How Covid-19 Killed Live Shows and Rappers’ Incomes

How Covid-19 Killed Live Shows and Rappers’ Incomes

With touring accounting for more than half an artist’s income, people have been forced to get creative.

Over the past few years, Blimes Brixton and Gifted Gab have watched their rap dreams blossom. As West Coast duo Blimes and Gab, the two have been co-signed by Method Man, worked with major brands such as Converse and Pandora, and graduated from small venue performances to festival stages like Austin City Limits and the Uncool Festival. And when their song “Feeling It” was featured on the season four premiere of HBO’s Insecure and their debut album, Talk About It, launched, they were poised for another, more significant upgrade.

Instead, they sat home.

Thanks to Covid-19, the duo had to cancel a handful of prominent festival shows booked between March and late June — and with those live shows went half of their annual income. “I don’t know when that moment was when I realized shit ain’t finna be the same,” Gifted Gab says, “but I do know we weren’t getting those deposits and everything was postponed until the unforeseeable future.”

Most artists weren’t making a lot of money before the pandemic. An artist could get one million streams of all of their music and it likely wouldn’t net them $9,000. “Especially with independent artists, no one just makes music,” Gab explains. “To be an independent artist, you have to have at least five to 10 hustles. You’re not going to pay your rent off of music until something significant happens.”

Perhaps worse than the dent Covid-19 has put in artists’ wallets is the ceiling it placed on the growth of a crop of newcomers, just as they were primed to truly breakthrough to a wider audience. After all, interest is made on the charts — but stars are made on the road.

Live shows have been a major part of those hustles. “A festival show could be your income for a month,” says Blimes Brixton. The importance of performance held true even in the upper echelons: In 2018, touring revenue accounted for more than 80% of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars’ individual income as music artists. Since the onset of Covid-19, though, the biggest touring companies cancelled or postponed all shows, and many music festivals and major events followed suit.

Now, Covid-19 is laying bare one of the more disturbing facts about making a living off making music: If you don’t tour, you don’t earn.

“The conversation among all creatives is, ‘Oh shit, there are no more shows.’ Everybody is taking a hit from that,” says Ron Gilmore Jr, a Grammy-nominated producer who is also a touring pianist for J. Cole.

To make money, Blimes and Gab have pivoted into sync licensing by writing music for TV and films, as well as falling back on other skills. “Throughout my career, I’ve popped in and out of working in the movie industry as a coordinator or a production assistant,” Blimes says. “That’s one of the hustles I can always go back to if I need to.” They are also developing two new TV shows, with one of them — about their journey as a female-identifying interracial hip-hop group — set to be directed by journalist/documentarian/author Nelson George.

For Bronx rapper Don Q, the pandemic has proven a bit more nerve-wracking. He’s not a national star, but he’s built a respectable cult following in New York City, amassing 570,000 followers across Instagram and Twitter while securing features with 50 Cent, Pusha T, and Meek Mill. His own songs have yet to breach the Billboard Hot 100 though, which makes his live shows in the tristate area an essential income stream. “I’m not a super mainstream artist who can go to another country and make a whole bunch of money,” he says. “This is where I make a lot of my money.”

To make up for lost revenue during the pandemic, he’s been scaling back on his spending while recording feature verses for other artists. But, he’s already anticipating Covid-19 rendering that hustle virtually obsolete. “You have to think that’s going to slow up,” he says. “People can’t make money with the pandemic going on, so people aren’t going to be spending money on features.”

There are more Don Q’s than there are Jay-Z’s in the music world. Jay-Z’s touring income in 2018 may have been over 80% of his income as an artist, but it was barely a third of the $76.5 million he made overall that year from his various business interests, according to Forbes. Jay-Z could choose to not tour for an entire year, as in 2019, and still make eight figures. For the vast majority of the rest of the industry, their lives oscillate between financially secure and struggling to survive — based on where and when the road takes them.

A 2018 Citigroup report on the music industry revealed artists only receive 12% of the estimated $43 billion annual revenue generated by the recording music industry. That slice turns to crumbs when you factor in the fact that the top 5% of artists receiving 77% of all music revenue, including 60% of all concert ticket sales.

Given that, multiple artists I spoke to said they structure their annual spending habits around the fraction of the year when they’ll be on the road. “We’re in an industry where money comes fast, but it sometimes comes few and far between but in lump sums,” says Atlanta rapper Deante’ Hitchcock. “Folks will think the next check is coming next week, but as we see, God can shut everything down.”

Perhaps worse than the dent Covid-19 has put in artists’ wallets is the ceiling it placed on the growth of a crop of newcomers, just as they were primed to truly breakthrough to a wider audience. After all, interest is made on the charts — but stars are made on the road.

Guapdad 4000 is one of those artists. The Oakland, California rapper began releasing music in 2017, but saw his star rise in 2019 after being featured on Revenge of The Dreamers III, the Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum compilation album from J. Cole’s Dreamville label — and releasing his own critically acclaimed Dior Deposits mixtape three months later. Guapdad didn’t wait for the plaques before hitting the road. He spent 58 of the final 92 days of 2019 on three separate tours — opening up for Dreamville’s Earthgang, Denzel Curry, and Bay area MC P-LO. Just like that, he was receiving more money from shows than he ever did by simply releasing music.

His next stint would be as a supporting act for Jack Harlow’s Roaring 20s Tour — until Covid-19 swept in and the tour was forced to cancel all 24 dates. Also scrapped was a tour Guapdad was planning to headline in 2020. While other artists might fall back on selling merchandise online, that wasn’t an option for Guapdad: before he was a rapper, he was a scammer. He once lost $40,000 in a Bitcoin scam gone wrong and has preached the gospel of credit card fraud and identity theft in music videos.

“My biggest kryptonite in this shit as a brand was not being able to sell merch with e-commerce because I’m a scammer,” he says. “For these being my first tours, and me wanting to come out in the green or at least break even, I had to sell merch at the live shows, but without the live shows I couldn’t do that.”

Instead, he pivoted into what he was known for before his music: social media antics. A week after tours were cancelled he created a series called Rona Raps where he’d freestyle on Instagram Live with friends like Joey Bada$, Wiz Khalifa, Buddy, and Chris Brown. He’s also pitched other digital content to sponsors and says he has done at least a dozen virtual concerts, including one in virtual reality, to bring in revenue and exposure.

Additionally, he’s been able to leverage the pandemic to thrust himself into the same e-commerce industry his past once barred him from. He started a clothing brand called Scamboy, which he claims netted him $30,000 over a single weekend — the equivalent of what some artists of his stature make after months on tour.

In reality, it was an epiphany more than a financial windfall. “From that $30K, I’ll probably keep $1,000,” he says. “I have to pay my rent now. I live with a house full of people, so I’m buying groceries and cooking. They’re also people that work for me, so I want to keep them within arm’s reach of the resources they need. That shit can be expensive.”

Like Blimes and Gab and Guapdad, other artists are proving that the hustle lives on, even when it’s not business as usual. This time last year, Ron Gilmore Jr. was making close to $30,000 opening up for Ari Lennox on her Shea Butter Baby Tour. In mid-May, two months after all touring was halted this year, he started the Ron Gilmore Academy of Music offering virtual lessons in music theory, production, and piano proficiency. In its first 10-week cycle, Gilmore taught 10 students a week at a price point of $200 per student, netting him $20,000 without leaving his home or touching a stage. “Teaching opened up more money than I was making on tour,” he says.

The outlook on the return to touring is as fragmented as the reopening timelines across the United States. Some artists won’t return until there’s a vaccine. Others are ready to go now. DaBaby had no issue performing less than six feet away from a crowd of maskless people in Atlanta over Memorial Day Weekend. Whether the pandemic pivot was successful, a failure, or nonexistent, every artist wants to go back to making a living as an artist — instead of stitching together enough hustles to resemble a life.

“It don’t matter to me, I’ll pull up and perform in a hazmat suit with a full-body protective latex durag,” Guapdad says. “I just need the opportunity to do so — and hopefully it comes soon.”