One year on...
...from when Covid19 started shutting down the world and most of the music business, I set out to discover what the state of the music world is now that we have the vaccine being distributed.
As I write (April 26th 2021) Japan is in a state of uncertainty with cases increasing daily and no specific directive from the government about what to do. Most citizens are still being very cautious after the second State of Emergency ended on March 21st by still wearing masks and washing hands in alcohol incessantly but with the annual big holiday of Golden Week looming (end of April and beginning of May) there is a strong possibility that the rate of increase will not curtail and in fact, the government has just issued a third State of Emergency, starting yesterday. What this means for the music business here is that there will be no international acts here for the foreseeable future and we may even be forced into a longer State of Emergency to ensure that the Olympics will go ahead which seems to be the government’s priority.
Japan did not shut down totally. Whilst many small venues (live houses) that hold 50 -200 did close, most have now reopened although not to the extent they used to be. The capacities have dropped temporarily and social distancing and masks are of course advisory and they are not open every night as per the norm but there are bands on. A quick look through a dozen of the major ones in Tokyo for upcoming shows reveals that they are all open with various restrictions and the medium size venues of Club Citta, Studio Coast and Zepp (capacities 1000 - 2500) also have gigs as does the Yokohama Arena (10,000). Needless to say, these are all Japanese acts and social distancing is observed, likewise for the premium clubs, Billboard, Cotton Club and Blue Note. As for the upcoming festival season, the SMASH Corporation have already announced that the three annual three-day Rock festival, Fuji Rock, will take place albeit at a later date than usual to accommodate the Olympics and with Japanese bands only; Creativeman’s Hip-Hop/ R&B festival Springroove will go ahead at the end of April and their Rock festival Summer Sonic is planned for September, all other festivals from other promoters still seem to be in limbo with neither conformations nor denials.
For that last part the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be any different. Festivals are planned and cancelled, gigs are scheduled and re-scheduled (and then rescheduled again) whilst we, the ticket buying public and music business employees, struggle on in hope that the vaccine will at least start to open things up again even if normality will not return for another year. One thing is for sure though and that gigs will return and the evidence is already there as according to a recent BBC business report*, many venues are already booked out for 2022, 2023 and even into 2024 and given the option to receive refunds from postponed concerts, 83% of those people who bought tickets have decided to keep them for the rescheduled shows. Also, bands will have to fulfil contracts so they are obliged to play live and the simple reality is that 80%* of a bands income in these days of downloads now comes from playing live and although many have tried the streaming route, quite simply, it doesn’t work. The energy between a band and an audience is felt in the venue; any of us that have sat through a streamed gig will tell you the same. Returning to real live shows will not be without its problems however as many freelance crew and staff have already quit the business necessarily in order to find other jobs to support themselves and their families. Will they return? Who knows in this now very uncertain world but of the estimated 200,000 freelances in the UK alone, certainly a percentage will not and these are not jobs that are easy to find replacements for. The roadies of yesteryear (‘I’m not very clever but I can lift heavy weights’) are long gone and any big tour requires a small army of technicians that know their stuff - stuff that cannot be learned in a few weeks in a classroom.
To try and get some perspective on all of this, I’ve had a chat with a few friends around the world to see how they’ve been coping with everything and what they think the prospects for their bands and countries are for the next twelve months. The Average daily cases number is take over the week spanning April 26th 2021 and is followed by a percentage increase or decrease figure. The number of people vaccinated is also taken from April 26th.
Japan, Average weekly cases approx 28,000 (increasing +24%) vaccinated: 2%
John Young (Lifesigns)
UK, Average weekly cases 17,000 (decreasing -4%) vaccinated: 69%
Q: A lot of musicians have alternative income John, you don’t and are a full time musician. How have you weathered this storm?
JY: Well one of the things I’m quite keen on is aviation and I come out of an aviation background and one of the things I do as a hobby I have done all these years is bout and sold aviation memorabilia on ebay and it became less of a hobby in the last year. Mainly because I could as I had the time to do it but what we were lucky with - it was a kind of perfect storm in a way - is that everyone in Lifesigns works with major artists and last year we had plans to travel all over the world. I was going to be out with Bonnie Tyler for eight months of the year; Steve (Rispin) was out with Yes, Jon (Poole) was doing Dr Hook, Dave (Bainbridge) was doing The Strawbs and loads of other things and when the pandemic came along, all of a sudden it was ‘Oh we can make the album then!’ We crowd-fund everything as well so in that we arranged for some donations and subscriptions to provide a very small amount to each member of the band so we put everyone on furlough to an extent. Not very much, just enough to pay for shopping and petrol and a few bits and pieces every month.
Q: That’s a lovely thing to do John.
JY: We work in a different way. We came up with a new quote yesterday actually “We are in the business of music, not in the music business”. (laughs)
Giles Lavery (Alcatrazz, Girlschool, Onslaught manager)
Germany, Average weekly cases 146,000 (increasing +2%) vaccinated: 30%
Q: How have you been surviving through the pandemic?
GL: Licensing catalog for people actually and getting commissions on that. Luckily a lot of stuff fell into the renewal period after three to five years so a bit here and a bit there has really helped.It’s been concerning, feast or famine, and you end up with enough to get through a few months and then you think ‘Ok, what are we going to do now?’ and then something pops up just around the corner, just in time. It’s been hand to mouth but I’m managing to get through it.
Q: You’re in Germany, what are the cances of gigs there soon? Is there any Wacken or Rock am Ring on the horizon?
GL: Oh god no! Chancellor Merkell is a tyrant - she wants to lockdown harder and impose curfews at 9pm! Everywhere else is opening, trying to get on with it but she want’s to go on harder than ever! They’ll be nothing in Germany this year and we haven’t had a single thing open since November unless you want to go to the Post Office or supermarket. The vaccine rollout is stalling, very slow and almost non-existent and there’s been a few scares with blood clots and brain hemorrhages so a lot of resistance to it generally. Maybe rightly so as I don’t agree with this forced vaccination - I think that’s a little scary and I hope it doesn’t give us problems in a couple of years.
Joey Ryan, Donna Dimasi, Moni Lashes (The Babes),
Australia: Average weekly cases 125 (increasing +40%) vaccinated: 8%
Q: How has the pandemic affected you as a band and what have you been doing?
JR: We had a big hiatus in the middle of the year but Moni and I have been writing so we took the down time to essentially write the next album and a half. We’ll start doing demos soon. I’ve been doing a few cover gigs.
Q: So you’ve got venues open in Adelaide?
JR: Yeah. We’ve had a really low amount of cases for the whole pandemic, sometime weeks without a case.
Q: Moni, Donna, how’s it been for you not being able to play?
ML: It makes you appreciate what you had. Even the airport, I used to get the excitement of going there knowing I was going somewhere and now driving past it, no one is going anywhere.
DD: For me it’s the creative outlet of not being able to perform . It was always a bit of a stress relief for me being able to perform, getting up in front of people and the social element of it, hanging out with bigger bands as well, it was very therapeutic.
Q: I heard you built a recording studio in the down time as well.?
ML: Yeah it was a bit of a surprise project and since July it’s been full steam ahead with contractors and doing things ourselves. It’s about 95% finished.
Q: What’s the prospectus for you doing an Australian tour?
JR: Cover bands are the only thing promoters want at the moment. There’s not a lot of original shows.
Brian Corn, John Michael Cords, Doug Smith (Quor)
San Diego, USA: Average weekly cases 440,000 (decreasing -16% ) vaccinated: 67%
BC: Leading up to the pandemic in late 2019 we had completed our 3rd tour into Japan and reached into Thailand. It was beginning to feel like we had begun to break into the Japanese market. The crowds had grown, and it felt like we had joined a warm and welcoming family there and that drove us even harder to continue the plan to return there and grow with our growing Japanese family and peers. In the States things were also looking up for us as a band. Three sold out/near sold-out shows, two in large venues with the Mongolian hybrid metal act The Hu and a home show with New Zealand’s rising act Alien Weaponry. In February we had our last pre-Covid show in Las Vegas at the Happens Radio and Industry convention, a high impact industry showcase. We had also just completed a new record and had begun preparing for its release and subsequent supporting tour schedule. March 2021 brought the lock down. Just a week before, I had returned to my hometown of Modesto to be with my brother who had been afflicted by a sudden and serious diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He was not doing well and the familiarity of one leaving this life was apparent. I was caught between that horrible reality and the closely coinciding especially awesome news that I was going to be a dad. While in Modesto the pandemic became a reality as my older brother (not with cancer), who is a nurse in the ER, had been exposed to one of the first known cases of Covid in the area. I headed back to San Diego to be with my wife Saira for the first big doctors’ appointment and ultrasound of the baby with the intent of going back to Modesto to be with the family if possible. Then the lock down hit fully. I needed to be home with Saira and our little seedling. My brother died a few weeks later. A funeral was not possible. Just after baby was born my sister unexpectedly passed. Uniting the family was not responsible under the Covid conditions and again a funeral was not possible. The band decided we should follow the recommendations of social distancing and put off any live rehearsals or meetings. Live shows were obviously off the table. As a band we needed to adapt to the situation. Our focus moved to releasing the new material. But even the task of releasing a track over the internet has somehow been affected by the pandemic. It has seemed harder to organize the moving pieces of professionally releasing a track. In part because as we locked down and separated it disunited us as a project that has functioned best as a united team. Each of us has experienced the side effects of the lock down differently and similarly. We all had to figure out how to survive and provide for our families. Doug had to find a way to keep his kids’ education on track and at the same time try to be productive in a household that now had everyone under the same roof during business hours. John had to move, find new employment, and help care for his parents with out exposing them to the virus. My wife and I had a baby with no family support due to the lock down along with what has seemed like one family loss after another. Our primary and alternate sources of income have been decimated and we have had to find new ways to support ourselves. All of us have. As the pandemic has extended out further and further the gravity and extended circumstances it has created have more and more slowed and hindered releases. For an independent “DIY” band, time and money are always working against you regardless of a global pandemic and lock down. The pandemic has eaten away at all the precious resources and fragmented the strength and organization of the band as an entity; along with the processes, vendors, and resources needed to release a record. Everyone is trying to figure this whole lock down and pandemic scenario out. There is Yin and Yang to it all. Shadow and light. Contraction and expansion. So, I’ll end with some light. Although it has been tough at times being a caged animal, I am incredibly grateful for the time I have had to bond with my baby boy and mama too. It has been pure joy watching the little guy grow so fast in his first months and the bond created is worth everything. As for the band, as we have begun to grease up the wheel, we have learned some valuable lessons on efficiently and more effectively putting out records. I think this pandemically changed mindset has forced new ways of approaching things that will help us grow going forward. Creatively, the time we have spent alone in our cages with our instruments is going to make for some fantastic new material. Probably weird material but, fantastic none the less.
Nige Rockett (Onslaught)
UK, Average weekly cases 17,000 (decreasing -4%) vaccinated: 69%
Q: What’s it been like for you Nige? Has it been a financial burden not being able to gig?
NR: Yeah obviously a financial burden for Onslaught particularly as we are a band that tour a lot every year. We tour about three months plus festivals so it’s probably taken a third of my income away so we have to do other things. I’ve been lucky that I’ve managed to keep going in between but the income from the band basically pays my mortgage and bills so it’s a very big hit. The bizarre thing is that just before it all started I said to my partner ‘It hasn’t hit England yet so let’s go to South America for a few weeks’ and we came back and it was all gone!
Q: What do you think the prospectus is for the UK opening up for gigs and you getting back out on the road by the end of the year?
NR: Well as much as the UK government has failed in almost every way here, they are trying to claim some kind of victory with the vaccine program which is purely down to the NHS and nothing to do with the government but it has been amazingly handled and I think the target of over half the country – 30 million – being vaccinated is incredible so I see a good possibility that we can play shows here this year.
Q: How about Europe?
NR: In Europe, we’ve just had two major festivals cancelled and I can see all the rest going again.
Hampus Klang (Bullet)
Sweden, Average daily cases 33,000 (decreasing -33%) vaccinated: 27%
Q: How are you and Bullet surviving?
HK: It’s weird, a different and I’ve just been trying to work more as a music teacher in a school just to make some money. I’ve also been working in a bowling alley. For me I’ve never earned so much money as I do now. (laughs) It’s a strange situation.
Q: That’s good to hear you’re financially ok but working in a bowling alley, has that affected you as a musician mentally?
HK: Yes of course it has as I’m used to travelling so much but now I’m just at home but I live in the countryside and have a hose so I have lots of things to repair and build. There’s always stuff to do so I don’t feel like I’m locked-in mentally.
Q: How about the band?
HK: We’ve done lots of writing in the rehearsal room. Not so much complete songs so we need to sit down and work them out properly. We do get together in a rehearsal room every Tuesday but we don’t really rehearse unless it’s for a tour or recording. We sit around the drums with a few beers and play a few riffs. (laughs)
Elizabeth Andrews (Frantic Amber)
Denmark, Average weekly cases 4,800 (increasing +14%) vaccinated: 30%
Q: Good to talk to you Elizabeth. Is everyone in Frantic Amber ok?
EA: Well were all good now. (laughs) Mio and Mac had the coronavirus but they are ok now and the others of us have made it through so far. Nothing is happening here I the physical world so we are in the virtual world writing music. I’m in Denmark and have been for this whole time so I haven’t seen the band for almost a year. We had one gig in the Czech Republic last year which was tricky with the flights and everything changing all the time but we managed to do and it.
Q: Denmark is a bit off the radar with regards to the coronavirus; what’s the current situation there?
EA: We went into lockdown twice where everything closed except food shops but we had a lot of help packages from the government. In the beginning it was ok because I was on furlough from work and it gave me a good opportunity to sort some things out mentally and physically but then in the long run it’s got tougher. The vaccine rollout is slow. We have different groups and mine is the last group (laughs) and I checked the schedule yesterday and the projection is mid-June.
Q: Do you think you’ll have gigs within Scandanavia from Autumn then?
EA: Perhaps…if there are any clubs left. Many of them have closed.
Rocky Newton (Lionheart)
UK, Average weekly cases 17,000 (decreasing -4%) vaccinated: 69%
Q: You are a professional musician…
RN: No! I wish I was but there is just not the money to make at it now. I run the family business and we have a 700 acres cereal farm in Lincolnshire. So I’m a farmer – believe it or not. (laughs) I grow wheat, oilseed grape, barley and oats and I have a 21 stabel Livery Yard. I was born and brought up here.
Q: Wow! That’s fantastic. That’s your bread and butter then.
RN: Yes. You know with Lionheart, we are just covering costs as the volume from sales is not there and I’m also luck as I get royalties from the sessions I did with Def Leppard, the backing vocals on Hysteria. I get a nice little secondary income from that but to put things in perspective, when I did the MSG album Perfect Timing (1987), that sold about 470,000 in the first couple of years of release and that was considered a failure by the record company whereas nowadays, if you sell 10,000 you would be No. 1.
Q: Have you been writing through all this?
RN: We have been and we going to crack on in the next week or two with the next Lionheart album. We have and we always end up with quite a lot more songs than we actually need which is good because we can exercise quality control. We send them all to the band members and then we all vote on them and do the ones with the highest scores so it’s very democratic.
Q: It’s good that you don’t have to worry about money and it’s great you can all still write and record remotely through modern technology, do you miss gigging though?
RN: It’s like somebody has cut a limb off. The day job is great because I am my own boss, I can come and go and do what I want but being able to look in my diary and see we have tours coming up in Spain or Japan or wherever, that’s what puts a spring in your step and without that, it’s been deflating. I have done a few sessions through this for Escape music and there is always something going on but it’s just not the same as getting out there and getting hot and sweaty.
Ivan Pavlakovic (Disconnected)
France, Average weekly cases 220,000 (decreasing -10%) vaccinated: 28%
Q: The last time we talked, it was a year ago and we never thought we’d be still going through this a year later.
IP: It’s been sixteen months since I put a foot on a stage which has never happened to me in thirty years.
Q: Financially, how has it been?
IP: I don’t earn the same amount of money but we have a very good system of funding and protecting artists in France. Here, when you are a professional artist, a technician, an actor, a dancer or whatever, you are declared under a certain system. You have to do 507 hours per year and once you have done that, they following year, you are given money by the government to fill-in when you are not working; it’s called the intermittence du spectacle. This massively helps people for creation like me for example. If I don’t go on tour because I am going to write and then go in the studio for three months, I have no performance money coming in but I have a wage every month, paid.
Q: That’s a superb system!
IP: Yeah. Pretty incredible. It means the taxes for people that employ me and artists are very high but it also means that this whole year we are earning a wage every month to help us to stay artists.
Q: I never knew about this and I’m pretty sure most of the rest of the world doesn’t.
IP: No. Every time I talk to my friends in other countries they cannot believe it. It’s a big cost as there are about 300,000 artists in France and it costs one billion Euros to fund and some people say it’s not fair but it’s a privilege to be a part of it.
Q: Financially secure then but mentally?
IP: That’s a totally different story – it’s a nightmare. When you are passionate about music, when it’s your life and you have been doing it as a dream job for twenty years, it’s very difficult not to be able to go on stage, not to have an audience, not to hang with your friends and what I find very difficult on top of that is that I am not made to stay at home for that long. I’m used to going somewhere every weekend and I need to travel. There’s a lot of movement in my life and I like to say to my wife who does the same job that I like to be home and rest and share great moments with the family but it’s because I always have the perspective that I will be going away again at some point.
Q: I am exactly the same Ivan; I fully understand.
IP: Yeah. It’s that thing of taking your car, driving, listening to some music, on your own, working on stuff in your head and then you get to a new place, meet new people. The soundcheck, the show, having a drink afterwards and then you come back home and are happy to see your family again. You regroup, have a great time and then the next weekend you’re off again…this has been my life since I was sixteen so all of a sudden to be stuck at home 24/7, it’s a fucking pain in the ass mate! (laughs)
*Talking Business with Aaron Heslehurst 12th April 2021