Nashville musicians find themselves without jobs or unemployment benefits

ap photo In this March 23 photo a man stands in the middle of Broadway to take a photo where the streets and sidewalks are normally filled in Nashville, Tenn.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Colin Poulton moved to Nashville in 2008 to study commercial guitar. He dropped out of college but stuck with the city and the guitar, first playing in a series of original bands and more recently making his living in the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway along with “a few wedding bands and some other bands.”

All those gigs ended abruptly when the coronavirus hit. The clubs shut down on March 16 to slow the spread, and Nashville’s normally packed downtown streets are all but deserted. Poulton applied for unemployment as soon as Congress passed the federal relief bill extending benefits to nontraditional workers. He’s been without steady work for five weeks now but so far has received nothing.

“A lot of us went from having anywhere from four to seven gigs a week to nothing,” Poulton said.

With its vibrant music industry, Nashville is a magnet for people like Poulton. Music City is known as the home of country music in the U.S., but tens of thousands of professional musicians of all kinds live there, drawn to the plentiful job opportunities and the camaraderie of a community of artists. Now they’re caught up in an unemployment system that’s not geared toward them.

“There’s a lot of confusion and, frankly, fear rampant in the community because they don’t know if they’re going to get something and, if so, how much,” said Dave Pomeroy, president of the Nashville Musicians Association, the local union. Pomeroy said probably 100,000 people in Nashville play music professionally, although they may not all be full-time musicians.

The state isn’t sure how many nontraditional workers have applied for unemployment, but it has received about 75,000 claims that were initially deemed ineligible. The majority of those are assumed to be from nontraditional workers, Department of Labor and Workforce Development spokesman Chris Cannon said.

For many of Nashville’s musicians, there’s an additional hitch. Their income is from a mix of sources, some treating them as employees and others treating them as independent contractors or self-employed.

Cannon said workers who have any money coming in on a W-2 and are eligible for traditional state unemployment can’t claim the new federal unemployment benefits from their contract work, even if that makes up the majority of their income. But many musicians don’t know that.

“It’s created a real black hole for these people,” said Pomeroy, who’s been trying to act as a liaison with the state to provide musicians with answers about unemployment.


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