Cancelled gigs, reduced income: How the pandemic has affected gig workers in the arts and entertainment industry

Artists share how the crisis has upended their lives and livelihoods

Payton Glagau, a dancer and performer from Calgary stands by the door of her house.
Calgary-based dancer Payton Glagau had to stop teaching classes when the studios she taught at closed because of the pandemic. Teaching dance classes comprised the majority of her income. COURTESY PAYTON GLAGAU

When the pandemic hit, performing artists such as dancer Payton Glagau lost the majority of their income when performances were cancelled. In Glagau’s case, her income came from teaching dance lessons and performing in live shows in Calgary, Alta.  

“The majority of my work is gig work, or has been. I teach a lot of dance classes as a contractor and I used to teach through a few different studios. But during the pandemic both (studios) where I was teaching shut down,” Glagau said in a Zoom interview. 

“I used to perform regularly as well. Obviously, that’s not really a thing anymore,” she said.

Glagau has been dancing professionally for nine years, and she is also a freelance graphic designer. She hopes to move to Quebec to start a new job in the graphic design industry this summer. 

A Statistics Canada study published in May of last year said that gig workers in the arts and entertainment industry “may find it considerably more difficult to continue their business activities” due to social distancing measures.  

Cancelled gigs, reduced work hours

It’s been well over a year since the pandemic started, and gig workers in the arts community are still struggling to find work.

I would be doing shows at least once a month on the weekends… sometimes it would be more than that,” Glagau said. 

At least four shows that she had lined up last summer were cancelled. 

Dance studios also had to close their doors due to pandemic protocols regarding non-essential business. Glagau went from teaching five hours each night, five days a week, to holding two private lessons a week on Zoom. Though she could charge a higher rate for private lessons, she said it was nowhere near the income she would receive from teaching classes in a studio. 

For Burlington, Ont. country music singer Tianna Woods, last summer’s story is somewhat similar. 

Country singer Tianna Woods poses with her electric guitar.
For country singer Tianna Woods, the pandemic meant losing out on performing for live audiences. It also meant that she had to start putting out content online to build her music brand. COURTESY TIANNA WOODS

“I had a number of festivals booked. They were all cancelled because of the pandemic and… it is likely going happen again this summer,” Woods said. 

“I luckily have another job…I have a full-time job, and I am lucky that I have a job because I am able to use some of those funds to keep my music going,” she said.

Woods handles disability management claims as part of her full-time job. 

“Without that revenue, I don’t know if I would have been able to maintain the music. It’s hard to say if I was full time, 100 per cent doing (music), it would have been very, very challenging without the shows.”

An independent artist, Woods has been producing country music for over seven years and performs with her eponymous band at festivals across Canada. 

Finding new ways to monetize 

Olga Barrios is a Colombian-born choreographer and arts educator who shuttles between her home country and Canada each year on exchange programs. Barrios, who spoke to us from her home in Bogota, told the Toronto Observer that all of the Canadian dance festivals she was booked to participate in last spring and summer were cancelled.

For Barrios, the cancelled shows meant a significant loss of income. Apart from festivals, her other source of income was teaching dance at a studio in Hamilton, Ont. She was unable to travel to Canada due to travel restrictions forcing her to teach online lessons with her students over Zoom. Within a couple of months, Barrios said she had to wrap up her online classes because students had a brief opportunity to take live classes in Canada before the non-essentials businesses closed again when the second wave of COVID-19 hit Ontario hard.

Dancer and choreographer Olga Barrios poses in a fierce dancing pose on a balcony.
Dancer and choreographer Olga Barrios uses exchange programmes in Canada and Colombia to perform and teach dance. Stuck in Colombia for most of the time last year, she used online modes to collaborate with artists in Canada. COURTESY OLGA BARRIOS

Barrios said she was frustrated. “I didn’t know what to do. I was blocked for a while. I couldn’t really create or organize my ideas in terms of what to do, where to go,” Barrios said. 

She had to look for new ways to “find my money,” she said. Every year, she would plan ahead and apply for grants for creating new performances. Due to the pandemic, she had to scrap these plans and she has been looking for new grants for artists.

For Woods, finding new ways to monetize her music hasn’t been easy. She set up a website to sell her songs and merchandise.

“I have found that I have sold more merchandise at live shows than on my website, unfortunately,” she said. 

While online sales have been slow, Woods hopes to further promote her merchandise online in order to bring in more revenue.

For Canadian gig workers and freelancers like Glagau, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit [CERB] and Canada Recovery Benefit [CRB] provided a helping hand. However, it wasn’t always enough. 

“(To qualify for) CRB you had to be making less than half of your income from before. So, if I was making slightly more than half of what my income before was but not quite enough to live off of, I wouldn’t qualify,” Glagau said.

“There were a few months when it was really, really tricky,” she said.

Yearning for live audiences

With almost a year of not performing for a live audience, artists are yearning to get on stage in front of people. With easing restrictions, some artists can expect to perform for smaller audiences, but large gatherings of “hundreds and thousands of people” still won’t be possible, Woods said. 

“I hope it gets better for everyone. Hopefully, we are near the end of this pandemic and we can start getting back to some sort of normalcy. It’s been over a year, you know,” Woods said.

“Summer is gonna be good for performing,” said Barrios, who will be travelling to Toronto from Bogota to perform at the bi-annual Vanguardia Festival organized by a collective for Latino-Canadian artists called Vanguardia Dance Projects. The festival will have reduced number of participants but Barrios hopes that it will be the start of live performances again. 

Performing live will be a welcome change for Glagau who has been filming dance at home with her digital camera. She hopes that the easing of restrictions will allow her to travel to Quebec and that she will find dance studios where she can start teaching again.

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Posted: Jun 16 2021 11:36 am
Filed under: News Spotlight On Small Biz Unique Business