When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, the music industry immediately saw its effects. By the last week of March 2020, musicians had tour dates canceled and were unable to predict when they would return to the stage. Country singer Robert Earl Keen knew he had to do something to protect his 10 employees.
“I had made my decision to double down on riding out the storm,” he tells me. “All 10 employees were on salary with health insurance and a SEP IRA retirement plan. These features had been in place for more than 20 years. I refinanced my house, got a government crisis loan and a PPP loan. Then I called everyone who worked for me, each individually, and told them we were still in business and I could guarantee their employment through June of 2020.”
While all salaries were reduced, Keen made sure each employee remained insured. As the pandemic continued, he kept in constant communication with his band. He would talk with his team every three months to keep each person informed with what was going on.
“I discovered this close communication exercise was key to everyone’s peace of mind and probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in business and crisis,” he says.
Keen, 64, has been responsible with his money and he says not being in debt has helped keep his business and his team afloat throughout Covid-19.
“I’ve not had a car note since 1996 and my credit cards, business and pleasure, are zeroed out monthly. It’s a bit heavier since the beginning of Covid,” he admits. “With the help of my in-house management director, we approximated our losses and made the appropriate cuts.
“It was difficult, but my goal was to keep everyone employed with insurance, so I cut all salaries, including mine, 25% and put off the SEP contributions as long as possible. All services from publicity to marketing to cleaning and lawn service abated to a TBD date down the road. Every aspect of my effort has been to keep everyone working. The mental anguish associated with the unforeseeable future vanished the day I committed to keeping the lights on.”
Much of Keen’s team has been with him for more than 20 years. As the CEO of a small business, Keen’s early research on how to run a business has proven successful for the singer. Before forming his first band in 1994, Keen says he listened to the complaints of band members of other artists.
“The rest of the working world had steady salaries, insurance, reasonable work schedules and some had retirement plans. In general and still to this day, musicians have none of those,” he says. “Around 1994, I implemented that with the advent of the first band I considered permanent. Bands who back a front person artist are frequently left out when it comes to recording a full length, commercial record. There are many outside influences surrounding this issue, many are smart and necessary, but one can include the road band on studio projects in more ways than one. I’ve had my band as core band in the studio since 1995.
“I listened early on, considered complaints, and decided to create the most level playing field possible,” he continues. “All done from the earliest days as a band leader.”
While the main focus of the past year has been on keeping his business afloat, the singer also built a studio space in his barn to record his upcoming project, Western Chill. Once completed, he invited his band over to rehearse some of the songs he had written and asked them to write and contribute two or three songs each.
Keen says the collaboration process felt like the band was reborn. He adds that Western Chill is the “shining star of our 2020.” The project will be released this summer with video accompaniment to follow.
“The pandemic, for me, was very hard on many of my friendships. I’m working to reverse my faults in that arena,” he says. “That became an issue because while people were throwing Zoom parties and streaming concerts, I went dark. Almost stopped communicating with anyone outside my immediate family and company responsibilities.
“Looking back, I wish I’d spent more time writing. I think most artists focused on creating in 2020. We’ll feel the impact and know the value of those creations worldwide very soon. Get ready for an output of content not seen since the early half of the 20th century.”
“The idea that we were a band, not musicians backing up the frontman, was revealing and relaxing,” he says. “We swapped instruments, experimented with arrangements and most of all, discussed music and its creation like I’d never experienced in my entire career.”
One of the album’s tracks, “Walking On,” was written March 20, 2020, on what Keen calls the day the world stood still. It’s the day he learned from his booking agent, Keith Levy, the gravity of his tour cancelations. Keen estimates that he lost approximately $2 million worth of dates from March – June 2020.
Keen says “Walking On” is not an answer to the pandemic or the music industry’s struggles, but a dedication and explanation of individual spirit. “My life, passes by me, like I’m standing still/ Still I spend my time living like I’ve got time to kill/ I walk on til I’m hungry, talk on til I’m dry/ This road I’m on is all I’ve known so I keep walkin on,” he sings on the track.
Keen returned to the stage in June, playing drive-in and outdoor pod-based shows. By December, there were a number of reliable, socially distanced venues that honored limited capacity and raised ticket prices. His show at Billy Bob’s Texas that month was the first concert that felt like a return to normalcy.
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