On The Brink: How has the pandemic affected music, and what can you do to help?

Words: Tom Farmer

In these unnerving times, there is a tragic irony emerging: in the time that we need it most, live music could be fading away. We have all experienced the cathartic and soothing nature of live music: The lights go down, the crowd erupts, your thoughts and worries drift away. Whilst drinking and mosh-pitting might not have any physical health benefits, gigs and festivals have an unrivalled benefit on your state of mind. As live music returned this week, albeit at a distance, has the Coronavirus already inflicted irreversible damage?

As Sam Fender and Two Door Cinema Club played live sets in a bio-secure, futuristic, uncongenial venue last week, it was the first large-scale live music performance since mid-March. Even during the World Wars, live music had not been absent for that length of time.  This is bound to have severe commercial effects on music as a corporate entity. This has been most prevalent in the battle of survival for local and grassroots venues across the UK. The Lexington London, located in Islington and has played host to artists such as Billy Bragg and Graham Coxon, relies on gigs and club nights to pay their staff. Not only do these venues rely on the revenue generated through tickets, but food and drink sales. All of these sources of income have dried up. If it wasn’t for a successful GoFundMe campaign, the venue would have been forced to shut their doors forever. This case study is not a one-off, with the “Let The Music Play” campaign estimating that 70% of music venues are in dire financial straits.

But the financial implications are not just damaging music as a commercial entity, but music as a community and charity function. Many Not-For-Profit organisations have suffered and are bound to suffer further from closures and general loss of cash flow. The Basement Door, located in South-West London, is a registered charity committed to putting on showcase gigs every Friday, hosting local youth talent from the local area.  Having experienced riotous nights there, a hundred sweating teens in a small and stuffy room dancing to a fresh-faced band belting out covers is perhaps the epitome of music culture. Yet, the charity has long been economically volatile. After managing to secure the continued use of a basement of a suburban church, it feels as if the charity is always one step away from serious financial trouble, which this pandemic is bound to bring. Kev, head coordinator of the charity, highlighted how financially volatile this charitable industry is: “I guess one thing we escaped is that we only hired our venues, so we have no overheads there to lose”. If this was not the case, the lights might have dimmed for one last time, the Basement Door would have been  firmly locked and a devastating loss to the West London music scene.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the pandemic has led to the cancellation of every indie kid’s safe haven: The festival. From 100 people to 100,000 people, the cancellation of virtually every single festival on the face of the earth has left deep-rooted cuts in musicians and music-lovers alike. Festivals provide a number of unique functions in society: Having a beer for breakfast, getting a sunburn line in the shape of a bum bag and a teenager’s first experience of severe dehydration, (amongst their first experience of a few other things) are things which the summer of 2020 has been devoid of. Yet, the cancellation of festivals has left many aching. It must be said that festivals are far from the most hygienic events in the calendar, probably ranking just below a school bannister in levels of cleanliness. Therefore, whilst a fatal illness is on the lurk, it is no surprise there has been a blanket ban of them. Yet, there are concerns for the futures of many festivals.

Even in a year’s time, what will the guidelines be? From where we are now, which involves crossing the road if you see someone approaching, crowd-surfing and mosh pits seem a long way away. Financially,  Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic who organize Reading and Leeds amongst numerous other charities, states he has lost “every single penny” of their annual income. He also claims that, if this happens “two years on the trot”, the festival industry will fold. Festivals hit on a larger scale include those who are independently organized and managed, as opposed to managed by a large franchise such as Festival Republic. Truck Festival in Oxfordshire, which would have been headlined by the Kooks and Catfish and The Bottlemen, is independently organized. With no “big brother” to bail them out, there is genuine concern over whether it may return. Finally, psychologically, a large question remains: Will people want to return to festivals and live music? After such a stark and terrifying health crisis, many will be left fearful of crowded places and large-scale mass gatherings. This may particularly impact music-lovers with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, who may just deem festivals not sensible to go to anymore.

But it is not all doom and gloom, although it may seem like it. As music is known for, the industry has been constantly evolving and tackling new challenges. Kev from the Basement Door concluded “we now feel that we will be much better off when lockdown is over”, having learned to embrace the cyber, on-your-sofa side of music. The internet has become almost like a festival in itself, with different online projects acting as various tents. Tim Burgess, former frontman of the Charlatans, has certainly erected one of the more alternative stages by “hosting listening parties”- where everyone starts the album at the same time and the artist tweets their hazy, insignificant memories of writing and recording every song- on Twitter. Whilst this is far from the usual thrill of live music, it has been something to dilute the boredom of lockdown.

All in all, music has undoubtedly suffered insurmountably from its enforced hibernation. Whether you see it as a revenue maker, a community enterprise or merely a source of entertainment, music has been severely damaged; in some cases, irreparably. But what can you do to save music? Donating to venues, signing petitions and streaming/buying the records of smaller artists and labels are small things that can mean a lot. One day, we will all be back in a sweaty, sticky hall, hugging random strangers like they’re family. Until then, keep signing, keep streaming and keep smiling.

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