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Chicago’s creatives are finding new ways to make ends meet in gig economy amid coronavirus

When the city’s hospitality industry shut down, the checks stopped coming in for Chicago’s sound selectors.

Veteran gig worker DJ Gemini Jones would like to see more done for DJs who are losing out on income due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Veteran gig worker DJ Gemini Jones would like to see more done for DJs who are losing out on income due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jeff Schear

DJ Gemini Jones, like most local DJs, is a member of the gig economy — independent workers who are paid by the event — and who now find themselves out of work during the coronavirus pandemic.

The gigs at bars, venues, restaurants, concerts and the private/corporate ones — the most lucrative for DJs — have all dried up.

“Financially, I’m broke,” said Jones, who had a residency at The Promontory, a Hyde Park-based music venue. “[The coronavirus pandemic] has pretty much taken everything I had on my calendar into May; it is all gone now. What I’m doing to make money, honestly, at this point, I mixed [DJ gigs] the last couple times for Cash App donations [to get] me by right now.”

After Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave the shelter-in-place order for all bars and restaurants to close through the end of the month, many of the city’s sound selectors have been out of work and are trying to find ways to supplement their usual income.

In addition to the DJ gigs, Jones lost another source of income — fees paid by local creatives who record podcasts at a space she rents from BPM Chicago, a West Side-based multimedia studio.

She now plans to teach a couple of online classes in order to make ends meet.

“I think I’m gonna start doing that more often as a way of trying to make more money but other than that, this is pretty much the real way of making money,” she said.

Vic Lloyd, another local DJ who had monthly residencies with Soho House Chicago and Emporium Arcade Bar’s Wicker Park location, is also feeling the pinch.

Vic Lloyd, a Chicago-based DJ who had monthly residencies with Soho House Chicago and Emporium Arcade Bar’s Wicker Park location, is feeling the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
Vic Lloyd, a Chicago-based DJ who had monthly residencies with Soho House Chicago and Emporium Arcade Bar’s Wicker Park location, is feeling the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
Lawrence Agyei

Lloyd, the father of a three-month-old son, says the money he made from gigs during last month’s NBA All-Star Weekend here in Chicago, will hold him over for a while. He also sees the positivity of having time off.

“I went and picked up my DJ equipment and brought it home, so I got my setup at home, so I try to use this time to practice and maybe get back into music production and just try to not be idle,” Lloyd said. “I haven’t looked at the downside of it. Just trying to look at the positive of being able to have some of this time. I’m gonna try to enjoy it the best I can.”

Several creatives have found ways to generate income — and provide a much-needed diversion to the masses — despite the coronavirus pandemic cutting into their profits.

Last week, legendary DJ “D-Nice” had a set on Instagram Live that drew 100,000 people, including former first lady Michelle Obama, to what was nicknamed “#ClubQuarantine.”

Earlier this week, Singer Erykah Badu held a “Quarantine Concert Series: Apocalypse One,” where she charged her fans $1 for her bedroom performance. The proceeds went to her band members who are out of work.

Jones, who has been a DJ for the last 13 years, has seen the multitude of online fundraisers for service industry members who work at bars, clubs, restaurants, and other venues.

She would like to see more done for DJs who are losing income streams.

“We’re not being thought of when it comes to grants and other industry benefits,” Jones said. “I see a lot of things that go out for bars or grants and things for restaurants, bartenders, bar backs, security guards; everyone that works in the industry except the DJ.”

There are people in the city who are keeping Jones’ concerns in mind, and are trying to make sure entertainers like her aren’t left out in the gig economy.

Kice Akkawi, the CEO of Treblemonsters, a Chicago-based company that manages artists and musical programming for bars, hotels, and nightclubs, and a group of like-minded individuals called “Entertainers in Illinois” created a petition asking Gov. Pritzker and Illinois senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth to approve financial assistance to the state’s entertainers outside of the stimulus coronavirus package that just passed by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Akkawi, who says he’s had to cancel 200 booked gigs for the rest of the month, believes the state is doing a great job, but it the mandate doesn’t go far enough.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment from the Sun-Times.

UPDATE: Included in the stimulus bill President Donald Trump signed late last week is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, through which gig economy workers — including self-employed workers who couldn’t file for regular unemployment insurance — can receive half the average unemployment benefit in the state and an extra $600 per week.