The spring and summer are supposed to be Matt Crowder’s busy seasons.
As a professional musician for the past five years, Crowder has made his living only through his music, traveling around as the front for a band that bears his name and as part of The Megan Doss Band, which specializes in cover songs.
When the weather gets nice, he plays almost every night of the week in bars, breweries and restaurants throughout the Dan River Region, with just a few days off per month.
But social distancing orders to stop the spread of the coronavirus prevents all establishments from serving in-house patrons or holding events, which means Crowder and fellow local musicians are suddenly without venues to perform in, and there’s no telling when that may change.
Many workers elsewhere in the gig economy — such as independent contractors, freelancers, small business owners and on-call workers — are seeing similar strains on their ability to work and earn money.
“When it’s your only source of income,” Crowder said, “and it gets taken away — I understand why, it’s all about the health and safety of the community — it’s a little scary wondering how you’re going to pay your bills, and whatever you might have saved up isn’t going to last forever.”
As a relief of sorts, new legislation has made it possible for gig workers to access unemployment insurance.
Typically, workers without a direct employer cannot apply for unemployment benefits, according to Hunter Byrnes of Byrnes Gould Law in Danville, but the recently passed CARES Act made it a point to include those workers as eligible for government assistance if their work has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The CARES Act significantly expanded unemployment benefits [extra money per week and extra weeks of eligibility] and simultaneously expanded the classifications for workers that are eligible for the benefits,” Byrnes wrote in an email.
Workers who might qualify should consult with the Virginia Employment Commission and the Department of Labor, Byrnes wrote. The nonprofit Longwood Small Business Development Center also has professionals available for free consultations with small business owners who have seen their opportunities to work diminish.
Mike Spangler, the sole proprietor of Mike’s Home Repairs in Danville, said he is fortunate to still have some work around town — primarily doing home remodels but sometimes also as a general handyman — but he recognizes that others are not as lucky.
“If we don’t get the work, we’re just as out as anybody else is,” he said.
In the last couple of weeks, Spangler has made calculated changes to what type of work he accepts while trying to be mindful of clients’ budgets and health.
“I have cut my hours back considerably to conserve their funding because I don’t want to drain them,” he said. “I’ve been advising my clients that unless these [tasks] are emergency situations, don’t spend your money on it.”
Like Crowder, the spring is also a busy time for Catherine Hairston, who owns Your Vision Photography Portrait Studio in northern Danville.
“It’s Easter season, so normally I would be overflowing with stuffed bunnies and fake eggs,” she said.
Under normal circumstances, Hairston said she could expect four days a week with one or two appointments for maternity shoots, senior pictures, family portraits and the like. Now, she only does two or three shoots per week if she’s lucky.
“The bookings are still coming in, but they’re not flowing in like they used to,” she said.
Hairston is still under contract for several weddings in the coming months, but those might also get pushed back based on each couple’s plans.
Her biggest concern, though, is paying the overhead costs for her studio.
“The studio lights aren’t even on right now,” Hairston said. “I’m only doing [shoots] outdoors. That’s how serious it’s gotten.”
As for Crowder, he and many other local musicians have resorted to performing through Facebook streams and collecting tips through apps such as Venmo, Cash App and PayPal. He’s missing out on the rates paid by venues for him to perform, but any money at this point is better than none at all.
“That’s not what we normally make, but all the tips and stuff are appreciated, and it really does make a difference,” he said.
To bring in more money, Crowder is now commissioning songs and offering guitar lessons.
He’s also attempting to record a new album in his home with the help of his brother, Jason, on drums and their father, Michael, on a variety of instruments. That task is proving difficult with just one microphone and an iPad, but being productive and creative while stuck at home feels good.
The album is his way to thank the fans who have tipped him during online shows.
“People have really stepped up and shown us a lot of love as far as trying to help out when they can,” he said.
Parker Cotton is a sports reporter at the Martinsville Bulletin and Danville Register & Bee. You can reach him at (276) 638-8801 ext. 215. Follow @ByParkerCotton.