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What does Covid-19 mean for the future of the music scene?


Liam Wade, the British musician, artist and producer living out of pandemic epicentre New York City, is reflecting on life in lockdown and pondering what the future holds for the music industry—an industry that has been ravaged by the coronavirus crisis.

What does Covid-19 mean for the future of your local music scene? When are you heading back to the club? Will bands and venues be able to come back after the pandemic in the same capacity? Or does the music industry have to change?

When the local government relaxes the social distancing measures, are you going to rush out to watch a band with hundreds of other people? A question on the minds of musicians and venue owners alike. These are the people that rely on tickets and drink sales as a huge chunk of their income, if not their entire livelihood. As the pandemic drags on, most people are staying home, avoiding being within two meters of any other person. So when your favourite band announces that they’re going to be playing in a few weeks or months…will you be there?

For many, the lockdown is going to have lasting psychological effects, for months and possibly years. Passing people in the street will send waves of anxiety rushing through the body, wondering if that person has the virus. Fist bumps, handshakes and cheek kisses (for my European amigos) are unlikely to be socially acceptable anymore. Meeting friends in wide-open spaces, we’re likely to be stood or sat a few meters apart, even if not enforced by the local authority. The yearning for social interaction is an innate part of being human. It’s built into our DNA to want to talk and socialise with other people. We’ve been doing it all our lives, attending your childhood friend’s birthday party, meeting down the pub with all your mates, for your coming of age and first (legal) pint. We’ve always done it, and now, we can’t. Many people are in lockdown on their own. A smartphone is their only conduit to the outside world. The likelihood is they want to get outside and ‘kick it’ with friends and family as soon as possible.

Disease specialists are quick to warn us that without a sensible and measured easing of the restrictions, we are likely to experience second and potentially third waves of this virus, which can lead to significant spikes in the spread, hospitalisations, and deaths. Considering there are no legitimate vaccines for Covid-19, currently (apart from sunlight and disinfectant according to Donald Trump), then heading down to the venue to get hot and sweaty while moshing to your favourite songs doesn’t seem like a good idea.

In the era of streaming, albums are not profitable for many artists. Making a record acts as a platform to get out on the road and play live for your fans. Playing live, an artist has the potential to make a living from ticket sales, merchandise, and maybe an extra DJ set after the show to bump up the takings. The industry has been forced into this model after the sales of music started to fall drastically in the early 2000s, firstly with the creation of pirate download sites like Napster and Limewire and then, ultimately, leading us to the modern streaming era.

The industry giants, Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, like many corporations in our lives, are squeezing the life out of the songwriters and artists by offering minuscule remuneration for the playback of their music. Current reports suggest Spotify and YouTube are the worst offenders when it comes to paying artists. Spotify offers a measly $0.0028 per stream while YouTube seems to have gone even harder, offering just $0.0012. An independent artist would need to have their music streamed 3114 times to earn one hour’s minimum wage in the UK. There are no real alternatives for artists to release their music if they want any chance of being heard and building up their audience. Apple’s iTunes doesn’t offer the option to download music anymore, thus taking away the artist’s opportunity to claw back some significant capital as they could take a larger share of the income than streaming has ever offered. There are, of course, sites such as Bandcamp who offer fans the chance to support artists by still paying for a download. However, as most modern music fans opt to hand over $120 a year to a streaming service, they’re unlikely to want to pay out again.

(Credit: Alani Cruz)

That brings us back to the live music dilemma. With venues completely shut down for the foreseeable future. With an unknowing reality that awaits them when they do get permission to reopen, musicians are working out ways of how to interact and entertain their virtual audiences. Scrolling through Instagram you’re likely to see an upturn of musicians small and large stepping into the world of virtual live shows via the ‘live’ and ‘TV’ utilities built into the app. Although vaguely entertaining in the short term, and with some interesting takes on what’s possible, the fact remains that the glitchy video and frankly annoying audio compression is a real turn off. These quick fixes fail to fill the band-shaped hole in our lives. It doesn’t compare to watching your favourite band live. The exhilaration we experience watching a cherished guitarist shredding a solo, the witty, charismatic lead vocalist or the kick drum so ferocious you can feel those low frequencies hit you in the chest and knock you back a step or two. Musicians and artists alike are a creative bunch by nature, and they will find ingenious new ways to get their music heard, yet the fact remains that when the time comes to get back on the road, will there still be venues to play? And if they are still there, is anyone going to show up knowing that they may get sick with an untreatable disease that spreads through humans. Carriers of the virus may not even know they have it, and it will spread through the venue, like wildfire on a dry forest floor, undetected and untraceable.

Many towns and cities across the globe are likely to see boarded up venues when they go back outside. The economic fallout of this virus has affected many industries. With no income, these smaller businesses are unlikely to continue paying rent on top of any other expenses they may have. Like many people who have had their work ripped from under them, musicians and venue staff alike are going to have to diversify, if not leave their respective industries altogether to continue being able to live in these high rent urban sprawls.

What’s going to happen? Nobody can legitimately say right now. There has been no industry think tank put in place to propose anything worthy of our attention. We’re stuck in a perpetual loop of worry and uncertainty. The one thing that is for sure is that the music industry is undoubtedly going to need to be flexible, or it may see its fortunes change. Live music is going to need to adapt in the short term, music makers should veer away from the current model of streaming and touring to make money. The only thing we know for sure is that nothing is going to be the same again, including our beloved mosh pits all over the world.

See more of Liam Wade’s work, here.