Jack Brown: Live music is back in London. What does its future hold?

Jack Brown: Live music is back in London. What does its future hold?

After its long Covid-imposed hibernation, live indoor music in London is back. I for one am delighted, and not only because of the music. The experience is also about the unique and irreplaceable the energy of being in a crowd – a fundamental part of the human experience and has been absent from London life for far too long.

There has been a great deal of press debate over the “return to the office” and its impact on the city centre. Will they or won’t they? And what about Pret? There has also been widespread discussion of the plight of London’s theatres, with Andrew Lloyd Webber unconvincingly pledging to martyr himself in their name. There has been less coverage of live music. Yet it remains a large part of what London has to offer.

Live music fans reportedly injected £1.5bn into London’s economy in 2019, with the capital drawing over four million “music tourists” from across nation and globe, before Covid put the entire scene on ice. Over 10,000 jobs were sustained by the industry, which supported an entire infrastructure of skilled and unskilled work. Seeing a friend’s band locally, it struck me how many old faces were being reunited. A relatively small but professional touring band, they have their own soundman, a tour manager and someone who sells merchandise.

In addition, someone books their gigs and someone runs the venues they appear at. Someone puts up the stage. Someone fixes the instruments and the van. Someone takes photographs. During the Covid hibernation, some venues have been supported with grants, including many in London. In Outer London, where I live, I find more opportunities to see live music and also comedy popping up – surely a positive sign. But where have all those affected been and how many have survived?

I did a ring round of my friends who make their livings from live music. I began by asking what London as a city has meant to musicians, aside from being their home. Their replies underlined that, alongside access to audiences and venues, it is the agglomeration of other musicians and artists, industry, management, venues, music shops and other ancillary benefits that make London so vital. For them, it is a magnificent hub of everything and everyone you could ever hope to need. If you want a career in the music industry, London is probably the place to be.

But the expense of living here can be particularly difficult for those working in the literal “gig economy”. It is a busy and stressful place too. Those not born and raised in the capital, who lack the longstanding human ties we call “support networks”, say the benefits outweigh the costs, or at least come close enough to make it worthwhile. That was the deal. But lockdown put the benefits of London on hold. There were no crowds, and few opportunities to meet new people and expand networks in unexpected ways. There was no energy. And there was no work.

Technology has made it possible for office workers to work from home, and the same is true to some extent for musicians. But when money is mostly made from the live experience, the music game has been more akin to hospitality – placed on life support. Financial support has been available to some, but many have been ineligible. I was told of acquaintances and peers who left the capital when the pandemic hit, retreating initially to family homes elsewhere or seeking more affordable accommodation outside of the city. Continued uncertainty, changes in policy and repeated retreats into lockdown helped make those decisions. With the London equation broken, or at least suspended, the capital hasn’t had the same appeal. Perhaps a city rated higher for quality of life would have retained some of those people. Who knows? But London is raw capitalism incarnate – it offers great opportunity at great expense.  

Live music is an inconsistent source of income – few bands have the capacity to tour for the entire year – and many musicians have some form of side hustle. With live shows placed on ice, for many the side hustle has become the main one. Friends have been DJ-ing, focusing on art and design, writing, pouring pints and working in warehouses. Some have worked in Covid testing centres for the duration of the pandemic. Others have decided that now would be as good a time as any to trade the instability and constant travel of a career in live music for a more stable source of income. Many will not return to London.

With the lifting of restrictions, some major UK music festivals have gone ahead, offering opportunities for work once more. By all accounts, some have been glorious occasions, but others have not. The risk of cancellations, outbreaks and quarantines can tip the balance of risk beyond the acceptable. Travel restrictions, Covid-related risks and costs have meant that those that have gone ahead have had fewer international acts than usual. Once again, we are truly an island: I was amused when a friend told me his band had to compete with Mr Motivator leading a mass aerobics workout on a rival stage.

These circumstances have created opportunities for British bands right now, as less competition means they might jump up the bill and play to larger audiences. Festival-goers are ecstatic to just be back in the game. But I wonder how sustainable this will be. I heard of a sizeable outdoor live show in the capital being cancelled at short notice as the temporary stage set-up had begun sloping dangerously. A lack of experienced stage hands was blamed. It seemed the “top guys” had sought alternative employment during the pandemic.

The unmentionable Brexit cannot, unfortunately, go unmentioned. Touring musicians were not alone in benefitting from free movement across the European continent, but they were especially dependent on it. The UK is not a large country. It can be toured comprehensively in a month. That is not sustainable for a year-round touring band. The costs of playing a European festival now run to several thousand pounds in visas. This is a fixable situation, but it is not yet fixed.

What may come next? Those at the very top will be ok and at the opposite end of the spectrum, hobbyists will continue at leisure, but several rungs of the ladder in between have been knocked out. In the end, human resourcefulness will surely triumph. The musicians I spoke to have all found alternative ways to sustain themselves and are gradually returning to work, slowly emerging, blinking, into the sunlight. Some good ideas will surely emerge from the pandemic along with a new generation of high-energy young musicians, full of zest. London’s great melting pot of creativity will continue to pour out delicious treats.

I fear it may be, at least temporarily, a little less full than before. But perhaps now is not the time to worry, but instead to rejoice in the return of live music, dancing, smiling, laughing; of that particular, semi-meditative, near-dreamlike escapist joy that has been hard to find for a year and a half. What comes next is what comes next.

Jack Brown is lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. Follow him on Twitter. Photo of gig at Clapham Grand by Joshua Neicho.

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Categories: Culture

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