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Covid-19 vs the live music industry

Nearly three months after the UK went in lockdown, agent Phil Simpson reflects on the coronavirus story so far, and looks ahead to live music's uncertain future

15 Jun 2020

Phil Simpson, Strada Music

In early March 2020, I was starting to wind down to enjoy a family holiday, and had a busy final week in the office making sure as many loose ends as possible were tied up.

As any business owner knows, time out of work is important, but you do have to keep at least an eye on your emails. I’m actually very good at switching off, and on holiday tend to check my emails at least once a day; sometimes just first thing in the morning before anyone else is awake, and occasionally in the evening, too. Forwarding mail to my assistant, delegating via cc, and deleting junk on a daily basis allows me to filter my way through to a manageable inbox on my return to the office, and in turn allows me to relax more on holiday – knowing the world isn’t falling apart at home as I enjoy an ice-cold beer and eat pizza by the pool.

I was aware of what was already an epidemic in China in the earlier months of 2020, but as with the previous Sars and Mers outbreaks, assumed it was just another one of these diseases that although serious, probably wouldn’t have a hugely noticeable effect over here. Yes, we had a few cases in the UK, but never in a million years did I envisage the effect it was about to have on the real world around me just a few weeks down the line.

On the second night of the holiday, I checked into the news and just happened to catch the World Heath Organization’s announcement that the virus had now become a pandemic.

The next day I started to get an increasing amount of emails from my artists and promoters; some asking my thoughts on the whole situation but, alarmingly, many speculating whether it might be for the best to reschedule their show to later in the year, as the imminent virus threat could discourage people from going out to shows and affect ticket sales.

I continued to filter and fathom my way through my inbox on a now tri-daily basis, and by the end of my break I had missed calls, texts from artists concerned about their festival season (to which I replied reassuringly that I really couldn’t see the summer festivals being cancelled), and, of course, an unprecedented about of emails. It turned out “unprecedented” would become the word of the year.

It turned out “unprecedented” would become the word of the year

The following week, now back from holiday, I was heading into the office and dreading it. I knew our agency had lost at least five tours over that weekend alone (including some from North American artists who didn’t think it wise to travel in the circumstances) and felt this week could present another wave of cancellations and shows to reschedule. It surpassed my expectations.

I worked Monday in the office and – among the feelings we should be reducing our interactions with people, and noticing the increasingly scary public-health literature appearing on the noticeboards of our building – decided we should all work from home for the rest of the week and until further notice.

That week was a long, soul-destroying week of un-work. Tearing up plans, decimating tours, and call after call speculating about when the best time to reschedule the shows was likely to be; and by that point, not even having to bother explaining the reason for my call.

By now, the feeling in the industry (from venues and artists alike) had quickly gone from the apathetic – “We’re happy to proceed with the show if you are” – to the gravely concerned: “We really don’t think it’s responsible to go ahead.” Cue the news which shocked us to a whole new degree: “It is with a heavy heart we’ve decided to cancel this year’s festival.”

Festivals were now starting to go now, too. We just couldn’t believe it.

As I turned towards writing, trying to focus a bit of my time into something more positive than undoing months of work, it was clear artists were feeling it, too: many had lost all of their work for what was rapidly becoming the majority of the year, and were turning en masse to performing via social media (with varying degrees of quality). I chatted with other friends in the industry – techies, managers, publishers. All were feeling it and were deeply concerned not only for their short-term financial responsibilities, but their longer-term futures.

I’m increasingly finding myself, like others in the industry, needing to switch off for a while, take stock and just sit this out

Lockdown was imposed in the UK on 23 March, and, just like that, we were again shocked beyond what we thought possible. It seemed each day we learned something new that would further up the ante on the “I just can’t believe it” scale.

The death toll in the UK started to increase exponentially towards the end of that week, and as we got into April the numbers went from c. 200 a day to 700 in a day. Regardless of the amount of shows I’d personally rescheduled that week, and the lockdown we were now under, it really wasn’t until that point for me that the real severity of the situation hit home. Yes, we had a rough time undoing a whole year’s worth of work, but that now seemed trivial in comparison to the amount of loss suffered across the country.

Working flat out, our agency had rescheduled around 100 shows by Monday 6 April. I was sobered to learn (on the following evening) that, there were over a thousand reported deaths that day.

By May, the death toll had started to reduce, and although we were learning new things each day (some positive, some not so positive) there was still no end in sight for the arts – not even the faintest pinprick of light shone from the end of a tunnel we had no idea how far we were already in.

Our staff were now on furlough, and amid the fog of cash-flow forecasts and pseudo-profit-and-loss accounts (trying to visualise all eventualities) I was now perpetually enveloped in, I wondered how long this could go on for, and whether we’d be able to survive as a business.

Many of the festivals that had worked tirelessly to reschedule to later in the year were now coming to the realisation they might have to do it all over again and move into 2021 – and shows that had been moved to later in 2020 amid the initial panic were now being rescheduled yet again, this time to the following year. We heard noises that it could be mid-2021 before things would start to open up again.

I’ve had to rearrange my bookshelf to hide some of the more embarrassing titles … as I watch a mirrored version of myself take notes in reverse

I write in June, and still we are no clearer. There is but the smallest offers of help to the arts from our government, and we have no idea when the doors of our favourite music venues are likely to reopen – if indeed they are even able to. Great work is being done by many of the bodies in the industry (notably the Music Venue Trust, Musicians’ Union and Help Musicians), but the situation is dire and the outlook remains grim.

This is a very strange time indeed. My meetings are now all virtual, ‘Zoom’ has taken on a new meaning, and I’ve had to rearrange my bookshelf to hide some of the more embarrassing self-help titles and ghost stories present as I watch a mirrored version of myself take notes in reverse and discuss strategies for 2024.

We are sure we will get through this – and the industry will come out of the other side stronger and hopefully more valued – but on a daily basis there are so many more unanswerable questions posed, and so many nebulous ideas presented, that I’m increasingly finding myself, like others in the industry, needing to switch off for a while, take stock and just sit this out.

Artists continue to stream to their fans over the internet (now everyone has got a lot better doing it, many are very enjoyable), and festivals have staged online versions in an attempt to keep their audience engaged. Some ‘festivals’ have been live, ‘warts and all’ (which I love – it’s like the real thing, right?), and some simply a curated playlist of pre-recorded YouTube videos overlaid with a festival watermark. But all are simply trying to achieve the same thing: to hold on to the very community which gets them out of bed in the morning, and to keep people excited enough for next year’s event that they’ll hold on to their ticket and thus help see them survive through to it.

Just last weekend one of my favourite artists, Laura Marling, streamed an incredible ticketed concert live from London’s Union Chapel. I’m sure it helped to keep her fans engaged (and will have generated a colossal amount of money) – but even though it was perhaps the best example to date of a live stream that I’ve seen, I still felt disconnected. I picked up my phone and started scrolling through Twitter and before I knew it, the show was over.

We’re learning every day about new technologies, and I feel this new era is, in some shape or form, here to stay

What was I doing? I wanted to be engrossed – and as good as it was, from the comfort of my living room, for some reason I just wasn’t. It didn’t feel special, and though I’d bought a ticket, and was looking forward to it for the whole week prior, ultimately I felt I could have just been watching one of the myriad (previously recorded) full concerts available on YouTube. It seems I needed to be part of the crowd to have ‘the experience’ – and though I have no complaints whatsoever about her performance (‘Goodbye England’ was particularly sublime), I’m convinced Laura would have played a lot better, too, were I and (even a portion of) the thousands of other ticketholders actually there with her.

Who knows what the future holds for us? As an agency, once out of furlough there is a lot of work to be done to regain any kind of structured tours for 2021. Without any glimmer of an exit route, however (and the time lag for market confidence to rebuild that will inevitably follow), we honestly don’t know when we might next be able to see a show through to fruition.

We’re learning every day about new technologies, and I feel this new era for our (and our artists’) business is, in some shape or form, here to stay. We have a lot to learn in this area. Maybe we’ll see hybrid ‘live-and-streamed’ concerts while we get back up to speed. Maybe they’ll be around forever now. Maybe we’ll be able to have the augmented-reality experience of watching a hologram of our favourite (living) artist playing in our local arts centre because it’s easier and cheaper (and we’ve all become used to it). I do hope not. Just last week Glastonbury announced a virtual-reality experience offering which I have no doubt will be worth ‘attending’ – if for nothing more than the curiosity factor alone.

But I miss gigs, and I miss my friends. The communal experience of going to a gig – the electricity and incomparable synergy created when a performer speaks directly to me, across a packed room, in the company of friends I’ve yet to meet – is the very reason I go in the first place. It’s something no level of binary code or top-of-the-range headset will ever be able to replace, and right now it’s this that I’m taking solace in.

Let the show commence.

 


Phil Simpson is founding partner of Strada Music and the author of The Booking Agent’s Book of Secrets for Touring Musicians. This article originally appeared on Medium.

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