COVID-19 has put a stranglehold on live music. Several words and phrases have been added to our pandemic lexicon, such as “new normal” and “physically distanced.” All musicians who perform regularly have had to reconsider their approaches -- and many looking for gigs during quarantine have gotten lost in the shuffle.
But there are also those musicians who have been able to secure gigs despite scarce opportunities -- those who play what New York state considers “incidental music.”
Yet another term to add to the growing pile of COVID-era jargon, “incidental music” serves as background sounds while you’re eating a physically distanced meal at your local restaurant or bar. The musical performance can’t be advertised, no tickets can be sold, and a cover isn’t charged. You’re paying for the meal -- the music just happens to be playing at the time.
These rules put in place by the State Liquor Authority are meant to prevent venues from overcrowding during the pandemic and increasing the risk of transmitting the virus.
But incidental musicians have been playing long before the pandemic arrived. Such artists have always flown a bit under the radar, providing background music at coffee shops, cocktail bars, and restaurants .
Now, in an odd twist, they’re among the few musicians who can get reliable gigs. But they’ve also long been overlooked, ignored, or discounted as less relevant than other live musicians. So how do these performers feel about their “incidental” role?
Guitarist Fred Vine isn’t all that keen on the word. He sees it as a back-handed compliment.
“Well, I never considered myself an incidental artist,” Vine says. “I find it rather demeaning.”
But he says it doesn’t really affect him that much. During happier, more prosperous times, he played intimate gigs at places like The Little Theatre Café, Record Archive’s Backroom Lounge, tour boat cruises on The Colonial Belle, various town events, and countless senior residential communities. He wasn’t a sell-out act, exactly, but he got reliable work with his precise, beautiful, and bluesy fingerstyle guitar.
Now in live music limbo, he’s categorized as an incidental musician, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Being incidental has prepared musicians like Vine for the impending adversity.
When New York state hit the pause button on live performances in March, musicians immediately lost paying gigs. Everyone whose music was conducive to an “incidental” setting went that route. Some went online to perform via livestream and play for tips. Others packed up their toys and went home. The lack of being able to play publicly or sell tickets for events has taken its toll.
“Well, it’s tough that we can’t advertise and we end up playing to just a handful of people,” says guitar player Tom Passamonte. He had a regularly scheduled gig at Pomodoro on University Avenue, with his group Special Blend serving as the house band, when COVID-19 hit and the restaurant shut down. “I really miss the connection with the audiences,” he says.
By definition, Special Blend fits the bill as an incidental act -- music that is not the main attraction, but rather a complement to dining. He plays a multitude of genres effortlessly with his trio, and that versatility has saved Special Blend during the pandemic, whereas some more conventional artists have been caught unaware. And it’s getting in the way of how we ingest our entertainment. But the artists aren’t looking for a miracle, they're looking for a gig.
Musicians understand the importance of combating the virus by keeping 6 feet apart and wearing masks. Still, the results are a bitter pill to swallow.
“I have a booking in November at Pane Vino on the Avenue, says Passamonte. “But nothing else yet. I have played a few outdoor things this past summer, but that’s about it. My regular Saturday gig at Woodcliff is on hold, too.”
Passamonte says he sees hope for 2021, but thinks live music won’t really return until next May.
“I’m looking forward to being busy again,” he says. “I love what I do.”
And that’s not so incidental.
Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.