Like many other aspects of life, the music industry has been changed, possibly permanently, by the coronavirus pandemic. There have been predictions of financial meltdown and of venue closures on a vast scale; suggestions that now is the moment for streaming services to change the way they pay musicians; even arguments that pop music in lockdown provides a model for how the music business should be: more creatively free, more resourceful, less reliant on touring.
We assembled a panel of musicians to discuss coronavirus and its effects: Sara Quin of the Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara; pop singer-songwriter Ella Eyre; James McGovern of Dublin punk band the Murder Capital; Jeremy Pritchard, bassist of Manchester’s Everything Everything; and the singer-songwriter Jack Garratt.
Lockdown has underlined that most musicians make their living from playing live, not from recorded music. How has the closure of all live venues for the foreseeable future affected you?
Jack Garratt I’ve got an album coming out 12 June, so what do we do? It has inspired some really creative and interesting conversations but the fork in the road is a really big fork. Touring has completely dried up for the foreseeable future. Everything’s getting pushed until 2021, and even that’s a maybe. So not only is that promotion that I can’t do any more – the thing that I love doing – any revenue that I was going to make from shows, that’s just gone.
Ella Eyre I’ve always fought to have different avenues of income: publishing, writing for other people, brand deals. So even though my tour has been pushed back, it won’t heavily affect me financially as such. But in the future, if I wasn’t able to tour, it would be a massive problem.
James McGovern We set up our own record label with our management company, so that’s saved us. We’ve been able to cut our expenditure completely and the Irish government is looking after artists and unemployed people really well. We’ve stopped paying ourselves because our income is from live music in effect and we’re getting €350 (£320) a week from the government, which is totally survivable.
Jeremy Pritchard We’ve got an album out in August. I doubt we’ll do anything [live] this year. It isn’t the only way to promote music, but it’s certainly the way that’s most significant to me because that’s how I understand what music means to people – by playing it in front of them. There was a period of brief inspiration at the beginning of lockdown when we realised we couldn’t get together – we managed to make a couple of videos and use some 3D modelling software to do photos – but the novelty’s worn off. I just miss playing music with my friends. All our income for this year really should have come from festivals over the summer and touring. We’ve applied for the same government schemes as any other self-employed people.
Sara Quin We’re fucked, too. It’s not just about making money, it’s about that ecosystem of our agents, managers, band, crew, our creative collaborators, our merchandise business; they’re all so integrated and the engine is that we get on the bus and play for people. We see the pain of all the people who are working on commission for us, who rely on our contract work. We’re in emergency mode, thinking about: what if we never return to normal? Is there a normal we can build for our business that won’t require us going back to the way it was before?
Live venues are in critical condition. Should governments get involved? And if so, how?
Pritchard The UK music industry is worth £4.5bn to the exchequer. If any other industry was worth that amount, it would be funded at grassroots level by government. It’s not, because it’s seen as a frippery that should stand on its own two feet. The government is rightly proud of the music industry as a cultural export, but it chooses not to recognise it as an economic export because that means it needs funding to stay afloat. It needs it very badly now.
Quin In Canada, there’s a great deal of government support for the arts. But there are varying degrees of catastrophic situations right now. It’s hard for artists to be front-page news when they’re talking about mass infections at meatpacking plants, or healthcare workers, or the Indigenous population. It’s hard to say: “Guys, what if the folk festival scene breaks down?” I’m sort of being tough love with our community. While I wish the government would swoop down and fix everything, I’m not afraid there’s not going to be a music scene. Some venues will survive and some won’t; the people that survive survive, the people that don’t, they find something in the ashes and build something different.
Is there a positive side to this?
Quin We were already talking about the climate crisis, the cost of shipping gear and flights, travelling the globe, building this huge production; how long can we sustain that model? I feel inspired as a small business owner to be thinking about what my future business looks like. How can we build something that will thrive? That actually feels really exciting.
Garratt It’s really forced me into myself, and I’m not in a great place at the moment, so that hasn’t helped my creativity whatsoever. Being up in [my studio] feels like I’m torturing myself because I’m not necessarily giving a good part of myself. Like Sara, the thing I’ve been really able to thrive in is thinking about how we create new ideas that end up being sustainable whether everyone’s inside or not.
McGovern I’ve found myself able to write again and to reconnect with the reason why I started playing music as a child, which was to connect with myself emotionally. Writing full songs over emails doesn’t work for us – there’s too much of a human element in what we do – but having the time to spend the entire day coming up with a guitar line or a vocal melody, there’s no immediate pressure from something around you, that’s been interesting. It’s a bleak positive.
Eyre When the reality of how long this was going to last settled in, I didn’t want to pressure myself to be creative, but I think by having no pressure I’ve been able to enjoy Zoom writing sessions and have fun with the people I work with regularly. I already had a bunch of songs ready to go; if anything, lockdown has allowed the pressure to be taken off the release of them. There’s no worry about a £70k music video or marketing strategy or how many bloody TikToks, I’ve just enjoyed being able to put music out. The expectation is different. It has allowed everybody to relax and be creative about how we’re presenting stuff and making stuff to keep our fanbases engaged.
Do you feel a pressure to constantly create content for your fans?
Quin: My hesitation is that it’s a form of labour we do for free that is generating money for Instagram and Facebook and Twitch. I know it’s not cool to be a sell-out and to say you need money and you want your fans to pay for things, but I feel as artists we need to be comfortable being transparent about that. I’m inspired by people doing livestreams and making content, but I don’t feel inspired to do it, because I hate playing concerts to people holding up their cellphones, and I don’t want to play a concert to my cellphone.
Garratt: It’s a technical experience, not an emotional one. But I don’t have a choice not to do it because I’m putting an album out and I want as many people to experience it in as honest a way as I can create. I’m lucky in that I can recreate it in the studio pretty accurately, but I would absolutely swap that sofa over there for a couple of warm bodies.
McGovern: I don’t turn my nose up at that stuff in any way, but I don’t know how we could achieve it in a way that we would be happy with. There’s no point in doing it if we don’t think it’s good. I’ve seen some great ones though – I’ve got great comfort from watching James Blake’s Instagram Lives.
We live in an age where fans expect to be more directly connected with artists via social media, which can be a fraught relationship. Has lockdown made that relationship better or worse?
Eyre: I’ve always had a direct relationship with my fanbase. I was really active on Twitter before Instagram was a thing, and I’m still pretty personable. To be honest, I think that was a mistake on my part early on, because they expect so much more of me now. But I think lockdown is providing a more intimate experience for them – you’re literally letting fans into your home, you’re wearing the same clothes twice, there’s not a glam team. And in the same way that they’re relying on us to keep them entertained, as an artist I’m sort of relying on them – the song I released a couple of weeks ago is not a single, I played a demo of it on my [Instagram] story and everyone wanted us to put it out, so we did it just for fun, haven’t pushed it anywhere. I think, ultimately, it’s made us closer.
McGovern: I’ve stepped further and further away from it. We did a Tim Burgess Listening Party on Twitter, which was nice, but I’ve actually turned my phone off now. It’s been off for eight to 10 days, and it feels good, to be honest. My attention span wasn’t there to read a novel if I wanted to do that, so I thought: fuck that, I’m going to turn the thing off. I’ve bought a Nokia 105 for when I get out.
Spotify has introduced a tip jar for artists – what are your thoughts? There has been a lot of talk about how unfair to artists the royalty system on streaming services is; is this the time to change it? If so, how?
Garratt It’s offensive to artists that are putting the music on that platform and it’s offensive to the consumer. It’s a platform owning up to the fact that there’s an issue, and the Band-Aid they are putting around that issue is to make it the consumer’s problem to fix it.
McGovern It’s a load of fucking horseshit. It’s exactly what you’re saying: a PR cover-up for a situation where we’re not being paid clearly for having our music on their platform.
Quin We don’t ask people to go to the grocery store and make a decision on how much they’re going to spend on a loaf of bread; it costs whatever it costs. Instead of asking consumers to solve the problem, the industry needs to have a reckoning about the way we value music, and that needs to be platform-wide. All the different streaming platforms, the record labels, the publishers, the artists who own their masters – we have to decide what music costs and then go collectively to the consumers and say: “This is how much a loaf of bread costs.” It would be good PR for Spotify: “We’re going to increase everyone’s subscription by a couple of bucks and instead of us putting those dollars back into our nest, we’re going to distribute that money in an equitable way to the people that create the music.”
Pritchard Spotify is the whipping boy for the whole cultural problem, but compared to other digital platforms that don’t even have the decency to identify themselves as streaming services, it has at least tried to monetise things for artists. The problem lies in the obstructions that lie between the digital service providers and the artists; it’s with the rights holders, it’s with the majors. And they’re all under non-disclosure agreements; you can’t get anywhere with it because you can’
Before the pandemic, some advances were being in made in areas such as gender imbalance and representation. Is there a danger this will slip off the agenda as the industry focuses on getting back on its feet?
Eyre I don’t see why it should make any difference. Those conversations shouldn’t be deemed less important while trying to rebuild and make a better future for music.
McGovern Hopefully it gives people time to get a wider perspective on those things. I always feel like 50-50 lineups … it’s moving in the right direction, but I think it’s neglecting the major problem of the way women are spoken to from a young age, from their parents and in the classroom, and the way they perceive what a viable career is and what industries they’re welcomed into.
Quin What I rarely hear is what we’re going to do with young men to teach them how to be better as adults when they get these jobs, or become members of bands, how they can be better allies, how they can use their power. While it’s lip service to say we’re going to reach gender parity on festivals, I think it’s really in your court, the festival programmers and music programmers. You can tell an eight-year-old girl she can be a mixing engineer or an EDM artist, but if every time we look at a Coachella lineup it’s all men making money on the DJ sets or whatever, it’s hard to inspire young women until those things change.
Name one thing you want to change in the music industry after this?
Quin Tegan said she’s thinking about how to make our digital footprint more meaningful and our carbon footprint smaller. That’s the way we’re moving forward. The future is going to require us to do a lot more online interaction and have more connection with our fans in a way we never did before. I want to make sure we’re not doing it out of obligation and just to market things. I want to feel we’re connecting back with an audience we love.
Pritchard More understanding, more transparency across the board: between artists, consumers, digital platforms, government, venues. More mutual support.
McGovern I hope musicians and fans realise how special the live show is and don’t take it for granted ever again. I just hope everyone steps outside of themselves and realises what’s going on around them and how special that connectivity is.
Eyre My relationship with my label has shifted because we’re having to communicate over Zoom; the amount of time we’ve saved not having to travel and try and get 15 people in a room! I feel like my label are more engaged than ever because they’ve got more time. I’d like to see a more relaxed energy from major labels about what they’re putting out, not stressing too much about radio plays and streaming. It’s brought it all back to releasing music and seeing what happens.
Garratt I don’t want anyone starting out to make the same mistakes I did. The insane amount of pressure put on young artists to be a finished product before they’ve even started putting their first record out, the expectation from labels, management, journalists – it’s far too much. If I can speak about that publicly enough to make someone else starting out think smarter, work harder and consider the ethics of their decisions, environmentally, spiritually, emotionally, physically or whatever – I really hope that happens.