Last Wednesday, the Argentina-based bluegrass band Che Apalache was traveling through North Carolina when they got some distressing news. Two Midwestern dates on their sprawling U.S. tour had been canceled. It was the first wave of cancelations for Che Apalache as the grim reality of the coronavirus pandemic spread throughout the music industry. The band was about to embark on a 13-hour drive to Indiana, where they had a show scheduled in Goshen, Ind. And Joe Troop, the group’s bandleader and fiddler, had no idea what was going to happen.
“We’re going into the fourth week of an 11-week tour,” Troop told me that afternoon, March 11. “We don’t know what the next seven weeks of our lives are gonna be. We’re really at the mercy of what people decide to do.”
Troop knew the whole tour was teetering on the brink of collapse. And he had already booked weeks’ worth of travel accommodations, rental vehicles, hotels, and airline tickets which he knew wouldn’t be refunded. “The worst case scenario is that we don’t have any income this year,” Troop said. “We live off of touring. This is our entire income. The rest of the year is spent planning for the tours. This is a complete upheaval of our economic structures.”
A novel virus that hardly anyone had heard of three months ago is likely to disrupt the entertainment industry more severely than any event since September 11, or perhaps the 1980s AIDS epidemic. (If that seems like hyperbole, consider that some leaders are comparing this crisis to World War II.) And Che Apalache, which had been touring behind its album Rearrange My Heart, a Grammy-nominated fusion of bluegrass and Latin American folk, is hardly the only act facing financial devastation in the pandemic age. Festivals have been called off, venues have gone dark, countless tours have been canceled, and musicians are wondering how to make a living in the weeks or months ahead. In New York—usually an epicenter of live music—Governor Andrew Cuomo took the extraordinary step of banning gatherings of 500 people or more. That cap has since shrunk to 50, effectively shuttering the city’s venues.
Yet the chaos has been particularly complicated for international bands who happened to be touring the United States last week when the stateside pandemic reached crisis proportions. For one thing, this country’s byzantine health care system often seems barbaric to people accustomed to universal care. In Che Apalache’s case, two of Troop’s bandmates are Argentinian and one is Mexican. “They don’t want to get stranded in the United States with no health insurance,” Troop said. “This is one of the shittiest countries to be in if you don’t have health insurance. They want to get back to a country that takes care of its citizens.”
Troop, a North Carolina native who relocated to Argentina but now calls himself a nomad, does have health insurance, for the first time in his adult life. Still, he has little faith in America’s ability to respond to the crisis. “The Argentinian government is showing responsibility for their citizens,” he said. “The kind of asshole maneuvers you see in the United States you don’t see in Argentina. People don’t think that way. They’re not all capitalists. They’re not gonna buy all the hand sanitizer so they can sell it on the internet for a lot of money.”
Similar health concerns have occurred to Prentice Robertson, frontman of the Scottish indie-rock band Vistas. “It would be quite scary for us to be in America and just the three of us,” Robertson said in an interview last week, noting that one of his bandmates is asthmatic. “If one of us did get ill and had to go to the hospital, we definitely wouldn’t be used to it given the differences between the American and the U.K. healthcare system.”
Just a few weeks ago, Vistas had been excitedly preparing for their first-ever U.S. shows, centered around a slate of gigs at South by Southwest (SXSW). On March 6, the band got word that SXSW had been canceled due to coronavirus—the first big festival domino to fall. They were crushed. “We’d been planning it for the best part of five months or whatever,” Robertson said. “It was a hard pill to swallow and it was pretty upsetting for us all.”
In a lucky coincidence, Robertson got the news at the exact moment he was about to pay an invoice for an equipment rental in Austin. Still, “the cancelation was quite a big hit financially for our band,” he said. Since SXSW can provide fledgling acts with crucial press exposure, international acts often route their American tours around the festival. This is what’s called an “anchor gig”—a major, profitable show that you can plan your whole tour around. When an anchor gig collapses (and bands typically don’t get paid—at least not when a force majeure clause kicks in), the whole tour is liable to collapse. And when you’re on the road but not getting paid, you’re still invariably spending money on tour accommodations.
For a Scottish band like Vistas, there’s an added complication. “We’re not able to play shows. Our visas only covered us for South by Southwest,” Robertson explained. As of last week, the band planned to fly to Austin anyway, just for fun. “We can’t get our flights refunded or anything,” Robertson said. “We spent all this money, we may as well make some use of the money so the flights don’t go to waste.”
Other bands had to cancel outright. “If we had decided to go to the states [after SXSW was canceled], it would have been like $25-30,000 Australian dollars,” said Jenny McKechnie, vocalist for the Melbourne punk band Cable Ties, which was scheduled to play eight shows at SXSW, as well as in Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York. “If we got nothing out of that, that would have been a huge loss. As it stands, I think we’re losing about six-and-a-half grand.”
Speaking from her backyard in Melbourne, McKechnie’s disappointment was palpable. “We’ve never been to the states before,” she said. “It was really gonna be an introductory tour for us… We’re a bit gutted about it, really.”
Che Apalache’s situation escalated rapidly over the last week. The band was halfway to Indiana when they got word that their show in Goshen had been canceled. Troop called a friend nearby, a Lutheran minister in Kentucky. “He said, ‘Come on over.’ We holed up in his house for a couple days, waiting,” Troop told me Sunday.
On Friday, the band played a small show in Jasper, Ind. The vibe was weird. “Very few people,” Troop said. “They sold 135 tickets and only 50 people showed up. It was an older crowd. There was enough room in the theater so people were able to distance themselves from one another. There’s a very low infection rate right now in Indiana, so people aren’t extremely worried. They wanted one more taste of live music before we all go on lockdown. Everyone’s going on lockdown. It’s kind of a somber moment.”
Earlier that day, the shit hit the fan, as Troop puts it: The band learned that Argentina was restricting travel and various American airlines were suspending flights to the Latin American country. Troop’s bandmates needed to get home, and fast.
“We had a fiasco,” Troop said. “It was a huge pain in the ass. They’ve canceled all flights from the United States to Argentina starting this Tuesday. So I had to get them out of the country before Tuesday. They’ve gouged the prices and there’s thousands of Argentinians trying to get back to their country. We were lucky to get some of the last commercial flights out of the country.”
By then, the stateside crisis had become drastic. Unprecedented restrictions on public gatherings had been implemented on both coasts to slow the virus’s spread. Tour cancelations were being announced by the hour. Trump had already announced a European travel ban, which left some American artists scrambling and asking fans for donations in order to get home mid-tour.
Obviously, it was time to cancel the rest of the tour. A Sunday night performance in Nashville would be Che Apalache’s last. “We don’t want our fans to get sick,” Troop said. “A lot of our fanbase are people in their 60s and 70s. It’s not OK to think, ‘We’re young, so we’ll be fine.’ We should take care of our friends, our elders.”
I asked Troop how much money he expected to lose from the aborted tour—which should have been a crucial promotional run for the band as it amasses recognition. “Oh, everything we were gonna make,” Troop said. “There’s no money now. We don’t know if we’re in the red. We only did four weeks of tour. I don’t think we made any money. I hope we didn’t lose money…”
Despite this bleak new reality, the musician seemed a bit bemused by the whole thing. “From a business standpoint, we’re kind of screwed. I guess in a spiritual way, it’s kind of fun to watch the world’s infrastructure crumble a little bit. Because it just reminds us that we’re little animals. That we’re not invincible. And that life has a lot more surprises in store. It’s kind of exhilarating, in a way.
“Of course, the service industry—we’re all fucked,” Troop added. “If we lose our whole touring season, everything that we’ve worked for—it’s screwed. But so are all the restaurants. So are all the festivals. Everything in our industry is gonna be totally devastated, in financial terms. But life continues.”
Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, VICE, and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek.