Tuesday, May 28, 2024

John Paul White performs March 11 at Club Passim in Harvard Square, seen in a screen capture from a Country Standard Time video. It was the club’s final performance before shutting its doors because of the coronavirus.

With the coronavirus’ elimination of live shows, artists are struggling to sustain careers that are heavily reliant on in-person events. Club Passim, a nonprofit organization and venue in Harvard Square, has been leading the charge on supporting musicians. Beyond quickly launching virtual, livestream shows, it’s committed to helping with funding and donation opportunities.

Club manager Abby Altman discussed the ways Club Passim is adapting its offerings and how supporting artists now is a long-term investment offering returns for our community. This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.

Abby Altman

When did Club Passim close due to Covid-19?

Our last show in the club was John Paul White on March 11, but we’d been seeing declining audiences for a few days leading up to that. 

Was it easy to move live shows online?

We didn’t do it perfectly, but it was easy for us to jump right in. Our last show in the club was March 11, and our first streaming show was March 12. We asked artists to stream from their Facebook pages and we handled the promotion. Because of the independent artists we work with, most were already familiar with doing livestreams. It is a little difficult to look back at those first shows though, since no one quite knew what they were doing yet.

Your streaming shows are free, but donations are strongly encouraged. Do most attendees donate?

From what we can tell, about a third of viewers donate: Some give less than the suggested amount and some give more. We also direct viewers to buy the artists’ merch during the show.

For shows canceled by coronavirus, Club Passim offers refunds, but you encourage patrons to waive their refunds and support the artists instead. Are the financial needs of artists more important than financial gain for Club Passim?

When we ask folks to waive their refunds, we’re essentially splitting the ticket sales as if a normal show were happening. The club is still getting a cut, but the artist is getting some as well. I would say it’s of equal importance because when the pandemic ends, if Passim isn’t around, that’s one less place for artists to play. As a nonprofit, it’s always about that balance between supporting the artists and keeping our doors open. 

Let’s talk about the Passim Emergency Artist Relief Fund. How did the idea come about, and how many artists have been able to take advantage?

This was one of the earliest ideas we had. When we closed down, the fact that everyone in the world was going to be affected by the pandemic was overwhelming. We knew that all we could do was focus on our own community. 

Any artist who has played or taught at Passim in the last 10 years is eligible for funding to be used however they want. Many of them are using it for rent payments. We launched the fund in mid-March and we’ve raised over $140,000 for around 250 artists. We actually have a waitlist of artists waiting for funding. 

Why are these funds so crucial now?

Money is always tight for professional musicians, especially full-time ones. Every musician is working three or four jobs; even in the best of times, being a full-time musician is more than full-time work. When folks looked out at their summers and saw their livelihoods cut, not only were people worried financially, but I know several artists seriously reconsidered their paths in life. Who could envision being a musician right now? The Passim funds give some hope to folks, beyond the ability to pay rent. 

Beyond the PEAR Fund, you also have the Iguana Music Fund, which was in place long before Covid-19. Are the funds limited to music-related costs?

The PEAR Fund is for anything at all. It’s labeled as disaster relief funding, and it’s income that’s not taxed. We don’t ask what the artists are using it for: We send them a check and it’s up to them.

Iguana funding does have to be music related. For Iguana, it’s a juried selection. For PEAR, if folks apply, we really only ask if they’re a musician and how much they make. For Iguana, it’s, “What are you doing, and why do you need this funding for your project?” We do follow up with those folks a few years later to see how their projects are coming along to make sure they’re staying on track. For the Iguana Fund, we also ask folks to participate in a showcase the spring after they win their grant so we can say to our community, “Hey, here’s where your donations are going.”

What’s the case for supporting the arts, especially now?

It’s harder right now because there are so many worthy causes to give to, between the wildfires and racial tensions and politics. I wouldn’t want to say that the arts are the most important, but they’re definitely very important right now. If we don’t support artists now, when the world opens back up, people won’t have those outlets to go to anymore. 

What makes artists vital to the success of our local economy and community?

The arts are important to every community. In similar ways to food, the arts are what bring people together and allow them to have conversations they wouldn’t normally have. In this climate with politics and the pandemic, we’ll need the arts to recover from these things. 

What are some ways music fans can give back and support artists? 

If you are into watching virtual shows, even though they are free, please consider donating. Even if it’s not feasible for you to donate $25, just $5 helps. 

To support artists directly, buy their music. Don’t just stream it, buy it. 

Something that I have done personally is subscribe to folks’ Patreon pages. I really like Patreon because it gives you more of a relationship with an artist. It’s not like you go to a concert, buy a CD, then see them once a year. You can establish a dialogue with that artist. Even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can usually be an artist’s patron for $2 a month. It’s a great way to get involved.