Bill Gianukakis is worried about a special group of friends who proved solid as rock while he built his business: rock and blues musicians.
Gianukakis, the owner of Billy Blues Bar & Grill in Hazel Dell, has launched a Musicians Relief Fund to support pro players who’ve worked long and hard to build audiences, only to have that livelihood snatched away by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s not a group of people who’ve been impacted more than musicians, especially professional musicians,” Gianukakis said. “Some of these people are looking at not earning a living until a vaccine, possibly.”
Gianukakis knows musicians who count on the summer festival circuit for most of the income they’ll live on throughout the year, he said. That circuit has closed down until further notice, and so have the small stages and cozy corners in bars and restaurants where some pros earn their ongoing living.
Approximately 60 percent of the artists who perform at Billy Blues are professional musicians without any other source of income, Gianukakis said.
“We don’t book too many B-list bands and weekend warriors with day jobs,” said Gianukakis, whose stage has hosted top regional stars like blues singer Curtis Salgado, bassist and bandleader Lisa Mann, guitarist Norman Sylvester and Clark County’s own Louis Pain, a renowned jazz organist.
“This place wouldn’t exist without them,” Gianukakis said. “They were loyal to us when we weren’t well established. Now they’re hearing, ‘Get in line for unemployment.’ I know people who’ve been trying for 10 weeks and they’ve got no money coming in. No money for food, no money to pay the rent.”
Devising a formula
“We’re losing money too,” Gianukakis said of Billy Blues, “but I believe there are always others who have it worse than you do. If you have the ability to help, you have a duty. So, we came up with a formula.”
The formula for the Billy Blues Musicians Community Relief Fund is simple: make a donation and Billy Blues matches it dollar for dollar. You can leave a donation in a drop box near the restaurant’s entrance at 7115 N.E. Hazel Dell Ave.
“We’ve been supporting five musicians with $175 each, every week,” Gianukakis said. “That seems like a drop in the bucket, but you should see the raw emotion and the genuine sincerity of the people we support. Some of them are worried where their next meal is going to come from.”
The matching program was designed for Billy Blues customers stopping by to pick up takeout food, but some music fans have been known to make independent donations for their favorite players without buying anything. Even though Billy Blues loses money on such gifts, Gianukakis said he’s determined to match them anyway.
Rock, no cushion
Rock guitarist Kerry Movassagh is a beneficiary of the Billy Blues fund. Movassagh has been earning a living through performing and teaching music for 30-plus years — his entire adult life, he said.
“I don’t have a cushion,” he said. “I have a rock to sit on, but no cushion.”
Movassagh knows the matching fund is an extra burden for Gianukakis.
“There’s a whole community of musicians that’s grateful. Club owners don’t always care about musicians,” Movassagh said.
“Music venue owners are as hard hit as musicians are by this pandemic,” organist Pain said, “so it’s remarkable that a venue owner would think to help out musicians like that.”
Billy Blues was completely shut down for about a month, Gianukakis said, then reopened for takeout about five weeks ago. But its stage has stayed dark.
“We’ve been scraping along,” he said. “We derive about half of our income from live music.”
Keeping the place closed to in-house diners and drinkers as well as musicians has been devastating but necessary, he added, because Billy Blues’ customers are a community he cares about.
“Eighty percent are so consistent, I see them two or three or even four or five days a week,” he said. “Our customers are like our family.”
Like the old-school rockers and blues musicians they come to hear, those customers aren’t exactly spring chickens, Gianukakis said, and that makes them especially vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19.
“Most of them are 40 to 80 years old. I could never live with myself if something happened to any of them,” he said.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, I just know the landscape looks very strange,” Movassagh said. “I wonder when anybody will feel comfortable going back to restaurants and concerts. All my life, I’ve just taken for granted that live music would always be around.”