How Scotland's music scene is surviving COVID-19
As Scotland's music industry scrambles to survive an uncertain future in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, we speak to those affected by the "new normal"
A feeling a lot like Doomsday fell about town last weekend. Up until then it had felt like business as usual, but while Boris Johnson told the public that schools would stay open and sporting events could go ahead, Nicola Sturgeon seemed to confirm on Thursday afternoon what Scottish promoters had feared for weeks - that large gatherings of more than 500 people would be banned in Scotland, starting Monday.
Events that were scheduled that weekend could still go ahead, and at Wee Dub Festival the room was full. That’s not to say there weren't lingering signs of the coronavirus pandemic – events colleagues opted for the more hygienic elbow bump over hugs, and MC Natty Campbell shared on the mic how nervewracking passing through Edinburgh Airport had been. “It’s scary out there,” he said, “but tonight is about the music.”
“The show must go on” seems to be the operating mantra amongst promoters, though with each passing day that is becoming an ever more daunting task. In Edinburgh, the lack of large venues initially felt like a benefit. Smaller clubs, like the 100-capacity Sneaky Pete’s, could technically still keep their doors open, while nights like Church Edinburgh said that they would cap numbers for their night in the Liquid Rooms (now cancelled) to stay under the 500 limit.
But come Monday, it materialised that Sturgeon’s message was not an outright ban, just strongly-worded advice. In his first daily briefing to the public, Johnson avoided ordering a ban, in favour of discouraging people from communing in clubs, pubs and restaurants, and said that emergency services would no longer be in attendance at large gatherings. It is left to the musicians, promoters, and venues, then, to decide whether to press forward with their events.
Whether these individuals ethically feel that they can keep bringing people together is one thing. On Saturday, EH-FM resident DJ Andrea Montalto announced that a night he was supposed to play in The Jago in Dalston was cancelled. “Due to the lack of measures taken by the British government it’s very important to take responsibility and act in any way to protect the weakest,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “What is happening at the moment in Italy is a warning that we can’t avoid looking at.”
'Closing venues for a few weeks could be a disaster'
But many who have staked their careers on live music have little other choice. A lot of these events are built by an army of freelancers, who must all now rely on the generosity of their clients to pay for work that might not go ahead. This line of work is already famously hand-to-mouth, and with a rapidly emptying calendar many have found themselves cut off.
“A lot of people operate on a financial knife edge and closing venues, even for a few weeks, could be a disaster,” says one promoter, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his clients amidst all the uncertainty. “Freelancer friends, be that musicians, tour managers, or general creatives, are already feeling the pinch due to cancelled tours or shows and venue closures. With no sick pay for most, zero hours contracts and uncertainty surrounding support, it’ll fuel anxiety and stress.”
“We felt hung out to dry,” says Sneaky Pete’s owner Nick Stewart about Johnson’s briefing. “Music and hospitality were initially singled out in a way that was going to make trading extremely difficult.”
Johnson’s address forced venues into a catch-22 – stay open and watch customers and income trickle away, or close with no way to claim business interruption insurance. Even though COVID-19 is recognised as a notifiable disease in Scotland, meaning it is covered by some insurers, Stewart’s interpretation of his own policy is that the virus would have to be present on the premises for him to make a claim. It would take an impressive amount of foresight, and extra insurance specific to pandemics, for businesses to now be covered.
Venues like Sneaky Pete’s, Stereo and the Hug & Pint – which closed its doors earlier this week – are increasingly turning to crowdfunders to help keep their staff paid while business is down, and to make sure that they can open again in the future. Coming back after the pandemic is a real concern for many, even with the £350 billion worth of business loans and grants made available by Westminster on Tuesday.
“There's still some questions around how well it will protect us,” says Stewart. “We know that we'll get a lump sum and we'll get a rates parley. Those are great things to try and keep the business going. But we have no idea how long we'll be closed for, and that is clearly very worrying.”
For now, Sneaky Pete’s will soldier on, as will Scotland’s festivals. Kelburn Garden Party, Knockengorroch, and Eden Festival have all said they intend to go on as planned, so long as government advice permits them to. At the moment they have time on their side. There are still a couple of months for rhetoric around gatherings to change. If the nation were forced into quarantine now for one month, even two, we might be out in time for festival season to commence, just.
The trouble is the uncertainty of it all. The same Westminster government that announced there would be no event ban last Thursday appeared to do a u-turn behind closed doors the very next day, and yet we are still waiting to hear if one will materialise. There’s no predicting when they will change their minds about a nationwide lockdown too, or whether it would go on for two weeks – as is currently the case in Norway – or for 18 months, as has been recommended by some experts until a vaccine is found.
“People can't plan to reschedule their tours,” says Honeyblood’s Stina Tweeddale. “If you're an independent artist who's not selling millions of records, touring is the best way for you to make money. It’s cut such a massive amount of revenue to use to pay for making records. Without it, that infrastructure just crumbles.”
To help ease some of that pressure on artists, Tweeddale and her business partner Robert Kilpatrick have launched a series of virtual gigs that will stream live from their ICEBLINK LUCK studio. Every day listeners can tune in to Honeyblood’s Facebook to hear artists like Emme Woods, Martha Ffion, and Carla J. Easton, with the option to donate money via Go Fund Me in lieu of a gig ticket. Half of the money raised will be sent to Help Musicians Scotland, and the rest to the artists who play.
“A lot of people socialise in venues, and to be isolated from that community can be quite scary and upsetting,” says Tweeddale. “Maybe it's a way for us to use technology to combat that. If someone feels that ease by tuning into these sessions that I'm holding in my studio, then I think it's worthwhile.”
Digital solutions like this have started popping up all over the place. In Edinburgh, the Quarantine Cabaret launches this Saturday, with musicians Craig Lithgow, Heir of the Cursed and Ben Seal and poets Iona Lee and Kevin P Gilday broadcasting from their homes to Instagram Live. Music for the isolated generation will also stream its first gig on the platform Twitch, featuring Lady Neptune and Modern Institute. Each will attempt to raise funds for artists, either through crowdfunding or direct links to artists’ Paypal accounts.
“I'm seeing quite a lot of that just now. People are trying to look at opportunity amongst a mass amount of chaos,” says Kilpatrick, who also works with the Scottish Music Industry Association (SMIA). Going forward, the SMIA will be issuing a poll to its members, which will ask exactly how people are struggling and what support they need to survive financially.
“I think as an industry we need to come together and ensure that at the end of this there still is going to be an industry,” he says. “The good thing is the connection between people in music is so strong, and in times of crisis music is really important. As people turn to their screens instead of going to live events, hopefully there's an opportunity to inspire and support through music.”
If there’s anything that people working in live music know well, it’s risk, and that has been heightened considerably now things are changing at such a fast pace. It will take more creative solutions, partnerships, and good will than ever to ride this thing out, but with any luck at the end this scrappy industry will pull each other through.
You can support your favourite artists by buying their music and tuning into their live streamed gigs online - visit this page on our website for up-to-date listings of virtual performances.
If you work in music and have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, you can visit smia.org.uk/coronavirus for helpful information.