Is live music in Britain doomed?
It would be little short of a tragedy if our music industry ends up being finished off by the mismanagement of a a vulgar little virus
The recent news that the Glastonbury Festival has been cancelled for the second year in a row has produced mixed reactions. For every disappointed ticket-holder, frustrated that they will not be able to attend Britain’s largest live musical event until 2022 at the earliest, there is a more cynical observer such as The Sunday Times’s estimable political editor Tim Shipman, who tweeted: “Nobody prattling on about how Glastonbury is the cornerstone of their inner quest for discovery for the second year in succession. Covid isn’t all bad…”
Shipman’s comment was met with a mixture of amusement, outrage and dismay. More level-headed commenters noted that, regardless of your individual taste for Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift, Glastonbury’s cancellation would undoubtedly cost many thousands of people work, as well as endangering many of the charitable causes that the festival proudly supports every year. And, for all the mumbo-jumbo spouted by those who have over-indulged in a field in Somerset, it is an iconic event that symbolises the best of British and international music, even if its political moments can be more questionable.
The absence of Glastonbury this year is inevitably a portent of many more cancellations to come
As a veteran of two Glastonbury campaigns in 2003 and 2004, the latter of which saw McCartney’s triumphant first appearance on the Pyramid Stage, I have a nostalgic fondness for my youthful experiences of eating strange food, enjoying some of the world’s best bands play fantastic sets and resting in circumstances that could not be called comfortable, especially after my sleeping bag was stolen out of my tent on the first year I went. Yet there are few less enjoyable memories of that festival than the pouring rain and oozing mud. Little wonder that the second year I went saw some hedge fund type, clad in a Barbour and wellies, barking to his subordinates (or family), “Right, let’s finish this”, as if he were wrapping up a million-pound deal.
It remains to be seen what the weather would have been like this summer, but the absence of Glastonbury from the festival calendar this year is inevitably a portent of many more cancellations to come, both in Britain and internationally. Although few others have announced their plans yet, with lockdown set to continue at least into May if last weekend’s ministerial television appearances are to be believed, it would be a bold, or simply foolhardy, promoter who decided to incur millions of pounds worth of expenses in staging a festival, only to have to cancel it at the last moment. There may well be a few face-saving initiatives, such as streamed “intimate” performances from musicians who would have been participating, but, as with many of the substitute theatrical performances that are taking place “as live”, it is no replacement for the real thing.
It is unfortunate that the cancellation of Glastonbury and other live music this year comes at the same time that the government’s post-Brexit restrictions on musicians being able to tour Europe have led to an outcry. An open letter that was signed by the eclectic likes of Radiohead, Sir Simon Rattle and the punk rock artiste Captain Sensible called upon the government “to do what it said it would do and negotiate paperwork-free travel in Europe for British artists and their equipment”, after “British musicians, dancers, actors and their support staff have been shamefully failed”, on the grounds that “The deal done with the EU has a gaping hole where the promised free movement for musicians should be: everyone on a European music tour will now need costly work permits and a mountain of paperwork for their equipment.”
The letter noted that, “The extra costs will make many tours unviable, especially for young emerging musicians who are already struggling to keep their heads above water owing to the Covid ban on live music”, concluding: “This negotiating failure will tip many performers over the edge.” There was some wry amusement had from Roger Daltrey’s presence on the list given his outspoken support for Brexit and his previous comments. When asked whether he considered it likely that his ability to tour in Europe would be affected he said, “As if we didn’t tour Europe before the fucking EU. Oh give it up. If you want to be signed up to be ruled by a fucking mafia, you do it. Like being governed by FIFA.”
The popular music industry itself has always had a bad reputation in terms of how they treat musicians
Admittedly, the impressive list of signatories does not include many musicians who are likely to be signing on for Universal Credit any time soon, nor are most of them instinctive supporters of the current government. Nonetheless, their complaints are valid, both for their own sake and for their younger, less wealthy peers, for whom the last year may have made the difference between being able to think seriously about launching a career in the music industry and being resigned to working in an unfulfilling job. Their ambitions may well encompass touring in Europe in the future, but for now many of them would settle for being able to make some money – any money – out of doing what they love.
Certainly, the popular music industry itself has always had a bad reputation in terms of how they treat musicians, but the current situation has made matters considerably worse. In a half-uproarious, half-shocking recent development, the heads of three major labels, Sony, Universal and the Warner Music Group, gave evidence to the DCMS committee about what they are making out of music streaming – the primary means through which most consumers are currently listening to albums and singles. Universal’s chairman David Joseph stated that the label’s artists were “very happy” with both the advances they received for records and the investment that they received in their careers, only for the SNP MP John Nicholson to respond, scornfully, “I think you’re living in cloud cuckoo land here if you really believe that”.
A more sanguine perspective was offered by the Mercury-nominated musician Nadine Shah, who told the committee that, without the revenues offered by live performance, she was struggling to make a living. As she said: “We can dance around these issues as many times as we want but the bottom line is successful artists can’t afford to pay their rent. There’s something going wrong, surely”. Given that very few musicians have been able to perform to any degree of normality for nearly a year and have little expectation of being able to return to the stage until summer at the absolute earliest, something has indeed gone wrong. Its resolution could make all the difference between the industry overcoming this dark period and emerging, phoenix-like, into a brave post-Covid world, or falling into a decline that means that live music becomes all but a thing of the past.
I hope that before long we will all be able to gather once again in grand concert halls and muddy fields
It is impossible to offer a quick-fix solution. As with the structural difficulties that the film industry currently has, the music business has been facing problems for years since CD sales were replaced by the ready availability of streaming music – legal and otherwise. Previously, these had been partially papered over by increased revenues available from touring and live performance. Now, with the dual difficulties of an insufficiently considered Brexit arrangement and the chaos wrought by Covid, it is a difficult time for any musician other than the privileged few who live in a rarefied stratum of success. Yet, short of making large donations to a benevolent fund for their less fortunate peers, there is little that they can do: there is little demand for session musicians or support staff without gigs to play or albums to record.
Yet the music industry is one that has always rewarded guerrilla brilliance, whether it’s Taylor Swift taking herself off to the metaphorical cabin in the woods to record two of last year’s best albums or enterprising artists streaming their gigs to paying fans. And a bored nation has been entertaining themselves with endless YouTube videos of former glories of their favourite acts, to say nothing of listening to their best songs on Spotify or their online medium of choice. Hopefully when we are allowed out of our homes there will be a near-desperate urge to enjoy live music, and a moribund industry will spark into life again – especially if artists are allowed to travel freely throughout Europe.
My fingers are firmly crossed for this prospect, not least because I have tickets to see the Divine Comedy at the Barbican in September. I hope that the evening is a joyful – rather than sombrely socially distanced – one. But the last year has taught us that very little can be counted upon anymore. I hope that before long we will all be able to gather once again in grand concert halls and muddy fields, in small sweaty clubs and in massive arenas, and take pleasure in the simple pleasures of live music once again.
But it is with regret that I no longer think that this is inevitable. This return to normality, along with any festivals taking place this year and beyond, remains, worryingly, very much in the balance. Britain has always prized itself on its music being the best in the world, with some justice. It would be little short of a tragedy if this most resilient of industries ends up being finished off permanently by a vulgar little virus and the mismanagement of its effects. Let’s hope, for Roger Daltrey’s pension’s sake, and a great deal more besides, that it is not.
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