How Will the Arts Survive – Insights From an Industry Expert in the Time of Pandemic Clampdown

One of the most poignant and thoughtful pieces I have read about art in the time of corona virus is from Ian Wheeler. The link to his piece in the New York Times is below, and is well worth your time.

I share his sentiments, it is wrong to think that times like these will be great for the creation of art. Too many people cite “King Lear” and “Macbeth” as evidence that present day Shakespeares or mere mortals will flourish. There are not enough patrons of the arts to prop up the countless creative people who are hurting badly.

Many artists live precariously on the edge of financial stability, many without health care coverage.

I had a chance to speak with Ian Wheeler, an industry veteran and keen observer of the arts. I have written several articles over the years about establishing a digital tip jar for musicians to help them survive in the age of meager earnings from streaming, so Wheeler and I were of the same opinion on many matters. By way of background, his bio reads:

Wheeler is the Co-Founder and Publisher of Talkhouse. Some of his first experience in the entertainment industry was writing about music for alt-weeklies Charleston City Paper and Athens, GA’s The Flagpole. He soon began managing bands and eventually co-founded Partisan Records, which led to a desire to improve the art criticism ecosystem and became the impetus for Wheeler and business partner Tim Putnam to start Talkhouse. To this day, he still apologizes for his early attempts to write about music and art, and now leaves that to the musicians and artists themselves.

How will the artist survive these days? Wheeler and I spoke about the proliferation of artists turning to the internet and offering up live performances. Will that generate any revenue for the artist?

Wheeler noted, “There are three major social media platforms, there are 10 streaming services, but fans don’t know where to go to find these concerts, and only a couple have actual virtual ticketing.” We agreed that a strategy of artists posting concerts for free is not a sustainable business model.

Spotify could be the platform, “but transparency is an issue.” Many people remain confused about how Spotify pays out approximately 70% of revenue it receives, but musicians get around $0.006 per stream. Other platforms are equally murky.

Wheeler advises us to “pay attention to artist, use Venmo to donate if identified by the artist.” But a record label executive told me that in a recent staff meeting they were perplexed about how to deal with their artists who were posting performances; the recording contracts give that right exclusively to the company to decide. Understandably, this particular label (and most others) are stepping back and giving the artist free rein.

Ian Wheeler

Wheeler points out that many of the bands he manages have superfans, known by name by the artist. “We go out of our way to serve the superfan. Artists are empathetic by nature.” The reciprocity today between artist and fan was unavailable years go. “The fan had no access to The Beatles,” observes Wheeler. Today, direct contact between fan and artist is de rigeur.

With physical music consumption (CD, vinyl) at a halt, other than sporadic mail order, Amazon is focusing on shipping essential goods. That leaves the internet as the only source for new music.

Wheeler and I bantered about the recent quotes relating to the importance of soccer and music. German soccer coach Jurgen Klopp recently asserted that “Football is the most important of the least important things.” Los Angeles-based chairman and COO of Warner Records Tom Corson humbly disagrees, he believes music is by far the most important of the least important things.

Wheeler and I are in Corson’s camp. Wheeler pointed me to Bill Murray as an example, who had a few hours earlier recounted how John Prine’s music was a literal lifesaver.

As Wheeler and I wrapped up our heartfelt conversation, I asked him about the future. “The fall will be a mess, trying to reschedule all tours that have been cancelled.”

Echoing a sports reference, Wheeler observed “the playbook is being thrown out the window.”

Read Wheeler’s excellent opinion piece here.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.