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Don’t blame 2020: musician Rhiannon Giddens thinks the current crisis goes deeper than the pandemic

Multi-instrumentalist, opera writer, composer, and mom, Rhiannon Giddens, is at home making tortillas while her kids play in the next room. Kitchen clangs, muffled shuffles, and the occasional kid’s voice can be heard in the background as she tries to explain what it feels like to be a musician in these strange times, audible proof that it’s hardly a normal year for her or any other touring artist. For almost 15 years, she’s traveled the world with her take on American roots music, but in 2020, the pandemic has forced her and her partner, Francesco Turrisi, to get creative with their familiar spaces. Her recent collaboration with legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and appearances on NPR’s Tiny Desk and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert all shared one unusual stage: the same room in Francesco’s house in Dublin, Ireland.

“People have it hard right now,” Rhiannon says. “I don’t have it hard. I’ve been going for 14 years straight. I had two kids and I took them on the road. This is the first time I’ve been in one place for longer than, you know, a month and a half, maybe for the last decade and a half. So, I'm enjoying it, to be honest — that part I'm enjoying. I'm enjoying being with my kids. I’m not enjoying the uncertainty of the future, I'm not enjoying seeing colleagues of mine in dire straits. I'm not enjoying any of that.”

Rhiannon’s not downplaying the effect COVID-19 has had on her life and career; she’s just looking at things with a bird’s eye view. She balances hardships like losing a major tour with silver linings like being able to take out a business loan to pay her band and crew for the slashed dates. She’s also aware that when it comes to adversity, timing is everything. Had the pandemic struck in the nascent stages of her solo career in 2015, when she pressed pause on her Grammy award-winning string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, to release and tour her first solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, it would’ve been an entirely different story.

“I put all of my savings into touring that record,” says Rhiannon. “I had saved all this money from my time with Chocolate Drops, and I put all of it into my solo record — I had no money, and if that had gotten canceled at that time, I would be destitute. So I'm very aware that timing and everything has played a big part in the space that I'm in.”

COVID-19 has the music industry in crisis mode, and no one feels that more than musicians at the bottom of the food chain. While it’s tempting to call all these problems a sign of the times, Rhiannon thinks it’s not so straight forward: from the dismally low per-stream payouts artists receive from the industry’s biggest music platforms, to business deals that benefit major labels and streaming platforms and a select few chart-topping artists, the pandemic is showing the cracks in a system that has been broken for a long time.

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Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi.

“It's the new normal, but there was a lot about the old normal, that wasn't good,” says Rhiannon.

Earlier this year, Rhiannon saw this first hand when she, along with Amanda Palmer, Simone Giertz, Kurzgesagt and Molly Burke, helped choose the recipients for Patreon’s What The Fund relief initiative. With money raised from Weird Stream-a-Thon, and a $60,000 donation from Patreon, the fund provided $100,000 for creators affected by COVID-19. And according to Rhiannon, the task of reading through the submissions for the grant was “absolutely heartbreaking,” reaffirming her belief that the music industry’s problems go well beyond the problems of 2020: “We're gonna have to start demanding the right to not live on the edge.”

Rhiannon mulls over this issue for a bit, which reminds her of a token phrase that pops up in conversation every now and again. Sometimes, the words are uttered in the form of a rebuttal, like when she was fighting for higher streaming royalties on Capitol Hill, and a not-to-be-named congressman told her, “Well, you get to do what you love, right?” Other times, it’s stated like, “Oh, you’re so lucky...I’m just dying to get out at five o’clock,” which may sound innocent on the surface, but hidden in this misplaced flattery is the implication that Rhiannon’s occupation isn’t a real job: “I employ people. I pay people's health insurance.”

Rhiannon hopes to continue raising awareness that making music is not just a creative pursuit, but a creative business, run by hard-working people who deserve the same quality of life as everybody else.

“Because there is this dichotomy set up with, you're doing what you love, that's enough,” says Rhiannon, “so you should be grateful for that, and you shouldn't have a savings account, and you shouldn't have good health care, and you shouldn't have a nice place to live — bullshit. But this is what we're fed and we internalize that as artists.”

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