Nashville’s music was ready to start playing again after the March 3 tornadoes when COVID-19 precautions led to a stream of cancellations. But now as venues close and honky-tonks go quiet, the music industry is facing massive setbacks.
It’s been personal as well as professional for Mercy Bell. She recently left a desk job to pursue a full-time career as a singer-songwriter. She was tending bar at Rosemary & Beauty Queen in East Nashville’s Five Points when she had to shelter from a tornado with little warning.
Then she stepped outside and saw the aftermath.
“It was like Hollywood,” she says. “Like the set that you’d build to show the end of the world or a bombing or a disaster movie.”
She’s been helping friends with damaged homes. The bar where she worked cut back hours because of the neighborhood’s destruction.
But Bell was looking forward to things turning around. She was scheduled to share her work with influential audiences at SXSW in Austin, “this industry hotbed of networking,” she says.
Then COVID-19 hit.
SXSW was cancelled. The bar where she works has closed its doors because of the virus too.
While the city came together quickly to support those who suffered tornado damage, helping musicians during a pandemic is a harder lift.
The music industry in the Nashville area is worth nearly $10 billion a year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. And it’s not just the people playing music who are affected when the industry takes a financial hit: It includes roadies, lighting designers, stagehands, photographers.
As shows gets cancelled, they don’t get paid.
Dave Pomeroy, president of the local musicians union, knows what that means for Nashville.
“There’s going to be millions of dollars that could’ve gone into our local economy on various levels that’s just not gonna be there,” he says.
Some musicians are hoping to make up some of the lost income with online concerts for donation. Others are sharing their music for engagement.
And, for morale. After all, musicians are distancing too.
But for Nashville’s music economy to truly recover, once the show can go on, it must.