Back in July 2020 the UK’s first official post-pandemic indoor live music performance took place in London when Beverley Knight performed live at the London Palladium in a pilot that would ostensibly show how music and theatrical events might be safely held under the government’s safety rules. Although this was at the time an encouraging sign that things might eventually get back to some semblance of normality, we now know too well how that turned out as Covid-19 infections once again escalated in the autumn. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out the roadmap the Government proposed for the release of England’s third lock down on 22nd February 2021 it must have been incredibly disappointing to all those operating nightclubs that they would be the last to open no earlier than June 21. At the time of writing (March 2021) it is unclear if seated live music venues will be included in the theatre reopening (with half capacity) on May 17. Live music was once more ‘at the back of the queue’ even it is was predictable, with the potential virus transmission issues in confined spaces, that this would be the case.
In the first shock of the coronavirus lock-down live performance ceased completely and there is no doubt that as it has continued there has been great damage done to the economy of venues and the careers and livelihoods of performers. Musicians rely on live performance to earn a living: streaming services return pitifully small amounts to those who create their content. Nearly half of all Musicians’ Union members are ineligible for any of the government’s financial support schemes, and it is predicted that as many as 50% of the UK’s small music venues will fail to re-open again. However, as the restrictions have persisted there has been an ingenious response to continuing live performance by some musicians and promoters. The same software intended for video meetings (particularly Zoom) has proved adaptable to the creation of virtual live sets that also allow interaction between audiences and performers. Live streams via YouTube and other platforms have increased to support often intimate and engaging performances by individual artists, and these platforms have also been used to create virtual online festivals with multiple artists sharing the bill. These performances also provide an income stream by asking for donations or requiring the purchase of a relatively low-price ticket for entry. Collaborations and group performances have taken place via video conferencing software, recorded, edited and then broadcast via Twitter, Instagram etc., and sometimes released as new live albums on iTunes, Spotify etc. Even mainstream media has joined in, for example the Jools Holland show, usually a studio based live performance presentation has morphed into an online interview format with the featured artist choosing their favourite live performances from the show’s lengthy historic archive, sandwiched between new live performances from a guest artist recorded in their own home.
What about performances with live audiences? It took a bit longer for these to begin again but in the Covid-19 summer of 2020, this did happen too. First were illegal events such as raves set up at short notice, usually in semi-rural locations gathering a crowd via social media. These have been very similar in format to the illegal raves that first happened in the 1980s that were subsequently replaced by commercial events in clubs and festivals. As professionally organised festivals were cancelled during the spring and summer, it is not surprising that conditions became fertile for unofficial ones to fill the gap, although the recklessness of those organising and attending these events cannot be justified when hundreds of people were losing their lives daily at a hospital nearby.
The first authorised outdoor concerts to take place proposed using car parks as ready-made socially distanced spaces where audiences would drive into the event and either stay in their car or party in their parking bay with the acts, albeit at some distance, live on stage. A specially constructed stage with platforms separating audience family groups was built in Gosforth, Newcastle. Like the London Palladium concert, efforts were made in the summer of 2020 to kick start live performances more like those we were used to just a few months ago; i.e. in indoor venues: theatres, halls and clubs although with restricted audiences, health checking, and deep cleaning of the facilities, however smaller venues never made it to this stage. The most consistent live music that appeared during 2020 was busking. Musicians with no stage to play took to the pavements more readily, entertaining diners and drinkers who were also forced more onto the streets closed to traffic by the more quick-to-act local authorities across Britain. A limited income no doubt, even for musicians whose pay prior to the pandemic was never very regular, however, at a local level it lifted audience spirits for sure.
In normal times live music performance events are a regular occurrence, however, the cultural activities of the UK do seem to be an afterthought in central government, with the £1.57 billion rescue package for all aspects of artistic performance announced last summer (plus the £300 million top-up added in the recent budget) being acknowledged as far too little by the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden himself. However, with more creative thought from the authorities that now govern our public life, there could be many more ways in which it could start to happen outdoors in early Spring. The Musician’s Union call last summer for busking, pop-up gigs, and reduced capacity use in smaller venues, now needs to be revived as part of the path back. A temporary outside venue for one hundred patrons is a lot easier and quicker to organise than a major festival so let it happen, if it could be organised safely. Using our urban streets, squares and parks is the key to providing new opportunities for the small venues and grass-roots artists who have been particularly hard hit in the lock-down and are looking likely to suffer most with the slow pace of return to ‘near-normal’ commercial activity. We are currently experiencing a confused approach to the use of our public spaces, as with bars and clubs closed, people take to organising their own parties outside, in some cases causing anti-social behaviour. Surely it would be better to provide an income stream for grass-roots venue owners, promoters, staging businesses, and musicians allowing them to organise official events with appropriate social-distancing and health and safety measures in place? The ‘Where We Stand’ project has asked designers to investigate how city spaces might be reorganised to provide visual systems that enable social distancing to take place for urban activities such as sport and performance. Specific places could be designated in parks and urban public spaces with new temporary facilities, such as social distancing marking for audiences, especially designed staging for performers, and easy to access ticketing arrangements. With the continuing online and unofficial live events that have managed to operate despite lock-down, performers and audiences have proven the social and cultural need for these events. The economic need is even more important if we are to protect the UK’s music industry, which employees hundreds of thousands of people and generates millions of pounds for the economy, until normality resume
Live performance is a crucial part of our social, economic, and cultural life. The ways in which it has managed to continue, quickly adapting to severe restrictions in these unprecedented conditions shows that. Now a route map has been announced the UK Government needs to provide details of how and when venues can reopen and complete their review of how large events such as concerts and festivals can begin operating again. Music business operators and artists need as much certainty as possible so they can plan. And last summer’s rescue package now needs to be added to with a renewed focus on resuscitating this country’s invaluable live music industry.