Glastonbury, June 2019. Thousands of fans are clustered around the Pyramid Stage, whipped into a frenzy at the sight of Stormzy tearing up Worthy Farm. He’s ditched his bulletproof vest designed by Banksy; now he’s shirtless, drenched in sweat as he gives the performance of his life. “Energy crew, let’s go!” his hypeman bellows, as those crawling piano notes sneak in for “Vossi Bop”. Stormzy holds his mic up to hear the crowd roar: “F*** the government and f*** Boris!”
Just a year later, where Stormzy had stood was an empty field. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the live music scene. Two years ago, the UK industry was generating more revenue than ever, while artists such as Lewis Capaldi and Ed Sheeran sold out tours around the world. That landscape has changed dramatically. The charity Help Musicians, which offers career support and advice to artists in the UK, reports that 96 per cent of musicians saw the majority of their income wiped out during lockdown, with 90 per cent earning less than £1,000 per month (below the government’s National Living Wage). An investigation by The Independent in 2021 spoke with tour managers who had been forced to take on jobs as supermarket shelf-stackers to make ends meet. It took a toll in other ways, too: Help Musicians saw a 60 per cent increase in requests for mental health support. And while attempts to return to live music have been embraced by thousands of gig and festival-goers, others continue to suffer from pandemic-related anxiety.
“For the vast majority of musicians, the live circuit is their lifeblood,” James Ainscough, chief executive of Help Musicians, tells me. “Whether that performance is at a function or a festival, a grassroots venue or a world-famous stage, live performance is the fragile gig economy that all musicians rely on.” Artists have demonstrated extraordinary resilience, from putting on live-streamed concerts to learning how to produce their own work from home. But it’s not enough to sustain them, artistically or financially. “That’s what music-lovers want and need – those joyful moments in time where music unites us and transports us to a different world,” says Ainscough, “leaving us with musical memories that last a lifetime.”
For many artists, the slow return to live music has provoked conflicting feelings of joy and anxiety. Dan Smith, frontman of chart-topping Bastille, spent much of lockdown working on the pop band’s forthcoming album, Give Me the Future, as well as volunteering at vaccination centres. Getting back on stage again in summer, including for two sold-out shows at London’s Hampton Court Palace, was an odd sensation. “I was happy and relieved to be back, but also playing to a huge crowd felt like we were flying in the face of everything we’ve been conditioned to think – for all the right reasons – for the last two years,” he says. “I remember watching the Download pilot and feeling [that same] relief but also being concerned for people there. I was crossing my fingers that we were edging forwards.”
After a total shutdown in 2020 and thanks to Herculean efforts by organisers and their teams, some festivals did take place last year. Not Glastonbury, which recorded losses of £3.1m after being forced to cancel for the second year in a row. But other major festivals, such as Reading and Leeds, went ahead, along with Green Man, End of the Road and Scotland’s TRNSMT. For organisers like Jamie Tagg, director for the London-based event Mighty Hoopla, it was like nothing he’d experienced before. “It was the most stressful and rewarding year I've been a part of,” he tells me. “As music promoters, we gamble for a living when booking shows in the hope that people buy tickets and turn up.” The stakes last year were even higher, both for promoters who chose to move their events to late August and September, and for the ones who postponed until the following year. “For those of us who were lucky enough to take place [in 2021], those audiences created some incredible atmospheres.”
But while many felt optimistic in September, the emergence of the Omicron variant has brought a fresh wave of problems. With the government resisting any kind of lockdown in England, music venues have been left to fend largely for themselves. Bands are cancelling tours due to fan safety, or because of restrictions in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Meanwhile, fans aren’t turning up, either because they forgot they booked tickets months in advance, or due to Covid-related anxiety.
Jeff Horton, owner of the historic 100 Club in London, recalls the moment the venue’s diary “went into meltdown”, after prime minister Boris Johnson warned on 12 December 2021 that the public was facing an Omicron “tidal wave”. With no official lockdown in place, music fans were left to decide whether they wanted to put themselves and their loved ones at risk of a new Covid-19 variant. “By 15 December, we had next to nothing left [booked] until the end of January 2022,” he says. “We lost 23 shows over two days for the next six-seven weeks. Financially, it’s a complete disaster.”
Much of the chaos caused for touring acts is due to the different restrictions in place around the UK and Ireland. Earlier this month, Scottish band The Snuts were forced to cancel all of their January dates, even while live shows are allowed to continue in England. In a statement to fans on Instagram, the band – who achieved a UK No 1 with their debut album WL last April – blamed a lack of clear government advice for their decision. “I still feel like there has been little to absolutely no support from the government for the live music sector,” frontman Jack Cochrane says. “Each and every time, we are the first to close down and the last to open up all while being left completely in the dark about it.”
“To be quite honest, and I think I speak for most artists at the moment, I am totally fed up,” says Yorkshire-born singer-songwriter Billie Marten, who was forced to cancel her European tour this week. “Timing, travel and structure around a musical campaign, as hideous as that sounds, is imperative to the growth of an album, and without that security, music gets blown away in the wind a lot of the time.” Along with concerns for her band and crew, who also lose work in the event of cancellations, Marten fears these delays and let-downs will result in fans losing faith in their favourite artists – and artists losing faith in themselves. “Back in the early Covid days it was much easier to prevent financial loss and continue being creative, as we had set rules to abide,” she says. “However, the restrictions for this global variant spread have been so vague that artists are left to make their own decisions with no solid knowledge as to the future.”
“The reality of the situation is that the grassroots sector is emerging into 2022 with more than £100m in new debt, a crisis in audience and industry confidence, and with many hoops to jump through just to survive,” Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, says. Before the launch of the organisation’s #SaveOurVenues campaign in April 2020, 83 per cent of grassroots music venues in the UK faced imminent permanent closure. At the beginning of January 2022, Davyd says, less than one per cent of venues had actually closed as a result of the pandemic. The MVT is now working on its #ReviveLive campaign, in association with the National Lottery, to get people back to live music. Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive of umbrella organisation UK Music, agrees. “[The music industry’s] had an awful two years, and just because the pandemic outlook is brightening, it doesn’t mean things are suddenly going to be easy.”
Indeed, festival organisers, venue owners and experts are already worried about the obstacles faced by the live industry this year. “Supply chains still aren’t quite back up to speed yet, meaning some costs are still as much as double, putting a strain on independent promoters who can’t afford to operate,” Tagg says. He cites particular concern ahead of April, when the sales tax cut introduced by Rishi Sunak in 2020 will return from 5 per cent to the pre-pandemic norm of 20 per cent. Greg Parmley, CEO of umbrella organisation LIVE, says scrapping this planned increase would be one of the most effective ways to support struggling companies, along with offering short-term financial support for the sector and deferring loan repayments until 2022. He also urges the government to fix its Covid insurance scheme – belatedly introduced in August 2021 after fierce industry campaigning – so it “actually covers the risks people face”, such as cancellations due to an artist getting Covid-19. “The government spent billions of pounds supporting the cultural sector during the worst of the pandemic – it would be a huge waste of that investment to allow venues and businesses to go to the wall just as we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” says Njoku-Goodwin.
As things return to a semblance of pre-pandemic normality, artists may also find themselves dealing with a shift in fan behaviour. Lucy Spraggan, a former X Factor contestant who is now a successful solo artist, reports instances of rowdiness, heckling and abusive language during her recent shows. “Normally there’s an inclusive and safe feeling from the very start, but instead there was a notable feeling of anticipation or nervousness,” she says. “I saw at least five physical altercations across the 26 dates [of my recent tour] and before I had never seen a fight at one of my gigs.” She puts this down to the public trying new things after lockdown, including people who are perhaps less well-versed in the etiquette expected at performance venues. “I also feel we’ve been encouraged to create physical space between us, for good reason, so some people feel unsettled by being in close proximity with strangers,” she says. “In venues where there’s a fair bit of booze and people are shoulder to shoulder, that’s a recipe for trouble.”
Marten, however, points out the positive side of more people having “the time and enthusiasm” to discover more music, including delving into artists’ back catalogues. “[This] really made streaming soar and some new artists shine – artists that hadn’t even set foot in a venue before,” she says. “I’ve also noticed the sense of camaraderie between musicians has increased as well – we are giving ourselves support because we’re all in the same exasperating boat on the same untameable sea.”
Fans, too, are desperate to get back to supporting the bands and artists they love. Emilie Blanks, a 17-year-old hairdressing apprentice from Folkestone, caught Covid-19 at Reading Festival weekend last year. She developed a cough on Friday but tested negative. By Monday, she was experiencing severe headaches; a new test came back positive. Over the next two weeks, Emilie experienced breathing problems, along with dizziness and fainting spells. But despite all this, and still with the occasional bout of fatigue, she is excited to go back this year. “My mum said I was mad for wanting to go again, but I’ve had two of my jabs and will have had my booster by August,” she tells me. “Covid hasn’t put me off from live music.”
“The industry desperately needs a clear path to a sustainable, long-term reopening that is not contingent on emergency, last-minute shutdowns,” Parmley says. “This has to be the year where we devise a Covid response that goes beyond that, and enables people to get back to doing the things they love.”