What future for Lancashire's live music scene during the pandemic?

Rooms which regularly reverberated to the sound of live music have stood silent since Covid-19 brought down the curtain on one of the many simple pleasures claimed by the pandemic.

Tuesday, 2nd June 2020, 9:15 pm
Updated Sunday, 7th June 2020, 3:48 pm

Size has not been a saviour for those who earn their living from gigging – with artists both major and minor forced from the stage.

But while established performers can hit their home studios and use the downtime to work on their next album, it is not so easy for upcoming singers and musicians who rely on appearances at local venues to help them get a toehold in an industry which was difficult enough to crack even before coronavirus struck.

“You’ll have artists who have got momentum in their careers and have worked to a point where they are playing decent-sized events, their income is starting to blossom and their careers are taking off,” explains Tony Rigg, a lecturer in music industry management at the University of Central Lancashire.

Singer-songwriter David Shurr (image: John Middleham)

“Playing those shows is an important part of their trajectory and so their cancellation will obviously have immediate financial implications for them, but it could also cause the stalling of their careers.

“You can let it stop you in your tracks or you can look at new ways of engaging with your audience. If you had a strong digital foothold prior to this, you’ll probably be less affected than if your success was based purely on getting a lot of people together in one place,” reflects Tony, who curated a series of essays on the future of live music just before the current crisis hit.

Penwortham-born singer-songwriter David Shurr says that the next generation of performers has always had to prove that they are adaptable in order to succeed – and this is another challenge to which he and his contemporaries will have to rise.

While he has long had his own digital channels, the 25-year-old admits that it took some time to get accustomed to the acoustics of doing gigs via Zoom.

“It’s a strange experience, because you haven’t got the audience response – so you sort of have to imagine it.

“For all the fans, whatever the comforts of not having to traipse on the train to a gig, there is something about being there with that artist – and the artists really do feed off the audience. So for the performers, it feels a bit like we’re just practising.

“In terms of getting back to venues while the pandemic is still going on, I suppose all you could do to make it work would be to mark out designated areas on the floor. Personally, I do like a smaller gig - but I mean that in the sense of a smaller building - not a huge hall with very few people in it.

“In some ways, coronavirus has slowed me down, because I was collaborating with other singers at various gigs, so that’s come to an end. But in other ways, I’ve had more time to focus on my own music, which is nice – I am a bit a lone wolf,” David adds.

But for the venues which have traditionally been havens for musicians searching for their big break, there has been no such upside to lockdown.

Sue Culshaw, who is involved in running legendary Preston performance space The Ferret, says that entertainment-based businesses will be some of the very last to reopen whenever the pandemic subsides.

“I totally get it, because you can’t do social distancing at a gig – there would be no point putting it on. A sell-out gig is a sell-out gig – that’s the only way to make it feasible, it’s all or nothing.

“It’s hard to see how a small venue like The Ferret can cope. We still have rent to pay – we have just had the bill for a full month and from now on we can pay half, but we have to make it up when we reopen, it’s not being written off.

“We’re trying to get things rescheduled for September – but, personally, I’m sceptical.

“So you have to make plans knowing that they might not come off,” explains Sue.

Along with her manager son Jeremy Rowlands and national music promoter Danny Morris – himself a previous manager of The Ferret – the venue had been hoping 2020 would be a bumper year of big gigs, putting the business on a sound financial footing and allowing it to continue to support the next wave of artists to whom it also gives a platform.

Instead, coronavirus has meant that they have had to resort to a crowdfunder – £9,300 out of a £10,000 target so far raised – and the hope of future benefit shows to see them through.

“We have had great support from the community and it’s important for them and the local musicians we support that we keep it going,” Sue says.

The question Tony Rigg asked of himself in his book exploring the future of live music is now an even more challenging poser in the short-term. Does the public’s social-distancing stoicism extend to what would normally be that most collective of experiences, the live gig?

Like Sue Culshaw, Tony believes that the acceptability of such an arrangement to fans is only half of the problem which needs to be solved.

“If venues go into a partial capacity mode, then the economics are very unfavourable. If you let in half the people – which isn’t realistic for social distancing anyway, it would be even fewer – you’d have to charge twice as much money to make the same as you did before.

“Similarly, for postponed gigs which have already sold most of their tickets, you’d have to stage the concert four or five times over to honour all of the bookings.

“People will also have to assess risk and ask whether they want to put themselves in that environment anyway. I hope that, in the longer term, their faith will be restored and things may get back to where they were.

“But it’s not suddenly going to go back to normal – there has got to be a rehabilitation period for the industry. One of the things we have noticed is that a lot of the scheduled activity has been moved towards the end of the year – but there is a good chance that the risks from Covid will not have gone at that point in time.”

In the meantime, musicians and music-lovers might have to make do with the next best thing.

“Live-streamed music and the technology for capturing it isn’t the same as being in a live show, with the sound, lights and high levels of production.

“We are now getting better at it, but because of digital latency, you can’t really network multiple live performances of several musicians in different places very well.

“There are ways around it, but you couldn’t achieve what you could if you were all standing on a stage together."

Tony hopes that by next summer, conditions will be more favourable for the Preston Jazz and Improvisation Festival, which he helps to organise. But he remains realistic even about planning a full year ahead.

“That event is particularly complex, because we have people coming from overseas. To give us something to aim for, we’re now looking at next June, but we will have to reserve judgement until we know whether public safety can be guaranteed.”

Speaking about the situation affecting the sector as a whole, he added: “For as long as we have had records, people have congregated and music has been part of that shared social experience.

“Music can give respite in a situation like this and it is so important for our society and our culture – so I think all of these challenges will be overcome.”

*An online launch of the book, "The Future of Live Music", featuring a round-table discussion including Peter Hook (New Order) and Graham Massey (808 State), can be viewed on 11th June at 2pm via shorturl.at/cwFMT

**To donate to the crowdfunder for The Ferret, visit crowdfunder.co.uk/theferret