CERB Gave Canadian Musicians a Lifeline During Lockdown — Now, What's Next?

With CERB currently set to end in September, musicians like B.A. Johnston, Morgan Doctor and Hello Moth face an uncertain future

B.A. Johnston performing on a front lawn in Toronto. Photo: Ian Gormely

BY Matt BobkinPublished Aug 25, 2020

The life of a musician is notoriously unstable. There's no insurance, no health benefits. All one can do is try to make ends meet between selling albums and going on tour. A dominant shift toward streaming services has dramatically impacted the former, with most services yielding a fraction of the profits to artists compared to the CD sales of old; as for the latter, have you read the news?

In response to mass layoffs and record unemployment due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the Canadian government instituted the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB, on March 25, which offered $2,000 per month to Canadians whose income streams had been interrupted. Anyone making less than $1,000 a month, who had made at least $5,000 the previous year, was eligible.

No one could agree on how to pronounce it, but many seemed to agree that CERB provided the first semblance of stability to artists and freelancers, ever. 

"This is a bad time to be Canada's most contagious performer," says beloved troubadour B.A. Johnston. The Ontario-based musician estimates that 90 per cent of his annual income is earned by his relentless touring schedule, which finds him in tiny venues across Canada and the UK for approximately half of each calendar year, sweatily running around packed crowds and pouring pitchers of beers into the throats of unsuspecting audience members (including this writer, multiple times).

"CERB has allowed me to not actually have a life, and it's also allowed me to prepare for the fact that I might have to shelve B.A. Johnston for a longer period of time. If I didn't get CERB, I'd probably have to start going to trucking school, I'm not even half-joking," reveals Johnston. "CERB's allowing me more time to plan if I continue to do this or if I have to find something else to do. I imagine I'm probably not the only musician to grapple with that."

He's not. CERB has given over 8.5 million Canadians, including plenty of musicians and artists, stability in an uncertain time, allowing them to remain financially secure while most of their sources of income have been shuttered for the foreseeable future. And with CERB now set to expire on September 27, replaced by a modified version of Canada's Employment Insurance program for one year, it's unclear to what extent artists will be supported as the industry continues to flounder without all-important live music opportunities.

Morgan Doctor, a touring drummer based out of Toronto, calls CERB "a godsend." Doctor has spent most of the last two decades as a touring drummer for the likes of Chantal Kreviazuk, Fefe Dobson, Jill Barber, Andy Kim and Kevin Drew, and has found herself living unexpectedly in Los Angeles since March, with most of her upcoming gigs either definitively cancelled or unlikely to happen.

Doctor, who grew up in California but has called Toronto home for over 20 years, was visiting family when the borders closed, and opted to stay there, living in a house owned by her label and publisher, Aporia Records, and stranded without most of her typical gear. Equipped with a ramshackle stable of borrowed and thrifted equipment, Doctor has found herself presented with musical opportunities that differed from her usual routines as a live backing drummer or as a composer of downtempo, ambient instrumental soundscapes. She credits CERB for giving her the space to branch out.

"I'm starting to do some work for film and television more than I have before," says Doctor, "and so I can see how it's one of those programs where you're getting a new career almost, and you have to take that transitional time to move into a new phase or new situation where you can make money again. I'm so grateful for it."

Doctor likens the opportunity to the residencies offered by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, where artists are given the opportunity to develop their craft, with room and board covered. "It really reminds me of this feeling of going back to basics. There's this expansiveness of time and focus to just work on material," she says. "You can take the time to do the things you wouldn't normally do, do a lot of research and pick apart scores and listen to music and do things I wouldn't normally take the time to do."

"When you're at Banff, you have your meal card and you have your budget and that's it. You're like, 'Okay, all I can do is work and outside of that, this is all I'm doing. I'm not going out and buying clothes, I'm not buying out the bar and drinking. I'm just working and buying groceries and that's it.' I think when you strip everything away and just bring it back to the basics… I completely credit CERB for the space and time to be able to be creative in this way."

But with CERB winding down, it's hard to imagine how artists will be able to maintain their careers with no comparable replacement on the horizon. It's made artists like Johnston and Doctor more convinced of the viability of a universal basic income, providing all Canadians with a minimum guaranteed payment, which could — among many effects — keep artists protected in the face of a profession that is financially precarious at the best of times.

Says Doctor, "I think if it were a situation where there was a basic income, I think that's what this time is really showing us as well. Why don't we have a basic income for freelancers or people who are on the fringes of things? I think it would change what people decide to do with their lives. I think that's what it's really showing: it would be really amazing to have a basic income situation."

Adds Johnston, "I've been trying to preach that for a while, because once they automate trucking, I think the States loses 20 million jobs just like that. Sooner or later, we're going to automate ourselves out of business. It seems only fair that everyone should have a place to live and basic human dignity. There are also people that sit on millions and billions of dollars. There's no way you could earn $200 billion."

Their thoughts and concerns are echoed by Hello Moth, a pop music composer and producer based in Calgary. Moth, who has been a full-time musician for four years, believes that the infrastructure for a universal basic income is possible and necessary.

"There's so many people — it's not just artists — who would have had trouble buying food and paying rent in this time without CERB. And then we've also got these billionaires who hoard wealth and pay way too little in taxes and they're not charitable," they say.

"Personally, I don't care how much money other people have, as long as there's enough to go around. But if our government is protecting the wealth of these billionaire people over the reality of the rest of us, that's a problem. I think if the wealthy got taxed properly, we could have universal basic income guaranteeing $2,000 a month for everybody. I don't see that as a free ride for people. That just seems like the kind of thing we should be thinking about consistently, as a society where so many people are having such a hard time paying for groceries."

Moth brings up the financial realities of musicians from pre-pandemic times, noting that the cost of putting out an album often requires major monetary losses by artists that are intended to be recouped by touring and merchandise sales — something that is now impossible for Moth, who just released the album When the Sky Melted in July.

"With the album release, it's so costly to put that together with mixing and mastering fees. Promo takes a lot of money, my own time and energy, food and shelter and stuff like that. Generally, I self-record and produce almost everything that I do, and I know that most musicians don't, so that's even another cost for a lot of us. It's really hard to recoup that immediately, so it's this long game where, if you can break even on your tour — which is optimistic when you release a new album, at my level, anyway — then you're doing pretty well. But even over time, it's hard to recoup the costs of making and producing a record, especially now. I'm glad I was saving up."

Johnston agrees, and expresses gratitude that he didn't have an album in the works when COVID-19 ended live music: "If I put out a record this year, I would've been bankrupt before my tour to sell the record, so I'm just really happy that it didn't happen a year ago or a year from now, when I'd be putting out a record, because it means I would've been living on credit cards when COVID hit, because putting out an album is so expensive. Any band that actually put out a record before COVID probably didn't prep themselves, hoping to get the money back on the tours."

As for moving forward with no defined CERB replacement on the horizon, the realities once September 27 rolls around are anyone's guess. 

Johnston, for one, is soldiering on the only way he can — by playing shows. He's booking tour dates to play in people's driveways across Canada. "I started playing people's driveways, which has been pretty crazy and fun," he recalls. "Because of all the rules, it's basically a private party. I'm like a clown hired to play a child's birthday party. I've actually played concerts again to 10 people. I was probably happier than they were to get to play a show again."

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