaps livestream some sets.

But even musicians working to reschedule their shows are concerned about the long term financial impact.

"I think we're going to see a huge jam in terms of booking," says Maita-Keppler. "We're a little concerned as smaller artists because we don't know where we stand in that hierarchy."

Those fears aren't totally unfounded.

Jimi Biron, music director of McMenamins, says all its venues, including Crystal Ballroom, are rescheduling or canceling shows per the requests of musicians. The vast majority of acts are looking to reschedule.

"[Musicians] don't want to say we're canceled, they want to say we're rescheduling for this date," says Biron. "That's been an incredible puzzle for our booking team."

In the meantime, many state and federal COVID-19 economic relief efforts have overlooked freelance creative types.

"It's independent contractors, gig economy people, project workers and all these other folks—they're not touched by any of the relief approaches that have already happened," says McLaughlin. "It doesn't work for people that don't get paychecks."

Local organizations are now working to fill in those gaps.

Venues are pushing gift cards for future shows, and asking concertgoers to hold onto their tickets for postponed shows instead of asking for refunds. Local publication She Shreds is keeping a running list of resources for musicians who are now out of work, including national grants and Oregon's Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

Music Portland has partnered with the Jeremy Wilson Foundation Musicians' Emergency Healthcare Fund to create a crowdsourcing campaign for music industry workers struggling to afford medical and basic living expenses during the pandemic.

"That adds an infrastructure," says McLaughlin. "So that as we advocate to get appropriate relief into this community, we've got the infrastructure to distribute it and keep track of it appropriately."

Related: A Local Non-Profit Has Started a COVID-19 Relief Fund for Oregon Musicians

Despite the ongoing scramble and uncertainty, McLaughlin remains hopeful.

"The music community here already was more collaborative than competitive in good times," she says. "I think that the spirit is there to try and be creative and help each other."