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  • Zach Fowler

Hope and Fear

Updated: May 21

March 11, 2020 was the last time I did anything even remotely resembling “work.” I woke up somewhere in Virginia and helped drive my good buddies in Matt Stell’s band and crew to the Gramercy Theater in New York City as a relief bus driver. Once the bus was parked, I ate a piece of New York-style pizza, said my farewells to the band and crew, and flew home to Nashville from JFK Airport in New York. There’s a very good chance that at least one person that I walked past on that day had COVID-19, perhaps even died from it. The next day, the CDC banned gatherings of 50 people or more…effectively putting my job and the jobs of countless other music professionals on an indefinite hold…and the day after that, the quarantine began. 11 days prior to the quarantine was the day I last set foot onstage...February 29, 2020. I played a concert with the LOCASH boys in North Dakota where we arrived late because of a broken plane, but we had an amazing show nonetheless...one for the books, even despite not having a soundcheck. We were locked in and having fun. If you had told me that was going to be my last time onstage for the foreseeable future, the last time I would see my musical brothers until God knows when, the last time I would play a note in front of a crowd, I probably would have relished those moments much more. I’ve experienced a harsh life lesson since then…to never, NEVER take for granted how lucky I am to have the blessing of doing what I love for a living. Now, here I sit, wondering when, or even IF, I will return to the job I love again.

I’m not writing this as some sort of “pity party” or “woe is me” because what was looking like a promising 2020 has pretty much gone down the shitter. I know I don’t have it even REMOTELY as bad as many people do because of this pandemic…restaurant workers, bartenders, Broadway musicians, the orchestra players, the ones impacted by the tornado, the people who have been furloughed or laid off, students (particularly the class of 2020), teachers, doctors, nurses, and so many others. I have not lost anyone directly related to me because of COVID-19 (and I pray that I don’t). I know how lucky I am, how blessed I am, and how bad things could be. I eat two meals a day, watch more TV than anyone ever should, get a minimal amount of exercise, and I’ve practiced on my instrument more in the two months than I probably have in the last year. As far as pandemics go, I’m fine...at least, physically.

All that being said, with no real end to this in sight, especially for the live performance industry, a new phase of this pandemic is beginning to surface, and I find myself feeling completely weighed down by it. I can practice, exercise, do everything I can for the betterment of myself while stuck in this bubble…but the bottom line is that for the last two-and-a-half months, I haven’t been myself. I haven’t done what I’ve worked my ass off for 21 years to do…what I practiced and strived for year after year, packed my life and moved to Nashville hoping that I would get a chance to do…make a living playing music. For five years, I’ve been blessed to do exactly that…and now, my way of life and my ability to provide for my family stands at the mercy of a virus, and even worse, humanity's response to it. I know I occupy the same boat as countless of my musical brothers and sisters out there, and that’s what makes all of this even more soul-crushing. I miss what I do. I miss the road, I miss my musical brothers, I miss my friends in the other camps, I miss the fans, I miss the music…but I think most of all, I miss what all those things made me. I am who I am because of it, and now that it has been ripped away, I feel less like myself. Lord knows I’ve enjoyed the time at home with my wife…we’ve done so much together even though we’ve been mostly confined to the walls of our townhouse…and though I try my best to support her, I truly believe my wife has supported me ten-fold through this whole thing. People often joke that I am some sort of “rock star” because of what I do for a living. Folks, if you want to see a REAL rockstar, take a look at my wife. I’m not too proud to admit that she is the one I now rely on, and that without her, I would probably have most of my things in a storage unit while I tucked tail and drove back to my hometown to wait this thing out. I know she sees the depression and disappointment on my face every time the words “postponed” or “cancelled” appear next to a date on the calendar.

Every day is a roller coaster of emotions, and the NOT knowing is probably what sets that roller coaster in motion in the worst way. There is no “silver lining” to this situation…NONE. I want normal life (or at least some resemblance of it) to get back as quickly as possible. I know I’m not alone in this desire…this NEED to be back to normal human interaction. But the bottom line is that my job depends on crowds. What I do CAN’T be done remotely. There is no “new normal” for touring musicians like me…I can’t adapt to being home because the very nature of what I do requires me to NOT be home. There’s no such thing as a Zoom meeting for a live concert. There is no demand for curbside or delivery service for a sideman. Professional athletes can compete without fans in the stadium, and still make a staggering paycheck…performing artists don’t have that same benefit. I can do sessions and play bass tracks from home, but I am not high enough on the first-call session list to earn an adequate living playing bass tracks from home because of the fact that I am on the road so much. My phone isn’t exactly ringing off the hook. Though this pandemic has allowed me some time to dabble in songwriting, I am nowhere near the caliber of singer or songwriter to sit in front of an iPhone and go live on Instagram, and I refuse to do the whole “virtual tip jar” thing. And what exactly am I supposed to do on Patreon? There is absolutely no way to turn “virtual live performances” into a sustainable business model. I’m a BASS PLAYER. My way of life and means of earning a paycheck depend solely and entirely on my ability to travel anywhere in the world and perform on my instrument in front of CROWDS. I don’t make a living unless people come together in a densely-crowded environment. I’m painfully aware that my industry, and the jobs of every live performing artists, will be THE last thing in a long list of “normal” things to return. That could mean as soon as July, that could mean the Fall, that could mean when the “second wave” levels off, that could mean next year, or worst-case scenario, the live performance industry that I once made an honest living from might be unrecoverable. Unless a vaccine is formulated, or at least a more effective and faster way to test for the virus, I fear the status of my employment, and that of every single live performer, could be on hold an indefinite amount of time…and that scares the shit out of me. Musicians are not “essential employees,” and concerts and music festivals are certainly not considered “essential service.”

I repeatedly hear all the cliches that are supposed to make me feel better about this situation...”We’re all in this together,” “We’ve been given an opportunity to rest and reset our lives,” “We’ll come back better and stronger than before,” “The show must go on,” etc. I want to believe all of that...believe me, I do. However, it is VERY difficult to take solace or have ANY sense of optimism in such uncertainty, especially since some people have such a jones to open the country back up, they’re willing to completely ignore social distancing guidelines and a 14-day decline in new cases to do so. What was supposed to be a 14-day quarantine has turned into 70 days and counting, and the absolute EARLIEST that I will be able to return to work is at least another 50 days from now…but it is HIGHLY doubtful that will happen, especially with the spike in new cases since many public places have been allowed to open up…a decision that I personally find absolutely moronic. People in Nashville know full-well that the $1,200 stimulus along with whatever bare bones amount we get for unemployment is not NEARLY enough to keep us afloat for 120 days, let alone the rest of the year. There are times that I wonder if anyone outside of the entertainment industry even really cares about it. I have yet to hear ANY political leaders directly address the struggle of musicians, artists, actors, sound and lighting engineers, riggers, local crews, theatrical employees, venue employees, security and office staff, studios, agencies, and of course, the other other area of the entertainment industry which I have become familiar with and benefitted from over the past two years, bus drivers and other logistical staff. Perhaps the reason we don’t hear this industry being addressed by political leaders is because as far as many of those leaders are concerned, what I do and what most “entertainers” do isn’t necessarily considered a “real job.” To that point, I’ll simply say that I have paid my taxes for the last 20 years (never late, mind you) as a musician, and I know many others who have as well. We’re not just sitting on a bus with a bunch of girls doing drugs and drinking beer (well, some do, but not the TRUE professionals who take this job seriously)…we are away from our families working, sometimes for days and weeks on end. What we do is, in every sense, a JOB.

So as part of this blog, if you are reading this, I implore you, I beg of you, for the sake of my life, my living, and my family…don’t go out unless you absolutely have to…and if you do, take all the necessary precautions you can to protect yourself and others. I want to go to a restaurant, get a haircut, have some cocktails at a bar, go see my friends at a show, and all that fun stuff I used to do just as much (if not more so) than anybody else. What I will say is this (and you’ll have to forgive me if this sounds one-sided, but frankly, I give more of a damn about my ability to get back to work than I do about anyone’s opinion at this point): This virus is NOT a hoax nor a conspiracy, and we have not made it to the other side of this medically. Despite what conspiracy theorists might spew out of their clueless pie-holes, despite what privileged assholes will make you think about the “freedoms” you lose by wearing a mask or staying home, this shit is REAL. 92,000 real people have died in this country as a result of this virus, regardless of whether the numbers are skewed or not. We were not prepared for it, and we are now paying a horrible price for our ignorance. This virus has exploited our weaknesses as human beings, both physically and mentally, because that's what viruses do. We can't beat this by wishing it away, or grasping some untested or unproven miracle cures, or spreading propaganda and paranoia, or pretending that everything's fine and we should hustle back to living our normal lives. We NEED to listen to the experts, not the talking heads, and if you think watching some conspiracy theory videos on YouTube about government control is going to make our situation any better, I invite you to talk to someone who has lost someone to this virus, and see how REAL this thing is. We have to use science and modern medicine founded on data and evidence. This isn't the time to bite the hand of what's saved us every other time. NO deaths are acceptable to open the economy. ANY talk about the economy opening up, or church services being “essential,” or schools opening up because kids are not as “at risk” as older people is, for lack of a better word, bullshit. I don’t mean to sound selfish, but my ability to support and provide for my family depends on two things…this virus becoming manageable, or the virus disappearing completely. NEITHER of those two things have happened, nor will they happen if we as a society think we are above or beyond it. We can’t afford to mess this up…lives AND livelihoods are on the line. Yes, people have died over the last two months from the flu, cancer, automobile accidents, gun violence, heart disease, and the “usual” methods of mortality…and perhaps some of those deaths were mislabeled as COVID-19 (whether by accident or ulterior motive). But if there is a way to stop this virus, especially by spending a couple of weeks chillin’ at home or doing something as simple as wearing a mask in public, why would we NOT do that? I love my job...but my job is NOT worth the loss of one life, and definitely not worth the loss of tens or hundreds of thousands of lives if we screw this up. My safety, and the safety of my wife, my family, my road family, the fans, and every good-hearted individual on this planet is my #1 priority, and it should be for every single person who truly believes that we are indeed “all in this together.”

It is my deepest hope that live music comes back, and soon. Perhaps I can take the optimistic approach and say it will come back stronger. Or perhaps I should be cautious about my optimism and say that fans will be a little “gun-shy” about being among crowds again because of this microscopic monster that has tainted our way of life, and maybe the crowd size may suffer as a result. On the other side of the spectrum, it puts a knot in my stomach every time I think about the possibility that I may not play my bass in front of people for the rest of 2020. Seeing posts about tours and concerts being cancelled or postponed until 2021 has become almost a daily occurrence, and although there are some dates still on my calendar starting in mid-July, I’m trying to prepare myself for the reality that those dates, and every date left in 2020, may not happen. No matter what, live music MUST come back. The arts as a whole, live performances in particular, MUST come back...because if it doesn’t, not only do I and tens of thousands of others lose the jobs they love and work (and have worked) so hard for, the world loses its cultural and creative identity. When live music does return, I’ll certainly be ready to get back to work. I can only hope that it is sooner rather than later, because the man I’ve been for the last two months is not familiar to me at all. The days go by quickly, but the light at the end of the tunnel everyone talks about is still painfully distant, and all I want is to get out of this fucking tunnel.

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