Outer Banks musicians are singing the blues thanks to COVID-19

Phil Watson normally plays more than 200 gigs a year on the Outer Banks. [photo courtesy Facebook]

The COVID-19 pandemic has given Outer Banks musicians a case of the blues. With restaurants only able to offer take-out or delivery options, that means there’s no need for live entertainment.

That’s bad news for artists like Phil Watson. An Outer Banks music scene exception, performing is his only job.

Last year alone he had 275 gigs. This year he already had 250 booked, with 80 percent of Watson’s shows in Dare County.

The average Outer Banks restaurant and bar will pay about $50 an hour, and expect a three hour show. This doesn’t include tips, and depending on the establishment, a musician may get a fringe benefit like a meal or a cold beer.

Watson has drawn from a catalog of originals and time-tested covers.

“Wagon Wheel is the Outer Banks’ Freebird,” Watson chuckled. “You gotta know that one, sometimes for a change I do it on ukulele.”

While Watson typically has seen his restaurant and bar action pick up in April, most area players will observe their uptick after Memorial Day Weekend.

That doesn’t mean April and May can’t be profitable, because those are big Outer Banks wedding months. However social distancing has put a kibosh on large gatherings.

Christian and Amanda are expecting a daughter in July. [submitted photo]

“I had a couple of weddings on the books into May and as of right now none of that’s happening,” Christian Benedi said.

“I personally don’t take less than $200 an hour for a wedding gig,” Benedi said. “I know that sounds like a lot the day of, but, there’s so much that goes into it, six months, a year, a year and a half beforehand, going back and forth, learning music, learning a timeline.”

“When it’s all said and done, $200 an hour, you’ve really been working for it at $10 an hour,” Benedi said.

The per hour behind the scenes break down may make the money less tantalizing, but the dollars add up. And now, those dollars will be lost.

Brent Nultemeier is part of a group called SOULone. The trio, whose repertoire can range from classic rock to reggae, had several weddings slated for April and May.

Weddings can be rescheduled, but a rescheduled wedding may end up on the same day a musician has already been booked.

A married father of three, Nultemeier isn’t completely reliant on music to make ends meet, but it’s a major component of his financial well being.

“My graphic design business is doing pretty good, but it’s not enough to keep me going,” Nultemeier said. “I do need the income from music to ride through this, and without it I’m gonna have to reinvent myself some other way, like I’m painting nowadays, trying to sell my artwork, but I can’t sell my artwork if the art shops aren’t open, it’s a stressful time.”

More of Brent’s work can be found on his Instagram accounts @bnulte [submitted photo].

Nultemeier, a longtime surfer and environmental advocate who also runs OBXSurfInfo.com, will hit the waves as a means of decompression.

A provision in the COVID-19 federal stimulus package could help professional musicians stay financially afloat. Both Watson and Nultemeier plan to apply for unemployment compensation.

Benedi already filed for unemployment benefits. Both he and his significant other, Amanda, who expect the birth of their first daughter in July, had been laid off from the restaurant they managed. A restaurant which will not reopen.

While bars and restaurants are off limits to entertainers, Benedi has done a couple of Facebook Live concerts.

“Being out of work, I figured you know what, I can have fun at the same time, play some live music, hopefully entertain some people, and make their evening a little bit better,” said Benedi, who also works as a deejay on Beach 104, BIG 94.5 and 99.1 The Sound.

Fans tipped Benedi through digital options like Venmo. A person of many talents, Benedi also has a charter boat captain license.

His current summer aspiration is to run a dolphin tour boat and supplement that income with restaurant work. He’s cautiously optimistic the music gigs he lined up months ago will still happen.

Like Benedi and Nultemeier, Watson has wondered about the future.

“I started playing in restaurants and bars when I was 16 and I’m 44 now,” said Watson, a father of two.

“I was in the car business for about 15 years as well, and I had a pretty good run, and it’s something I may have to look back into if things don’t improve, I haven’t spoken to anyone, but it’s in the back of my mind,” Watson said.

Watson can’t wait for his next on stage performance. When that does happen, you may hear his latest creation.

“C-O-V-I-D-19, it’s the craziest thing we’ve ever seen, I’m not sure how long it will be, til we rejoin society.”

It’s a tune called Craziest Thing (Official Coronavirus Song), available on Spotify and Youtube Music Premium. A pandemic inspired song crafted to frame this moment into a proper perspective.