Local artists, musicians derive strategies for pandemic losses

Musician Jill Holecheck said she does not consider singing in two bands her career, but estimates that prior to the pandemic, she derived about 30% of her annual income from paying gigs.

Holecheck, who until August lived in San Marcos before moving to Austin, said she and her other bandmates have discussed virtual concerts as well as yard concerts up in Austin that have become more popular lately, but as yet she has not pursued those options. The logistics for both of those

options are a little out of range for her right now, she said.

“I guess I’m living on hope,” she said. “And I’m eating a lot of Ramen noodles.”

In the San Marcos and New Braunfels areas, as well as nationally, artists and musicians have been having to adapt to the hand dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For this subgroup, shuttered venues and other restrictions mean dwindling revenue via lost performances and commissions.

An August report from nonprofit think tank the Rand Corp. analyzed the U.S. Department of Labor’s Current Population Survey to examine unemployment rates for artist-heavy occupations from January to May.

The findings show that in January performing artists went from a 1.7% unemployment rate to a 27.4% unemployment rate in May, and non-performing artists went from a 2.7% rate to a 14.5% unemployment rate within the same time frame.

Locally, musicians and artists who have shared their stories during the pandemic have said their experiences regarding lost revenue are congruent with those findings.

Musicians must adapt to alternate revenue streams

For the rest of her income, Holecheck supports two start-up companies—one being an LED lighting company and the other a prescription savings program.

“I’ve had maybe two gigs since February, and normally it’d be ... sometimes four times a week,” she said.

For right now, Holecheck said she is working on her two startup companies and hoping to get investors interested.

For other local musicians, opportunities have begun to open up starting in September. That has been the case for New Braunfels resident Jamie Cameron, who leads a local music collective called Soul Sessions, which features a rotating lineup of professional musicians with Cameron at the core.

Prior to Cameron getting gigs again at the end of the summer, he said paying live performances became extremely rare starting in March.

But due to Cameron’s notoriety in the local music scene, he has been able to generate continued audience interest in shows performed from his backyard throughout the run of the pandemic.

Almost every Friday he puts on a show called “Soul From the Porch” from his house in Gruene, which is livestreamed through social media.

The backyard concerts help to keep the Soul Sessions brand going, he said, and it has also helped generate revenue for the musicians he plays with through online tips, among other sources.

Still, Cameron said the pandemic has caused a substantial financial hit for him and his group.

“With [the loss of] various different gigs from March, we lost about $30,000 as an organization over the last six months or so,” he said. “Some of those large venues, whether they be weddings or private parties or anything like that ... those just dried up immediately because nobody wants to put 100

people in a room [during a pandemic].”

For now, Cameron said live events with limited capacities and other safety protocols in place are starting to pick up, and Soul Sessions has again been booking shows at venues throughout the New Braunfels area, including Pour Haus, Phoenix Saloon, Krause’s and Gruene Hall.

His hope is that the trend will continue toward more live shows, which account for the bulk of his group’s revenue, but said he will have to take it as it comes.

Another large group that plays throughout the New Braunfels area and beyond that has had to make adjustments during the pandemic is the Mid-Texas Symphony.

The orchestra had to cancel all of its live shows through December, and MTS Music Director Akiko Fujimoto said the symphony switched to digital content for the fall season.

“It has been quite the ride,” she said. “We’re all learning how to do it as we go.”

Instead of programming a live repertoire, the MTS has since summer been putting out electronic newsletters and soliciting video content, among other strategies, to try to build online interest.

This fall, MTS programming will be based on intimate video performances submitted by the group’s musicians, Fujimoto said.

The MTS will present a series of nine videos created by its musicians that will be scheduled throughout the fall from September through December, and Fujimoto said MTS will also present six interviews called “Behind the Scenes.”

“We have to kind of be ready to change things on a dime,” she said. “So, while we’re doing this fall season, we’ll be thinking about what we have to do for the spring if we have to cancel more, even though we don’t like to think about that.”

Jason Irle, MTS’ executive director, said revenue for the orchestra typically depends on three income streams—ticket sales, grants and contributions.

With the elimination of live concerts this fall, Irle said the MTS is already down 33% in revenue for the 2020-21 season, which on a normal year would have consisted of six concerts priced at between $25-$50 per ticket.

For now, Irle said the plan is to try to make up for that loss with a 15% surge in grants and the same for contributions.

That will be a tough ask, he said, because the competition for those funds is only getting steeper with more and more artists and musicians hurting financially due to the pandemic.

Should the spring be compromised as well with regard to COVID-19 restrictions, the challenge to generate more revenue will only get tougher, he said.

Artists find alternative revenue strategies

For the last 15 years, Morgan Egan has owned Classic Tattoo in San Marcos. As an artist, Egan specializes in drawing and painting, but she said her main source of revenue prior to the pandemic was tattooing.

Egan said her shop has several tattoo artists who subcontract out of her store and pay commissions.

They began working again by appointment only out of Classic Tattoo about two weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott’s late-May order allowed tattoo and body piercing studios to reopen, but Egan said she has not personally been tattooing since the shop closed for the first time in mid-March.

Because she has an at-risk family member and two small children, Egan has of late been commissioning more utilitarian artistic gigs.

Egan is not comfortable discussing how much money she has lost due to the pandemic but said it has been significant.

In the beginning of the pandemic, Egan supplemented lost revenue through a federal economic injury disaster loan via the Small Business Administration.

But more recently, Egan said she has been commissioning other jobs for extra money, including repainting mailboxes and rehabbing old furniture and other items.

She has also taken measures to help the tattoo artists working out of Classic Tattoo. Those include decreasing the commission they have to pay the shop and increasing the percentage of their take on each tattoo.

“We took a little hit in the hopes that it would help our artists get through this, who might not be fully insured or without a lot of backup savings,” she said.

San Marcos-based abstract artist Tony Belmonte is another example of someone who has had to rely on other streams of income to help him out during the pandemic.

He sells his art at area shows and does commissioned pieces whenever possible but said lately he has been having to rely more and more on auto body work and vehicle restoration to supplement his income.

Prior to the pandemic, Belmonte said his art accounted for roughly 80% of his income, but now it is more like 50%.

“Art is more of a want, not a need,” Belmonte said. He added that fixing cars has seemed like more of a need for people and is helping to bring in revenue, at least for the time being.

But it is not just individual artists who are having to make adjustments.

Kathryn Welch, vice president of the San Marcos Art League, a nonprofit that works to promote arts and culture, among other initiatives, said the organization has had to plan during the pandemic in order to help the artists it works with as well as art patrons within the community.

That includes waiving dues at the San Marcos Art Center, a space founded by the SMAL in 2019 that showcases the art of its members.

The art center has recently reopened to limited capacity after being closed since March, and Welch said waiving the $60 per month fee per artist until Sept. 1 is just one way SMAL has tried to help its members during the pandemic.

For now, she said, being able to open the art center even for limited hours is critical.

“I think it’s really, really important to our psyche as a community to have ... the art center open,” she said. “I know we can’t have parties there and receptions like we used to, but just to have it open means a lot.”

By Brian Rash
Brian has been a reporter and editor since 2012. He wrote about the music scene in Dallas-Fort Worth before becoming managing editor for the Graham Leader in Graham, Texas, in 2013. He relocated to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to work for Gatehouse Media's large design hub. He became the editor for the Lake Travis-Westlake publication of Community Impact in August 2018. From there he became a dual-market editor for Community Impact's New Braunfels and San Marcos-Buda-Kyle editions. Brian is now a senior editor for the company's flagship papers, the Round Rock and Pflugerville-Hutto editions.