“It seemed very weird, to be honest,” says techno DJ Tijana T, thinking back to her performance at September’s socially distanced edition of Exit Festival. “Like some kind of deconstructed dream about Exit Festival, where reality is collapsing and only parts of it remain.”
Tijana T’s set was streamed live online, but a few hundred people (as opposed to the 200,000 or so that attended the Serbian festival last year) were barriered into small, excitable groups in front of the decks too. DJs performed from a raised platform amid a vast array of flashing screens. “Maybe because having a party is not a given opportunity anymore, people tend to get very emotional,” she says, “which I see as a good thing.”
Navigating this curdle of awkwardness and excitement has become part and parcel of the lives of working musicians in 2020. As the year has progressed and restrictions have loosened (often temporarily) musicians, venue managers and promoters have experimented with new “Covid-secure” event formats in a mixture of indoor and outdoor spaces.
The Cause nightclub in Tottenham, north London gazeboed its smoking area and rechristened it the “Costa Del Tottenham”, while teen singer-songwriter Olivia Dean drove a Clarks-branded van around the country and played for fans from the back compartment. Barely a week goes by without a new clip doing the rounds on social media that manages to be confusing and disturbing in its own way: crowd members gyrating in unison encased in individual plastic bubbles; seated, very topless men fist-pumping to gabber as if their lives depend on it; strange scenes from Slovakia that see ravers cordoned off into separate compartments.
The UK’s first socially distanced gigs took place in August at Newcastle’s Gosforth Park. Before being forced to early closure by local lockdowns, the six-week series included performances by acts such Sam Fender, Patrick Topping, Chase & Status, and, funnily enough, Covid truther Van Morrison. Attendees were confined in their groups to small fenced-off platforms spread out in front of the stage. “I turned up at eight in the morning for soundcheck and saw all these pens around the field,” says Gary Powell, drummer of The Libertines, who played two shows at the new venue. “It was like something from a movie when they turn a football stadium into a field hospital!”
Establishing a connection with the crowd in such surreal settings, or even figuring out which songs to play, can be a challenge. Tash LC, resident at London radio station Worldwide FM and founder of Boko!Boko! and Club Yeke, jokes that while there’s no possibility of clearing the dancefloor at a sit-down rave, dropping a clanger in the new alternative is somehow worse: “people just give you death stares.” She describes the seated shows she’s played at Bristol’s Lakota Gardens, the Brixton Courtyard, and Studio 338 in Greenwich variously as “strange”, “odd”, and “challenging”.
As well as the slimmed down edition of Exit Festival, Tijana T played a small socially distanced party in Berghain’s outdoor Garten space this October, where masked-up ravers spent the afternoon dancing together under the shadow of the world-famous former power plant. While she was excited to play there once again, it was a far cry from DJing to the masses of free-spirited, hedonistic ravers who’ve helped create the club’s reputation. “There is a huge energy difference between the weirdness of ‘socially distanced events’ and the collective, trance-like experience of a few hundred or thousands of people [receiving] strong musical vibrations through their bodies in close proximity,” she says. “It’s harder to create those magic moments.”
Partygoers are also contending with a whole new set of social codes (dancing is allowed at some events, but not others; masks are sometimes mandatory, sometimes not). Inevitably, with Covid-19 on everyone’s minds, Tijana says, you get “a considerable amount of fear in the air, which definitely affects the vibe of a party.”
Ultimately, the weirdness of it all has to be addressed in some way by the artist on stage. How they navigate that moment can really make or break the show. Cracking jokes to a half-empty room can feel like a fool’s errand, but in these instances a bit of daft banter can go a long way – if you can pull it off.
After more than three decades of avant-garde guitar shredding, Thurston Moore is discovering stagefright. He’s been touring and playing live as a solo artist, former member of Sonic Youth, and linchpin of numerous other alt-rock, noise, and improv groups for more than 35 years, but socially distanced shows and live streams have presented a new challenge. “I felt a certain shyness whenever I would say anything into the microphone,” he says, talking about a recent live streamed show at London’s Cafe OTO venue, “because there were just a few people out there, and I didn’t feel like I was able to have that dialogue.”
Scottish composer Erland Cooper is sharing the same sense of uncertainty. “Everybody looked very menacing [in their face masks],” he says, a few days after playing a show at the Barbican. “And they looked apprehensive.” His own harshest critic, he scolds himself for not doing more to acknowledge the weirdness of the situation while on stage. For Cooper, the experience was intensely strange. In fact, he says he doesn’t remember much of what happened during the show at all – such was the disorientating euphoria. According to the musicians who performed with him, Cooper walked off the stage following his curtain call and announced to them he was ready to go on and “run the show” – apparently unaware that they’d already played for an hour, and the audience was still in raptures.
But despite the weirdness, most artists agree it’s a pleasure to play live at all, and heartwarming to see real-life crowds respond to their music after the months-long first phase of lockdown.
“I was on a stage with musicians that were being paid to do what they love. I was in a room with technicians who were getting paid to do what they love, and they hadn’t worked for six weeks,” says Cooper. “What a feeling!”
For Gary Powell, “it felt totally liberating.” Moore describes the experience as “fantastic – just to be with your mates and to play with them.” Tash LC revels in watching her audiences (failing to) resist the urge to dance, and says “it’s really heartwarming just to see how venues have adapted so quickly. It was really inspiring.”
Making the numbers add up when performing to sparse rooms, however, isn’t proving straightforward. The Music Venue Trust advised the government in July that socially distanced gigs wouldn’t be viable for the majority of the UK’s grassroots music venues. Moore says he hasn’t “seen or heard anything about how it can be financially remunerative to anybody,” while Gary says The Libertines turned down the opportunity to play a show at the Royal Albert Hall because, despite the potentially momentous nature of the occasion, “it just wasn’t financially viable. It wouldn’t put bread and butter on anybody’s table.”
Rich Reason has been putting on independent club nights under the Hit&Run banner in Manchester for more than a decade. He turned 38 this year, became a dad and also signed on the dole for the first time in his life. It’s been, he tells me, a year of highs and lows. As lockdown conditions began to ease across the country over the summer, he was approached to run a series of socially distanced parties at a new semi-outdoor venue in a conference centre car park near Greater Manchester’s Trafford Centre. After navigating the new reels of red tape associated with putting on events during a pandemic, swallowing the inflated venue costs, and leaning on his strong existing relationships with booking agents to help bring his line-up in within budget, he was more than £7,500 out of pocket.
“I took a huge risk,” he says, “but I thought ‘fuck it, I’ll do it,’ because I knew that people were gasping for something.” The first event in August broke even, and the positive feedback that rolled in afterwards set him on course to selling out the next two parties he had lined up at the venue for September and October. The introduction of new localised restrictions throughout Greater Manchester, however, pulled the plug on those plans.
The threat of local lockdowns had already nixed a series of drive-in concerts, featuring Dizzee Rascal, The Streets, M Huncho, and others before they could begin this summer. The final events in the Gosforth Park series were cancelled for the same reason. Moore had a string of socially-distanced gigs across various cities in France as well as Brussels and Amsterdam scheduled for November, but the whole tour got pulled the week before the first gig.
And as the UK government continues to resist its scientific advisors’ and the Labour party’s calls for a national two-to-three-week “circuit breaker” lockdown, this uncertainty is sure to continue. Events hosted outdoors face fewer restrictions, but for promoters able to muscle on through the winter, the weather will present its own set of challenges: you might not catch Covid at one of these open-air shows, but there’s a good chance you’ll catch a cold.
Rich Reason’s postponed events are now pencilled in for March 2021, with a blank and bleak calendar stretching across the interim. However, he’s felt encouraged by the response in the Manchester music scene. He says that plenty of punters who bought tickets for the events cancelled by local lockdowns have been happy to hold on to them, rather than ask for refunds, to preserve the culture.
Others are exploring ways to make socially distanced shows – inside and out – financially viable.
The current series of shows at the Barbican, including Cooper’s, have been made possible by donations from an anonymous benefactor. Gosforth Park was rebranded as the Virgin Money Unity Arena and clad front to back in personal finance ads; the cancelled drive-in shows were sponsored by energy provider Utilita. But a lot of brands that have associated themselves with club culture in the past have been conspicuous for their quiet in recent months. There is, of course, the economic reality that if Red Bull is selling fewer cans than usual, or Smirnoff fewer shots, or Ray Ban fewer sunglasses, then they’ll have less money to splash on marketing to music audiences. Red Bull, for its part, laid off its UK music staff this autumn and cancelled all future shows – including a rearranged 2021 edition of its flagship Culture Clash event – so music scenes are looking to other sources of financial support.
A number of other music venues, including The Deaf Institute in Manchester, the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, Corsica Studios in London, and Liverpool’s Jacaranda Club, received grants in the first rounds of funding from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund in October. There is one more round that’s still to be announced. But for many of these spaces the money will prove a temporary respite as they negotiate bloated back-dated rents to commercial landlords.
The difficulty posed by making the cost of these shows add up has stirred existing worries about the arts being gentrified as an enclave of the elite. Reason’s ethos has always been to keep the door price as low as possible. The best he can manage right now is a £20 entry fee – at least two or three times what he’d usually charge. It’s hard to think of a way round this. If it’s not punters paying bigger prices, then artists and venue staff are being squeezed for their fees.
But when the people want music, music is what they are going to get.
With such a powerful demand for the live experience, the industry will continue to figure out safe ways to deliver. Gary Powell is confident that the pressure of testing times will crystallise into something brighter. “I hope these shows can continue,” he says, “I really do. Because it’s a show of faith in humanity. And I think that’s one of the things that we need right now.” Tijana T is careful not to refer to her shows as “socially distanced” because, she says, “the distance we are practising in Covid times is a physical one, not social. Social distance is the distance between me and a billionaire not affected by the crisis.” Reason agrees. “When society is becoming fractured, we need these spaces more than ever – because they remind us of our common humanity,” he says.
Faced with transparent brand apathy, a day-to-day that’s defined by uncertainty, and a government that knows the price of everything but the value of, well, nothing, the UK’s live music scene will need more than platitudes to stay afloat. Socially distanced gigs might not be ideal, but they are providing moments of collective joy that are most certainly worth saving. And so for now, most people will take whatever they can get. Individual plastic bubbles included.