Friday, 10 April 2020

Covid-19 and the Future of Live Music

And So I Watch You From Afar playing to a sell out festival crowd in 2017...but how far away will audiences be in future?

Before we begin; a message from Taylor.

Hello! Thank you for clicking on this article and supporting local music. Whether you've stumbled upon this on some sort of click bait rabbit hole, or you've purposely seeked it out, I really appreciate you being here. You're looking well. I'd like to personally thank each contributor to this article for their time and effort, they were under no obligation to give their opinions and it is very much appreciated. Links to all contributors work is included below, give them a listen, follow their pursuits and support your scene in anyway you can! We're going to be exploring this further over the next while. Hope you find something new and keep your spirits up. Look after eachother!

- Taylor Johnson, 26/3/20

A Plastic Rose live from Spectrum Festival 2014

With the Irish and British governments having introduced strict new curbs on life to tackle the spread of coronavirus, these restrictions are having a major impact on the live music industry and entertainment sector across Ireland and Northern Ireland. Taylor Johnson explores what’s been going on - and what the future may hold for the music scene as we know it, post Covid-19.

YOU’VE probably grown used to it by now: your favourite band or artist making the dreaded announcement of rescheduled tour dates or gig postponements. The effect this will have on established musicians, promoters and road crews across the world is unprecedented – and Ireland is no exception.

Over the last two weeks, we spoke to people from all corners of the Irish music industry to explore the true consequences of this pandemic…

“All this has made me really scared.”

Jaime Rachelle is a punk-singer/songwriter from Belfast. She was in the process of piecing together an Irish Tour when Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced new measures to close all pubs and bars in Ireland starting midnight on March 15th.

“I hadn’t gigged for about a year, as I had been taking time off to focus on trauma therapy and work on my anxiety,” Jaime tells me.

“I was so excited to do two gigs down south, then it was announced bars were shutting because of the coronavirus, and I started seeing how serious things were getting.”

For people like Jaime, the worry goes beyond just disappointing her fans.

“I started panicking and had to cancel both gigs and a hotel booking in Dublin for me and my boyfriend. I have asthma, and so I was told to self-isolate last week by my doctor as I was really sick a few weeks ago. I had also planned to make a new record, so plans are out the window now for that, as I can’t leave the house.”

Jaime fears there could also be lasting implications for our mental health:

"I’m gonna be unable to see my counselor and CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) for a while now. Being unsure about what’s gonna be happening with my therapy is definitely impacting my mental health! It’s such a scary time for so many people with mental health problems."

It isn’t just musicians being hit hard by the outbreak. Kate O’Loughlin is a music promoter, freelance journalist and runs her own PR company, MusicBox PR in Dublin.

“Times are very hard for us right now.”

“We don’t have much to work with as everything is being pushed back to later in 2020, maybe even 2021. We had some EP launch shows booked, obviously these have now been cancelled, which has been a massive loss for us and the artist, as we need a source of income.”

Kate has been working in the music industry for a few years, but fears she may have to return to her old line of work to make ends meet.

“I used to work in a luxury department store in Dublin, but left to focus on what I love, which was a job in the music industry. Unfortunately, the way things are currently looking, I might have to go back to retail when this is over to make up for any money lost.”

For all this uncertainty, Kate refuses to let the situation overcome her ambitions, and feels the Irish music communities spirit can get us through.

"I don’t think any of us knows what’s currently lying ahead, but  with a bit of positivity and support from each other, everyone in the music industry can get back into business. I’m using this time to get creative and think of ways to work around all this craziness."

She adds, "Just knowing we’re all going through it together, I think there’s a lot of peace in that."
For independent and established music promoters alike, the shutdown has proved catastrophic to their business model.

Addison Patterson is the founder of 'Table It!', a new promotions company based in The Pavilion, Belfast. Having successfully launched the 'Table It!' brand with an inaugural show on February 7th, two further gigs were announced for March with more planned for later in the year – until Covid-19 hit.

"It's a very, very weird time for so many people," explains the promoter who, like so many working in the creative sector in Northern Ireland, maintains other work to sustain her career in the music industry.

She continues, "I’ve lost both of my “actual” jobs, and then to not be able to do the creative thing on top of that is a really big blow."

For promoters like Addison, the problems go beyond just financial losses.

"It's financially terrifying, but even for artists and promoters who just do this on the side, it’s like losing that little thing that was gonna keep you going."

Yet, despite the postponement of all future 'Table It!' shows, according to Addison there is still some light to be found even in these most uncertain of times:

"It’s not just musicians, promoters and techs feeling the implications of the hiatus, it’s scene-wide, including fans. Social media engagement and support from fans has been monumental, and I think that shows the amount of support bands will have when they get back to it.

“Hopefully, it’s a case of people appreciating what they’ve got with the local scene more, now that they’ve lost it. Rescheduled gigs will see a bigger turnout, but I hope that’s a level of support people keep up now indefinitely, because it is crucial… and I think people will see that now more than ever."

(For a list of bands/artists working with 'Table It!' who have had gigs postponed and links to their music, see the bottom of this article)

It's a sentiment shared by Gas Hands frontman Dylan Bradley.

The Derry based punk band were in the middle of a UK tour when social distancing advice was rolled out by the UK government. Although no official legislation had been offered at this point, for Dylan and the band, the choice was made easier once they heard the fears of those back home.

"Nothing seemed to be closing or going particularly different over in the U.K. so we based our decision on what we were seeing back home and on rumours about travel bans. Luckily we got home before it went on full lock down!"

With a punk mentality ingrained within their band, Gas Hands were thankfully not too out of pocket after cutting their tour short early.

"We drove ourselves in a car and stayed mostly in people’s houses, so the outgoings were pretty small, meaning we didn’t loose out too much financially. The only thing we had to pay extra for was an early boat home. Maybe that says something in the favour of going as low budget and DIY as possible, especially if an unexpected emergency occurs!"

In spite of the turbulent times, Dylan and his Gas Hands band mates believe this crisis may yet ignite a new passion for the local music scene in Northern Ireland.

"I would imagine that as soon as we all can, a lot of us will be extremely happy to get back out to playing and attending shows. I think it’s possible, that with things being the way they are at the moment, once it’s safe to do so a lot of people might appreciate the feeling of a live show more than ever."

“The thing is, we have this concept that 'music' and 'music industry' are the same thing, but records have only been manufactured for maybe the last 120 years or so. Whereas music has been around since forever.”

Recording engineer and producer Chris Ryan is sitting in his home studio, contemplating the events of the last few weeks. Ryan is known for his work with Irish band Just Mustard on their Choice Music Prize nominated album ‘Wednesday’, as well as fronting post-punk jazz collective Robocobra Quartet. He’s been self-employed in the music industry since 2011.

“I'm usually equally spread between the studio, touring and management,” he says.

“It feels in a weird way that the old dream of the 60s to 80s, of being a 'recording artist' and not necessarily needing to tour is, at least temporarily, coming back due to the situation.

“Two weeks ago Bandcamp tweeted they've sold about $3 million worth of music in half a day. That's a bit nuts!”

On Friday March 20th, popular music streaming and download website waived their revenue shares on sales to help musicians impacted by the pandemic. There has also been a huge increase in ‘live streamed’ gigs, as artists turn to the internet in lieu of traditional live performances.

Chris believes that this growing trend could be one lasting legacy of the Covid-19 outbreak on the live music scene once things return to ‘normal’.

“It might be temporary, but it's interesting!,” he says.

“Especially for people unable to go on tour for all the millions of reasons like physical or mental disability, having kids and so on. I'm sure you know yourself that the current music industry model is broken, one doesn't make money from records and has to go play in shit bars worldwide to try to sell them. So, it’s a bit exciting!

Chris adds: "I've been thinking about how the 2001 anthrax envelope scares were the final push that made all business switch to email from post... in a way, Covid-19 is the acceleration of our physical lives transitioning almost exclusively online.”

Despite her business suffering significantly during the outbreak, community music facilitator and ukulele teacher Roisin Erskine remains optimistic, finding new ways to continue building her brand. She has been running therapy sessions through music for 3 years in Crossgar with her ‘Yogaleles’ group.

“Financially, I have taken a massive hit, and I see that being a pretty typical complaint right across the Arts sector ¬ not strictly related to music,” explain Roisin.

“I have managed to move all my classes online and the uptake hasn't been surprising. People are very quickly beginning to realise just how sociable they actually are.”

As these virtual trends continue to grow in tandem with the lockdown period, could this spell the end for live music as we know it now? Roisin isn’t so sure:

“I don't think the age of live shows is over, but I would hope that, now that people have caught a glimpse of what it's like to not be socially or physically mobile, perhaps we will see more gigs created specifically for people who cannot attend in person. The housebound, the vulnerable, the lonely.”

Team GB Paralympic athlete and devoted music fan Claire Taggart agrees. As the disability access officer for Irish League club Larne FC, it’s her job to make the match day experience a safe and inclusive experience for all fans. She feels the outbreak could have a positive long-term impact on the live music industry.

“As a wheelchair user and local music lover, I’m optimistic as to what may come from this,” says Claire, who has been attending gigs in the city for years now - but it’s often difficult, with many venues remaining inaccessible for disabled people.

“It’s something that’s very rarely talked about, but often disabled people are denied the chance to watch a gig because it isn’t physically possible. Watching artists adapt their gigs to the internet has been heartening.

“It gives everyone the opportunity to experience live music safely and equally to everyone else. It’s not just for the physically impaired, those suffering from anxieties or sensory disabilities are going to benefit from this too.”

She adds, “I hope musicians, particularly at a local level, continue this trend when live gigs return.

"The music is starting to take precedence again and the gap between artists and their fans is closing. That’s not a bad thing! This could have a serious long-term impact on music and that is truly fascinating.”

"I’ve seen nothing like this before and it’s stressful."

IF EVER a reminder was needed as to the seriousness of the situation we find ourselves in, these words from Stuart Bailie will hit home for the NI Music community more than most. 

Since 1988 Stuart Bailie has been at the forefront of music in Ireland and beyond, having been a longstanding editor and deputy editor at the NME, successful broadcaster for BBC Northern Ireland and most recently the author of 'Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland'. He has written for the likes of Mojo, Uncut, The Times, The Sunday Times and Hot Press among others.

Crucially, Bailie  remains a bastion of the Irish music scene, backing the likes of Fontaines DC, Soak and Touts on their paths to increased success in recent years. If anyone should know how Irish artists will be feeling through this process, it's him.

"Like everybody, I’m grieving for the live music scene,” says Stuart.

“Venues have spent years getting to a good place, and it’s always been an act of faith to set aside your business to host gigs and creativity. I already miss the opportunity to visit town and see bands and to be with ‘your people’.

“I feel sorry for the promoters who have dodged the financial risks for such a long time, always just about surviving. I hope they all make a return in the summer and that we never take them for granted again. I think the scene in Belfast was really peaking and so many good souls were partnering up on that effort. I do think that we’re resilient and that there’s going to be a lot of grass-roots support when the music starts to play again. "

Stuart goes on, "Musicians, managers and labels were getting strategic about their business. Planning releases well ahead, marketing smartly and getting internationally ambitious. For some of them, a year’s preparation has been damaged and that’s so sad

"I’ve been a freelancer for much of my time as a writer and media worker, and I’m half-prepared to weather the tough times. I’ve had a music photography exhibition cancelled, I’ve lost DJ work, lecture bookings and festival slots."

Researching for this article has highlighted, among other things, the resilience of our arts community. Unsurprisingly, Stuart Bailie is no exception.

"But hey, that’s only money and I’m finding ways to write more and prepare for future commissions. There’s some consolation in hearing new recordings from Arborist, Joel Harkin, Problem Patterns, Joshua Burnside, √Čriu and Malojian.

"I’m used to working from home and in solitude. That’s part of the writing life. But there was always the chance of a night off and fine company down the road at The Sunflower, Voodoo, The Oh Yeah Centre, The Limelight, The Ulster Sports Club, McHugh’s and The Black Box. That’s what hurts most."

As for the future, Stuart takes a moment to consider the question, before calmly adding;

"It’s inconceivable that the music’s over. I trust that we’ll return soon enough to the chords, the cheers and the collective good heart."

Somewhere amidst the chaos and concern, it seems like there is a creative light in Irish music that remains insurmountable.

A light that never goes out? It certainly feels that way.

Taylor Johnson


'A Little Solidarity Goes A Long Way' - Sounds of the Scene

"My advice is, be kind to yourself. There’s a lot of pressure, especially on artists, to use this time to be super creative, write that album, paint that masterpiece, write that script and when on you’re on a break from all that, do all that DIY you’ve been meaning to get to but never had the time. By all means, do that stuff if you feel up to it, but there’s nothing wrong with taking some time to be nice to yourself and relax. Chances are you have a demanding job and life when you’re not in the middle on a global pandemic. You should let yourself know that it’s also fine to take some time to gather your thoughts, take stock and maybe even relax while you have the chance. The chances are, once you do take that time, your creative juices may flow more and your body and mind will thank you for the break."

"Right now the best thing to do is to try and remain positive! It’s super important for us all to come together to show love and support one another, now more than ever! If you need help don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone, we are all in this together."

- Gemma Bradley, BBC Broadcaster, ATL Introducing

"Looking towards the future it's really hard to say what the landscape is going to be in a few months, I think people will still be nervous for a time after. We’re in a transformative period and I really believe that none of us will be the same when this does eventually end. There’s a huge amount of support and love being shared online and across social media which will be essential for any of us to survive this situation. 

When it is safe to emerge, I hope to see every venue, every bar, every club packed with people supporting artists big or small because it’ll be crucial if we want our whole industry to survive. One thing that has become abundantly clear to everyone is that creatives, no matter what medium, are indispensable. For now, I'll be spending time listening to music, continuing to discover and rediscover my favourite bands and counting down the days until I can be in a room with all my friends watching live music again. "

- Aine Cronin-McCartney, Flux Music Management, ATL Introducing 

"This is a genuinely scary time for everyone. Over the course of the previous weeks, we have lost control over many of the things we have used to define ourselves - social gatherings with those we care about, sharing our work and projects, even the slow meander to your local hostelry after a long days graft.

My advice to those affected is this; grab back whatever control you have. Set a routine. Eat and sleep well. Engage and love harder than you did before it whatever way you can. Throw yourself into creations that previously scared you. Do not be defined by the limitations imposed on us, rather do your best to make them your own. In a world preoccupied with daily death, bring a little life into your own life where you can. Your friends and family, and indeed yourself, will thank you for it in due time."

"The current situation has hit musicians and music organisations hard. Its repercussions will be felt for a long time, but already there's some hope shining through. I've already noticed the community spirit on show as everyone bands together. Whether it was the sales on Bandcamp day or people sharing music from home and watching each other's live streams, or the financial funding coming through from charities and organisations.

I think there's also hope for new creativity to blossom. We're still in the earliest of days but I do believe some great art and new ways of sharing it will come to light. All we can do is support each other collectively and remember that people will always need art."

"It's no secret I'm fond of my regular gig schedule, if there's one thing I've been able to hold onto these last few weeks and those yet to come it's the beautiful community spirit that artists and bands have provided in this time. From the music available to us to soundtrack this troubling time, to the wonderful live streams far and wide, times like these really kick home just how important and appreciated creative people are to our wellbeing and enjoyment."

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