Playing live again while facing (un)safe conditions
Lydia Warren, PhD, musician and scholar based in Memphis, Tennessee.
She received a PhD in music from the University of Virginia in 2021, a BA in music from Smith College and a Five College Consortium Certificate in Ethnomusicology in 2014, and an AS in music from Middlesex Community College in 2011. Prior to and during her studies, she worked as a full.-time internationally-touring musician (guitar and voice). In this post, she reflects as a musician on how is to go back to working in live music after a pandemic.
Before the pandemic, I played between 2 and 8 shows per week as a guitarist in Memphis, Tennessee. Musician friends of mine in the city played just as much at tourist-focused eateries, local dive bars, fancy restaurants, festivals, theaters, and everything in between. When the pandemic hit, restaurants, music clubs, and bars in Tennessee were mandated to close for several weeks here and there. The local health department issued, redacted, and reissued rules at various times that were (and are) unevenly followed, like reduced capacity, social distancing, and masks. As of now, October 2021, Memphis music venues are open, and there is mask ordinance, but as soon as patrons (and musicians) have a beer in hand, their masks sometimes disappear for the rest of the night.
In the absence of club closures or penalties for disregarding rules, pandemic and “post”-pandemic musicians delineate their own boundaries for gigging. Many vaccinated, masked-up musicians are back to playing as many gigs as they can and some even get tested regularly. Many more vaccinated, maskless musicians play, too, often on the same stage as those with masks, disregarding the current local mask ordinance and their fellow musicians’ safety. Unvaccinated musicians also play. Some are masked, and some are unmasked.
Once I got vaccinated, I began playing in clubs again until the Delta variant ripped through Memphis, and then I returned home, where I remain except for outdoor gigs. For me, the hardest part of the pandemic is the never-ending realization that I can’t trust people to keep themselves and me safe. I can’t trust people in spaces where music is made to be vaccinated, or wear a mask, or social distance. Sure, I couldn’t really trust everyone before the pandemic, but now there is no willing suspension of disbelief. Instead, there is inescapable visual proof that safety is not a priority in almost every interaction, and it feels impossible to have intimate co-creative experiences with musicians and audience members when basic trust and safety are disregarded. It is not the pandemic keeping me from making music anymore, it is the pervasive lack of respect for basic safety and boundaries that keeps me away from stages, and I wonder how many other musicians and music fans around the world feel as alienated as I do for sitting out of gigs they could play or attend if everyone would just wear a damn mask.