If this is the future of live music, then the next few years are going to be a nightmare
Live music – it’s back, baby! Yesterday, Sam Fender played at Newcastle’s Virgin Money Unity Arena, a temporary, outdoor event space built to stage live music, comedy, and theatre while most venues and festivals in the UK are shuttered as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Footage from the show uploaded to social media captured the set-up. Fans gathered in groups of up to five, where they watched the performance from one of the 500 raised platforms dotted around the site. Everything was spaced according to social distancing guidelines, and the crowd was asked to use private transport to get to the site in order to minimise risk. This was the first official live music event to take place in front of a large audience since lockdown began, and it didn’t seem great.
Sure, it was live music in the strictest sense (there were musicians, and they were playing live), but it appeared to lack crucial things you’d usually encounter at a live music event, such as ‘energy’, or ‘community’, or ‘literally any kind of vibe’. The stage seemed to be about 5,000 miles away from most of the audience, unless you stumped for a VIP upgrade to sit up front. It was expensive, too: there was a £20 surcharge for each viewing platform, on top of the individual £32.50 tickets, while a £20 ‘drinks package’ would get you a mere six stubby cans of Heineken.
Some people do just want their gigs to be simple, frictionless entertainment, and this is probably fine for them, but it’s not really a solution for any serious music fans. And if this is a trial run for what the future of live music could look like after coronavirus, then the next few years are going to be a nightmare.
The UK’s first socially distanced gig is happening now in Newcastle with @samfendermusic headlining, and where attendees have their own private viewing area with 2m of space between them. Here’s what it looks like #samfender#unityarenapic.twitter.com/YBdxpAjYyi— Kieron Donoghue (@kierondonoghue) August 11, 2020
It’s not just that the gig itself looked terrible – no one is seriously expecting these sorts of socially distanced events to become the norm – but everything around it too. If gigs, clubs, and festivals don’t return until 2022 at the earliest, as some experts are predicting, then short of some serious intervention from the government, it’s likely that all of your favourite grassroots venues and nightclubs will have to shutter. Those that remain will be more likely to book safe bet artists that can definitely bring in money, and those acts will be drawn from a narrow pool – probably already successful, probably white, probably male. Just look at some of the upcoming line-ups at the Virgin Money Unity Arena: The Libertines, Tom Grennan, a Beatles tribute band. Anyone making unique or interesting art will be left with nowhere to perform, and with their incomes already decimated by streaming companies, no other means of supporting themselves financially, either.
So forget live-streamed gigs, VR nightclubs, and virtual listening parties. The future of live music in a post-coronavirus world is major label stars playing polite, corporate-sponsored ‘experiences’, while every other musician works themselves into an early grave trying to maintain “continuous engagement” with their fans in-between Deliveroo jobs. Let the music play!
This is, of course, just one possible outcome. Thankfully, underground music communities are resilient, and they’re also smart enough to come up with alternatives. So while a bit of cynicism can be healthy, let’s not be too fatalistic about this. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re desperately in need of new systems that can actually support the culture that matters.