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Self-employed musicians adapt to, struggle with unemployment during COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic

Department of Labor processed more than 3,000 applications on first day of coronavirus Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program -- some of which came from musicians.

MAINE, USA — It's a Friday afternoon in the greater Bangor area, which means Andrew Clifford and his student, Colin Trudelle, are practicing drum-set rhythms until they're clean and precise. This lesson looks different than most, though -- instead of meeting together, Clifford and Trudelle are meeting apart via Zoom because of the coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic.

"I kind of sensed the shutdown coming, so we switched virtually with our students," Clifford, the founder and owner of Main Street Music Studios in Brewer, shared with NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "Thankfully, most of our students stayed right with us."

The online lessons have helped to maintain some kind of normalcy during the many changes brought by the coronavirus pandemic. Clifford says that offering lessons helps his and his staff members' students stay creative and continue to move forward. Trudelle can attest.

"It keeps my schedule kind of similar to what it used to be," Trudelle expressed during their practice session. "Having stuff to practice is giving me something to work on every day."

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Music is a broad field, though -- and for some, simply adapting to a new normal hasn't been possible. Adam Babcock is a professional musician from Thorndike. He relies on venues like restaurants and bars to make an income -- and with most closed around the state, he has had to file for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, an option for self-employed people out of work during COVID-19.

On the first day of the PUA, Friday, May 1, the Department of Labor processed more than 3,000 applications. 

Social Distancing Video

"It’s literally just been day and night, trying to figure out what you’re going to do to pay bills and all that kind of thing," Babcock explained to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom.

Babcock added that perhaps one of the most concerning aspects include what life will look like once the threat of the coronavirus has diminished.

"When this does open back up, and restaurants are at half capacity, and revenue is at half capacity -- the chances of them wanting to hire their music stuff back, I would assume, is going to be dwindled to pretty much nothing," Babcock said.

RELATED: Dept. of Labor processes over 3,000 applications on first day of new unemployment program

For some, worries about the future don't have to do as much with the venue, but rather, with the audience. Nina Miller is a french horn player with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. She says that this entire period has been incredibly stressful.

"I lose sleep over it, thinking about it," Miller shook her head. "When will we feel safe?"

The PSO has started a musician relief fund to support its members while they are out of work without practice or performances. Miller says the main problem, though, is that that the average age of PSO audience members is about 60 years old. The symphony is set to restart in the fall, but she is worried that this more at-risk demographic may not feel comfortable coming back for a while.

"Nothing takes the place of getting on stage, tuning to an 'A' from the oboe and playing together -- nothing," Miller emphasized. "We will do that again, the sooner the better -- but it has to be a safe time."

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In the meantime, musicians are working on their craft, either through virtual lessons or independent creative time, remembering why the arts are so important, especially during times like these.

"Music’s very healing," Clifford noted. "It's something where it keeps your mind positive."

"I think right now going through this pandemic shows even more so how important the arts are," Babcock said. "When you're not working and everybody shuts down, the only things that are bringing everybody together are the arts."

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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