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The Coronavirus and the Fragile Music Festival Economy – The New York Times

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South by Southwest was an early sign that things were getting serious, fast. In early March, the massive multimedia festival held in Austin, Tex. was canceled by city officials just a week before it was scheduled to begin, out of concern for the spread of the coronavirus.

The impact was immediate and devastating: Hundreds of thousands of people attend the conference each year, bringing with them hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to Austin. New films that were scheduled for screenings weren’t screened; musical performances didn’t go on; panels and workshops disappeared. Freelance film, music and tech journalists, many of whom had to pay out of pocket to make the trip, lost out on work in the absence of events to cover.

The cancellation also brought with it an abrupt uncertainty about South by Southwest’s fate beyond 2020. In the creative sector, it’s difficult to imagine a world without South by Southwest, a cultural institution more than 30 years in the making. And yet a Wall Street Journal article featuring an interview with the festival’s co-founder and chief executive officer Roland Swenson, painted a troubling picture of a company scrambling to find resources to “keep from running out of money by summer” and forced to reduce a third of its full-time staff.

“We are planning to carry on and do another event in 2021, but how we’re going to do that I’m not entirely sure,” Mr. Swenson told the Journal last month. (Mr. Swenson declined a request for an interview.)

The U.S. economy is plummeting: restaurants have shuttered; the travel industry has been decimated; movie theaters feel like a distant memory. Among the many casualties is the festival circuit, an ecosystem that plays a vital role in shaping the American cultural landscape, but that may also be uniquely ill-suited to getting back on its feet again once this is all over.

The NBA, MLB and other sports leagues will weather this storm. Conglomerates like Disney will survive as well. But when it comes to once-a-year events meant to bring enthusiasts and artists together and promote creativity while invigorating local business, the pandemic reveals just how tenuous of a web the network that produces such forms of entertainment is. With just one tug of a string — just one cancellation or postponement of a festival that might take up to a full year to prepare for — it can all fall apart.

Most film festivals are “kind of like start-ups year over year,” Lela Meadow-Conner, the executive director of the nonprofit Film Festival Alliance, told me. “You raise the money that you need to put on your festival, and then you put on your festival and you have to start all over again.”

Festivals exist in a sort of symbiotic relationship with their host towns: A range of industries, including hospitality and gig workers, for instance, count on events, from big ones like the New Orleans Jazz Festival (postponed, optimistically, from this month to the fall) to those as intimate as your local arts fair to provide a bump in their business year after year. In return, funding for these events comes in part from local sponsorships, such as restaurants and other small businesses making in-kind donations.

With the country mostly on lockdown, those businesses are struggling, and many may not make it through to the other side of the pandemic.

“The hardest thing to know right now is, with the economy, just who’s going to be willing to spend any marketing dollars in general,” said Ryan Watt, the executive director of Indie Memphis Film Festival. “Especially on sponsorships of events that are public.”

Indie Memphis is held annually in the fall and for now it is scheduled to go on as planned in October, though Mr. Watt anticipates this year they will have reduced sponsorship. Many uncertainties abound, and like many artistic organizations, they are pivoting to producing events online in the coming weeks and months — movie live streams followed by virtual Q & As, including a weekly movie club.

Their ticketing platform Eventive is working to incorporate a streaming component in the event that they are unable to hold the festival in person. “If we need to go virtual, then that’s something that we’d be prepared to do,” he said.

But going virtual can only soften the impact so much. This month South by Southwest announced an online film festival showcasing features that were supposed to be shown at this year’s conference. For a 10-day period (the exact dates have yet to be revealed), anyone with even a basic Amazon account can view the available movies for free. This is cool for viewers, but may be less of a great deal for the filmmakers who choose to participate; they’ll get a “screening fee,” according to the news release, but it’s not clear how much.

And from a business standpoint, filmmakers are understandably hesitant to accept Amazon’s offer. The prevailing question among several who were interviewed anonymously for an article in The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month: Why would any distributor want to pay money to screen a movie many people outside of a festival audience have already seen for free?

For the festival organizers this year, money has already been spent on things like venues, contracts, travel expenses and merchandise, Ms. Meadow-Conner said; recouping those losses is hardly guaranteed. As with South by Southwest, many organizations have been forced to reduce their staff — included in the Seattle International Film Festival’s cancellation announcement was the reveal that it would have to furlough the majority of its employees.

And the smaller festivals face an uphill battle when it comes to bringing audiences back once we’re on the other side of this pandemic. “When will audiences be ready to venture out again? How do you keep them engaged online during this time?” Ms. Meadow-Conner asked. Attending a festival as an audience member is often not a cheap endeavor, especially if you’re traveling from afar. A three-day general admission pass to Coachella, which has been postponed from spring to fall this year, is $430 before fees. In the midst of what will potentially be a massive recession, how many people will still be able to afford such events?

Perhaps you’re someone who has never attended — or had any desire to attend — a festival. They’re not for you: too crowded, too pricey. Unless you disdain all culture completely, this implosion should still concern you.

These events play important roles in the grand infrastructure of culture. They are a vital source of income for musicians; a way to promote a film and (hopefully) secure distribution rights to reel in a more general audience further down the line; a showcase for new artists and authors. They bolster local businesses. In other corners of the industry, they serve as an additional revenue stream for magazines like The New Yorker and Essence, in an age when print circulation is down and advertising dollars are fickle.

It’s not as if the arts sector being generally underfunded is a revelation — this is common knowledge for anyone who has attended a school in which music and drama programs are among the first to go in a budget cut, or who has taken note of the types of people who can usually afford to pursue a career in the arts.

But as someone who has attended many types of festivals, both professionally and for fun, this moment truly feels scary. As a communal experience, there’s nothing quite like it. I love thinking back to the artists and films I’ve experienced among an electrified crowd just as eager to be entertained, moved, wowed by the work. I can fondly recall the brief but memorable encounters and the friendships forged with those I would not have otherwise met.

When there isn’t a crisis going on, putting up a festival is already an often financially precarious endeavor. Of course, some organizers will find ways to adapt and work around it, or are already doing so, but the ability to undertake an event with so many moving parts and variables just became infinitely more difficult. The ramifications are reverberating far and wide.

Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) is a staff editor and writer in the Opinion section, where she covers culture and society.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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U.S. economy added 2.5 million jobs in May as states reopened from COVID-19 shutdowns – CBC.ca

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The unemployment rate in the United States unexpectedly fell in May and layoffs abated, the Department of Labour said Friday in a report that showed the latest signs the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was bottoming.

The department’s closely watched monthly employment report showed the jobless rate dropped to 13.3 per cent last month from 14.7 per cent in April. Nonfarm payrolls rose by 2.509 million jobs after a record plunge of 20.687 million in April.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the jobless rate jumping to 19.8 per cent in May from 14.7 per cent in April. Nonfarm payrolls for May had been expected to fall by eight million jobs.

The jobs market improved considerably in the second half of May as businesses reopened after shuttering in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19. Consumer confidence, manufacturing and services industries are also stabilizing, though at low levels, signs the worst may be over.

“The good news is that we probably have hit the bottom,” said Sung Won Sohn, a finance and economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “But the recovery will be painfully slow. It will take years, probably a decade to get back to where we were at the end of last year.”

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Canada can hit climate targets without ruining economy, economists and climate experts say – CBC.ca

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Last November, the United Nations Environment Program released its annual Emissions Gap Report, which found that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, CO2 emissions would need to drop by 7.6 per cent annually over the next decade. 

Given that worldwide emissions are estimated to have risen by about 0.4 per cent in 2019, this seemed like an unattainable goal.

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change, however, suggests that as a result of global shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, emissions in 2020 could drop by roughly seven per cent.

At first glance, it might appear as though a devastating economic shutdown is the only way to reach those UN targets. But some experts say this isn’t the case, and insist there is a way to have economic growth and reduce emissions that adhere to the UN guidelines.

Storefronts in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood are reflected in a window sign on March 24, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

“We can’t have this [kind of a shutdown] for tackling climate change — absolutely not,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a Canadian professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia and lead author of the Nature study. “This is a really painful way to get a decrease in emissions.” She also noted that it likely won’t last.

Don Drummond, an economist who worked for the federal Department of Finance for 23 years, pointed out that emissions in Canada have almost flat-lined, on average, over the past few years during a period of economic growth (prior to the coronavirus pandemic).

This, he said, is evidence that reducing emissions to UN guidelines is possible.

“We’ve achieved higher growth with flattening emissions and we can and should go further and achieve positive growth with declining emissions,” said Drummond, an adjunct professor at Queen’s University and former chief economist at the Toronto-Dominion Bank. “That can be done, but we need a more concentrated policy effort.”

New opportunities

Drummond, who was one of the architects of the Goods and Services Tax in 1991, said there is a long history in Canada of scare-mongering that a given new policy will kill the economy, from the GST to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Quite often, it doesn’t.

Many governments around the world are trying to stimulate their economies during the pandemic, and this could be an opportunity to funnel money into green technologies, said Le Quéré.

There’s been an increase in the popularity of e-bikes, a green alternative to getting around cities. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

She said that one of the key findings of the Nature study was that the biggest drop in emissions during the pandemic, behind the aviation industry, has been in surface transport. This, she said, could be one sector governments could target.

“The biggest reason why the emissions [went] down now is mobility. So we just don’t go anywhere. We don’t use our cars. Governments could say, ‘Well, we’re going to tackle that as we get out of confinement,'” Le Quéré said. That could “include everything from encouraging home-working for those who want to and who can, then developing infrastructure for … walking or cycling.”

While Drummond believes the federal government is likely to invest in methods to reduce emissions, he said it will likely be a long time — perhaps years — before we see stimulus packages aimed at revitalizing the economy, such as specific jobs programs.

In the meantime, he said the government can use other means to reach the 7.6 per cent emissions-reduction goal, such as disincentives — like the carbon tax on things like gasoline and heating fuels — which can be effective in bringing down emissions, particularly when that money is recycled back to people and businesses, as the federal government is doing.

“If you have the right incentives or the right disincentives in place, there can be growth that takes place that is not environmentally damaging,” Drummond said. 

“I would say put a price on it … that’s what it really comes down to.”

Another could be investing in retrofitting buildings to make them more efficient, which would be very labour-intensive and could create more jobs. But Drummond said that would be “second best.”

On the path

Mark Jaccard, a professor of sustainability energy at Simon Fraser University, said transitioning to renewable energy isn’t as costly as some may think it is.

He said it would cost “at most, two years of economic growth spread over a 30-year period.” (In recent years, Canada has experienced annual growth in the 1.5 to 1.9 per cent range.)

Jaccard, who is currently working on the next IPCC report, said that this small sacrifice over an extended period of time is far better than the alternative.

Flood waters breach the Gatineau River and flood the neighbourhood in Gatineau, Que., in May 2017. More extreme weather is one consequence of climate change. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

“It’s a slight difference in economic output over a 30-year period in order to prevent the dramatic crashing in your economy because of wildfires, acidified oceans, rising seas, major storms and pandemics that can happen from climate change,” he said.

Drummond agrees, noting that concerns about emissions reductions harming the economy will likely always be around, even if they are without merit.

Canada is already on the right path, he said, and the country can ramp up its efforts to see both economic growth and a notable reduction in emissions.

“It’s not like we’re asking to do something that’s never been done before. We are doing it right now, we’re just not doing it enough,” he said. “If you asked me to move a three-tonne rock, if I can move it an inch, I’m pretty sure I can move it a foot.”

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Trudeau to offer premiers billions to help reopen the economy safely – EverythingGP

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Trudeau is offering to transfer the money to provincial and territorial governments, provided they agree to spend it on a number of areas the federal government considers necessary to reduce the risk of a second surge of the deadly coronavirus.

They include testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, bolstering municipalities, helping the most vulnerable Canadians and strengthening the health care system, possibly including improving conditions in long-term care homes linked to more than 80 per cent of the deaths in Canada so far.

Making a difference in just one of those areas — municipalities — is a pricey proposition. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates communities across the country, which have been on the front lines of the pandemic, need $10-15 billion to make up for the loss of revenue resulting from reduced transit fares, user fees and deferred property taxes.

At the start of the pandemic, the federal government boosted transfer payments to provinces and territories for health care by $500 million — an amount that seemed large at the time but which has since paled in comparison with the more than $150 billion Ottawa has shovelled into direct financial aid to Canadians and economic stimulus measures.

While Trudeau is now offering provinces and territories substantially more money, there is likely to be some push back from some premiers over his attempt to direct the general areas on which it should be spent rather than letting them spend it as they see fit.

The prime minister is also expected to announce financial support for nearly four million disabled Canadians, who already faced some of the highest costs of living before the pandemic made daily life even more expensive.

Among other things, the pandemic has resulted in many people with disabilities having to rely on in-home care, pay delivery fees for groceries and other items, and fork out higher dispensing fees for prescription drugs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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