Pandemic created ‘mad famine’ in arts industry, Manitoba musician says

It’s difficult to see inside the Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club. The windows of the music venue on Winnipeg’s Main Street are covered in concert posters, taking onlookers back to a time months ago, before the venue temporarily shut down.

For Ashley Au, a musician and composer, the posters are a reminder of a time when her livelihood was more stable — before the pandemic.

Au works as a bassist for hire and was anticipating a summer of playing stages at the Jazz Winnipeg Festival and Winnipeg Folk Festival, in addition to travelling the festival circuit.

But then the pandemic hit, and in short order every single gig was cancelled.

“I saw my entire summer just evaporate in front of me,” she said.

“We kind of rely on these cycles to continue as they normally would uninterrupted, so this type of interruption is pretty catastrophic.”

Au says the closure of venues like the Times Change(d) High & Lonesome is difficult for artists like her. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Au is among the many Manitoba artists affected by the pandemic.

A report by the Manitoba Arts Council says most people who work in the arts and culture sector — one worth $1.6 billion annually in the province, and employing more than 20,000 people, according to Statistics Canada — lost income this year.

In addition, the 485 people and organizations who responded to the arts council’s May survey said they expected they would lose around 70 per cent of their normal income between May and August of this year. More than half said the bulk of their income comes from gigs, contracts or sales.

Au says artists are generally used to famine and feast when it comes to work and income.

“But this was a mad famine that just appeared out of nowhere.”

Adapting to the times

Musicians like Au are having to adapt to a world with public health restrictions.

In the past, she would sometimes hit the festival circuit with more than one band, playing several shows per festival. Other times she’d tour with a band and play every single night, incurring costs like eating at restaurants or staying in hotels.

These days, Au doesn’t have the income coming in from playing those shows, but she also doesn’t have the expenses.

Even so, she’s very strict with her personal budget in these uncertain times.

In July, she played bass with the Chuck Copenace Group at a digital concert through Jazz Winnipeg’s Apart Together series, live-streamed from the Burton Cummings Theatre to audiences in their homes.

WATCH | Ashley Au performs with the Chuck Copenace Group:

“It was strange. You play, then you pause between songs. You try to talk to the people on the internet, who are not responding to you, obviously. So it’s really awkward,” Au said.

“Normally you’re playing off other people’s energy. There’s sort of a frenetic vibe when you’re on a stage, whether you’re at a concert hall or whether you’re at a bar or a club with a DJ playing all your favourite songs.”

As the new director of the Cluster: New Music and Integrated Arts Festival, Au also had to work with her team to pivot quickly from an in-person festival this year to an online one.

Instead of relying on her own income to pay the bills, Au joined about 100,000 Manitobans who applied for the Canada emergency response benefit, intended to help support Canadians who were unable to work in the first months of the pandemic.

“It was an amazing relief to have,” she said, adding she’s hoping to apply for Canada recovery benefit, which is replacing the now-discontinued CERB.

Opportunity to help those below poverty line

Au says most people she knows working in the arts usually make less than they did on CERB, and have to rely on part-time jobs on top of their passion projects to make ends meet.

“Looking at the support that’s been provided by provincial and federal governments … it’s great to see, but it really pulls back the veil as to how a lot of these systems have been designed to fail us,” she said.

Au believes more supports were put in place because the pandemic affected people of all income brackets.

“To have government officials tell you ‘this is what a single person needs to live on their own, pay their rent, buy food …  maybe get a dental appointment in here and there,’ it’s really kind of a slap in the face to people who have been struggling for much longer than this.”

She hopes the pandemic creates an opportunity to examine a universal basic income so all people, including those in the arts, can weather the feasts and famines of life.

WATCH | Winnipeg musician Ashley Au talks about how the pandemic has affected her livelihood:

Winnipeg musician and composer Ashley Au says a jam-packed summer full of gigs and festivals were cancelled because of COVID-19. 1:42


This story is part of The Cost of COVID-19, a series on the financial impacts of the pandemic on ManitobansHave a story idea? Email Rachel Bergen.

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