The future of music: ‘No one has anything positive to say about physically distanced gigs. At all’

Kitchen-table and drive-in gigs are flourishing, but small venues and many artists will struggle in coming months – and our pop critic is missing something visceral…

Speaking selfishly, I miss volume the most. Tinnitus has been my constant plus-one for such a long time that it’s basically masochism – but it’s true. More than the crush of friends, or the camaraderie of strangers, or the ephemeral communion of act and crowd, I miss the kiss of bass on arm flesh. You just can’t get the full-body sensory workout of a proper backline at home.

Charli XCX doing her own lockdown press shots.
Charli XCX doing her own lockdown press shots. Photograph: PR

Unlike my fellow critics who review theatre, dance or art, my work did not evaporate during lockdown – it pivoted to recorded music and became surreal. Mid-lockdown, I spent weeks obsessively stalking Charli XCX across many online platforms as she prepped her isolation album, How I’m Feeling Now. I tried to keep abreast of all the livestreams and myriad other gig substitutes. I squealed as Jameela Jamil’s arm interrupted a James Blake Q&A to fix his hair. I tuned in too late to see Michelle Obama’s comment on the love-in between Erykah Badu and Jill Scott on Verzuz, notionally a rap battle show on Instagram Live that at its peak had 700,000 viewers.

DIY online performances solved some problems, if not others. People played, mostly acoustically, without glamour, in home studios or kitchens. Fans could comment live, in real time – requests, virtual heckling, fire emojis – as gamers have done for years. But what we, the virtual meeting attendees, all gained in weird, exhilarating intimacy, artists and venues lost in revenue. Shows were mostly free or – rightly – to benefit a charitable cause. Singer-songwriters adapted easily to lockdown aesthetics. Acts with more Sturm und Drang to their presentations fared less well on a phone screen.

Where do we go from here? The view changes depending on the stakeholder. The best way to get money directly to struggling artists remains via sites such as Bandcamp, where albums, live albums, merchandise and ephemera sell direct. “We released a soundtrack album exclusively on Bandcamp for a week raising some money for Help Musicians & NHS charities,” explains Stuart Braithwaite of the Scottish band Mogwai via email. “We’re looking at putting some other music up in the coming months. It’s a great way for getting music out directly.”

But the economic pain is being felt most keenly, perhaps, at the level of bricks and mortar. Shuttered venues up and down the land have held auctions, turned into record labels, crowdfunded and cried out for financial lifelines to see them through closure. A campaign, #saveourvenues, has launched in defence of grassroots music clubs for whom months of inactivity will be a death knell. You can bet they will get turned into flats if they’re not sustained.

Last week, the Music Venue Trust called on the government to hand the £5.2bn live music industry a £50m lifeline to stop “the total collapse” of the sector. “Thousands of job[s]” are at risk, including “promoters, production companies, managers, agents, artists and others, which form part of an inter-dependent eco-system that is the UK music industry.”

Record shops are hustling too. Yesterday, on what would have been Record Store Day, the emphasis shifted to the #loverecordstores campaign and events geared towards sustaining independent record shops through the crisis.

Record Store Day 2018 in Rough Trade East, London.
Record Store Day 2018 in Rough Trade East, London. This year’s event will look very different. Photograph: Mark Whiteman

A petition to the government has gone up, urging the cancellation of the planned 2022 Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, using its £120m budget to save the nation’s night-time economy. London’s Southbank Centre, home to gigs and the Meltdown festival, recently published a series of chilling figures. This tax year, they foresee a loss of £5m. If they reopen, adhering to physical distancing guidelines will mean operating at 30% capacity, driving losses up to £11m. So they’re probably staying shut until April 2021.

Some places are trying to reopen. There have been socially distanced club nights and theatre performances in Germany, drive-in gigs in Denmark and the US. There have been illicit raves and drive-in raves. All of these satisfy the need of fans to get together with others in a place where the music is so loud they can’t hear each other talk. But are they the future?

The Danish group Malk de Koijn perform in a car park outside Copenhagen airport, 30 May 2020.
The Danish group Malk de Koijn perform in a car park outside Copenhagen airport, 30 May 2020. Photograph: Torben Christensen/EPA

I emailed Jeremy Thomas of the Paradigm Agency, which represents artists as diverse as Billie Eilish and Liam Gallagher, for his take. A fun halfway house? “I don’t know if that’ll work in the UK given the romantic history of [drive-ins] in the US going back to the 50s,” he observed. “The only time that UK people crowd into car parks is for the Christmas rush or dogging.”

Monetised livestreaming does, however, look like a plausible way forward, short- and mid-term, for performers. Last Sunday, K-pop stars BTS played to 756,000 viewers across 107 regions globally, offering a choice of stages fans could switch between.

“We are certainly looking at doing more streaming shows,” notes Thomas. “We recently had a very successful event with Lewis Capaldi on the anniversary of the release of his first album. We sold more tickets to his virtual gig [in aid of depression charity Calm] than his last London show at Wembley Arena, so the demand is there.”

Tom Baker runs mid-size promoters Eat Your Own Ears, working with both musicians and venues. He’s had to furlough all his staff. EYOE is not in the streaming business, but Baker sees some paid-for streamed gigs as a viable option for artists and fans.

“[If] you have the right artist who perhaps has a new album, who hasn’t played live in a while and plays a special venue, then a paid stream can potentially be successful. But I think everything has to be right and aligned to make it work and also be of value to a ticket-buyer.” He cites forthcoming online festivals – where a cancelled festival hosts virtual gigs by their booked acts – as one example.

No one I asked had anything positive to say about physically distanced gigs. At all. The comments on an imaginary livestream of the idea would be a succession of poop emojis.

Braithwaite can’t see it working. “If a gig is even a third empty it usually ends up with the promoter losing a lot of money,” he notes. “Most gigs need to be close to selling out to make sense financially. I can see things changing drastically in terms of artist fees over the next few years. With record sales dropping, and streaming being so weighted in favour of the streaming companies, it’s going to be hard for a lot of musicians to live off their work, sadly.”

Laura Marling performs a ticketed live-streamed gig in a deserted Union Chapel, London, 6 June 2020.
Laura Marling performs a ticketed livestreamed gig in a deserted Union Chapel, London, 6 June 2020. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

The focus for promoters EYOE is not drive-in gigs (“I’m not sure how environmentally friendly [they are],” cautions Baker) but a return to near-enough normality. “Socially distanced shows just go against everything that a successful show should be,” Baker says. “We just have to wait until it’s safe to put on shows at close to full capacity, as distancing in venues just doesn’t work for the artist, venue, promoter and everyone involved.”

No one knows when this limbo will end, either. Thomas says Paradigm “aren’t running scenarios” with their artists; they are in the dark like everyone about what will be allowed, or advisable, and when. “We’re in the same boat as everybody, as it’s all changing moment to moment.”

Baker just keeps on rebooking. “Lots of shows have moved from the spring and summer into autumn 2020, and lots are now moving again into 2021. It’s impossible to say, really, when the right time will be for live music and events to resume as before. The hope is that safe and careful measures will be implemented to ensure that [normal] shows can happen in 2021.”

Two weeks ago, veteran festival promoter Melvin Benn proposed a system, the Full Capacity Plan, whereby entry to gigs (or other forms of entertainment and hospitality) was tied to a form of immunity passport. He proposed an amplification of testing, tied to the government’s test-and-trace app, as a prerequisite for entry into non-distanced events. It’s a plan with drawbacks, not least the assumption that the presence of coronavirus antibodies guarantees immunity, which is not certain.

In the meantime, are Mogwai – a largely instrumental band famous for their intensity – going to sing for their supper on our phones? “It’s something we might look at,” Braithwaite says. “I’m not sure if it’d be a great fit for us, though. Our shows are quite reliant on volume.”


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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