Isolation Drills: Ross Bellenoit

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Bellenoit: Firstly, it’s almost impossible to write this, given that every day presents new challenges, new frustrations, new joys. By the time someone reads this, things may have changed. But, for the moment, the future is uncertain.

I woke up March 12 in Dortmund, Germany, having played a fun, yet ill-attended solo gig in one of my favorite venues over there. It was 5 a.m., and I couldn’t sleep. I checked my phone, and saw the breaking headline concerning a vague “travel ban” for the U.S. There were no details yet concerning U.S. citizens, due to our frighteningly incompetent federal administration. I bolted to my rental car and drove for five hours back to Berlin, spending the entire time on hold with United trying to get on an earlier flight for the next day. I was successful and canceled the rest of my tour.

After that, the dominoes started falling. My band, Muscle Tough, was about to tour for a few opening gigs that would have been an incredibly opportunity for us. We had to cancel everything for the foreseeable future, due to all venues shutting down and a ban on public gatherings. Turtle Studios, my record production home (and where I make a good half of my income), is also closed. ASCAP, my royalties collection agency, has seemingly putting a halt on monthly distributions. 

The only thing I have left is my one teaching job for a university, which has moved its entire platform online. But once the semester is over, I will have no regular source of income. That federal stimulus check is nowhere to be seen, and the state of Pennsylvania seems to believe that I am unable to qualify for both regular Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. (As of April 20, there’s a glitch in the system that is apparently being worked on).

With music streaming platforms like Spotify seemingly unable to distribute royalties fairly to the creators of their content (i.e., hard-working musicians), artists are forced to livestream concerts from their homes, perform to a blank nothingness and hope someone throws a buck in a virtual tip jar. Some people can do this, and they are making it work, and I applaud their tenacity and willingness to adapt. Perhaps, with time, I’ll be able to get over myself and jump on this train. However, at this moment, I’m having a hard time finding the platform to get on board. 

In a time when music, the very magic that we all try to conjure and connect with, the very essence of what keeps our collective humanity in balance, the very thing that stops us in our tracks and moves us to tears of joy or sadness, has become so devalued (in a monetary sense) and reduced to ones, zeros and even $00.0001s, it’s difficult for me to see a way into this new, albeit temporary, reality.

And while my situation seems to be somewhat tense and uncertain, the biggest thing that breaks my heart is knowing that there are millions of people who have it way worse off than I do. There are so many real heroes and real tragedies happening during this pandemic, I think to myself “boy, do I sound like a whiny, privileged twerp” while writing all of this. But my reality is no less real than someone else’s reality, and we are all going through a collective trauma as a nation, and as a world.

But I have to continue to create. Perhaps not on a public platform, but I am writing music for a new record in a way that I’ve never done before. I have a document called “Projects That I Still Want To Do,” and I’m slowly putting some time into these ideas. (Electro Nick Drake project! Retro Beatles style record of all McCartney/Costello songs! Next jazz record! “Songs That Kill Me” covers project!)

My plan for this spring was to release a new record of songs that I had written over the last few years. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m so incredibly proud of this record, that my original plan was to put it out on vinyl and do a proper campaign for it: hiring publicists, booking agents, etc. With all of that seemingly out the window, I have decided to make it available on Bandcamp (the last music outlet that delivers the majority of its revenue back to the artist). It will be released on May 1. It’s called Where Does The Light Go?, and I’m sitting here, still wondering, hoping for an answer.