The multimillion-pound heavyweight tier of the music industry may pull through. But what about the lifeblood of the rich layers beneath? Our grass-roots venues risk financial ruin and, with no clear idea of when and how gigs will return, the future of the middle-ground musician remains uncertain.
The celebrity singalong version of John Lennon’s Imagine may have caused even the strongest stomachs to somersault. The ‘we’re all in the same boat’ videos might bring to mind the divided classes who climbed aboard the Titanic.
For all that, a number of big-time singers and musicians have contributed in useful ways during the pandemic.
Beyonce and Rihanna donated millions through the charitable arms of their foundations to help fight coronavirus. Money will aid research for a vaccine, provide PPE and fund food banks.
Taylor Swift sneakily wired money to fans who mentioned their financial predicament on social media. Others have delivered masks or treats to lift the spirits at hospitals – here’s looking at Halsey and Miley.
Recognising the strife the pandemic could cause smaller acts on its streaming platform, Spotify started a ‘tip jar’ for people to donate to favourite artists.
Online events have attempted to unite music fans and gig-goers such as Global Citizen’s One World: Together At Home and A DJ Saved My Life. The latter was the world’s largest simultaneous live-streamed DJ event and raised money for the Covid-19 Emergency Appeal.
Despite best intentions, the cringe potential always looms large in those sort of events. They run the risk of seeming glib, a gulf away from reality sans luxury mansions.
More often than not they fall flat, serving only the stars of the show in their mission to feel relevant. Celebrities may be missing their usual levels of adoration but they’ll weather the storm. The casualties are likely to be further down the entourage pecking order.
Bristol-based pianist Jack Baldus, of The Soul Strutters/Jackson, says: “It won’t hit the massive acts who fill stadiums. This is going to hit those who play music full time. Not the open-micers who do it for a hobby or perform original music to try to get to the next level. People are always going to expect that to be played for free.
“It’s that middle section, who perform in bars and pubs and play functions. The people who play guitar in a restaurant or piano in a cafe.”
In Bristol, record store and gig hub Rough Trade has been awarded a National Lottery Project Grant to enable it continue supporting grass-roots live music in the city while upgrading equipment and soundproofing.
Other venues in the city are staying afloat thanks to a national funding drive from Music Venue Trust, which aims to save them from being closed permanently. Work on Strange Brew, an arts space, music venue and bar due to open this year, has been put on pause.
The team posted on Instagram: “Like most of the world, we’ve had to put plans on hold for now. But a lot of progress was made before coronavirus hit and be assured we will keep chipping away at it. Support independent businesses, keep buying music, keep dancing and look out for each other.”
Despite efforts like these, it’s unlikely all independent venues will garner enough support from arts councils and funding bodies to survive beyond the pandemic. What will happen to the people involved and the talent they showcase?
Bobby Anderson, frontman of rock, soul and Motown party band The 45s, says: “It’ll be messed up for a while. Venues will have taken a huge hit and promoters will have to rebuild their own micro-economies.
“Bigger bands will get the lion’s share of the restart as venues will be reluctant to book stuff that won’t sell. Festival line-ups will be hard to sort. Everyone is on a release schedule catered towards the best time to promote. Festival season is a huge part of that.
“Lots of bands will be sitting on finished albums trying to plan a release strategy around an uncertain tour calendar.”
There’ll always be music and once the immediate dangers of the pandemic are dealt with, new shoots will appear across the scorched horizon. The question is, how and where?
Threats to live music
John Nicholls, a drummer, says: “A few things have threatened to kill live music in pubs. The disco era when they all started hiring DJs, the smoking ban, the rising price of booze. Little things have contributed to crowds in pubs dwindling but it has bounced back.
“Live music will continue one way or another but I don’t think it’ll be in the pub scene unless they’re large pubs set up for music. That’s why it has moved towards dedicated music venues – places people specifically go to for a show. That’s fine but it means they have to pay for it, whereas with most pubs the music has always been free.”
Will people have as much disposable income to spend on gig tickets when lock-down lifts? Will pubs be able to afford bands? For some venues it will be a miracle if they reopen at all.
Baldus says: “Bands have been playing for £50 per musician since the Eighties, despite inflation of beer and food. The owner of the venue can say their utility rates and business rates have gone up. Fair enough, but the budget for music has always remained the same because there will always be someone who will do it for that price for the exposure. With the massive impact of the virus on the economy, this will be reason to tighten the budget even more.”
Of course bands will have missed out on months of gigging. Many will still jump at the chance to perform, especially for money.
Baldus says: “At some venues we receive £200 to split among the band. That’s rubbish considering how packed they get and expensive the booze is.
“Now venues like that might lower their budget to, say, £150. Will we still do it? Sadly, yes. Because it will be a good gig and we want to gain the better gigs off the back of it – the weddings and corporate bookings where we can charge a lot more.
“But the financial life of that middle-ground musician, who performs not to gain a fan base, sell merch or push original music, will suffer massively. It’s horrible not performing when that’s your emotional release.”
Singer Emily Gardiner, of Red Rocket Go and Doreen Doreen, believes there’s a psychological cost too. She says: “I haven’t performed since the beginning of March. We had a cracking gig, thank god, so that was a great high to end on.
“But I feel I’m not really a singer at the moment, I don’t feel that’s what I do. When I think back to being onstage, it feels like a different person. It feels a million light years away. I’d say I’ve introverted slightly – it’s left me questioning my creativity.”
It might be hard to see positives but there are if you look hard enough. Live-streaming is opening teaching opportunities as people realise distance is no limit when it comes to sharing expertise.
Ian Matthews, drummer of Kasabian who also plays jazz gigs in Bristol when not on tour, says: “I’ve been contacted by people with drum teaching studios to do online interviews. Mike Heaton, from Embrace, has taken his tuition programme online. People have adapted.
“Live-streaming has been the only way to perform during lock-down, although ultimately it’s still two dimensional. It will never replace the feeling people get from music live in front of them.”
“I can’t see the live-stream performance trend continuing once the real thing is an option again,” Baldus says. “But musicians teaching online is becoming more normal as technology gets better. That broadens the scope of teaching.
“I am now teaching people over an hour away, whereas I wouldn’t have done that before. Anyone can teach across the world in real time, technically, so that’s a real positive.”
Gardiner says: “I feel grateful I have a day job in digital marketing. Live-streaming during lock-down is cool but if you don’t have a studio in your garage to record songs or teach online, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and out of the loop.
“Not all performers enjoy seeing themselves on camera while they perform. If you don’t have an instrument to accompany your vocals, it’s tricky.
“A similar thing happened with theatre companies a while back. They tend to employ actors who play musical instruments. Any muso or sound engineer who’s tech-savvy is going to thrive right now or at least survive. Music is competitive enough. Now, all of a sudden, you need to be not just a great guitarist but one who knows a music software programme like Logic.”
Matthews thinks big change could be on the cards. “There’s all sort of talk about restructuring the ways people gather, travel through airports, go to theatres and cinemas.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens after weeks and weeks of paused trading. How many of our live venues, which were already under threat, will be left for us to play in? And are people going to feel confident to hang out in large crowds?”
If concerts return while the virus still poses a threat, will spacing be policed? Will chalk circles be drawn on the floor like they have outside convenience stores as designated dancing spots? Will there be carefully separated seating in place of the mosh pit?
“That would be a real passion killer,” Gardiner says. “In the same way I can see flights becoming much more expensive – taking out every third passenger or leaving middle seats empty for distancing reasons is going to have an impact on cost. Gig tickets will be bumped up if fewer people can enter the venue. The Rolling Stones already charge £100 a ticket.”
Perhaps concerts will be restricted to the summer, when it’s easier to put on outdoor shows that lend themselves to social distancing. If only we could rely on the British weather? Gigs would probably need to be more sedate too. Perhaps the strawberries, fold-out chairs and picnic blankets of Forest Live.
In Europe, a trend of drive-in performances is gathering pace after a German club held a car park rave. The shindig took place outside Club Index, in Schüttorf, featuring 250 cars containing two occupants at most.
Over April bank holiday weekend, fans of Irish music band Black Velvet danced in their living rooms and kitchens as a number of the Cornish pubs they once played in streamed a live gig to more than 20,000 homes.
If we get our creative minds in gear, we can find solutions.
Anderson says: “This period will give bands and artists time to regroup, write and avoid burnout. When there’s a short time between release, tour, record, release, ideas run dry and enthusiasm wanes. Everyone gets to breathe now.”
“Despite the negatives, I think there will be lots of live music,” says Baldus. “It makes me think about how after the war everyone wanted to party and celebrate their freedom. Live music goes hand in hand with that.”
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