(Black Press Media files)

Musicians say CERB changes offer some financial relief as uncertainty persists

Like many workers in the gig economy, an artist’s income can fluctuate wildly

Chris McKhool still has many questions about how the federal government will support Canadian artists in the latest update to the COVID-19 emergency benefits program — but for now he’s trying to stay focused on the music.

The violinist in Sultans of String, a three-time Juno nominated act, has spent the past several weeks in a holding position as he wondered if accepting live streaming performance spots that paid a couple hundred bucks might disqualify him from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

He got a somewhat clearer answer on Wednesday after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expanded the reach of CERB to include support for people who are still working, but earning $1,000 or less per month, meaning McKhool could start accepting those gigs with confidence.

“I can still be an artist because of this, that’s how I feel,” McKhool said.

“It’s a huge burden lifted off me, that I don’t have to worry about whether or not I can be performing.”

But he’s still unclear on the specifics around getting paid, including whether the Canada Revenue Agency will claw back more of his earnings than anticipated in the future. Similar questions have echoed across Facebook groups dedicated to musicians and others in the creative community.

Like many workers in the gig economy, an artist’s income can fluctuate wildly. Much of a performer’s income is driven by unexpected opportunities, delayed payments and quarterly royalty cheques, all which can be a challenge to predict even in a regular economy.

A statement provided to The Canadian Press by the office of Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault on Thursday offered some clarity on questions around royalties for artistic works — anything from songs to photographs — saying there’s no cap on royalty payments for works produced by artists before March 1, but that copyrighted works produced after that period would apply to the CERB guidelines.

Several weeks ago, McKhool and his band watched the bottom fall out of their spring plans when Sultans of String was forced to cancel their North American tour as concert venues closed down. Their latest album “Refuge” was so close to its March release date that it was nearly impossible to retreat on a $20,000 publicity budget that was already in motion, so it was released into a world distracted by a viral pandemic.

“Having it all cancelled meant that we went from a deficit position to completely decimating the finances of the band,” he said.

ALSO READ: Music industry feeling the effects of COVID-19 pandemic

McKhool said qualifying under revisions to the CERB is the closest he has to restarting his music career at this point.

He’s booked a live streaming gig on Monday, playing alongside his wife and daughter, as part of Toronto’s City Hall Live Facebook concert series. Later, he’ll be part of the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms series, which pays musicians to play live events online.

Other similar initiatives have been popping up across the country in recent weeks, including MusicTogether which supports Ontario musicians looking for work through a combination of funding by sponsors and the province, and another series of paid performances arranged by the Hamilton Arts Council. Those gigs will generally range from $250 for regionally supported events to $1,000 for the NAC spots.

In British Columbia, the provincial government has arranged grants of $500 for emerging artists and $2,000 for established musicians that support live streaming, songwriting and professional development programs.

Dina Koutsouflakis, a Juno-nominated singer-songwriter who performs under the name Storry, is among the musicians hoping Trudeau’s expanded CERB qualifications won’t complicate her income from prior to the arrival of COVID-19 — which has only recently been deposited into her bank account.

In early March, she did a number of live concerts to promote her debut album “CH III: The Come Up,” but the money wasn’t paid to her until late March. She turned to her accountant for advice on that, and whether accepting virtual tips from viewers on her social media performances would affect her CERB amount.

“He was like, ‘Basically, the lines are not really clear right now, and so everyone’s going to have to deal with it either next year or whenever this whole thing blows over, and then people can do their taxes again normally,’” she said.

“Personally I’m just trying to stay creative, and I’m hoping that Canada Revenue is going to be logical and understanding that every situation is nuanced, and we may all need different kinds of assistance.”

Jean-Paul De Roover, a singer-songwriter based in Thunder Bay, Ont., wonders if, as life returns to a certain degree of normalcy and taxes are paid next year, many artists may find themselves backed into a financial corner they didn’t anticipate.

De Roover wonders how those surprises could scar the finances of musicians. He works as a studio engineer on the side, and doesn’t expect any artists to book time in the coming months. Beyond that, some health-care professionals and politicians say there’s a possibility that live concerts and festivals won’t return until late 2021.

“It puts a whole shift on how artists of any kind really are going to be able to earn a living from here on out,” he said.

“There’s the potential of people having to completely redefine, recreate and rebuild their identities because everything they’ve known to be entrusted in terms of being able to survive is likely fleeting at this point.”

“There’s lots of questions and unfortunately not enough answers,” he added.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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