Covid hit Nashville hard. Now the performing arts are staging a comeback
When the pandemic hit the US in March 2020, concert halls fell silent, stages faded to black and livelihoods hung in the balance.
The US performing arts industry immediately lost more than half of its jobs; and unlike other hard-hit businesses such as restaurants, bars and barber shops, there was no swift rebound. The live arts suffered some of the deepest rates of job loss and have been among the most stubborn to return, remaining 21% below pre-pandemic levels, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.
The pandemic not only stalled a major economic engine that includes film, TV, theater, advertising, digital streaming and museums, but it also altered career trajectories and set the US arts and entertainment industry back by years.
Although the shutdowns were most visible in places like Broadway and Hollywood, the damage has been especially pronounced in smaller cities with heavier concentrations of performance arts jobs and revenue, researchers for the Brookings Institution reported in September 2020.
Nashville, Tennessee — a city where the number of musicians and other performing artists is more than five times the national average — was one of them. Its creative industry lost more revenue from April 2020 to July 2020 than any other large US metro area, according to the Brookings report.
But Music City wasn’t muted for long. Nashville was the first major US arts and entertainment hub to reopen; and, thanks in part to a surge in business activity and an influx of new residents, it’s been one of the fastest-growing metros in the nation.
However, Nashville and other arts-heavy economies aren’t out of the woods yet, said Michael Seman, a co-author of the Brookings report and assistant professor at Colorado State University’s Arts Management school.
“Even with the momentum, venue owners and a lot of people within the creative economy, especially the independent artists, a lot of them depleted their savings,” Seman said. “They’re still trying to make up for the depletion of savings while trying to make a profit. It’s very challenging still.”
Here’s how some of Nashville’s artists, actors, singers, dancers and other performers managed their way through the darkest days of the pandemic and how they’re doing now:
Tamiko Robinson Steele fastened her iPhone to a tripod and flipped on the light box. She stood tall, put her back against the wall and delivered monologue after monologue.
It was a few weeks into 2020, and the Nashville native and actor spent three solid days recording dozens of performances. She packaged them for audition self-tapes that she then sent to 10 performing arts companies across the US.
She had worked hard to get to this point. Growing up, there was little access to the arts in her community, and the performers on the larger professional stages didn’t look like her.
After working her way up through the Nashville performing arts scene, Robinson Steele was riding a strong wave of momentum. She had lead roles in two acclaimed local theater shows, had done some TV and film work, and saw an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective of the stage by performing outside of Tennessee.
“I was just spreading my wings,” she said, “and then the world shut down.”
In the months that followed the pandemic shutdown, Robinson Steele improvised the best she could to fight off gray days and pull in some money by shuttling food as an Uber Eats driver and stacking boxes at an Amazon warehouse for a couple of months.
She shifted her approach to her professional work by seeking other related opportunities, such as teaching, coaching and producing.
“It made me realize that there are other ways to serve the arts,” she said, noting she’s now working as a production manager and also preparing for audition season.
But the arts industry still seems disjointed, she said.
“It just feels like we lost our footing, and the ground is still shaking, and we’re trying to keep balance and make sense of what this is,” she said. “It’s been harder on some than others, as things usually are.”
Creating art in a void
Before the pandemic took hold in 2020, Becca Hoback, a Nashville dance artist, was rehearsing five days a week with a local dance group. She was eyeing auditions that would help her vault her career outside Tennessee to places like New York, Costa Rica, Germany, Sweden or Tel Aviv.
By April 2020, however, the company work and steady paychecks vanished as performance arts spaces shut down.
In that void, Hoback focused on being an individual performer. Practicing in her 10-by-12-foot spare bedroom, she finally got the chance to finish a solo project that she had been chewing on for years. When Nashville started opening up again, the steady company work still had yet to return. So Hoback focused on increasing the number of dance classes she taught, producing others’ shows, participating in socially distant performance installations and performing her solo piece.
Now that global health conditions have improved, Hoback has again turned her sights toward taking her career overseas.
“I feel massively changed as a person and as an artist, even just in the way that I think about myself more as an individual now,” she said. “I think that has given me a lot of agency to be able to go out there and just try to make dance work happen.”
‘An industry gone in a blink of an eye’
Covid-19 decimated the live music business in 2020, causing an estimated $30 billion in lost revenue, according to concert trade publication Pollstar.
“It was an industry gone in a blink of an eye,” said Ben Roberts, a Nashville-based musician who, with his wife, Emily, makes up the Americana duo Carolina Story.
Such an abrupt stop is a hard shock to overcome for folks like the Robertses, who have spent much of their 13-year marriage on the road.
Early on, they played nursing homes, churches, homeless shelters, living rooms, bars, coffee shops, and even the traditional music venue. They’d crash on couches or grab a spot on the floor at other people’s houses before they eventually earned enough for hotel rooms.
The merchandise sales and crumpled-up bills stuffed into tip jars kept fuel in the tank and food in their bellies.
“At the same time, those were some of our most memorable shows,” Emily said.
All that work and all those miles were starting to pay off, and 2020 was supposed to be “the year” for Carolina Story. The band had a coveted opening spot for a national tour, a record label, a manager, a booking team, a publicity team, a radio team, an attorney, and a new album dropping called “Dandelion.”
But the album’s release kept getting delayed, the Robertses came down with mild cases of Covid-19, touring vanished, and the label deal fell apart.
They kept trying to pound the pavement. But every time they seemed to catch a bit of momentum, another wave or variant of Covid would hit the communities where they were scheduled to play shows, and they would have to cancel.
“It was kind of defeat after defeat, and I lost my publishing deal, which was paying the bills, and it all just kind of compounded — layers of rock to form this huge mountain,” Ben said.
Depression and anxiety settled in, and times grew heavy. After Emily experienced a miscarriage, Ben said he spiraled deeper into drugs and alcohol. Following a three-day bender, he checked into rehab in August 2021.
“It was inevitably going to come to some kind of tipping point,” he said. “It has to, and a lot of people don’t make it out.”
Nearly nine months later, they have a 13-song album they’re shopping around; Ben signed another publishing deal and wrapped up a solo album that’s been in the works for seven years; and Emily is due to give birth to their third child in August — right around the time of Ben’s one-year sobriety date.
“It’s really just shown me that you really do just have to keep going, one foot after another,” Ben said. “Don’t worry about what happened yesterday or what’s going to happen tomorrow. All we have is the here and now.”
Emerging from the storm
Late into the night on March 2, 2020, a storm hit Tennessee that unleashed devastating winds, rain and tornadoes.
Kyle Pudenz wedged himself next to the vacuum cleaner in his hall supply closet and white-knuckled the doorknob, pulling with all his might. An EF-3 tornado barreled through his backyard in East Nashville, mowing over decades-old white oak, black walnut and hackberry trees; crushing his carport; and puncturing his roof.
The twister’s winds ripped open the French doors at the back of the home, slathering the inside with mud and leaves, and nearly sucking out the closet door — and Pudenz — in the process.
Until the storm hit, it was shaping up to be a solid year for Pudenz, a violinist and composer who had performances booked well into May and June. One such event was a prized gig “several lines of longitude away” to play for the troops alongside country singer Jared Blake.
Instead, Pudenz had a $40,000 mess on his hands and a performance just days away.
“I remember thinking, ‘How in the hell am I going to get all of these repairs done while I’m doing all of these tour dates?'” he said.
“As it turned out, that was hardly the issue that I was going to be dealing with,” he added.
Nashville residents and businesses barely had time to lick their wounds before the other shoe dropped. On March 8, the city reported its first case of Covid-19, and Nashville joined the world in quickly shutting down many aspects of daily life.
Pudenz’s planned gigs hit the chopping block as did a recently launched business venture with his father handcrafting and selling electric violins. The pandemic forced many musicians to hawk instruments for additional cash, not buy new ones.
For Pudenz, the “float,” the money artists stash to get by between gigs, quickly depleted. The arranging and composing work couldn’t fill the gaps and Pudenz had to cut back.
“You basically cut every excessive cost you can find, and think, ‘What’s the smallest amount of money I can live on and just continue existing until gigs come back?'” he said.
Fortunately for him and others, cooped-up audiences tuned in to virtual performances (Pudenz got a big signal boost and financial help from a weekly web series called “Music Saving Musicians”) and some other lifelines were thrown: Philanthropists backed grants; crowdfunding supported projects; and the CARES Act allowed unemployment benefits to be temporarily accessible by freelancers, such as artists like him.
Now that the gigs are coming back, Pudenz has cobbled together enough work, including the overseas military shows, for a schedule closely resembling what he had pre-pandemic.
‘Art is not dying’
When the curtains dropped on in-person performances, the internet became center stage for many artists, including actor and singer Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva.
“I never would have thought that I would buy a ring light, buy a green screen and start recording from home,” said Whitcomb-Oliva, a Nashville native who has been active in the city’s professional theater scene for the past 15-plus years.
The pandemic allowed art to extend past physical boundaries and into virtual spaces.
One highlight of Whitcomb-Oliva’s pandemic innovation was “One Vote Won,” a 30-minute opera from Nashville-based composer Dave Ragland about Black women’s voting rights.
“We recorded the entire opera and sang the entire opera with a Bluetooth in our ears,” Whitcomb-Oliva said. “We never filmed together … never sang together. Here I am, standing in an empty, huge room, the camera’s rolling and there’s fog. I’m singing a full opera with no one.”
During the past several months, more live events have started to return.
Whitcomb-Oliva’s performances now include an audience again — a visceral connection critical to the art itself.
But the ascendance of digital’s role in the arts has been unmistakable, said Douglas Noonan, co-director of the Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation Lab at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His research showed that digital streaming gained a bigger share of the arts and entertainment industry in 2020, while performing arts and other live entertainment faltered.
Such dramatic shifts force a reimagining of what the arts are, Whitcomb-Oliva said.
“Things progress, and you have to find a way, and I think people are still trying to figure out what that means for the arts,” she said. “Theater is not dying. Art is not dying, but things are progressing, and I think we have to be ready to progress with it.”
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