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Northeast Ohio Musicians Cope With Gig Cancellations Due To Coronavirus

ROAM's Kevin Richards and other local musicians are trying to weather all the cancellations [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
Kevin Richards plays a battered, 1930s guitar under an image of blues legend Robert Johnson.

Some area musicians feel caught between safety and earning a living during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been a tough week for violinist Ariel Clayton Karas.

I'm getting e-mails in my inbox that performances are canceled preliminarily or things are indefinitely postponed,” she said. “I'm on track to lose 50 percent of my performance income this month.”

As a solo musician, and as a member of groups like “Classical Revolution Cleveland” and “Opus 216,” Karas plays over 200 gigs a year, ranging from the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center to the Happy Dog Saloon. She also plays a number of dates featuring Irish fiddle music. St. Patrick’s Day is always a big moneymaker for her and she hopes that the cancellation of this year’s parade doesn’t have a ripple effect on bar gigs. But, she’s got a back-up plan.

I decided that every single day of this whole chaotic thing, I am going to be posting a one-minute video of an improvisation of how I'm feeling in that moment, she said. “I've been calling it my 'pandemic playlist.'”

Violinist Ariel Clayton Karas is starting a “pandemic playlist” as a way of expressing her feelings [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

If nothing else, the playlist will keep Karas’ name and talent in circulation while the family relies on her husband’s job as an historic renovation contractor to balance the budget.

Kyle Kidd’s band, "Mourning [A] BLKstar," was set to play the Cleveland campaign rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders Tuesday night. But then, things changed.  

They literally came up to us as we were about to walk on stage for the sound check and said the governor has requested that all public events be canceled for the evening,” Kidd said.

They had agreed to do the rally for free, so they didn't lose a paying gig, but the band members did take time off from their day jobs to prepare for the appearance. An hour later, word came that their upcoming gig at the University of Dayton had been canceled. And that was just the beginning.

All of us are independent freelance musicians or artists in some capacity, and we've all lost gigs within a matter of hours,” Kidd said. 

So, it looks like work will be scarce locally. And upcoming tour plans? It’s all up in the air.

This is unbelievable,” said Kevin Richards, leader of the East Side non-profit Roots of American Music (ROAM), which hires local performers to play roots music in venues across the region, from classrooms to senior centers.

ROAM had seven cancellations over the course of 24 hours a couple of days ago. They even had a gig booked for the Cleveland International Film Festival, which was canceled Wednesday. The 24-hour loss was about $1,200.

If this lasts a week, it certainly won't be the end of the world,” Richards said. “But, if this goes on for weeks, certainly it's going to hurt us from a revenue standpoint. I'm like, I don't know what to do. I don't know what to think."

But, when words fail at a time like this, Richards grabs a battered, Depression-era steel guitar and starts making up a blues, partly in jest, partly as a way to work through his feelings at the end of an unsettling day.

Karas said she’s trying to be responsible and follow the guidance of health officials banning large groups of people. “But also recognizing that I have two kids I have to feed,” she said. “And we have a car payment and health insurance and all of the things that we need. We still have to meet those obligations. It's a very difficult balance to know what to do.”

But, if necessary, she says she’ll play every restaurant, that’ll have her, until this crisis blows over. For Kidd, uncertainty and adversity are part of the bargain when someone chooses to be a professional musician.

This isn't the first time we've gone through something crazy,” Kidd said. “It's the first time it has hit home, I think, in such a way, you know. But hey, I'm just gonna keep doing what I do and find a way. That's what artists do. We make a way out of no way."

Mourning [A] BLKstar vocalist Kyle Kidd, making a way out of no way [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.