New Brunswick’s arts and culture workforce contribute around $550-million to the province’s GDP, more than agriculture, pulp and paper, manufacturing, IT, seafood manufacturing or mining, but now that workforce is among those getting hit hardest by the widespread social distancing and other public health measures.
In New Brunswick, non-essential retail stores, bars and restaurants have been ordered to shut down or be limited to takeout or delivery only. The closures haven’t only been devastating to the province’s hospitality workers, but also to full-time, self-employed musicians like Michel LeBlanc, who don’t qualify for programs like employment insurance (EI).
The Dieppe musician’s main sources of income are bar shows, private events and festivals. With all those things no longer happening, he’s out of work.
“I’m functionally unemployed,” says LeBlanc.
“During the winter, it’s pretty much all bar gigs. So right now, leading up to the summer, if I can’t play in a bar, I can’t work at all.”
The federal government has been moving fast to meet the needs of people not eligible for EI. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new legislation for a Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). This taxable benefit would provide $2,000 a month for up to four months for workers ineligible for EI who lose their income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
LeBlanc says he will be applying for any programs he qualifies for.
“I’m just going to have to wait it out and see if I can budget as much as I can before it gets there,” he says.
Though the government help is good, LeBlanc says he would like to see a way where self-employed people could pay into the national EI program.
“I do wish there was an opt-in system for EI. Technically we can’t qualify for automatic EI, but if there was an opt-in system where we have to pay a little bit more, for example, I wouldn’t be opposed to that. It would be nice,” he says.
“This situation is unprecedented, obviously, but it does highlight the fact that, yeah, we’re taking our careers in our future in our hands, but if we have an ability to volunteer for a program, that would be great too.”
With no place to play, LeBlanc is one of many musicians in the province live-streaming performances from their homes through Facebook or other streaming services. He held his first Facebook Live show last week where he took requests from his virtual audience. Though it didn’t cost to watch, he did provide an email address where audience members could send tips.
Though the tips were less than what he’d made at one of his regular shows, he says his online show not only attracted his regular fans but people who haven’t come see him play before.
“Especially at my age, most of my friends now are not bar-hoppers anymore,” says LeBlanc. “It was really cool.”
Other than Facebook Live shows, which he’ll now be holding every Thursday night, LeBlanc has been doing his best to get ahead of his finances. He’s been able to get his mortgage payments pushed for three months and he hopes to secure similar arrangements or payment plans for his car loan and power bill.
“It’s not so much that I can’t pay. I have a few bucks in my bank account,” he says. “But if I can get ahead of it before it gets bad, it’s in my best interest.”
For New Brunswickers looking to support their local musicians during this time, LeBlanc suggests following their social feeds and finding out any virtual shows they’re doing. Even just sending them some love helps.
“Follow them on Facebook, their live [videos], if they’re on Twitch or any streaming services, donate what you can. Every little bit goes a long way,” he says.
“Even just support. I saw a video someone took of their two kids dancing to [my music] playing on their TV. That’s the cutest thing ever. That makes all of it worth it.”
Musicians aren’t the only artists getting hit financially by the pandemic, visuals artists are facing challenges too.
She had an exhibition of her personal work booked at art galleries in St. Andrews and Florencville, both are postponed.
“That would be really good for my career and I would use that when applying for grants. There would be exhibition fees that I would receive for that,” says Jones. “That part of it, it’s like a gig for a musician. I’ve kind of lost two gigs basically.”
One advantage visual artists like Jones have over performance-focused artists is that they have a physical product. Artists that produce a physical product are able to take advantage of things like e-commerce and ship to anywhere in the world.
“At the gallery, a lot of our clients are outside of Saint John and we ship to them anyway and sell online,” says Jones. “A lot of my clients the kind of people who used to live in Saint John but now they live in Newfoundland or Alberta so I ship a lot of my work anyway, so that’s still just carrying on.”
Though visual artists like Jones have the advantages of e-commerce, business has slowed down. Not a lot of people are looking to buy a painting during a pandemic.
“When everyone is feeling happy and secure and able to go out, that’s when people buy things. I think it will certainly [impact us] in the long-run,” says Jones. “But I think out of any art form visual artists are a little more able to adapt to a situation likes this. We don’t need a paying audience to come into a physical space. We have this product.”
To help supplement lost income, Jones plans to bring her monthly art history lecture series she would normally host at the gallery, online.
“I’m going to just be delivering it online essentially, and then ask people if they can donate $5 or $10 just to support this and I can do more of them,” she says. “I can keep cranking out art history content, so just asking for a few dollars worth of support to fund the research and the equipment we need.”
Like LeBlanc, Jones says she will apply for any government support she qualifies for.
“If we’re eligible, great. We totally would apply for that,” she says. “I think overall income for both my studio and then for the gallery will be lower as long as this carries on.”