Local Delaware musicians facing uncertain future

As a way of getting through the current closure of bars and restaurants due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, folk/Americana duo The Honey Badgers, comprised of Erin Magnin, of Dover, and Michael Natrin, of Smyrna, are offering Facebook Live concerts today at noon and Wednesday at 7:45 p.m. (Submitted photo)

To borrow a phrase from Don McLean, this became the week the music died.

At least for the time being.

With the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), bars, halls and restaurants were forced to cancel live music from their menus as they themselves were forced to close or offer just carry-out food and alcohol options.

Further, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that gatherings be limited to 10 or fewer even put the brakes on smaller house concerts.

With those rules came unemployment for scores of local musicians who make either all or part of their livelihood entertaining area patrons.

And with estimates that the crisis could extend throughout the spring and perhaps beyond, the future is one of uncertainty for them.

No place to play

“It’s hard to remain positive when the bottom just drops out like this. I have lost every gig for the foreseeable future,” said longtime musician Joey Fulkerson who performs solo at Dover’s Touchdown Restaurant and as part of the Nothin’ But Trouble blues quartet throughout the region most every weekend.

“I have always tried to keep some savings in the bank for the sparse times or in case of an emergency but this is unprecedented. No doubt all of my utility companies, mortgage company, insurance companies, etc., will not be kind or compassionate when it’s time to get paid.”

Sol Knopf, who performs weekly at two J.D. Shuckers’ locations in Sussex County as well as now-shuttered Dover Downs and across the area, faces the same problem. He depends on these weekly gigs for his entire living.

“All of my shows have been canceled,” he said.

“It’s been a stressful time for everyone in all kinds of industries. I’ve spent the last couple days having a pity party. But then I think of people like my son, who’s a paramedic, out there risking his own health to care for others and it makes me realize how shallow it is to feel sorry for myself.”

Among the shows Mr. Knopf had booked was another installment in the highly popular Songwriters and Storytellers series at the Smyrna Opera House scheduled for April 4 that was to have featured fellow songwriters Tony Arata, Thom Schuyler and Craig Bickhardt.

Smyrna musician Sol Knopf, normally a mainstay at area spots nightly, says he has had his entire schedule of gigs canceled for an indefinite period. (Submitted photo/John Mollura)

In fact, the Smyrna Opera House has postponed all events until May 4. They hope to make up the shows and tickets will be honored on the new date.

The schedule also included Wilmington singer Sean Reilly doing his show “Sinatra 101: The Tales Behind the Tunes” on March 28.

Mike Hines, lead singer of the popular area party band Mike Hines and The Look, received his first cancellation for May on Wednesday. His appearance at what was to be the annual Harvest Ridge Winery Food Truck Festival in Marydel on April 3 is no more.

“Mike Hines and The Look consists of five band members, with two on our production crew. With our situation, some people have full-time jobs. But with the others, it’s their main or only source of income. This makes things very challenging, because nobody knows how many other cancellations are coming down the road,” he said.

“We definitely understand, because it’s better to be safe than sorry and restaurants, bars (are closed) and events are not permitted at this time anyway. We have a private party that has been postponed. So we won’t lose that date. It has been rescheduled. We still have gigs booked in mid to late April and throughout May, but it all depends on if the various venues are allowed to be open or not.”

He said the uncertainty is the hardest part of the whole thing.

“Last week we were informed that people would not be allowed to gather in places with more than 250 people, then that number was quickly reduced to 100, 50 then down to 10 people. With more information coming out every day, it was inevitable that there would be cancellations, but we didn’t know when, how many or for how long this will go on,” he said.

“Even with that said, everyone is dealing with the effects of the coronavirus and it’s even worse for a lot of people. I’m very hopeful that we will all get through this if we think positive, pray, wash our hands regularly, do things to protect ourselves and others, social distancing and make wise decisions.”

Mike Hines, lead singer of Mike Hines and The Look, says the band just had its first gig canceled for May this week.

Craig Coffield, lead singer of local blues band Bad Avenue, said his last gig on Friday went great but that was his swan song for now.

“Bad Avenue is booked every weekend so this will be our first lost gig (this weekend). We played last Friday at Sully’s Irish Pub in Middletown and I was concerned nobody would be there but we had a full house. I expect to lose everything in the month of April.”

He is the founder of the Central Delaware Blues Society, who hosts jam sessions on Thursday nights at the Walter L. Fox American Legion Post in Dover and also bring in national acts. Thursday night was supposed to be one such show.

“We had Albert Castiglia scheduled and that was canceled. He actually had started out from Florida for an East Coast tour but went back after the decision to close restaurants and bars. All shows were canceled,” Mr. Coffiefld said.

“They are the musicians who are most affected by this because they earn their living with music. I tell people they can help out by buying CDs, T-shirts or any other merchandise the artist sells. Our Thursday Night Jam at the American Legion has been put on hold until further notice as well.”

Other means of support

Jim Rezac, who had a St. Patrick’s Day event at the Touchdown Restaurant canceled, offers the same advice.

“If you have a favorite local musician who is not playing due to the coronavirus situation, please consider buying CDs on their websites or Facebook pages. Please consider booking them for a house concert in the fall but maybe paying for it now,” he said.

He said he isn’t quite as affected by this as others in his profession because of his other job, also music-related.

Local singer/songwriter Jim Rezac supplements his income by giving guitar lessons.

“My income is based partially on performances and partially on teaching music. Fortunately I’m not in a classroom situation. I have one student at a time. I do FaceTime lessons and I absolutely disinfect my studio three or four times a day,” he said.

“I’ve also limited studio space to one student at a time and have requested that people stay in their cars, rather than my waiting area, until their lesson starts.”

Ashley Mitchell, who performs solo and with her husband Donny Marvel as Rivers and Rhodes, gives voice lessons on the side.

“I am also the owner of a music lessons facility therefore we rely on music in every way to pay the bills and keep our lives moving forward. We have started to offer Skype lessons, but unfortunately performances are completely out of our hands,” she said.

“My heart goes out to everyone affected by the spread of COVID-19. As a musician, this health concern has truly slammed the brakes on not only our current gigs but any negotiations for summer shows we may have been working on. I think the unknown is what is so scary.”

Looking ahead

Summer shows are especially on the mind of Sussex County-based lower case blues. The trio’s schedule had already become packed at the beach during that time.

“This has been my full-time gig for 17 years now. We are absolutely put on hold and it’s not ideal (to say the least),” said the band’s lead guitarist and singer Jake Banaszak.

Sussex County-based lower case blues relies on a full schedule of gigs at the beach during the summer.

“I completely understand why it needs to be this way and we can only hope things get better sooner than later. My biggest concern right now is the summer season. Living at the beach, we bank on May through September. Many events are booked as well as our usual bar gigs. If we can get through this now and be OK by May, I will be alright. But I am worried. I’m trying to use this time to be productive right now, practicing and writing.”

Going online

As they try to stay productive, some bands are streaming shows live on Facebook.

Dover native Erin Magnin and her husband Michael Natrin, who make up the folk/Americana duo The Honey Badgers are one such group.

They streamed a concert from their home studio in Newark Sunday night and plan to do it again today at noon and Wednesday at 7:45 p.m. They can be viewed at Facebook.com/honeybadgerfolk.

“We decided to produce some concerts from home for two big reasons. Number one, we are full-time working musicians, and the majority of our gigs for the next two months have been or will be canceled. We still want to be making music for ourselves and for others — that’s the best part of being a musician,” said Ms. Magnin.

“The other reason is to hopefully help our community through a strange and scary time. We know people are at home, staying in to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and it can be frustrating to be isolated and unsure of what will happen. Our hope is that by tuning in to an online concert, people can relax and be entertained for an hour instead of marinating in fear and uncertainty. It’s also a chance to feel a little more connected to our fellow humans in a time when it’s easy to feel isolated.”

Ashley Mitchell supplement her income with giving voice lessons.

She too spoke of the uncertainty around the whole situation.

“It’s a strange time to be in the event industry right now. As performers, the majority of our income comes from playing shows to crowds of people. The same goes for venue owners, concert promoters, bookers, etc. We’re all scrambling to try to figure out how to make up the income from two months at least of canceled shows. I wouldn’t say there’s really a tangible solution yet, but I have seen people banding together, coming up with ideas to help, and supporting each other however they can,” she said.

“That’s a beautiful silver lining in the midst of all of this. One thing we’ve done is put a link to a virtual tip jar in our livestream description. It’s been great to see people still supporting the arts during this time, plus it helps to offset the income that we are losing.”

Nancy and Jerry Maliwesky form The Acme Anvil Company duo and also host monthly Sunroom Songwriters concerts in their Dover home. They had to cancel a recent concert by Craig Bickhardt.

They too have started streaming shows at facebook.com/AcmeAnvilCompany.

“Based on recommendations from our governor, the CDC and the federal task force, and also knowing that many of our audience members are seniors, like us, we are having to make tough decisions along with our performers, about holding or canceling concerts. Right now everything is on hold. We hope that we will get a handle on this virus before our next house concert, but we won’t know for sure until closer to that time.

“In the meantime, we were wondering what we could do to raise people’s spirits and to continue to offer a sense of community and joy through music, while protecting the general public, so providing a live Facebook concert seemed the perfect solution to the necessary gap in our concert schedule.

“Many of our house concert alumni are also doing live streaming concerts and we are spotlighting them on our Sunroom Facebook page. We are hoping that together we will get through these trying times, and that by supporting one another we can grow as a community.”

Mr. Rezac loves that idea.

“Various platforms have methods of tipping the performer and buying tokens to do so. This is not as hard for the listener as it might seem. We are already prepared for digital money transfer so I’m hoping this makes up for missed gigs for some of my friends. I might do some live streaming myself just to keep playing in front of people. Not sure I’m going to go the route of getting tips just yet,” he said.

Hanging on

Alex Pires, owner of Highway One Companies, which comprise The Rusty Rudder, Bottle & Cork and other beach venues, has vowed to pay for all booked gigs despite them not going on.

Mr. Fulkerson hopes other owners will follow suit.

“I am skeptical of many of the venues who have benefited financially for years off of the musicians, stepping up to cover them in this disastrous time. I have only seen one example so far,” he said. “Local musicians are always the first to volunteer their time and effort to help out our community. I’m praying that this passes soon and we can get back to normal.”

Joey Fulkerson says it’s hard to stay positive when “the bottom just drops out.”

Mr. Knopf is looking forward to that time as well.

“Truth is we’re going to survive this and hopefully be stronger and wiser for it. As for income, I’m going to have to put my thinking cap on and adapt.”

Added Ms. Magnin, “We’re all scared for many different reasons — concerned for the health of ourselves and our loved ones, the financial stability of our local businesses and community, and whether we are doing enough in the face of a pandemic. It’s been really important to remind ourselves that we can still create, we can still grow, we can still make music, and hopefully by doing just that, we can help others to feel a little bit better as well.”

Local party band Glass Onion, a regular sight at area nightspots most every weekend, offered on their Facebook page perhaps the best advice to those living in a world without live music.

“We do have to remind you that this is not a vacation from dancing. Please continue to dance at home with the radio or, for some of you, the music in your heads, as we don’t want anyone out of shape when it’s time for us to get the party started again! We will all get through this.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.