On a recent trip to London, I set out to look at how live music venues had been affected by two years of intermittent shutdowns. I had expected to find changes, hardships, and closures, and indeed there had been well-known, and well-loved places forced out of business. I know musicians, promoters and venue operators are resourceful people, used to hard knocks and making the best out of the situation, but it has been reassuring to see so many live music operations now back in business, ready to entertain fans. Tours are happening again, in the small and the large venues, and the grass-roots venues that have survived are back in operation. But there is something else happening too, something that had started before the pandemic but has now taken on a new urgency, and I had two first-hand experiences of it recently.
Getting to see the first live show by Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood’s (Radiohead) new band The Smile (with drummer Tom Skinner) was an experience unlike any other I have had. There was the familiar online rush for tickets, but after that, things were quite different. I wouldn’t receive my ticket until two hours before the gig and I was warned not to turn up until 90 minutes before it started. At the venue, phone cameras were banned (and the lenses covered with stickers), and strict instructions were given to stay in your seat during the performance (though no one took much notice). The reason for this was the performance was to be the first of three to take place in a fifteen-hour period, each one selected for a different time zone around the planet. Although we, the lucky audience (of a thousand or so) were physically there, we would be a small proportion of the tens (hundreds?) of thousands around the world who had paid for a live stream.
The show took place in a new building, specifically designed for streaming live events, a black-box space called Magazine London, on the Greenwich peninsula, designed by architects Nissen Richards Studio. The large 3,000 capacity temporary building has been created to host exhibitions, product launches, ceremonies, parties in collaboration with event production and media specialists and engineers. In this case, it was transformed in just a few days into an in-the-round venue with the band as the focus and the audience as the backdrop.
As a non-virtual audience member, it was great, and the band were superb, showcasing all new material. The audience were respectful and enjoying the experience and the video crew did not interfere with the event too much although as the cameraman with the stabiliser rig constantly circled the stage you couldn’t forget what was happening either. I had the unusual experience of texting my niece in the US who was simultaneously watching the show, and after it was over, I called her to share our experiences and talk about the gig. From the band’s perspective they were able to give something to fans around the world without the trouble (or cost, both financial and environmental) of hauling all their gear around. Of course, what the online fans got was not quite the same, and all the local venues didn’t fill any seats. I guess most of them would enjoy the show (my niece did), and perhaps a greater number would lay out the relatively low cost and value the ease of viewing compared to the commitment needed to go to see the band live. It’s a safe, economic, commitment free way of enjoying live music – but in no way does it have the excitement of the live show; of seeing your heroes in the flesh, of being in the room with your tribe, of being a part of an audience in a venue, often one that has seen other great artists performing, a place that has history.
The night before I had had another introduction to this new world. In Dalston, North London is a tiny club run by volunteer enthusiasts that has been going since 1984, the Vortex. Since 2005 it has been based in the Dalston Culture House in an upstairs room that can hold about 100 people. It’s a simple space with a low stage at one end and a small bar at the other. This a not-for-profit organisation, without regular public funding, that puts all its income back into the club. I was there for the second show by the Zoe Rahman Trio, having bought the ticket a few weeks earlier online. Turn up, buy a beer, and take a seat and then the music starts. It is as intimate an experience as you can get, and although there is a mixer desk and amplification the performance could probably work as well without. In this setting the band have a direct relationship with the audience, Zoe talking about music, life and family in between tunes, again mostly new material. And they are also fantastic musicians working at the top of their game, Zoe stating how good it is to be back ‘in the job’ making live music with a live audience. And yet, there are cameras here too. The Vortex has also begin live streaming its gigs. Once there would be regular live shows broadcast from the club by the BBC and this has in the past provided a valuable source of income for the club, but this stopped about five years ago – now they are going it alone. Sure, the online audience will not be in the same league as for The Smile, but the artist and the club get valuable exposure.
The streaming of live performances by contemporary musicians for paying audiences is a development which is not going to go away. It brings both threats and opportunities to the live music scene. Threats are that local venues may lose some of their income from the bands who used to tour (although there is also the possibility that they might gain some income from live streaming themselves), and future music fans will lose the opportunity of seeing their favourites live. One opportunity is that it makes live gigs more accessible, for people who cannot afford the time, or the cost. It also provides an income stream for artists, and in a world where sustainability is an increasing imperative, cuts out the massive impact of transportation by both bands and audiences. However, it is surely certain that there will always be a gang of people who want to go out and experience live music, in all its forms from the small local club to the big stadium show. For these audiences, and there are many of them, it is crucial that live stream gigs remain an addition to the live music scene, not a replacement for it.