How a busking musician in Houston has adapted to COVID-19 shutdowns

July 07, 2020 | By PLF

Strength, ingenuity, and adaptability are the lifeblood of entrepreneurs and small business owners. In 2020, those qualities have become more essential than ever.

Pacific Legal Foundation represents clients from across the country and from every corner of society. But entrepreneurs make up a large portion of PLF’s clients because they are very often the victims of overbearing and unconstitutional government policies. To understand how people and businesses are adapting to the challenges that 2020 has brought, we asked some of our clients how the COVID-19 shutdowns have affected them, how they’ve adapted, and their hopes for the future.

PLF client Tony Barilla is a musician and busker in Houston. Although Tony is already an accomplished accordionist, he busks on the streets of Houston to earn a living while refining his musical artistry and performance ability.

Houston normally allows street performances throughout the city, but accepting tips while performing is outlawed everywhere except the city’s very small Theater District. Performers must also complete an extremely burdensome permit process in order to legally play for tips. Permit approval even requires written permission from property owners adjacent to the site where performers intend to play—a so-called “heckler’s veto”—which is often difficult to obtain.

Before COVID-19, Tony was already fighting the city government for his right to earn a living with his music. Today, Tony explains, in his own words, how his challenges are even greater.

Like a lot of independent artists, my day job is in arts administration. I’m a musician/composer, but I’ve also spent the last couple of decades on the management side of nonprofit theaters and music schools, and I’m currently the executive director of a chamber music ensemble. We have a small staff, and my daily duties consist of everything from payroll to project management to marketing and plenty more. As an independent artist, my evenings and weekends were usually devoted to my own work with bands, theaters and other gigs: rehearsals, writing, recording and performing. Like a lot of artists I know, it was not unusual to work on art in some way—administratively or creatively—from morning until night, nearly every day of the week.

Very few people get rich doing either nonprofit arts administration or as a musician, so money is really the biggest challenge. Certain “commercial” art can be more remunerative, but if you don’t make that kind of art you won’t really make money. Society still needs this less profitable art, because it affects and changes the culture over time (think of those first hip hop artists who never really got the compensation they deserved, despite the impact they’ve had.) This is true for painters, actors and poets too. I’m friends with hundreds of artists in Houston, and all of them work very hard. But many of them struggle to make ends meet. We have very little savings, health care can be unaffordable, and the mental burden of this stress is another problem too.

After COVID-19, gigs just stopped. Every kind of performance. The solo gig I had scheduled for a fancy benefit. The monthly gigs my cover band could count on. The biannual recording session with my writing partner who flies in from overseas. For good reason, it all stopped. But so did the money.

The company I work for was in a suddenly precarious situation. Our annual benefit was canceled, leaving us with a huge budget shortfall. Our performances were canceled. We received some emergency government funding, but without knowing what the future holds we were unable to securely plan our season. Like most nonprofit arts groups, we immediately went from “always just barely scraping by” to “sudden immediate crisis” overnight.

We eventually moved out of our offices and did what we could from home, presenting a lot of work online. But this concerns me too: putting our work online can somewhat devalue it, and people might just expect artists to be compensated even less in the future. I’m proud of us for paying out the artists contracts that we had already signed, even for those shows that were canceled. But I know that even those checks we gave those artists were a drop in the bucket: they won’t go far for full-time professional musicians who count on multiple teaching and performing gigs a week.

Sometimes people asked me “Are you at least writing a lot, now that you have more free time?” The truth is no. I’m writing the same amount as before. Having more time doesn’t necessarily make you more productive, especially when you don’t know what you’re producing for: will there be shows again? Will people come to them? Am I supposed to write twice as many songs in my free time knowing that I’m not sure if I’ll have any money in a few months?

The worst case scenario that I see coming from the shutdown order is that the wider economy—bars, restaurants, grocery stores, shops and (especially in Houston) the energy industry—is so deeply affected that the arts get pushed aside and we lose a generation of talent. It’s not hard to imagine that we might be one of the earliest casualties. I will be in trouble if I lose my job and gigs and am unable to pay my bills. But the even worse case scenario is what will happen to those artists who are younger than me, and to artists of color, and to artists in vulnerable communities who were already struggling more than me. The worst-case scenario is knowing what they need to explore, and communicate, and connect with audiences…and not being able to give it to them.

I’m almost 50. If I can’t make a living in the arts and arts administration anymore it’s not the end of the world: I’ve made good things, and I’m proud of them and they made some small difference to an audience who appreciated them. I’m more concerned about the people who might not get that chance. Playing the violin or singing online is fine. It’s no substitute for doing it in person: it’s no substitute for connecting with an audience.

And a lot of artists—a whole lot of them—are teachers. They are the ones teaching young children how to sing and play and act and paint. If you are reading this, and you know a young person who takes music lessons, then it’s very likely that their teacher is also some kind of performer. That they work in the gig economy by being both a musician and a teacher. There are public schools who rely on outside nonprofit arts organizations to supplement their arts education. Sometimes those organizations provide the only arts programs available to those kids. If musicians everywhere lose their jobs and can’t work as musician/teachers anymore, it will have an effect on a lot of young kids too.

I figured out how to do my office work at home. On the old sewing machine table in our living room. I learned how to use Zoom. The same things everyone had to do. I spent more quality time with my cat and talked to friends online more than I used to. I wrote in the evenings, and worked on recordings in less than ideal situations, over the internet. And I tightened my budget. Again.

I hope that people take public health seriously. That we care enough for each other to take the precautions we need to take. There’s no easy answer to the struggle that my artist friends have ahead of them. But I hope that people will continue to value them. I hope that people will support the less famous artists that they love. Buy an extra t-shirt to give as a gift. Send $5 (or more if they can) to their favorite theater company (or chamber music ensemble!) And I hope that people everywhere will continue to actively support the movement for racial equality that’s sweeping the country: artists are engaged in that conversation, and that conversation gives me hope. I hope we will keep moving forward. I hope our actions will be as good as our words.

And I hope that, eventually, Houston will get rid of its dumb busking law. Not just because it’s safer now to play outside on the sidewalk than in a club or a restaurant (busking is much healthier than those traditional music venues during a pandemic.) But also because I can’t wait to throw my loose change to the artists I see performing on our streets.