COVID-19 and Live Music: the way ahead for the gigging musician
Simon Spillett looks at the prospects for the gigging musician as Lockdown begins to ease
Picture the scene. It’s June 2021 and two musicians bump into each other in the street. One is a modestly talented semi-professional whose performance prospects generally extend no further than the odd pub gig. The other is an internationally renowned classical recitalist who regularly criss-crosses the globe from Berlin to Baltimore, Turin to Tokyo, on a seemingly endless string of concert hall appearances. Normally these two performers might have precious little in common, save that they occupy the same business. At polar opposites career-wise, they might have even less to discuss, only now – in the summer following ‘the year that never was’ – they can happily gab away comparing notes on how Covid-19, Social Distancing and the necessities of lockdown derailed their respective datesheets.
‘So what did you do last summer?’, the first musician asks.
‘Nothing,’ the second replies. ‘There were no gigs.’
‘Awful, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes, I thought I might never work again.’
‘Me too. There was a terrible moment when I thought that that was it and I’d have to go and – you know – do all that for the rest of my days.’
‘All that? You mean go and get a ‘day job’?’
‘No. Spend my life trying to convince people that performing remotely is a substitute for the real thing.’
They both laugh.
‘Yes, there was a moment, wasn’t there? Can you imagine if that had happened? Just think of what we’d have all lost…’
Real Loss and Virtual Living
If there is one theme that unites the world as it steadies itself from the titanic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic it is ‘loss’. Thousands of lives have been lost – so many of them needlessly so through government obfuscation, ignorance and incompetence. Jobs have also been lost. Careers too. And in many cases people’s sense of purpose has gone the same way, worn down by week on week of isolation, our society suddenly blown far apart by the need to contain viral spread. Yes, 21st century technology had enabled us to remain in touch and connected in a way that wouldn’t have been afforded us had Covid-19 wreaked havoc a mere twenty years ago, with Zoom, Skype, Teams, Facetime and all the other applications designed for global communication suddenly pressed into use for communicating with nearest and dearest who may only be a few miles – or even a few streets – away. But, there is beneath all the improvised connection, all the weekly remote family quiz nights, all the virtual drinks with friends and all the ‘mustn’t grumble’ bonhomie, a nagging sense that we’ve all been reduced to satellites of one another – orbiting the lives of those we love at a distance. And that can- and will never seem- quite right.
One of the most commonly expressed observations during the past three months since the Covid-19 crisis hit the UK has been its effect as a ‘leveller’, flatlining us all – old, young, furloughed or self-employed alike – into a sort of amorphous community of fellow combatants, fighting off the dreaded virus by temporarily setting aside our old lives and established patterns of social behaviour until normal service can be resumed. Some have compared it to the ‘wartime spirit’ of World War Two. Others to the sort of societal revamp only previously seen in dystopian dramas. Only there’s a very real problem with reducing such a multi-layered dilemma to such a cartoon-simple encapsulation. On the surface, yes, we have all been in this together – Staying Home, Saving Lives, Protecting The NHS – but amid that collective effort are millions of individual stories, of those derailed, severely impaired and living just this side of breaking point. Of lives so very far from uniform.
It’s no secret that lockdown as, say, a Surrey mansion-domiciled CEO of a nationwide high street name has been very different to that of a single mum living on a sink estate in Bradford who’s just been fired by a well-known pub chain. That much we know, but we now face another kind of disparity. As Britain now slowly begins to emerge blinking into the summer sunlight following months of being sequestered away behind closed doors, it follows that some lines of work will be far more difficult to instantly resurrect than others. The High Street might well resemble a TV image on pause and may just suddenly spring back into superficially ‘normal’ activity when given the government green light. Doubtless other major industries could come back online as if they’d been momentarily placed in suspended animation. And even the hospitality sector – given some smart thinking – might start back into action in a measured and recognisable way, especially if we’re fortunate enough to be gifted yet more of the glorious weather we’ve experienced of late.
Using – then Losing – the Remote
But what of the entertainment industry, or more specifically, the music business?
Over the past few weeks of uncertainty, in which both mainstream and personal social media had been awash beneath a tsunami of conjecture, conspiracy theory, noisy opinion, and alarmist and disquieting rhetoric about virtually every aspect of what post-Covid Britain might look like, the music business has suffered what I think is a disproportionately large amount of negative prediction, so much so that for a time I simply couldn’t bear to read another shared piece on how the nation’s theatres were unlikely to open again until hell froze over, how musicians might from now until the end of time be required to work with each other only remotely, like lab rats sat in separate cages combining in some vast experiment, and how in the final audit of life live music was to all intents and purposes now royally screwed.
In this regard, the Coronavirus, and its resultant impact via Social Distancing, had found yet another victim – an entire community who, it was postulated, might now find its natural habitat (the live performance) an ecosystem no longer sustainable.
This was a very different kind of levelling to that felt by ironing out the socially necessary from the personally indulgent – this was levelling done à la neutron bomb, after the dropping of which the familiar infrastructure remains as it was but – without the people who inhabit it – left with no real purpose. The music industry was to be laid waste, we were being told, like collateral damage for the greater good.
Before I explore why I feel these sort of predictions were actually far more damaging than other similar scenarios postulated about other lines of work, let me make a distinction; when I use the term music business I’m thinking not of the higher echelons of the ‘industry’ – the Madonna’s and the Elton John’s, who have remained cushioned by gargantuan wealth and whose lockdown platitudes issued forth from baths full of rose petals and such like were so vomit-inducingly superficial – I’m talking about those employed on the shop floor of music – the gigging performers who need (in more ways than one) to play live in order to keep so many things together; body and soul, certainly, but also the more everyday concerns of mortgages, rents, standing orders and cash flow. They are (and I’m so very proud to be one) the foot soldiers of the business, those carrying the fight to the front line in pubs, clubs, theatres, concert halls and arts centres throughout the land – a true band of brothers and sisters, doing it for themselves, against what were already uncertain prospects. They needed a pandemic like a hole in the head.
As had been the case with so many of the component parts of our nation’s social fabric over the past months, the ‘grass roots’ of the music business is something we’ve hitherto taken very much for granted but which has been shown to be what it is; a vital player in our country’s national psyche, not only financially (through revenue generated) but as a kind of social balm.
Pub gigs and club acts, tribute nights down the local ‘social’, modest-sized local festivals and even duos in restaurants have all gone on for so long – just being there – that no-one had ever wondered what might happen if they weren’t. Indeed, nobody could have foreseen any circumstance (bar a worldwide nuclear holocaust or a visit by little green men) that might conceivably have stopped gigging musicians, well, gigging! And then suddenly came Covid-19 and the wheels on the musical bus quite unexpectedly went round and round no longer. Time off between gigs and dealing with the vicissitudes of irregular income are par for the course with professional musicians, but this? This was something else entirely.
From a personal perspective, the first few weeks of lockdown – after Boris Johnson’s announcement that the hospitality sector was off-limits had decimated my diary of live appearances, reducing its physical equivalent to a sea of red-inked slashes – were oddly calm. Taking the tack that I (like all other working musicians I know) was simply the victim of impossible-to-predict circumstances, I rolled with the punches. And when Skyped gigs began to appear and bands contrived to make impressively together-sounding music via remote means, I congratulated the business on its ability to once more find the positives and make music happen in spite of all the obstacles. What’s the phrase? Evolve or die? Well, that’s what I saw; evolution and not death; inspiration in the face of some mighty tough odds. I may not (owing to some extremely challenging circumstances of my own) not have joined in with the new ways of keeping the musical bandwagon rolling but I could certainly applaud their ingenuity.
There was also a heartening message within the realisation – remarked on countless times on Social Media – that music, like cinema, television, literature, painting and the plastic arts, was the thing that would keep people occupied and inspired throughout the uncertain times of self-isolation. Indeed, as list after list of favourite albums, books and films turned Facebook into a sort of ‘top of the lockdown pops’ there were daily reminders of how music, even for those who consider it merely a part of their lives rather than a reason for living, is a soundtrack none of us can do without.
There were the odd voices of dissent, including one memorably vile troll who suggested to I and a few friends that now was the time to ‘get a proper job’, but by and large lockdown seemed to have done something very positive for the music business, its value appreciated anew after the mightiest of reboots, almost like the moment when a recalcitrant computer miraculously rights itself after being turned off and on again.
But there was – and remains – a worrying trend, one which I fear puts the existence and- more pointedly- the emotional and fiscal security of thousands of musicians at continued risk. Remote music making – via Zoom or Skype or even through simple self-filmed YouTube uploads – has become so easy, so convenient and, dare it be said, so fashionable of late (and this was a trend set before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19) that there is a danger that it could be seen in the less enlightened minds of some as the unilateral ‘way forward’ for the industry. I do hope not.
Even with its stock boosted by lockdown, these sorts of performances are, to my mind, still only ever a side-bar to the real thing; a live performance in front of a real audience. As a temporary morale-boosting substitute their propaganda value is considerable but, as any working musician in any genre will tell you, there is simply nothing like a gig. It’s where it all happens – the good and the bad, all the chance-taking, all the fun and the realised fruits of labour spent; all the connected humanity that makes music such a life-changing, communal unifier.
I’ve always considered myself a ‘live’ performer and as long as I can remember have relished the buzz of playing for people. The overwhelming majority of musicians I know feel exactly the same, each appreciating that, especially where an improvised genre like jazz is concerned, things happen on a gig that simply cannot and will not happen when performances are beamed in, patched together or constructed remotely by artificial means. And it’s not just musicians who feel this; think of all the ‘you should have been there’ real-time moments you’ve experienced through music, be they in a muddy festival field happily adrift amid a seething mass of fellow fans or, on a more modest scale, courtesy of that unknown performer who blew you away when they rocked up on open-mic night at your local pub. That’s the power of music; it touches each of us individually for sure but is also paradoxically a huge socially binding force. Indeed, no herd can stay immune from its sheer viral power.
Press to Play
And so what of the performer who, as the grip of lockdown begins to loosen, is hoping to move onward with their work in a live setting? Can he or she make good their recent hiatus this summer or are they really to spend the following twelve months (as some nay-sayers continue to predict) teaching online and posting stuff, be it solo clips on YouTube or job applications? Most of those I know are champing at the bit – full of frustration at being effectively gagged since early Spring and dying to reconnect. And all of them are also fully aware that government grants and post-pandemic sympathy and understanding are not inexhaustible resources. They have to get out there, singing and playing, performing and earning as soon as they can in order to stave off an Armageddon of the soul. It’s more than a necessity. It’s a compulsion. And they have bills too, some by now stacking up in such proliferation that they can no longer be jammed, knowingly ignored, into a kitchen drawer or down the back of a sofa.
So what therefore might be a way ahead that’s both genuinely connective and mindful of the continued need for Social Distance? And moreover what might comprise a working modus operandi that will mean a gig will still feel like a gig rather than a hollow exercise in cod-normality. How can we find a workable model that will restore both our need and desire as performers to play live and the people’s craving to encounter music in a social setting? Is there a template that we can usefully disseminate that will tick all the boxes, for artist, venue and public alike?
I’ve already been privy to at least some suggested guidelines for live music venues both large and small; one provincial jazz club owner I know tells me that the rule as far as indoor gigs is concerned will be the obligatory six feet of separation between audience members (even those who may live together) with a further ten feet being stipulated between the stage and the front row of listeners.
An internationally famous London jazz venue is allegedly proposing much the same thing, which, in a perversely connected way means that both grass roots-level and world-renown places of entertainment might now find themselves chewing on the same problem. Does, say, halving the size of your audience owing to the requirement to distance mean you have to up the ticket price or entry fee in order to recoup the necessary costs? Will that be unhelpfully prohibitive, putting off those who are already thinking twice about venturing out into clubland? Or does a smaller audience equate to a commensurately smaller fee, turning what were one’s lucrative certainties into little more than door-take earners? We’ve yet to see but however it pans out you have to admit it’s one hell of a knotty subject to digest.
Or will some venues now start to think as proactively as the theatre who’d booked a band I play in for a gig in late July which they steadfastly refused to cancel (while other gigs far later in the year were dropping like flies)? Instead of presenting us, as usual, in the venue’s foyer, we’ll be playing in its gardens, which are roomy enough to comfortably fit both a five-piece band and a modest-numbered audience. It’s like thinking outside the box, only you’re leaving the box to one side.
In case of point, I’m beginning to wonder if – given that we’re already into summer – this might not be the way to go, for the time being at least. It’s certainly the preferable option for those of us who, try as we might, really can’t seem to make things tie up as ‘virtual’ performers. Even given the vagaries of the English summer – which can pour water on the most positive of plans – I’d say it’s our best option thus far. After all, haven’t all performers triumphed over bad weather on function gigs, fetes, garden parties and such-like at some point in their careers?
This also puts me in mind of the strand of musicians and entertainers who make the lion’s share of their income through what’s sometimes disparagingly called ‘commercial work’ – all the weddings, regattas, family parties and outdoor get-togethers that are liberally sprinkled throughout the spring and summer months each year. Those I know who do have been severely hit by the fear of a second spike, and indeed by the general shock of the pandemic in general. The summer they had so hoped for, which had seemed like a veritable Eden at the beginning of lockdown when the nights were still dark and we were assured a few weeks would sort things, is already upon us and there are as yet no clear signs of a genuine way ahead.
Events organisers countrywide have simply pulled the plug on all kinds of vital work, some with good reason and sincere apologies, others with nary a word and seemingly wholesale, leaving gaping holes in the bookings diaries of performers who simply can’t survive until next summers rescheduling. Surely, even at the mercy of the changeable weather, the ‘great outdoors’ can’t be that hard to organise according to the recommended Social Distancing guidelines if people are vigilant enough? Isn’t it time some of those in other lines of work started thinking with the sort of ingenuity the musical community has shown throughout the current crisis, or are we really living in a new kind of land where live entertainment is, to all intents and purposes, off the menu? Even if big theatres and festivals remain off-limits for the time being, surely other, smaller businesses that are to an extent co-dependent on performers – the wedding organisers, pubs and bars and such-like – can offer at least a measure of confident-sounding reassurance? Or has furloughed torpor reduced them to a state of total complacency? I’m really not sure.
Or maybe it’s that, faced with too many uncertainties and deeply shaken by months of mixed messages, people just won’t take the risk. That much I can understand. I also feel that we as performers have a role to play within restoring public faith in live entertainment. Having sold ourselves to them all our lives, it’s surely not that much to ask for us to try just that little bit harder to sell ourselves again? Or should we all give in and cower away behind laptop screens, passively allowing the ‘virtual’ to become the ‘normal’ and letting the connective in-the-moment power of live music ebb silently away?
A number of musicians I know think not. In fact, only this week I and several of my colleagues were discussing the possibility of a small concert gig, staged in one musicians’ garden, with an invited audience numbering no more than, say, fifteen or twenty people. It may sound terribly cliched – all ‘let’s do the show right here’ – but it could – I dare say will – happen. I’ll happily wager that it’s an idea that’s being floated all over the UK right now too. And if anyone knows of a better solution I’ll gladly hear them out. But until then, I’m sticking with the idea that we’ve got to do something. If we don’t, then you can’t help but wonder if the music business in its most basic gigging incarnation might not be merely a collateral casualty of Covid-19 but a direct victim.
Live music won’t die out absolutely, of course – that’s a suggestion as ridiculous as, say, getting behind the wheel of a car to test whether your eyesight is fit for driving – but we have to remember we are all agents for its survival, players and public alike. Indeed, to my mind, there have been too many premature obituaries for the live gig and far too many clanging death knells rung in gloomy panic. It’s time for them to stop. The patient is still alive, make no mistake, and ready for discharge.
I’m also certain that whenever – and wherever – people can again come and hear us play, the transcendent, unifying and life-enriching force that is music will help restore so much of what has so often seemed irretrievably lost in these strange, strange times.
And who knows, those two musicians meeting up next summer might have cause to look back and recall a time, when rather than feebly seeping back into our everyday lives, live music came back stronger, healthier and more purposeful than ever.
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