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A panel of music industry professionals considered how live music could recover in 2021.

“What good has come from the COVID-19, pandemic?” In respect to the music industry, you may expect a long silence.

Instead, it sparked a string of observations:

  • Just taking the time back and really figuring out, like, where my career can go at this moment in time
  • There's been like an extraordinary sense of unity
  • Shared ideas and shared resources
  • A grasp of how to apply for funding now to support grassroots venues
  • Re-invention of the business model
  • Writing a book
  • Creative ways of increasing revenues for bands (“For Christmas I wrote down handwritten lyrics, for people on Christmas cards, and we did masks, earrings”. -Dave Gedge)
  • People seemingly less aggressive

With a certain element of irony, more on which later, a positive listed was that no-one was able to tour abroad.

The group was people who had logged onto the Reset. Restart: Live Music in 2021: Where do we go from here? discussion held via the Zoom (“It was just like a bizarre sort of celebrity squares”) and organised by the Business and IP Centre (BIPC), Leeds and Manchester. The panel (see below) included people with experience of the music industry: promoters, musicians, bookers, musicians, and more, each offering their perspective on the devastating impact of the pandemic on the music industry and how they view the future.

The open chat began with the Chair, Martyn Walsh, posing the “positive” question to the team with examples of innovative thinking, such as when the Hope and Social (a Leeds venue) delivered a fun gig (Gig in a Box) recently. They sent out a make-at-home mini copy of the Brudenell venue along with Lego fixtures for people to set up and play around with alongside a gig, which they live streamed. Who doesn’t like Lego, except when you stand on it?

On a darker note, comments surfaced about mental health issues, with personal experiences recalled by a panel member, and more generally about the stress that is seemingly always there.

For one panellist - probably just the tip of the iceberg across the industry - it was difficult and stressful before the first lockdown. The person in question was receiving counselling via a GP, which rolled over into the first lockdown. As they recalled, “I'm on the NHS. They call you once a day just to see how you're doing. In these times and it's, like, the volunteers and you know you can have a conversation with them, like a full-length one, or you can just say I'm fine today and that's it.”

Another mentioned, “So, not only [careers issues], but also taking time to really think about how I can better myself in terms of my mental health, because that was something I thought I was doing okay on and then I realised I actually wasn't okay.”

Again, people became more aware of the resources available, but only by talking to others in a similar situation. Sometimes the details of the support structures are barely visible.

The live streaming medium isn’t new for live music: “Let’s not forget CBGBs had a camera pointed at the stage 24/7” - and that was in the 1970s. No, I wasn’t there ‘til much later.

In response to a question via the Q&A, Night & Day Café promoter Jay Taylor responded about 3D live streams: “I've never actually encountered a 3D live stream, because I started doing a little bit of research into augmented reality and virtual reality gigs and I got totally confused, so I left it there - but could you imagine that's the sort of thing that people would be looking to do.”

On that note, artists from Melody VR streamed live shows from Brixton Academy at the tail end of last year. Closer to Manchester, the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge has artists such as Ren Harvieu making a virtual appearance in March 2021.

Rebecca, aka DJ Mix-Stress, was asked if she had ventured into the streaming arena. “I've been totally up for that. I’ve done various live streams for the last four months. I’ve done some for Pride, UnitedWeStream, so I've had experience of that. Some were from my own living room, my kitchen. I think now it's just about seeing the landscape and how it's gonna change going forward, because it might not be like it was before so we might have to be open to different platforms and different ways of the music reaching people if they're willing, you know, to buy a ticket so you can see someone's stream from a nightclub or a space.”

Whilst sating appetites to a certain degree, streaming may not appeal to everyone.

Jay added, “What I do know is those music venues, they don't pay their bills through the box office because that box office is largely going to artists and production costs. [The venues] pay their bills by selling drinks. Right, you're not selling a drink to somebody sat at home. And so it's granted if you've got a full venue and it's packed to the rafters. But then some people watching elsewhere? Fine. I'm only really interested in getting people into music.”

These small venues, they still dance on the cusp of profitability.

Jay Taylor

He continued, “You know what, streaming is always going to be kind of for the secondary approach, because I like that thing that happens when a bunch of people in a room look at something on the stage and a bunch of energy bounces back and forwards. And that's what I realised I don't really want, to watch it on the telly. A big kind of Luddite about me, but that's what I'm interested in. That's what makes me excited.”

It was highlighted that the Performing Right Society for Music (PRS) are launching an online live concert licence for small scale live stream geeks. The intention is to look more towards platforms to monetise both previous and future events and provide another source of income for artists. After all, do we expect live streaming to be free?

The team behind UnitedWeStream have also offered their advice to anyone wanting to venture along that path. The positive about not being able to tour was a comment made in relation to Brexit negotiations and the deliberate failure to allow bands to tour Europe without having to fill in visa forms (for work) and ATA Carnet, a “Passport for goods” which in this context can mean musical equipment such as guitars or amps. Many UK based acts have found little success at home until they get recognition abroad which is then fed back to the home shore.

Again some innovative thoughts were put forward such as getting tour t-shirts and merch printed abroad, thus avoiding the importation duties. It also means a loss of work for the UK but more inside the EU. Yet with the restriction of hauliers only being permitted in the EU for a limited time before having to move outside of it, a lot of work has to be done before touring returns to the easy access it once was.

The end of the lockdown will bring its own problems. “It will be a bun fight for venues” - the implication being that so many artists will have a backlog of material to bring to the market that the names guaranteed to fill a venue will take priority, as owners and promoters strive to recover losses incurred over the previous 18 months or so. Thus emerging talent or acts that just enjoy playing will be placed at the back of the queue, enduring yet another battle for survival.

Bone Box - Jay Taylor

Jay Taylor performing with Bone Box

Ged Camera

What will live music look like after the threat of COVID-19 has subsided? That remains a concern for many people invested in shows of all sizes, from venue operators to concert goers. A recent study from Germany suggests that the answer to that might be “not all that different than before the pandemic, except with masks”.

And a new report from Spain offers further evidence of that. Primavera Sound, the music festival, worked in conjunction with a medical organization and a Barcelona hospital. Over 1,000 attendees were invited to take part; all were given a rapid COVID-19 test - for which they tested negative. 463 people from the initial group went into the venue with a bar area capable of holding 1,600 people and a performance space that holds 900. Airflow and ventilation were optimized in both. The remainder served as a control group. Concert attendees received an N95 mask and had to be masked at all times, except when drinking. They were not required to socially distance.

All of the participants in both groups were tested eight days later. The only positive tests that came back were two people in the control group; none of the concert attendees tested positive.

In only an hour-long slot, solutions to the present day problems were never going to be resolved entirely, especially when a lot of them are outside the control of the people affected - the roadies, photographers, logistics specialists and so on. It certainly wasn’t a moaning session. However, it did reveal a substantial amount of determination not to be subdued or driven into the ground.

The analogy of a forest with hundreds of seemingly separate trees that is actually an underground neural network with interconnected communication systems bears comparisons to the evolution of the live music industry and all its connected strands.

The final comment went to Jay Taylor. When the panel was asking if they envisaged new venues to be specifically designed to allow for social distancing (see the recent Flaming Lips gig), the response was, “Let's get the existing venues saved first”.

The panel featured Martyn Walsh (Inspiral Carpets and guru in residence for the BIPC Manchester), Jay Taylor (Bonebox, Night & Day Café, Music Venue Trust), Nicole aka DJ NikNak (sound artist, radio presenter), David Gedge (Cinerama and Wedding Present), Lola Mitchell (music booking agent for 13 Artists), Rebecca Swarray aka DJ Mix-Stress (DJ, radio presenter).

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