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Musicians struggle to make ends meet during second lockdown

With concerts canceled and street performance banned, many French musicians are taking second jobs to support themselves.

BAYEUX, France — Matthiew Louvel, a professional steelpan player, can no longer tour for concerts like he usually does at this time of year—so he decided to take his act to the streets of Caen, France. “To do away with the boredom, I often come to play at Centre Ville in Caen,” he said, playing the handpan outdoors.

But since France imposed a second lockdown starting late October, Louvel has been robbed of this little joy—and the extra income it provided. The stricter rules banned all “non-essential” activities outside the home, including performing arts. While some lockdown restrictions lifted on Dec. 15, cultural centers and performance venues will stay closed until at least Jan. 7, and street performing for crowds of people is still not allowed.

“As the weather of Caen is unpredictable, I was not very regular with street music, but now I will not be able to play at all,” Louvel said. He is now teaching music online to make extra money and supplement his government aid during the lockdown.

Members of music band Le Maestrio pose after a concert in France last winter. (Photo Courtesy Pierre Bernon d’Ambrosio)

The second lockdown has caused significant hardship and uncertainty for the 1.3 million performing artists of France, many of whom did not qualify for government aid and are taking up other jobs to support themselves through this period. After a dry spell during the first lockdown from mid-March to May, some performers had finally started getting offers for small gigs and events. But the second lockdown put an end to much of that, causing more financial and emotional turmoil that is likely to continue for months.

During the first lockdown, the French government gave a 12-month extension to the “intermittents du spectacle,” a system of government wage subsidies for artists who alternate between periods of employment and unemployment because they work on short-term contracts. Artists normally have to reapply every year, but the extension allows current recipients to continue getting the grant until August 2021.

 

Performing artists were initially happy with the extension. But with the second lockdown, many are now concerned that they won’t be able to complete the required 507 hours of rehearsal and performance over 319 days to qualify for future aid.

Although Bayeux-based guitarist Pierre Bernon qualified for “intermittents du spectacle” aid, he is worried that the second lockdown won’t leave enough time to complete the required number of live performances to qualify for the grant next year.

“There will be no gigs for at least the next five months, and a few friends of mine could not get the ‘intermittents du spectacle’ as it is very difficult to prove that a show has been canceled,” Bernon said. He explained that working artists will somehow have to book and perform 507 hours of rehearsals and gigs, equivalent to about 63 eight-hour days, over a span of just five months or so between August 2020 and August 2021 in order to qualify for aid the next year. Furthermore, that aid will be smaller than performers are used to if they can’t do as many concerts as usual.

“I’m sad because I want to work,” Bernon said. “A lot of my friends who could not qualify for the unemployment aid are looking for students, so that they can teach music and earn some money. During the first lockdown some people even did online programs, but this time even that has taken a backseat.”

Musician Jean-Marc Savigny, 54, is also worried about booking enough live shows to get the unemployment grant. “I’m supposed to rebuild my rights for unemployment compensation, but all the events are now canceled,” he said.

To make up for the canceled gigs and ensure a steady income, Savigny joined the Ornithological Group of Normandy as a board member.

Gambini and friends touring Australia for concerts last winter, before the pandemic hit the world. (Photo Courtesy Sylvian Gambini)

“I have been a part of the ornithological group since I was 11, so, the financial impact on the loss of concerts was not too much for me as I had a job,” he said. “I was lucky to get that job as I studied environmental sciences and agriculture before being a musician. Most of my friends were not that lucky. I don’t even know how much loss they might have suffered.”

But with France entering the second lockdown, Savigny’s worries have increased. He and his wife, who is also a musician, had to cancel concerts they had planned to perform over the Christmas holiday. “We’re in trouble now as we don’t know what’s next,” he said.

Nathalie Hardouin, a singer, harp player, and music therapist in Paris, is also struggling with the lockdown as many institutions where she healed people with her music have shut their doors on her.

“Many institutions do not want me to continue the therapy sessions in lockdown because I take patients in groups of 10 to 15 people,” she said.

 

Apart from the financial pinch, the lockdown has also taken a toll on the morale of musicians who badly miss the stage.

“I do not feel like picking up my guitar to compose new tunes as I do not know when will I get to play it for the audience,” said Sylvian Gambini, a noted guitarist in Bayeux. “I feel kind of depressed as I am unable to play on stage. It is very uncertain and I do not know when will I be allowed to play for the audience again.”

Still, many musicians are trying to find rays of hope in the darkness of the pandemic.

Hardouin is banking on President Emmanuel Macron’s promise to not let the economy suffer during the second lockdown.

“I hope the government announces some new measures…so that we can survive,” she said. “Some institutions in the city have asked me to do smaller sessions of music therapy with proper precautions, which is quite a relief.”

Gambini says he is now counting his blessings. “At the end of the day, I am getting paid by the government, which is sufficient for my family and I. I am trying to stay positive, as I can always play for myself and my family.”

(Edited by Emily Crockett and Bryan Wilkes)