By Maggie Roberts
As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 14 – New York-inspired
It’s no secret that the New York music scene is ever-changing and evolving. The last century has highlighted the beginning of jazz and R&B, the greatest songwriters of Greenwich Village and The Brill Building, and the emergence of punk, rock, and hip hop. Not to mention, it’s also been the birthplace for some of the most legendary venues like The Bowery Ballroom, Radio City Music Hall, Rockwood, and of course, Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, the music scene has taken a drastic turn in 2020 and left many shut-down venues, musicians without work, and NYC locals to crave music more than ever.
Previous to the COVID experience, NYC truly was the city that never sleeps. You can find subway buskers out at the crack of dawn and upcoming indie artists playing at your favorite coffee shop. Maybe you stopped in at a local bar on the weekend where some of the greatest jazz musicians of the twenty-first century took a swing at a song. You could also head down to Madison Square Garden to see one of Billy Joel’s residency shows. Not only has New York been the center for jazz, R&B, rock, punk, and pop music, it’s also the center for musical theater. Any night of the week, you can stroll into Manhattan to see Wicked, Hamilton, or The Phantom of the Opera, where some of the most famous performers grace the stage. Even Sara Bareilles and Alanis Morissette had Broadway shows.
2020 has left the music scene in discord, and shutdowns have been painful to musicians, Broadway, and small venues. It’s projected that ninety percent of independent venues across the country might close permanently without government aid, severely impacting the New York City music scene. While The Save Our Stages Act is still being debated in Congress, musicians have had to adjust and reroute. Most shows from small and large artists have been canceled, postponed, or moved onto a live-streaming platform. Artists that were frequent New York performers like Diplo, John Legend, and The Roots have tried out live streaming and video-formatted performances. Other small and local artists and venues have also joined this live stream moment, but are they really that profitable when you don’t have hundreds of thousands tuning in?
One of the most iconic local venues, The Bitter End, has an unsure future. It was just a short couple of years ago that Lady Gaga could be seen on the balcony of the venue singing to hundreds on the street. Now, a collective of The Bitter End frequent performers, like American Idol finalist Julia Gargano, have held live-stream fundraising events to help save the beloved venue. More venues have also taken similar approaches with live streaming the past couple of months on platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitch, and Instagram, while others have decided to close permanently. With COVID restrictions and lockdowns in place, met with limited space in the city, venue owners and musicians have been left scrambling for other sources of income.
This moment will forever be marked in time. While some musicians reminisce on the past music scene, most are spending their time trying to figure it all out like the rest of us. This time last year, walking down Manhattan, you could not escape music. Every block had a performer, every restaurant had a gigging musician most nights of the week, and every day, there was a huge act coming to town to play at one of New York’s finest venues. Throughout this pandemic, optimism lies underneath the chaos—guitar sales have remained strong in the city, live stream benefit concerts have picked up with large brand sponsorships, New York City songwriters have grown resilient and continued their creative journey, and music lovers are awaiting the day they can enjoy a show again in the city that never sleeps. So will the music scene ever be the same? No, I don’t believe so, but once we can enjoy music free from COVID, I truly believe New York will rejoice and push for an even better scene where musicians, artists, performers, and venue owners are unequivocally celebrated.