Jess Phillips she/her
Despite an aching tiredness that no amount of sleep seems to remedy, I recently found myself tempted to spend money I don’t have on a ticket to see a band I’ve spent the last two years aggressively roasting, telling anyone who will listen just how terribly pretentious I think they are. So far my resolve and I have managed to stay strong in the face of temptation, but I fear the worst for us both as the gig looms, and my desire to grab every opportunity to see live music begins, once again, to take hold. I blame COVID, along with subsequent fear that live music will once again be snatched away without warning.
Of course, artists and the music industry didn’t just cease to exist when the pandemic hit. Many started live streaming performances from their living rooms, either independently, or as a part of virtual festivals that took place in lieu of the real (sweaty) deal. Some music venues were even able to set up virtual gigs during the later stages of lockdown: the Close Encounter Club had whole audiences of fans on Zoom (check out Lime Garden’s virtual-not-virtual gig for Close Encounter here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCjOZ9w8Y6g), allowing fans and musicians to participate in some kind of sci-fi concert culture. Interestingly, according to a study led by Middlesex University and King’s College London, livestreams are something that the large majority of those surveyed (including fans and musicians of both pop and classical music) agreed would be a ‘successful tool to reach audiences unable or unwilling to go to physical venues’. Two thirds of the participants agreed that live streaming will ‘remain an important part of the landscape’ post-pandemic. Chappaqua Wrestling described their Close Encounters livestream as feeling ‘exactly like a crowd, if not with a bit more pressure to entertain as they’re just at home rather than being with you in the room’. Although perhaps the thrill of performing for a projector screen wouldn’t be quite so great if it hadn’t been 18 months of being unable to perform for anyone except your dog.
When life began to slowly start up again, some of the first live music I saw was at a local country blues night in London. For the organisers, the promoter, the bands, and the audience, it seemed like things were starting to change again. For those on-stage and behind the scenes, it marked the return of their livelihoods. For the audience, the return of something important to them. It feels to me like the floodgates have opened since live music returned, with live music everywhere you look. Both musicians and fans seem to be reacting viscerally to the experience – at almost every gig I’ve been to, those on-stage have gushed about how much they’ve missed the experience, and how incredible it is to be back.
I have also noticed a number of new bands and musicians that started during the never-ending months of the pandemic playing around Glasgow, and I’m sure throughout the country as well. With nothing else to do, people turned to music to fill their time, and some of what’s come out of it has been incredible! I caught Big Girl’s Blouse’s first gig a couple of months ago and couldn’t believe it was their first time on stage together. For many, myself included, there seems to be an inclination to go to random, smaller gigs just to see what’s going on. Because of this, I’ve seen some incredible performers who I’d never have found otherwise; I recently stumbled across Djana Gabrielle playing the Hug and Pint as part of their Endless Summer series, which turned out to be one of the loveliest, most intimate performances I’ve seen since the return of live music.
The return of in-person gigs has been a welcome assault on the eardrums for so many people, but I think it’s important to acknowledge those of us who are still shell-shocked by the last 18 months. At work the other day, it transpired that a couple of my colleagues had tickets to the same gig as me but were unsure about attending due to a lingering fear of COVID. Their hesitation summed up, for me, the most glaring difference between pre- and post- COVID gig culture: the anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with standing amongst a large group of strangers. Granted, there are the people that don’t think twice before hurling themselves into a crowd of sweating, moshing strangers, but I think everyone has that little voice in the back of their head constantly nagging them to put on their mask, or to take a step back to maintain social distancing. Whether it’s a seated concert, a mosh pit, or a calm, swaying crowd, the awareness of other people has, for me at least, become so much greater. And if that’s how I feel as a healthy, non-disabled person, I think it’s important that for people whose anxiety still outweighs the draw of live music, we don’t abandon livestreams and online events immediately.
The return of live music has been something that I’ve spent lockdown quietly anticipating; regardless of what genre it is that you prefer, the communal experience of a gig, a concert, or a festival is something that is hard to replicate. After so long being separated from one another, live music seems like the perfect way to come together again, and to support an industry that was so heavily and heartbreakingly devastated over the recent months. That being said, I see no reason to isolate those who, for whatever reason, are unable to return to the crowd. Live music, just like the theatre, the ballet, and so many other performing arts, has been changed by the pandemic, and maybe this isn’t a wholly bad thing. Livestreaming still has its place alongside live music, not just for the people who want to watch from the safety of their bedroom, but also as a way to share music across nations whilst international travel is still somewhat impractical. If you were to ask for my cheesy ‘here’s what I’ve taken from all this’ line, I’d probably say to make the most of all the culture and music available on your doorstep, both virtual and actual, but since no one has, I’ll leave it to you to do as you will.