Music Maker Works to Sustain Our Artists Through the Pandemic
Since we began more than a quarter century ago, Music Maker has focused on three critical areas:
— Sustenance: We want to ensure that the day-to-day needs of the most vulnerable artists are met, through grants and social services to musicians who are in crisis or who live in chronic poverty.
— Performance: We want to help our artists build their careers, their income and their skills through touring, we book shows for them and provide management services and professional development.
— Education: We want to ensure that American roots music is always accessible to current and future generations. We mount exhibitions, stage youth engagement programs and provide archival preservation.
“Music Maker’s typical method involves identifying artists in need, then getting them gigs that allow them to build their own income through performance. Then, we provide sustenance for needs they cannot meet. With the pandemic, we saw far fewer performance opportunities. Without that income, many of artists needed more help through our substance program,” says Denise Duffy, Music Maker’s co-founder.
“The persistence of poverty over long periods of time makes it harder and harder for people to weather larger expenses that come up — surprise expenses, car repairs, the need for a new vehicle, major home repairs,” Denise explains. “When people are literally just getting by month-to-month to try and keep food in the house, those sorts of expenses just become impossible barriers. I saw more of that this year because people have been going without the earned income of gigs.”
Our most recent survey of artists proved the serious pressure that pandemic brought to bear on our community of artists. All of our artists lost income again due to lack of gigs; 67 percent of respondents lost more than $5,000 from canceled performance opportunities, leaving many to live on annual incomes of less than $12,000.
Eighty-five percent of our artists are over 65 years of age, and most artists are spending more than they bring in each month. The majority are skipping payments for recurring expenses, such as utilities and credit cards. All those surveyed rely on assistance from Music Maker to pay for essentials like food, utilities and medical care.
Our volunteer and social services teams have continued outreach to artists over the past year to connect them to healthcare and vaccinations. Thankfully, at the time of our annual survey, 81 percent of the musicians had been vaccinated.
Helping musicians weatherize and keep their homes from decay is critical, too. In the past few months alone, we have undertaken new restorations. We’ve done several significant repairs this year, with recipients including Alice Vines, Ernie Vincent, Sugar Harp and Li’l Jimmy Reed.
If an artist is living in sub-standard housing, Music Maker tries to press ahead with all due haste.
Many of those expenses are routine. But what about the unexpected needs that arise? Substandard housing and lack of reliable transportation continue to be pressing financial needs. Music Maker funded numerous home and studio repairs. We provided a new HVAC system, addressed storm damage and mold, and replaced a failed roof that had damaged an electrical system and was preventing an artist’s home from being heated.
In the past few months alone, Music Maker has helped two artists with repairs to weatherize and keep homes safe. Birmingham-based harmonica player Charles Burroughs, aka Sugar Harp, and Louisiana bluesman Lil’ Jimmy Reed, both needed assistance with home repairs. Music Maker stepped in to help raise the money both needed to put their homes back into service.
The social services team also procured used vehicles and enabled repairs of existing vehicles to increase artists’ mobility, independence and well-being.
To achieve all this, in 2021 we distributed 1,049 grants to 135 artists totaling $207,568. That represents a 40 percent increase over 2019, when we issued grants totaling approximately $149,000.
Denise says Music Maker was able to keep up the demand only through the generosity of existing donors and new ones.
“I think what surprised me in year two [of the pandemic] was actually the buoyancy of their spirit and how that really seemed to show. I think folks were more disheartened in year one, pre-vaccine,” Denise says. “You had so many of these artists living alone. The isolation in year one of the pandemic seemed to be more devastating emotionally to people. In year two, with the vaccine, at least they could see close friends and family. I think that really contributed to the buoyancy of the spirit in year two.
“I mean, these senior folks have they’ve been around the block,” Denise continues. “It may have been the first pandemic they lived through, but they are very familiar with adversity. They have a pretty strong spiritual toolkit to work with. I think there was a little less fear and loneliness in year two than year one. People are much more hopeful.”