What does a global pandemic mean for an industry fuelled by live performance and those who work within it?
Words by Alana Harris
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic made public performances not only something of the past, but also something that won’t be seen in the near future. From cancelled concerts to derailed festivals, the future of live music has been altered, potentially irrevocably.
Arena-sized venues, prominent festivals and music’s biggest names are highly likely to survive this unprecedented time off, but for other musicians, promoters and venue owners, the standstill of live music has meant that one of their most reliable ways to make money has been completely eradicated.
For grassroots music venues in particular, the introduction of a global pandemic is bordering on heart wrenching. At the end of last year, grassroots venues finally began to get the help and attention they desperately needed and after nearly a decade, music venue decline was halted. Coronavirus isn’t just kicking a man when he’s down, it’s kicking a man who was down and only just got back up. Toni Coe-Brooker, coordinator for Music Venue Trust’s #SaveOurVenues campaign, commented “We were starting to see the industry stabilise for smaller venues. Less were closing and a few even opened. But this crisis meant that months of programming would be cancelled and we have had no indication as to when we can open again. So it’s hard to predict how bad the damage will be.”
The #SaveOurVenues campaign is fervently calling upon artists, fans, local communities and the wider industry and asking them to take action in order to save over 400 grassroot venues across the UK which are at imminent risk of being closed permanently due to the pandemic. Venues like these are important for so many reasons beyond just economic ones. They support numerous people and provide jobs for everyone from sound engineers, to bar staff to bouncers, who in turn create a family out of a local venue. These families extend to everybody who walks through the door and buys a ticket and to every band and artist who plays on its stage. Coe-Brooker stresses the importance of grassroot venues. “It’s where artists learn to hone their craft and build their audience. They provide a space where live performance doesn’t have to be perfect and where music can be fun, interactive and experimental.”
Sally Oakenfold, creative director at Brighton music venue The Hope and Ruin, echoes this sentiment, describing the venue and others like it as: “a breeding ground for new bands and artists to find their feet”. She emphasises how such spaces are essential for young musicians to pursue their dreams in an environment where they can fail, get back up, and try again until they find their way. After all, every artist has to start somewhere, and some of music’s most iconic names spent the early days of their careers paying their dues at local pubs, clubs and venues.
The Manatees, a four-person indie rock band, are in the early stages of their music career. They are one set of musicians among many who rely heavily on local and small music venues as a means to learn their trade, get performance experience, build a fan base and earn an income, something which has now ground to a halt. The disruption of the pandemic turned very quickly from speculation to fact. Tyler Bloor, the band’s lead guitarist, initially felt frustrated, “I knew straight away that our tour was going to be cancelled and our live performances are what brings in the most amount of money so it’s a huge loss for us.” Just two weeks after the band’s last public performance on 22nd February, Bloor and his bandmates got the call which confirmed their fears. Their entire March tour had been cancelled.
Tours, concerts and festivals may all have been cancelled, but there has been a much-needed ray of inspiration for musicians which has come from the ability to live-stream performances from their homes. Whether they’re the biggest names in the business or budding talent, thousands of musicians have been taking to social media to stream their songs and keep their performance appetite satisfied, all whilst providing some at home entertainment for fans. Live streaming is well and truly having its time to shine, Bloor and his other bandmates have held their own live streams as well as having featured on several hosted by other people. He reported how he believes it to be one of the biggest positivity’s to be coming out of the current situation, “live streaming and virtual gigs aren’t something we’ve done before, it’s maybe a platform that people haven’t necessarily thought about seriously before. Now with us and other artists, we’ve almost been forced to do it, it’s a really positive thing and I think even after this is all over its something we’ll definitely continue to do.”
Along with musicians, promotion companies have been using live streaming as a method of maintaining a livelihood and staying afloat. Billy Fitzjohn, who runs promotion company Fitz Promotions discussed how the pandemic has affected the company. “Ultimately COVID-19 has ensured that all of our shows have either been cancelled or postponed. It’s a massive shame but we’re trying our best to bring our live shows bigger and better when we’re allowed to return.” In the meantime, Billy has been hosting Fitzolation, weekly live sessions on Fitz Promotions Instagram where he invites artists to perform songs and have a chat. “The reaction has honestly been great! Honestly, when I set out to start it, it was just me having a chat with artists I like and wanted to speak to, and it’s slowly grown to something more than that. I’ve received a lot of great feedback and messages from people who have really enjoyed the streams.”
Clearly, live streaming is incredibly important right now; people from all different walks of the industry are using it as a way to stay creative, keep fans engaged and stay relevant. But, in the long run, how beneficial is it for keeping the live music industry on its feet? The end may not be in sight just yet, but at some point, life will return to normal and when that day comes, if the venues, promoters, musicians, sound technicians and countless others have made it through, who’s to say the fans will come flocking? Especially when it has been suggested that live music performance played a part in the transmission of the virus. The picture of what live music will look like once this pandemic is over, is one every individual reliant on the industry is desperate to see.
Bloor and his bandmates are pinning their hopes on the pandemic making people cherish live music more than ever before. “I hope that people will have more of an appreciation for live music and want to support the scene more after this is all over. Maybe people will see it as something they previously took for granted.”
Although it can’t be predicted what exactly live performance will look like once its deemed safe, the challenge being presented has ignited a community into action and has created a defining moment in music history. Public performance has been taken from us, but the sense of community being experienced is as strong as it is when a couple of hundred sweaty bodies are packed together under one dimly lit roof, listening, dancing and relishing the performance of their favourite artist.
Music Venue Trust’s #SaveOurVenues campaign has reached £1,087,728 of its £1,500,00 target with 37 days left. Coe-Brooker says those organising the campaign have been astounded by the response it has received. “We have been overwhelmed by the support and kindness of others. We have been inundated with offers to help the campaign. I think this proves how important venues are to their communities.” The Hope and Ruin have received £4,077 in donations, Oakenfold said the support for the venue’s customers has been incredible, dubbing the community support being seen as the largest positive that can be taken out of a testing time. “All that has happened has just highlighted and confirmed what we knew already. Live music is a crucial resource for so many people, and the community is rallying round to support each other.”
In the course of this pandemic, there isn’t a lot of certainty. We don’t know how many artists, venues and promoters will survive. We can’t predict when the next gig will be able to take place or how many people will turn up when it does. But the unity coming from live streams, fundraisers and campaigns, provides one piece of certainty; there’s a whole lotta hope.