Until a few weeks ago, if you got married in Los Angeles and hired a mariachi band, chances were Susie Garcia’s family would play you down the aisle.
The singer and bandleader led her own band, the famed all-female Mariachi Las Colibrí, for a decade and saw generations of Mexican-American Angelenos through birthdays, christenings, weddings and funerals. Her husband, Pepe Martinez Jr., leads his own band, Mariachi Ángeles, inspired by his father, the former frontman of legendary Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.
Almost every weekend this spring, the two have been booked to perform traditional music at cultural events and entertain young couples at weddings in Southern California. That is, until early March, when COVID-19 turned everyone’s future upside down.
“We crossed out about 15 gigs in a week,” Garcia said. “Wedding after wedding, planners were calling me devastated, like, ‘What do we do?'”
The answer, as all musicians and event planners soon learned, was nothing. Life would be suspended for months until the disease subsided.
While the virus has upended touring, closed venues and left artists scrambling for live shows in the living room, there’s so much more to the live music industry than this spotlight. Live bands and DJs, the kind that perform at thousands of weddings, bat mitzvahs and private parties in Los Angeles, don’t play star fundraisers broadcast around the world, but have everything even been decimated. Their livelihoods may eventually return, but the loss of reliable gigs at the height of wedding season has been sudden and staggering.
Fans don’t just lose a show. They lose the accompanying music of the most important days of their lives.
“Mariachi connects people to their family and their values, that circle of life,” Garcia said. “When that’s cut, it has such an impact.”
The wedding industry is not the first place most people look to see the fallout of COVID-19 on the music industry. But it’s a huge sector that provides a clandestine living for many artists in the studio and on tour.
About 250,000 couples married in California last year, at an average cost of $30,000 each, according to industry analyst firm The Wedding Report. Live music costs vary widely – from a single DJ on a laptop to a dozen bands with horns and backing vocals – but costs can run into the thousands for even a small band.
Compared to the financial gamble and myriad uncertainties of touring original material, playing Motown classics in a hotel ballroom is usually a regular gig. COVID-19, unfortunately, arrived just in time to vaporize those jobs.
“We’ve survived fires and mudslides at our venues, but having all the events for maybe six months all off the table, it really cut the rug for us,” said Jesse Kivel, musician and co-founder of Dart Collective. , an LA event music business that has become a hub for indie musicians and DJs to earn money between tours. The Kivel-based company hires dozens of entertainers and instrumentalists and had about 200 weddings and events booked for the spring peak season.
Many of these couples will eventually reschedule when COVID-19 eases. Jen Nordine, 28, was due to marry Keith Kniland, 37, in March at the Hideaway country club in the Coachella Valley, where Nordine’s parents had a home when she was younger. “It’s our happy place. Over Easter weekend last year, Keith and I hit the links, and on the penultimate hole he got down on his knees and said to me that he couldn’t live this life without me,” she said.
The San Francisco tech couple booked Dart’s string ensemble for the ceremony and a DJ Dart for the after-party, after finding out about the company on wedding sites and Instagram. Dart had the “fun and stylish” vibes they wanted for their music, Nordine said. Although they had to delay their wedding for nearly a year due to COVID-19, they remain optimistic.
“It was selfish and trivial to be sad about it,” Nordine said. “Letting go of something you’ve been dreaming about is always a hard pill to swallow, but there’s nothing like this global pandemic to put things into perspective. If we can survive isolation together, we can survive everything.”
Other couples have made it work with a bit of improvisation.
“With a wedding, there’s a ‘The show has to go on’ feeling, but we weren’t going to risk people’s lives,” said Terry Case, 41, a Silicon Valley engineer who had booked his wedding for at the end of March in the Santa Cruz district. After California issued its stay-at-home orders, he and his fiancée instead held a socially distanced ceremony with six friends at a nearby park. The band they originally booked, Coffee Zombie Collective, still performed their closing dance as newlyweds.
“I’m from West Virginia, and the last song at every wedding is John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Everyone shouts it and dances in a circle,” Case said. “The band recorded a version and sent us a link so we could play it. It was so sweet and we were happy to keep doing it our own way.”
Right now, everyone in the industry is struggling the same way. Kivel, who cut his teeth in rock band LA Kisses, knows it’s tumultuous when gigs fail.
“Many of our touring musicians earn a steady income from our gig work, allowing them to tour that may be breaking even. At the end of the day, we pay the bills,” he said.
When this work also ends, it is a huge challenge to stay above water.
“Even if you get a good daily rate [playing weddings], when you break it all down, it becomes just normal blue-collar income,” he said. “How to pass from here to 12 or 18 months as an interpreter if you have no other sources of income?”
Popular artists are used to intermittent touring cycles and know what to expect when it comes to savings for lean months. Some acts in genres like hip-hop or pop may rely on streaming revenue to generate revenue. Others are taking creative approaches to live streaming that can keep fans interested until shows resume.
Everyday musicians often don’t have such options. Some may turn to online composition or instrument lessons to supplement their income for now. But if you were planning on playing for the crowds, this is the first time since before the jazz age that all gatherings — even prosaic events like holiday parties — have been canceled due to a pandemic.
“It’s something unique. Other economic downturns have happened or there have been socio-economic situations like wars, riots and strikes, but none of them specifically required not to congregate in spaces,” said Brian Pincus, a musician and bandleader whose family business, Culver City-based Bob Gail Music, has booked dance and soul bands for weddings and other events in Los Angeles for 40 years.
“We’re hunkering down and getting ready, and there’s going to be cash flow issues,” he said, “but if we ever can open enough to throw parties, it’s going to be a crazy last quarter.”
In the meantime, however, these musicians must find a way to make ends meet. Bruce Garnitz, a singer and guitarist who has performed with bands at weddings and events in Los Angeles since the ’90s, is often a part of his clients’ lives. He’s sometimes played the same person’s bar mitzvah and wedding decades apart.
Right now he would play a few weddings every weekend and four or five gigs throughout the week. When hired, he pays backing musicians, lighting technicians, and roadies, helping many on the fringes of the music industry stay afloat.
During the crisis, he gives rock band lessons and gives online instrument lessons. But for him and many of the musicians he works with, replacement salaries are hard to come by.
“I know how much revenue we generate for people,” Garnitz said. “It’s a really tough time for musicians working and playing.”
It’s even harder for immigrant musicians all over Los Angeles, who face the multiple threats of losing their livelihoods to COVID-19, the incredible difficulty of collecting unemployment benefits, and an attitude hostile towards immigration on the part of the government.
“Immigrants to Los Angeles include a lot of mariachis,” Garcia said. “For those who have nothing else to fall back on, how can they turn around and enter the job market? Do they decide to try their luck and go to Mexico where nobody works either? Musicians will have to find other ways to support themselves.
Who knows how long the COVID-19 shutdown will last or what kind of gigs await on the other side. Perhaps couples will cut wedding expenses if the expected recession proves severe. But even in the midst of a pandemic, people are falling in love, children are being born, and loved ones are dying. People will have to come together to commemorate all of this. When that day comes, they’ll need a band.
“The last gig we played in March, I was like, ‘Should we be here? Health wise, should we have come? said Garcia. “I felt very torn. But music is a staple of our culture. And this couple deserved their moment.”