A Love Letter to Live Music

In the last year, the survival of the live music industry has been thrown into doubt. But gigs are worth fighting for — both as a livelihood for musicians, and as a collective creative experience.

Squashed into the upstairs room of Headrow House in Leeds, my brother and I watched on enthralled as Moses Boyd’s band launched into their Dark Matter set back in March 2020.

Something felt odd – large gatherings were beginning to be called off, and a colleague at work had made a jokey ‘Viral’ office playlist (‘All the clubs have been closed down’, warned the The Specials, ‘Ghost Town’ an premonition of events to follow). But two young music fans couldn’t imagine the complete shutdown of the music industry, over 100,000 deaths, and life as we know it altered for at least the rest of our twenties. So we didn’t, and we had a really good time instead.

Since the time of the last gigs, the live music industry has received a succession of brutal body blows, showing the country’s lack of support for those in the profession and revealing the true extent of the fragile labour markets that maintain the industry’s existence. It’s symptomatic of a complete misunderstanding of the way that the UK’s cultural industries operate that the vast majority of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s record £1.57 billion investment went the way of institutions, rather than being used to shore up the gaping holes in the UK’s Self Employed Income Support Scheme; musicians are overrepresented among the of three million self-employed people that make up Excluded UK.

The realities of Brexit are yet to be fully realised because of Covid, but the promise of music’s international return hardly looks inviting for British musicians. The Independent broke the story mid-January that the UK had rejected the European Union’s offer to give artists visa- or permit-free travel within its member states. The ability for bands and orchestras to move swiftly through countries is a principle that makes touring work; if discarded, it stands to make touring more expensive, more logistically complicated, and ultimately unviable for those without significant financial backing.

DCMS’s Oliver Dowden and Caroline Dinenage batted back, saying it was the EU who were letting down the UK’s musicians. Confusion and anger in the industry continues while the two sides are at loggerheads. A 280,000-strong petition demanding visa-free touring for UK artists and crew post-Brexit ended not with a resolution, but with the government further entrenching its position.

And yet the music goes on, just about, even if the last year has done little to dispel the old adage that ‘there’s no money in music’. The two replacement modes of musical employment in the UK have both come through digital streaming, and neither are economically viable alternatives to gigging in their current state.

Music streaming services are exploitative at best (Spotify pays around between £0.002 and £0.0038 per stream), and digital concerts are difficult to monetise for smaller groups, although a welcome U-turn saw PRS for Music recently cancel plans for a flat royalties fee for musicians and grassroots venues undertaking small-scale livestreamed events.

The unfortunate truth is that many music fans have struggled to immerse themselves in the new livestream culture. Should the guilt of not attending the umpteenth digital sharing be cause for concern? Or might we reserve some small grounds for optimism by re-affirming the ‘liveness’ of live music, and consider how much of that importance we stand to lose by continuing the mantra of event digitisation beyond the present moment of necessity?

The industry is given lots of euphemistic nomenclatures. Whether ‘experience sector’ or ‘night-time economy’, each version obscures the simple fact of a mode of employment and enjoyment which is built on and unimaginable without some aspect of human-to-human interaction. What streaming lacks is that ‘liveness’, although organisations have tried admirably to recreate it: acts performing together, socially-distanced (of course) are a regular occurrence across social media platforms, usually conducted in our now almost funereal music venues.

That mode of production is not without success stories, and the best events are the ones that actively engage with the format and its limitations. But what is yet to be replicated is the feeling of experiencing music collectively, rather than individually, that gives live music its charm and its radical human potential.

The clamour of an orchestral concert and the chaos of a punk gig are noticeably different audibly, visually, and culturally, but, at the very least, both provide audiences with a coherent collection of events and sounds where together, people can focus all of their attention for a duration of time unfettered by external concerns. Whether you’re losing yourself in the moment or finding yourself in your thoughts, both occur in a collective space alongside others, existing in a bubble of shared liveness contained within that moment.

For others, the radical collective potential of a gig occurs outside the confines of the musical event, and in many cases even usurps it. As Billy Bragg puts it, ‘political rock ‘n’ roll can only really be effective against a backdrop of social pressure, rather than just working on its own.’ The gig as locus for the creation of wider political action has particular relevance to left-wing and counter-cultural causes: Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners organised Pits Against Perverts in solidarity with striking miners in 1985; seven years earlier, activists descended on London for an all-dayer headlined by Tom Robinson and the Clash – Rock Against Racism actively resisted Eric Clapton’s lurch towards the Right, and contested the rise in race-based violence from the National Front. There’s a place for live music and gig culture in radical movements, as both a way of spreading messages of hope and solidarity succinctly, and as a central event for political cultures to rally around.

Without live music, our movements are weaker, and our musicians are poorer. Until we find viable, ethical alternatives to the current streaming landscape, we have to fight for its safe return – and even then, the unique collectivism of the gig makes it worth defending for good.