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Sam and Lisa Adams, of the band Sama Dams, were about to embark on a five-week tour in Europe as the coronavirus outbreak took hold there and here at home in the United States. Meara McLoughlin, Executive Director of Music Portland, collected data on lost income from nearly one thousand musicians that helped to quantify the economic damage the outbreak was doing to musicians in Oregon helped to shape the response of Oregon’s congressional delegation. Hear their responses to this tragedy, and what they’re doing to help their communities move forward.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to More Devotedly, a podcast for people who see the arts as a force for positive, progressive change. I’m Douglas Detrick.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned lives upside down all over the world, and if it hasn’t touched your life yet, it probably will soon. We’ve seen hospitals overwhelmed, thousands of deaths, and here in the United States we’ve exceeded 150,000 confirmed infections, with that number sure to grow.

The first real data about the economic fallout from the virus in the US came in last week. Unemployment claims in just one week numbered over three million, dwarfing the previous record by orders of magnitude. 

In that context, what can artists do? At first, we cancelled everything. But that’s not a solution. The real questions are, how do we recover from this? How do we emerge stronger as a community? And how can artists contribute to their communities?

We addressed the idea of belonging in Volume I, and climate change in Volume II. Now, in Volume III, because it’s hard to talk about anything else right now, we’re going to look deeply at the arts and artists during a pandemic. I’ll share what I’ve learned about how artists and arts organizations are taking action to help each other and their neighbors and families, how they’ve responded to public health emergencies in the past, and how we can respond to emergencies in the future. 

I know that everyone is feeling very weary of hearing bad news over and over again, I am too. So, I’ll be looking for ways to see this crisis from unexpected angles. I won’t be sugarcoating it, because I know you’re weary of that too. But since many of us have a little more time on our hands than usual, let’s use it to take stock of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could be as a community of artists and arts supporters.

My guests in this episode, Sam and Lisa Adams and Meara McLoughlin, offer some ideas about how artists can affect their communities and ways they can influence the way that government responds.

This Volume III, episode 1.

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Sam and Lisa Adams, along with drummer Micah Hummel, are Sama Dams, one of my favorite rock bands from the Portland, Oregon community. I talked to Lisa and Sam about the tour they had planned in Europe for March and April. Yup, they cancelled it. We talked over the phone about how this crisis hit them, and what they’re doing to do next.

Sam and Lisa Adams of Sama Dams

Doug: You guys had to cancel your tour to Europe.  tell me what has happened and what did you have planned?

Sam: Well, we were going to go on a five week tour of Europe. we were going to go to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. we had promotion paid for a van, airplane tickets, and we had paid for a lot of  merchandise to sell as well.

Once this Corona virus thing kind of started, we were watching it sort of develop in Italy and we started having a bad feeling that this is not going to go away. my mom had called me worried that I was still going to go to Germany and, you know, within the hour, Trump issued his, uh, travel ban on Europe pretty much. So, that kind of sealed the deal. 

Lisa: We were actually about to play a show. We were there for loading. I think it was what, Wednesday, the 11th of March when the travel ban went into effect and it just kind of felt like all the plans that we had been making for the last year just dissipated.

Like all that work kind of gone. Yeah. So, and then also to have that, the show, there are some good friends that were there, but everybody was just, I mean, every time you turn your head to hear what somebody was talking about, everybody was talking about coronavirus. So yeah, it seemed like within the span of, you know, a few days, everybody’s lives have just been dramatically changed.

And. it’s meant kind of, reframing. a lot of the purchases that we’ve made and kind of trying to think quickly on our feet for ways that we can still sell things to people and still give people access to music. thank goodness for the internet because like I, I don’t really know what we would do right now if we didn’t have that, as some source of income.

Sam: Honestly, I’m, pretty happy with just the general sort of sense of community, even online that I see. it’s been inspiring and it’s been a great comfort to know that  we’re not doomed. 

Doug: was curious when you said you were about to play a show you were loading in, where were you 

Sam: at 

Lisa: The Fixin’ To, to up in North Portland.

Our friend Ali put on the ides of March Fest. It was actually, uh, an interesting  chance to connect with the owner of fixing to, and just talk with them a little bit too about what all of this had done to their business, and just the reality of being a small business owner, particularly somebody who relies on people coming to your venue or coming to your space to purchase things.

And, It opened my eyes to the importance of community spaces and venues and, um, how this is, hurting those communities as well,  you know.

Doug: You can lose people in this time. you can also lose businesses and hopefully will, Cut down as much as possible the number of people that we lose, of course. but then all that economic damage  you know, it could mean that we come out of this with half as many venues.

Sam: It’s really discouraging, but  there’s a lot of untapped space here.

We can make things happen if we work together. like for instance,  the local Eagles lodge. that’s a venue that’s been tapped before, but has kind of gone by the wayside a little bit in recent times.

But, that could be a space that could become more regular. if we make it known  that we’re having a hard time, I think a lot of businesses might open their doors. 

Doug: And how about, you Lisa? are you feeling optimistic at all? Are you feeling like there are some bright sides to this?

Lisa: Yeah, it kind of comes and goes. I think the more that I start to think about the financial implications of what’s happened over the last two weeks, that’s the thing that really starts to worry me because. I think this is shown how fragile a place like Portland is financially.

We have a lot of small business infrastructures, and I think  in Portland , people do like to have creative output. So that means a lot of times they’re dividing their time between their business and between their creative endeavors. so naturally what that means is  you may be bringing in a little bit less, , but enjoying the creative elements of your life a little bit more.

And now that it seems like both of those have gone down with right hook and a left uppercut. It just kinda makes me realize how delicate. financial infrastructure is. So I think also because I’ve seen so many people asking for money and, voicing their need for financial support. it seems like there has to be some immediate response from the government. and the swifter it is, the better. I’m also thinking a lot about. How the state, how Oregon has gone at , the rent and eviction legislation. I know they’ve been trying to push through and say nobody’s going to get evicted.

And then there’s also a lot of people who are really concerned about the people who are the property owners.  in order for this to really work, it seems like we have to wipe the slate totally clean and just put the economy on hold. I think that seems to be the only way forward because if you have people who owe people money and it’s just stacking up, what’s the incentive to, what’s the incentive to stay and what’s the incentive to try to dig your way out  

Sam:  are you saying drop all debt? 

Lisa: Well, I guess that’s kind of what I’m thinking. It’s almost just like you have to, there has to be some immediate and kind of very intense response soon because  I don’t see how this gets any better. I just feel like we’ve got to have, economic answers that kind of level the playing field. 

we’re lucky enough that when our tour got canceled, we were still able to  go back to work. I work as a teacher, so I’ve been doing video lessons. Sam’s been doing video lessons.

I also had a longterm sub job with Portland public that I was able to get back. Sam’s been  fixing pianos.  

Doug:  Lisa, that example that you gave of, you know, this idea that  I heard as well of nobody can be evicted during this time.

but then if, people are not paying rent, and then let’s say the owner of the building doesn’t have extra cash that they can live without that income for awhile. Then the buildings get foreclosed. Like, then you have to relieve that too. You have to put that on hold too.

So it would be, it’d be like a really profound  legislative response that, in normal times, that kind of thing would be pretty near impossible. , but in a crisis like this, we have an opportunity to try some of these new things and fix some of these really big problems.  Folks who are doing gig work, who are doing independent contractor work, like many, many artists that are, you know, might find some sort of safety net. That’s more robust than we had before. 

Sam: Yeah. 

Lisa: It would be so cool. 

Sam: It’d be phenomenal.  I’m wondering if this is going to mean that there’s some new ideas about how independent artists make money and if there’s a way that we can make it a legitimate lifestyle, like a legitimate career where you could actually make money and have some sort of foundation under you. I don’t have a plan for that. I don’t know exactly what that is. 

Like, you’re always gonna need the hustle. 

Lisa: Oh, sure. That’s, that’s what makes your art good too. When, when there is that urgency to it and, and you want it. I think it would be great if there was a stronger support network though for, for artists. I think that’s definitely needed in America. 

Doug: to kind of end the conversation, you know, for now,  tell me how you’re feeling and tell me, each of you, how you know, how you’re going to move forward. 

Sam:  I’m a clearing out. A lot of mental clutter and  living area of clutter, so I can just focused on, on work, working on music.  having more control over my own life in the here and now. 

Doug: And you, Lisa? 

Lisa: I feel hopeful that this is going to be a big change of course. And if anything, I think it’s bringing to my attention the, the importance of giving out of whatever you have. we have resources that we can give away to other people and make our community stronger. So I’m really thinking about how do I do that?  how do I give more of myself to help other people so that we can recover from this. 

Doug: Guys, thank you so much. , I really wish you the best, and you know, I hope this turns out well for you guys and for everybody else and, and yeah. So thanks so much for your time. 

Sam: Yeah, thank you. 

Lisa: Thanks for reaching out. 

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I recorded that interview with Sam and Lisa on Friday, March 22. Since this isn’t necessarily a current events podcast, I don’t usually have to worry about facts changing between an interview and the release of the episode, but in this case, a lot, for good and for bad, has changed. The interview captures Sam and Lisa at time where perhaps they’ve gotten over their initial shock at their personal losses, but while serious concerns for their own future and that of their community is setting in.

After I talked with Sam and Lisa, the Senate and House have voted to approve, and the President has signed the CARES Act, the biggest rescue package in modern American history that includes direct payments to Americans, as well as loans and grants for businesses. Most of what I’ve been reading suggests that this package is just the beginning of the aid that will be needed to keep the economy from a complete collapse as long as so many businesses are shuttered. Hopefully the government will continue to do its job and provide the aid we all need.

Be sure to read about the details from a trusted news source, but most importantly for our conversation here, the CARES act includes gig and independent contractor workers for relief. This is a big deal for artists because so many of us fall into this category, along with many many other workers in today’s economy. Including non-traditional employees is an important step towards recognizing how important and how inadequately protected workers of this type are by today’s laws. 

Meara McLaughlin, the Executive Director of the advocacy organization Music Portland talked about the survey Music Portland conducted, and how that data helped to influence Oregon’s congressional delegation as the CARES Act was being developed. Her focus is on Portland, but the lessons she’s learned about organizing and advocating for this community would apply anywhere. We’re lucky to have her! 

I wanted to put both of these interviews into the same episode because if we think of the first interview as a call to arms, the second shows one way that this community is answering that call.

Meara McLoughlin of Music Portland

Meara McLaughlin. (photo by Jason Kaplan)

Doug: how do you feel about it? Do you feel that it ‘s at least the step in the  right direction.

Meara: Yes. It’s definitely a step in the right direction in that it is acknowledging that our economy has totally changed. Certainly at a worker level. You know, when you see the preponderance of part time contract gig workers. You know, it’s a majority of the country at this point. You know, we’re not working for big blue anymore.

You know, there’s a ton of volatility in where people work and how they work and how they assemble multiple jobs. So create a livelihood and it’s no, where is it more evident and  prevalent than in the music industry. here in Portland, and I’m sure this is true everywhere, but People wear so many different hats.

When we first tried to collect data about the industry,  we got that basic reality wrong because we said, are you an artist or are you a music business or are you a music venue? And the reality is almost everybody is, all, you know, is some or all of those things. So, you know, an artist who for forms and records and books, their own band and does a bunch of things and supported their own music, also gives music lessons also, uh, works in a record store on the weekends and occasionally helps put a festival together. 

You know, it’s, it’s a really complicated story to tell. Music just hasn’t been part of the conversation at a lot of levels, and certainly at the federal level. There’s been a lot of effort from a whole bunch of people here in Portland and across the country to try and inject some of this reality into the considerations that are being made by the leadership. And I will say. I am beyond proud of, our Senate leadership. Both Senator Wyden and Senator Merkley introduced bills that had strong influences on the way this thing came out.

Merkley is one of the cosponsors of the provision gives the forgivable loan program to small businesses that we are hoping has a huge impact on our music ecology here and everywhere. And all the arts ecologies. Mmm. Obviously focused on music, but a lot of what I’m saying can also apply to much of the, whole creative, ecology that we have here.

I think all of the advocates at a national level with all of my compatriots in the music city organizing field, I was just on the phone with many of them this morning. Everybody is continuing to push to make sure that the realities and the hardship faced by the music industry, it has never run on big margins that they have to be considered.

If we’re going to save  creative impulse, which is, the stuff of what makes us and it will help us in recovery and it will sustain us through the dark times.

Doug: Right. And we’re definitely in one of those right now, for

Meara: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely

Doug: could you tell us a bit about the survey that you conducted  cause I’m sure that being able to bring that data, um, is, it’s just so important as you’re talking to lawmakers. Could you tell us a bit about what that was like and what did you learn from it?

Meara: Yeah. You bet. so we have, put out an infographic based on the first survey, we jumped in on March 13th and the very beginning with just some of the shows were being canceled. And I thought, this is going to have a big impact. We did a survey from the 13th through the 17th, and you know, when the very first days that Oregon really became aware or thoughtful about it and that piece asked specifically and exclusively about, the impact on musicians.

And performers and contract crews that work on live shows. so we excluded all of the other kinds of music businesses and the questions that we asked. And we’ve got 988, Oregon musician’s answering well, we are music Portland and our focus very much on our greater Portland ecosystem, since much of the conversation is at a state level, we wanted to make sure that we were considering all of our peers across Oregon. 

So 988 folks responded with an estimated, nearly $4 million in lost income on shows only on March 17th. And everybody knows what’s happened since then. There’s some before every venue shut down. It represented at that point about 73% of their total book shows for the next three months.

And that estimate does apply to looking out kind of three months ahead. We got data from 87 cities and 25 counties at that point. And of the respondents, 35% of those surveyed said that their lost show income. Represented more than 75% and in many cases, 100% of their livelihood.

What happens in music is people are like, Oh yeah, music is huge. You know? Oh yeah. People, you know. Oh yeah. Oh, music is enormous in Portland. Oh, I know that. You don’t have to tell me that. But nobody has ever quantified it. Nobody was ever built data, and I’m a, data wonk From way back. data is power. And you know, the things like the bike economy here in Portland did a great job and the makers did a great job of doing quantified analysis so they could get into the conversation.

Just throwing. Oh yeah. No, music is huge. It’s really cool. In Portland is completely unactionable. you can’t do anything with it. So having information that starts to actually give numbers, that’s when people pay attention. And the challenge there is that many people in music have been, look, I don’t follow other tracks that people have already called. I’m carving my own track. I’m DIY. I’m an innovator. I’m not a joiner.” Really ultimately hurts us as a music community because a failure to participate  your tiny slice of the data that tells the story means that the story is flawed. You know, you have to, we need every genre We need every performer.

We need every music businesses from producers to record labels. The record stores, the instrument and gear makers too media replication, houses, marketing agents, bookers, music lawyers, graphic designers who rely on music. We need everybody in this ecosystem to raise their hand and say, yes, I am part of it.

And to provide some simple numbers that are only ever used in aggregate, but when you start to have those numbers, yeah, absolutely changes the conversation and it changes music portland’s ability to advocate on behalf of the collective.

Doug: yeah, absolutely. Even reading like some of the early results from the survey when I took it, for myself and for, the organization that I work for, Portland jazz composers ensemble. it was  pretty, Amazing. just to see what you had come up with at that point.

Meara: Well, it’s also, there wasn’t,

Doug: it and putting it in the ears of some, you know, people that needed to hear that information.

Meara: Yeah, well the other survey that was done in parallel and we were working closely and decided to really keep the questions and the, and the contact separate was the venue community. You know, what is the music ecology going to look like if we have no independent venues left? Live nation has said publicly in print that, they’re going to be fine and they’re kind of excited because they’re going to be able to gain significant market share after this is over. And that’s horrific because that is pure cannibalization of independence who weren’t supported enough to survive  so that we as a community need to understand our independent venue owners have been committed two, this community, some of them for years, and none of them re making a fortune on this. It really is a labor of love from them as well.

And the music venue community that were led by some incredibly stalwart individuals, Confirmed that independent of musician pay, it was $9 million per month being lost bye music venues in Oregon. About a hundred of them chimed in. So these venues have reduced their costs down to the bare bones, but it’s still $9 million a month.  so the numbers are staggering.

Doug: one thing that this crisis has kind of made pretty clear, um, at least in my estimation is that  it’s exposing weaknesses that were already there.

When these gigs dry up, musicians who rely on them for their income are really just set a drift. And there’s not, much recourse for them.  other independent contractor type, workers are in the same, boat. we’re seeing these weaknesses that were already there, and it’s just now we’re just seeing how, they’re really coming into play.

Meara: when I take my head up from the trenches where I’m down digging, you know, we have to keep our eyes on the horizon too. What is it that we’re rebuilding? And you’re right. Exactly. What flaws in our ecosystem does this point out? And it’s an opportunity To address them. 

Also, it’s not just that music is, as an ecology is broken. I think that the way that the city values Creativity, but I keep going back to music. You know, within the first three days of the Oregon engagement in the crisis  you know, already the, our independent newspapers were asking for money because the bottom had dropped out for them.

Both Willy weakened. Mercury had a third too you know, nearly a half of all their pages were music promotions.  so if we as a culture here in Portland, the area value independent media, you’ve got to acknowledge that USIC is building it. And so you gotta you know, it’s like, if we value independent voices in, you know, news and information, if we value independent voices.

The artistry that we consume. You know, we have to make sure that live nation doesn’t take over all of the independent venues here. We have one monolithic curator of what we’re supposed to be listening to. Mmm. And we don’t have the Oregonian. You know, if they survive, you know, coming back out and going, cool, let’s, you know, let’s hone the message to what, what we believe it should be.

So I think, yes, it does point out flaws. It also, I believe tragically, for musicians that have been operating on a cash basis and have not ever been reporting income. No, they are completely. Excluded from a lot of this, relief package. So the goal for us as a community is, and this is going to be my next set of questions for people, and this isn’t going to be reported, and I don’t even care if people do you have an email address, but what music Portland needs help understanding is.

How many people, what percentage of people out there are working on a cash basis? Because the solutions we need to really focus on for that community. You know, private fund development and advocacy to make sure that that community is eligible for arts funding or to go in for community funding and other things.

You know, it’s, quantifying that.  profile of an artist in need or a musician in need versus the employee of a small business who two weeks ago got laid off so they could go apply for unemployment. But now the business finds out that in order to get a loan that’s forgivable, they need to retain their employees.

We need to understand what everybody’s position in this is because we can’t say hourly workers and then know how to proceed because as many ways that people operate as many genres as people explore in Portland, I think there are many different cases for different classes of artists and what music Portland wants to focus on is making sure we’re advocating appropriately.

To the right people about all of these different ways of doing business, that we’re supporting and growing the areas and the resources that are needed by these communities and sub-communities. So that given the right information, regardless of whether you’re a cash basis, Oh my gosh, what am I going to do, person or your, I used to work for a single music business and they laid me off. 

They’re very different stories and we need the community to help us frame those so that we know where we should really be spending our energy and who we can be helping the most.

Doug: I had one last question for you, Mira, before I let you go.  I am really grateful to hear about all the advocacy you’re doing on behalf of this community. Yeah. And I just wanted to ask you, um, for other folks who maybe haven’t yet taken any step like that they, you know, they’ve never contacted Ron Wyden or Jeff Merkley, for instance, or anyone on the local level.

Meara: Right.

Doug: how has that experience been for you? You know, trying to interface with government and what recommendations do you have for folks that might have an issue that they want to advocate for?

Meara: Go on every channel.  For the senators or the representatives in Congress, you know, they have, most of them have forms on a website. You can go in and plug your question in there. Almost all of them. lean heavily on Twitter. I think it’s a really rapid way for them to scan and organize the things that people are saying.

So if you make sure that you’re sending your message on all channels, you’ve got a better chance of it actually being heard. And whether they acknowledge you or not, doesn’t mean they’re not necessarily engaged in hearing you. 

I would just definitely say double up on those contacts and also make sure that music, Portland knows about it. on the one hand, I’m like, Oh my God, I can’t solve everybody’s problems, but we can’t even begin to consolidate and recognize , the challenges people are facing if we don’t hear about them.  I’m old enough that I prefer email.

So, yeah. info@musicportland.org. Just if you’ve got something and you’re reaching out to folks, cool. But make sure that we know about it too, because you may be one of 10 people we’ve heard it from, which tells us it’s something we really need to get on first, and that that helps with our prioritizing because there’s a lot to do.

One final thing I would say to that, I think Portland has this incredible heart. Our music community has just an enormous capacity for collaboration and support. And it’s the thing I’ve seen in the first 18 months of music Portland. It’s just amazing. You know, just people if asked step up, and that’s great.

There are people, God bless them in, uh, Portland who say, you know what? I’ve got just enough savings. I think I can eat by for three months. I don’t want to take any of the unemployment benefits that are, that are, um, eligible for because I want to leave it for other people.

Here’s the challenge. As we quantify the number of people that are operating on a cash basis. That are absolutely without a safety net in music. if you have the capacity, if you’re eligible for these, relief dollars and you have the capacity to not need them yourself immediately, then get them anyway and donate them.

To the Jeremy Wilson foundation of the Oregon community fund or the arts relief program or any of the places where you feel comfortable that are going to be providing support for the people that don’t have these other options. Don’t just  think that you’re helping people and the people that are going to need the most by sitting it out.

Doug: That’s good advice. Yeah. Cool. Thank you, Mira. I really appreciate the time. Thanks so much and thanks for all the good work. I appreciate it. And, I hope lots of other people do as well.

Meara: Good. Good. We’ll get through this together. Portland.

Doug: Yes, we will. All right. Thank you, Mira. Bye. Bye.

Thanks and Goodbye

Thanks so much to Sam, Lisa, and Meara. And to all of you who are dealing with the harsh reality of this outbreak, hang in there. For freelance artists with lost income in Portland, the Portland Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund is accepting applications at pdxartistrelief.com. And if you’re able to donate to that fund, please do. That’s possible at the same website. And there are more resources out there, more than I can list here. Find them, use them. Get through this thing in one piece so you can keep being creative on the other side.

I produced this episode and composed and performed the music right here in Portland, OR.

I had lots of plans for a very different Volume III, but this pandemic has fundamentally shifted reality and is going to continue to do so for quite some time. So, I’m looking forward to bringing you several different kinds of stories, from the history of the arts and artists in the New Deal era and during the 1918 Influenza epidemic, to more interviews with contemporary artists about what they’re doing right now, to some stories and music I made with my kids as we’re isolated together here at home. 

Be sure to subscribe on your podcast app if you haven’t already, and it’d be a big help for the show if you can tell a friend about it. You can also rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

What you’re doing is beautiful. Can you do it more devotedly?

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