It’s safe to say that everyone’s lives have been turned upside down in the past few weeks. It might feel like we’re in some sort of weird sci-fi/apocalyptic film, but the reality is that for many self-employed people, especially those in the arts, COVID-19 has brought challenges which have been completely unprepared for. Following the closure of pubs, bars and restaurants, and now with strict social distancing rules, all gigs scheduled for the near future have been either cancelled or postponed and this is deeply problematic for musicians. I spoke to Daniel Mawer, promoter and member of Low Hummer, Joshua Hardy, guitarist for Joe Russell-Brown, Hannah Hutton, freelance jazz vocalist and Stephanie Halsey, wedding harpist, about what this pandemic has meant for them, how they are dealing with it and what we can do to support smaller artists.
We all had plans for 2020 which have now been replaced with a murky question mark and just thinking about the future is met with a heavy feeling of uncertainty. Talking about what the upcoming months were looking like and what they look like now, Daniel has majorly felt the hit from the sudden loss of gigs: “It was probably the most exciting amount of gigs we’ve had together, and probably the best gigs I’ve ever had in ten years, which unfortunately have all been cancelled or postponed, which is heart-breaking”. It certainly is heart-breaking, especially as the timescale on this new temporary way of life is so indefinite. It was only a week prior to the government’s release of social distancing guidelines that I was making a note of Trinity Live dates; the abruptness and how swiftly the situation has escalated makes it all the more devastating. But all is not lost, one way in which musicians have tried to soften the blow is through transitioning to a technological way of interacting. A degree of creative thinking and improvisation has come into play in the form of live streaming ‘virtual gigs’ on Instagram and Facebook. Dana Margolin (frontwoman of Porridge Radio), Julia Jacklin and Stella Donnelly are just a few examples of artists who have taken full advantage of the power of social media, the latter two as part of ‘Isol-Aid’, an Instagram Live Music Festival put together by Merpine and festival organisers in light of the sudden cancellation of shows. This is such a brilliant way to keep us all connected and is a reminder that we’re not alone and can still share our love for music with like-minded people across the globe.
However, though these online gigs are easily accessible to us, they are not so easy to execute as Josh points out. “Not all bands have the means to do such things,” he says, “if we just live streamed from a phone in a tiny rehearsal space with no other microphones, mixes, post-processing etc, it would not sound good. It’s easy to see well known artists and bands doing this sort of thing, but there is a lot that goes into making it sound presentable, the exact same way a lot goes into putting on a live show”. Clearly, the loss of gigs is not as easily mitigated for smaller bands, and the new, more vigorous lockdown rules makes it so much more difficult, near impossible, for bands to livestream if they don’t live together, unless band members film and play remotely, as demonstrated by Dua Lipa.
The cancellation of events has evidently affected, not just singer-songwriters, but musicians from all backgrounds. Talking from a jazz musician’s perspective, Hannah talks about the financial difficulties the social distancing rules have posed: “Many freelance musicians live to gig, even the cancellation of one gig can be the difference between affording a food shop or not for freelance musicians. With gigs being pulled as far as June, the long-term effect of COVID-19 is already apparent, with many freelance musicians having lost all income sources and face a lengthy wait for government assistance and benefits.” Stephanie elaborates on this, “I have been able to maintain most of the weddings since they have been postponed to the dates that I am available. However, even if the workshops and concerts are rescheduled, I won’t be able to make up the money lost from not working during this period.” This is definitely a worry for a lot of people, but when your work is largely seasonal, like Stephanie’s, losing work at this time has a massive effect on overall income.
One blessing to come from staying indoors is time. Time away from distractions of everyday life, time away from work and stresses of mundane things, allowing us space to think, breathe and create. “Writing and creating music has become really therapeutic,” says Daniel, “it’s helped me switch off and remember why I’m in a band.” Stephanie is also taking this opportunity to work creatively on her music: “I plan to be musically creative by arranging and writing material for a new ensemble that I put together just before the virus hit.” As music lovers and avid listeners, it is important we continue supporting these musicians and look forward to potential music that might stem from this strange time.
So how can we do our bit to help smaller musicians? Daniel says, “take a chance on a small band. Any promoting you can do on your own social media, or any purchases of merch you can make, will make a big difference to smaller bands.” It doesn’t sound like much, which is why it’s so simple to do. Even just continuing to listen to smaller artists and sharing their music with your friends will grow their fanbase, setting them in good stead for when life starts to feel a bit more normal again. Though this is such a horrible and depressing situation to be in, it is also so important to remember that staying indoors keeps ourselves and everyone around us safe. The beauty of music is that it can be enjoyed from the comfort of our bedrooms and right now we depend on it more than ever, as Hannah sums up perfectly, “I think this situation has highlighted the need for music and the powerful impact the arts has upon all our lives.” Smaller musicians should really be at the top of our Spotify favourites, as it as just as easy to support them using just your phone as it is to listen to them.