Can Chicago’s Music Scene Survive The Coronavirus Pandemic?

Greg Obis
Greg Obis said he’s “lucky” to have consistent work as a mastering engineer during the pandemic. His other gigs running sound for venues are on hold. Provided photo / Greg Obis
Greg Obis said he’s “lucky” to have consistent work as a mastering engineer during the pandemic. His other gigs running sound for venues are on hold. Provided photo / Greg Obis
Greg Obis
Greg Obis said he’s “lucky” to have consistent work as a mastering engineer during the pandemic. His other gigs running sound for venues are on hold. Provided photo / Greg Obis

Can Chicago’s Music Scene Survive The Coronavirus Pandemic?

Updated at 12:15 p.m. April 2

Emily Kempf isn’t freaking out — yet.

However, the bassist and singer of the punk trio Dehd said the COVID-19 pandemic is causing serious financial problems for the band.

Dehd’s Flower of Devotion album, a follow up to 2019’s Water, has been pushed back for months because they aren’t able to tour for it. And their March and April tour was already canceled, including an appearance at the gargantuan South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Plus, there’s the loan and insurance payments and the tour van Kempf bought.

She said the band has enough saved to survive until June, to pay for its practice space and the van. Overall, Dehd will lose all the money they would have made from shows in March, April, May and June.

“If it becomes June and this is still happening, that’s probably when I’ll start losing my s***, because I don’t actually know how to survive after June,” she said.

Kempf can’t survive on her music alone, and she isn’t able to work as a tattoo artist either. Her studio, Time Being Tattoo, only has money to make it through April.

In Chicago, like elsewhere, the biggest bands are the rare few who don’t need day jobs. But they depend on shows and merchandise sales to make a living. Smaller musicians maintain a patchwork of different service jobs so they can tour. That may mean working the door at a venue some nights a week and at a coffee shop on other days.

And it’s not just bands that are worried. The venues themselves are struggling to pay mortgages, and when Gov. JB Pritzker does lift his “stay-at-home” order, will people have enough money to go out?

“It’s like this incredible bottleneck”

Chicago indie-rock duo OHMME, whose new record Fantasize Your Ghost is scheduled for release in June, also canceled a tour. They had been self-isolating “pretty seriously” for the past several weeks. Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham spoke from Cunningham’s home, where they were meeting to practice for the first time in weeks.

Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham
Macie Stewart (left) and Sima Cunningham (right) from OHMME performs The Sugarcubes’ 'Birthday' for the Salonathon: Alone Together livestreamed event on March 23. Provided photo / OHMME

Cunningham sometimes “feels vertigo” looking too far into the future.

“The whole lead up to your record release is a big investment period,” she said. “People are wanting to listen and wanting to celebrate new cultural moments, so it’s not necessarily a horrible time to release music on the internet. It’s definitely a hard time to take releasing music on the internet and turn it into money to pay musicians to live their lives.”

Another local musician, Greg Obis, said he’s lucky. While many of his friends are struggling, he has stable work at Chicago Mastering Service, which puts the finishing touches on albums before they are released. And while his jobs running sound at local venues Sleeping Village and The Hideout are on hold, he said he’ll be able to pay bills.

Meanwhile, Obis said his band Stuck is, well, kind of stuck. After canceling dates for a Midwest tour, the band hoped to reschedule for the summer. But since more bands are canceling shows now, that means more will be rebooking as soon as restrictions are lifted — and there are only so many sets.

“We’re trying to plan a record release show again, and it’s like this incredible bottleneck on everybody’s resources and a complete mystery as to when any of this stuff will even be possible again,” he said. “I’m really worried about the bottleneck this is going to create on every facet of the music industry.”

Many venues are asking the public for help during the shutdown. The Hideout started a “virtual tavern” fundraiser for its staff, many of whom are also musicians, raising more than $29,000. Obis, the musician and sound engineer at the Hideout, said he’s getting paid for shows he would have mixed if they hadn’t been canceled.

To help keep Chicago’s live music scene alive, drummer and songwriter Spencer Tweedy, son of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, compiled this list of fundraisers for local service workers.

“I feel like a bunch of stuff is gonna get wiped out”

Bruce Finkelman, who co-owns The Empty Bottle and Thalia Hall, said his businesses are doing what they can to stay open. He said he’s also working to halt mortgage payments on the venues so he can reopen in the future.

But Finkelman worries that even when the venues can reopen, fewer people will have the money to go out.

Kempf from Dehd said the pandemic will be like a mini extinction for the local music scene.

“It’s like a mass burning, and we’ll see what grows back” she said. “I feel like some will survive, some will die off and some will grow back in a different form. It’s sad. I feel like a bunch of stuff is gonna get wiped out and it’s gonna be a new era.”

As for herself, she’s accepted all the worst-case scenarios: the band losing all its money, her tattoo shop closing and moving out of Illinois. For now, she’s in “militant self-care mode.” Drawing, cleaning and writing songs.

Emily Kempf
Dehd’s Emily Kempf said that she’s in 'militant' self-care mode during the pandemic. Provided photo / Emily Kempf

She said she wants to make beautiful music in response to the grim reality. Stewart, from OHMME, said she’s leaning into loneliness and self-reliance in her songs. She’s taking the time to write a solo album.

Bandmate Cunningham said what makes the city’s music scene special is how every band wants to see the others succeed. That’s what needs to live on, she said.

“If you have means, put together a list of things you want to see survive and as you can, give to those things,” she said. “Buying a record from a band for $20 is going to help that band survive this and will hopefully bring you a lot of joy.”

This story has been updated to reflect the timeframe of the potential loss of income for the band Dehd.

Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ.