The spring music died? The future is DIY.
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
In this blog piece, Lucy explores how lockdown has affected the live music industry, and how the DIY punk scene may be ready to save the day.
The music industry was one of the first industries to be affected by the virus, and looks to be one of the worst hit. Even as lockdowns slowly ease, social distancing measures will continue to hinder large public gatherings - some claiming music festivals won’t be possible again until 2022. Will this gap in culture be filled, and, if so, by what?
While gigs have gone online, and Bandcamp's waiving fees to encourage album-buying, I’m left thinking I’m either unlucky or naively utopian in my choice of careers. Part of me fears coffee shops and rock venues soon will be things of the past - just relics of a decadent decade. Discussing the future of music with friends and on the online community Loud Women, the predictions are mixed. Some highlight the benefits of new technology and live streaming - i.e. it’s making live music widely accessible, and online is a fun place to interact with fans. Others mourn the closing of yet another local venue, and say online “just isn’t the same” as going to gigs. I’ve heard things like “we will never play/see live music again”, or, “we will not play live in years, and once we do it will be weird”.
Regardless of personal preferences, there is no denying that - ever since the death of the CD - the music industry hinges on touring and live performances. The odd super-fan - buying excessive amounts of merchandise whilst attending shows - could help make up for the lost album sales. With a ban on public gatherings, whether you’re a performer, promoter or venue staff, the forecast is financially bleak.
According to the Independent, about 72 percent of people working in the UK music industry are self employed. Covid or no covid, this means insecure working conditions, little savings and scarce pensions.
Larger festivals and organisations may be wealthy enough to ride out a two year crisis. Small and grassroots venues - less so. 83 percent of smaller venues in the UK claim to fear imminent closure. Many of them must have been struggling already, amidst rising rents and gentrification a'la Pret and Wetherspoon. Social distancing and lockdown measures have, in that respect, just accelerated an ongoing trend of independent businesses being squeezed out by corporate companies.
In the entertainment vacuum created by the loss of public gatherings, online entertainment is doing well. With streaming services like Spotify, consumers have grown accustomed to having all the world’s music immediately available - for practically free. This is, in some ways, a beautiful and revolutionary thing. But, bear in mind, an album is still incredibly time consuming, and is far from cheap to produce. Spotify pays around 0.003 pounds per stream in royalties - making it difficult for independent artists to acquire more than pennies. Even major pop stars have trouble paying their staff and labels. It seems the market value of a song has dropped significantly lower than it’s production value. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't blame individual consumers for this, and I doubt album sales ever will resurge enough to balance the costs. The industry simply has to look elsewhere for solutions.
Pre-COVID, many musicians and artists treated social medias as a necessary evil - boring tools to be used alongside what we’re really here for (i.e. playing shows, writing and recording new material, getting wasted with our band mates). With all concert venues and social spaces shut, we’re suddenly left with little else. I wonder whether the connection we get online is enough or, even, desirable.
Online, musicians, like influencers, are forced to commodify and capitalise their relationship with their fans, alongside their music. This is true both for individuals trying to gain followers and likes - data that is transferrable to cash by means of advertising - or who are looking for a more direct way of support, such as fundraising. Patreon, for example, is a website where fans can give one-off or monthly donations to creators. Several campaigns, such as #loverecordstores, launched in light off the COVID crisis to raise funds to affected businesses. In practice, this means celebrities post heart-felt videos, asking fans to donate. It’s basically charity work, but rather than counting on the publics emotional response towards, say, sad orangoutangs, it’s exploiting the perceived friendship between fans and creators.
As such, modern musicians don’t just “sell out” their craft - they “sell out” their private life. Some might enjoy this sort of instagram-fame, but it’s not necessarily something all artists are comfortable with.
With venues closing and jobs, across all sectors, being lost, we’re faced with an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the way we make and consume culture. We might as well, then, have a crack at making it better.
It’s a core part of the DIY ethics, practiced by punks in the 70's and ravers in the 90's, to question the boundaries between artists and audience. Anyone can form a band, they said, regardless of how well (or at all) you can play an instrument. Anyone can dance, they said, and their parties were for free (and open for all). Anyone can make art - and we don’t need to depend on corporations or experts. The idea is to build culture together - from the grassroots up, rather than waiting for change from the top down. The act of making things is valued higher than the act of selling things.
The mutual aid groups that have emerged in the recent weeks, in response to the governments insufficient handling of the COVID crisis, is recent proof that community organising works. We, as people, can make great things happen if we only put the time and effort in. And we've been shown exactly what jobs are vital to society. And it's not the office managers. It's the bin men, the plumber's, the food grower's. We've proven society can still function without the 40 hour work week for everyone. And, look, I know what you’re thinking. "Not some other hippie trying to find excuses not to work". But, listen. We’ve had over seven weeks of lockdown. Yet I’m waiting to see a society in collapse, or people stabbing each other in the isle at Tesco's.
When the country is ready to reopen, and there are less arena shows to go to, perhaps the interest in grassroots and house gigs will be greater. Let’s try to make these spaces available and welcoming for everyone. If you’re not a musician, you could start a book circle, share free knowledge with your community, or whatever (use your imagination - it's a wonderful thing!). If you’re the reserved sort - reach out to blogs, like this one.
Online live gigs and streaming platforms will likely stay with us, even after lockdown. But perhaps they can coexist with live music in a way that’s beneficial both for artists and audience. The streaming of live events to fans who are housebound or mobility impaired, for example, could be a standard practice, now that we know this technology exists and, actually, isn't all that hard to use.
In the end, perhaps this is a great chance for our DIY scene to flourish. What is the true value of larger shows, larger sales, louder sound, really?
I just want to make music and have good time with my friends. Without, simultaneously, starving or spreading a viral disease.
My goals have never before been so simple. And yet, they seem somehow utopian.
About the author: Lucy is a South London musician, barista, and union rep. Check out her psychedelic rock band here
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