Things are not going well. Hunched over the side of our armchair, facing the corner of the room as though we’ve fallen victim to the Blair Witch, we’re contorting ourselves into an impossible position just so we can occasionally catch a glimpse of Tom Grennan’s feet as he plays a ‘triumphant’ livestreamed VR performance from Brixton Academy. As our struggle to see the singer rather than Brixton’s toilets continues, it slowly dawns on us that the problem may lie with us rather than the technology. It turns out, you can change the view with a swipe of your finger – and, yes, we’ve found what we are looking for. Welcome to a real live music experience in autumn 2020.
This is the part of a feature where the writer would normally ask ‘how did we get here?’, but everyone already knows the answer to that. It *still* makes for grim reading so think of this as the dark before the dawn. Roll back to March then, and what began as faint murmurs of “this sounds like it might get serious” has become a deafening alarm klaxon. Everyone’s got a ‘last gig’ story – sweaty, heaving crowds that didn’t feel weird at the time, but as this new virus turns up just a short while later, things take on a whole new meaning. Images of Lewis Capaldi and Stereophonics playing to thousands of people soon stop looking celebratory, but instead extremely misguided. As realisation sets in about what is to come, the shutters slam down everywhere. When SXSW is dramatically pulled by the city’s Mayor Steve Adler, the huge US festival becomes just one of the first in a series of cancellations that still continue to threaten the foundations of the entire industry.
The impact to touring bands was immediate and devastating. “We had to scramble home from a locked-down New York,” remembers LIFE frontman (and Dork Radio regular) Mez Sanders-Green. “Not only did we have to abandon the last dates but the band were split up, and we had to get two of the last flights out of there.” Another band on tour in the US at the time were Glass Animals, their leader Dave Bayley picking up the story. “We were out there trying to get Joe [Seaward, drums] back into playing again after his accident, testing out new material,” he says. “As we went through the tour, the news was getting scarier and scarier until we played The Troubadour in LA. Just before we went on for the encore, the venue manager told us that this would be the last show for a very long time, and that was that. We had to book flights there and then.”
Entire tours crumbled into dust, venues and artists alike losing pretty much everything at a stroke as the reality of what the summer festival season would look like sank in fast. Drug Store Romeos’ Jonny Gilbert sums it up nicely (and the most poetically), when he describes it “as if our touring plans were a newly bloomed field of roses, COVID-19 has come along like an out of control fox and trampled all our petals and stems.”
He’s not alone. London gig promoter and head of socials at The Lexington, Marcus Harris, and booker of The Green Door Store in Brighton, Toni Coe-Brooker, are among many involved in venues to point out the sheer scale of what they, and other venues across the country, faced. “We were forced to cancel, reschedule or postpone hundreds of shows more or less overnight” explains Marcus. “I’ve rescheduled some stuff for a third and fourth time now.”
“I honestly don’t know who I am or what I should be doing when I’m not putting on gigs,” admits Toni, who has had to cancel an entire annual schedule that usually consists of ten events a week. With many promoters and venues describing an average of ten venue crew working on each mid-sized live show, the scale of the financial damage soon adds up, and it’s easy to see why the industry was brought to its knees so quickly. With revenues destroyed, many have found themselves in the scary position of being involved in something deemed ‘unviable’ by certain quarters. Describing the touring industry as an ecosystem, Tim Dellow of Transgressive Records explains: “The entire system is decimated, and that also has a knock-on effect to many acts… Streaming, sales, radio plays, publicity – and ultimately, the chance for artists to make a living from their work.”
The picture he paints is a bleak one, and he isn’t alone.
“Personally, it has been a hard pill to swallow,” admits Mez. “Myself and the rest of the band were finally able to quit our jobs fully in September, but it’s destroyed our live revenue and current sustainability. And I can tell ya, as a single parent, that’s a scary situation to be in.”
The emotional damage has been just as heavy. “Post-tour-blues is a massive thing anyway,” admits Alcopop! Records’ big wig’ Jack Clothier, “so the feeling of ‘I’m supposed to be on tour, but actually, I’m sitting in my flat with nothing to do blues’ is a whole other level.”
Just like all of us, artists have taken to this extended period of being forced to do pretty much nothing in different ways, their reactions ranging from boredom to pure anger. “People start bands to create music and to share that experience live, so of course the impact has been extremely negative,” spits Wargasm’s Sam Matlock. “You feel stagnant, bitter and uninspired. Does anyone answer this with, ‘Oh yeah, it’s been really positive?'”
Plenty of musicians are finding silver-linings, though.
“I’ve tried to go with the change and adjust myself, finding the positives,” points out Sinead O’Brien. “I really do see it as a kind of ‘pause’ and certainly not a ‘stop’.” That desire to stay positive is something that many artists agree on, including Rachel Chinouriri, who continues: “I’m very privileged, I’m doing the job that I love. It stressed me out at first, but now it’s like, I can’t be stressed for a year. I can’t change it.”
While obviously, most artists have suffered terribly over the last few months, it is surprising just how many feel that this period of downtime has helped them reflect on what’s next. “I don’t feel hindered by it. I mean, no-one is out there, so we’re all sort of stuck in the same place?” offers Lauran Hibberd, one of many to use the time to actually, properly, finish a record. “You can either use the time to write three records and become like Jack White on guitar, or you can sit around and mope about what’s going on and blame it for standing still.”
Her view is shared by fellow Friend Of The Magazine (TM) Alfie Templeman, who puts the considerable upturn in his follower counts online is down in part to the lockdown. “I think funnily enough I gained more hype during lockdown,” he says. “It felt like we were all in it together. I went from 400k listeners to over a million this summer, which is absolutely stunning.”
FEET, however, took another angle and perhaps summed up the mood of the nation best. “We watched the entirety of The Sopranos and wrote a couple of metal songs,” says Oli, though perhaps thankfully he promises that they have since erased this new musical direction from existence entirely.
So with artists desperate to find new ways to stay connected with fans, what began as a trickle of live streams from home became a tidal wave. From the sublime to the ridiculous, we saw it all – and sometimes both from the same band (let us never forget Sports Team’s Alex Rice doing a Fontaines cover in an Irish accent, something that can only be described as a ‘brave’ decision). While for some artists it was a return to their roots of writing and recording tracks in their bedroom – Chinouriri perfectly captures the moods of many when she calls it “nostalgic” – others were warier about the risks of overkill. Let’s face it, it’s hard to get caught up in a world of glamorous indie rock’n’roll when the wi-fi’s rubbish.
“Demanding fans glare at their iPhone screens for an hour whilst we navigate our broadband speed wasn’t going to save music,” laughs Oli. FEET were one of many acts who soon branched out from the classic ‘here are some musicians pretending they’re at a gig, but actually, they’re in their bedroom’ template into something more engaging and exciting.
Homeschool, put on by your friendly neighbourhood Dork, was as close to an ‘IRL’ festival as you could possibly get this side of a £7 pint and endless queues for the toilet (even if we do say so ourselves), while Dream Nails even created a ‘Gig In A Box’, complete with beers, setlists and an actual bit of sticky floor to stand on to complete the vibe. As streams got more elaborate, artists began to embrace the chance to do something special. Whether it was IDLES putting on three different sets at Abbey Road or LIFE selling special merchandise for their trip to the moon, the very act of watching a band began to evolve into a real event once more.
With limitation comes inspiration, and all that. One upside of ‘all this’ is the way that many artists have kept on pushing the boundaries of what technology and the online world could offer. Whether working with augmented reality and holding crazy internet experiments, dabbling in building online sculptures, creating talk shows or WhatsApp groups filled with the kind of messages end-to-end encryption was designed to keep private, there has been a real hunger to do something ‘different’ in these ‘troubled times’. Even the act of making music has evolved, Wallows recording almost an entire EP in isolation from each other thanks to the wonders of iPhones.
But bands have still come up against that brick wall of how to promote a new record when they cannot connect in person with their audiences. “Sharing [an album] face to face with an audience, understanding it together through the IRL exchange energies of a tour was all turned on its head,” explains Dream Wife’s Alice Go. “But even though we can’t all be together sweating and smiling at a live show, we can still be together through the music itself.”
In many ways it seems, those infamous chart battles have appeared to go some way to replace the excitement and hype of a big gig build-up as Music Twitter goes into its regular meltdown over whichever Indie Favourite is destined to get a number two that week. In fact, despite a rocky period when it seemed like many big releases were going to get pushed back in a similar way to what has happened in cinema, the album charts have never seemed so important – or at least entertaining. Surprise drops from the likes of Taylor Swift have only heightened the buzz around this part of the music world, showing that despite everything there is still a hunger for ‘new’ rather than people retreating back into familiar comforts.
But despite all that, it’s the live music experience that we’re all after. Seeing your favourite up close, singing with your mates, feeling that bass in your guts. It’s something that no livestream, no matter how polished, could ever replace. Step forward one Sam Fender then, who kickstarted the painfully slow process of getting fans and artists back into the same space again with his socially-distanced arena gig back in August. Steve Davis, Director at SSD Concerts (the team behind the Virgin Utility Arena gigs, This Is Tomorrow and Hit The North) is still understandably stoked about the event.
“Sam opening the Newcastle gig with ‘Local Hero’ was definitely a moment,” he beams, proud that his region was responsible for kickstarting live music again. “Not only did it happen, it was safe!”
While the other shows at VUA proved to be equally triumphant (as did the Wild Paths festival in Norwich), the last-minute calling-off of Declan McKenna’s show due to local lockdowns proved just how precarious the recovery is – a volatile situation that caused the cancellation of the national drive-in gigs that were also planned for the summer.
Elsewhere, at a much smaller scale, London has slowly crept back into action. The Victoria in Dalston put on a string of tiny shows in its outdoor space, while Windmill Brixton has managed to coax the likes of Sinead O’Brien, black midi and Sorry into action in front of a distanced and seated crowd.
“It worked really well, people felt safe and taken care of,” states Sinead, while the venue’s booker Tim Perry is also pleased with the early results. “People have really enjoyed them, it feels like some sleazy speakeasy bar according to some punters,” he says, before warning: “It’s nice, but not the real thing.”
With Banquet Records also joining the fray (shows featuring Bloxx and Everything Everything sold out near-instantly), Working Men’s Club’s last-minute double performance at Oslo in Hackney is proving that low-key album ‘in-stores’ could still be a thing. Demand is still (reasonably) high from audiences, and the desperate nature of trying to grab one of a few dozen tickets for hot bands sure helps to make it feel special when you do manage to nab one. It won’t be a surprise to see many of our favourites following suit if these stay as successful, and safe, as they currently look to be.
The big question then is, what now? What on earth is 2021 gonna look like for live music, let alone anything else? Especially when, let’s be honest, the response from the powers-that-be hasn’t exactly been what you would call ‘helpful’, ‘timely’ or, well, anything useful really. Melvin Benn, head honcho of Reading & Leeds has spoken extensively about his plans for using rapid testing at the gates rather than trying to enforce social distancing at a notoriously messy festival. Every festival’s head that was spoken to for this feature responded independently with the same crystal clear message – that social distancing just cannot work at a festival.
Kendal Calling and Bluedot Festival Director, Will Orchard is vocal in his praise for the conversation that Benn has begun. “Melvin’s work here deserves a huge amount of recognition, he was out of the blocks with a fully-formed plan way before the Government,” he states, while Becky Ayres of Liverpool Sound City is excited about the possibilities of using phone technology to help with rapid testing. “There’s a lot of innovation going on right now,” she explains. “I’m really positive that festivals can overcome the challenges and that fans can be back going to see live music next year.”
In the absence of a vaccine, these ideas have struck a chord with many within the industry. “Would you want to be at a festival that has to enforce social distancing?” asks Harris, pointing out that it is the opposite of what festivals should be about. “You should be in a pile on the floor with your mates. Never forget that,” he finishes.
Meanwhile, on the tour circuit, Kilimanjaro Live boss Stuart Galbraith told Music Week recently of his belief that it wouldn’t be feasible to restart full-capacity gigs until 8th April, a date he believes will “fit in with political and society agendas.” Many eyes will be on Switzerland after permission was granted for events with less than 1,000 people in attendance to take place once more from the start of October. Baby steps, perhaps, but each one is vital to getting back to normal.
Speak to any artist, and you can feel them bursting to return. But each and every one of them stresses that it can only be in a way that feels safe for all – it is easy to forget sometimes that some artists simply cannot take the risk to return to performing live for their own health reasons. “Consent feels vitally important here,” points out Dream Wife’s Bella Podpadec of the wider risks, while Indoor Pets’ James Simpson remains nervous. “If shows can be proven to be safe for all, then rapid testing and tracing has to be the goal,” he says. “Socially distanced gigs actually seem to economically harm venues rather than help.”
It is far from a simple problem (that’s in with a shout for understatement of the year), and much will come down to Galbraith’s point about the agendas of the day. As Davis admits, those big Newcastle shows don’t reflect a long-term strategy and are instead the best that is achievable right now.
It’s no surprise that attention has also turned to making sure there are places for live music to return to, even as some of the venues that have found themselves in increasingly precarious positions through no fault of their own were allocated a share of the much-heralded £1.5bn Culture Recovery Fund. Before we breathe too much of a sigh of relief though, let’s not forget that this pales in comparison with the speedy €7bn that France offered its creative industries in the immediate aftermath of COVID. And if you really want your mind blown, then consider the €50bn that Germany released to all creative and cultural sectors (but primarily aimed at small businesses and freelancers) also in the spring of this year. A world-beating response ours ain’t, but the hope for many still is that this relief begins to drip through to the rest of the industry. And fast.
That can’t come quickly enough for many, Mez not holding back in his analysis as he states: “It’s been tragic for so many artists and creatives, especially those who feed and live off the live scene like ourselves. The whole industry is in freefall with fuck all support from this shit-flap Government.”
There is one bright light that has shone throughout all of this, however, and that comes from the people who quite simply refuse to give up. From venue and festival owners working tirelessly to raise funds and awareness, artists constantly finding new ways to stay connected with their fans, to the magazines and blogs that keep talking about the exciting stuff, pretty much everyone is in this together and for the right reasons. Whatever comes next year, live music will exist and keep returning in whatever format it needs to. Get ready for it. Just make sure you’re facing the right way.
Taken from the November issue of Dork.
Words: Jamie MacMillan