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  • Alexander Chance

Being a musician in Britain

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

There’s an opportunity here somewhere. A chance to spend more time at home. Time to practise. Brave new performance platforms for the digital age.

That’s how many of us rationalised lockdown, after the initial despair at seeing so much work disappear so devastatingly quickly. Well, I certainly spent more time at home. Could I find any motivation to practise, not knowing when my next concert would be? I’m ashamed to say, after a few days of trying, I found that my voice didn’t want to work, and I wasn’t inclined to force it. Was I interested in recording myself from my acoustically-challenged living room and putting it out for free over the internet? Again, I admit that I wasn’t able to summon up the enthusiasm for this, though I was impressed by others more game and creative than me. So I found other things to do, and, for a time, that was fine. I’ve always found it difficult to live in the moment, without thinking about the next concert, or social engagement, or sporting event. So, I suppose there was an opportunity for me there, albeit a personal rather than professional one.

As time went by, however, I started to think about whether it was still worth being a musician, and whether it was too late to retrace my steps and choose a different career. I was lucky enough to fall within the remit for the government’s financial support for self-employed people; but had I started singing professionally more recently, or conversely had I been earning more money in recent years, I wouldn’t have had this recourse, and I would already have given more thought to applying for a new job (at present, a scary prospect in its own right). I know of musicians who have already been forced to switch careers, in some cases with the spectre of student debt looming over them. This is a tragedy.

With this in mind, it felt extraordinary to be able to perform last week, at a French festival that had planned meticulously, ensuring the safety of performers and audience members while attempting to preserve as much as possible of a normal concert atmosphere. We, the performers, stood (or sat) two metres apart – taking up a great deal more space than we normally would – while the audience (of a decent size, around 300 in number) sat on deckchairs outside the hall, watching a live stream on a large screen (and an edited version for French tv will follow). It felt odd not being able to communicate directly with the audience, and it’s not a model for the future, but it felt like progress, and it was heartening to see an effort being made to facilitate live performance.

In Britain, the picture looks a little different. Earlier this week I attended a ‘pilot’ concert, designed to prove that it was safe for an audience to gather in a concert hall. The audience, in a hall that can normally accommodate nearly 600 people, numbered no more than 30, and the concert lasted 25 minutes. Notwithstanding the beautiful singing, I left the concert feeling disheartened. Only a few days before, I had sat on a packed French train for 4 hours, each of whose individual carriages was holding a great many more people than were allowed into the concert hall. After the concert, we repaired to a pub, where a large group of us sat indoors, without being required to wear masks, for a few hours. In short, it was impossible to shake the feeling, indeed it was evident, that concerts like this are being viewed through an entirely different lens. A pick-and-choose attitude towards social distancing – based, it seems, on a combination of dogma and of helping our economy back to life – will not end well for the arts. Add into this mess the as-yet-still-unfounded claims that singing and blowing into instruments spread viral aerosols (we are all grateful for the rigorous scientific research on this topic being done at the moment), and it would seem that live musical performance has had its own coffin made for it. The manager of London’s Clapham Grand venue, which recently hosted the singer and guitarist Frank Turner in another ‘pilot’ concert, did not mince his words when saying that the event was ‘not a success’, and ‘not a model for the future’. In any case, after the Prime Minister’s words earlier today, any such pilot events have been banned for the foreseeable future.

The concert I attended was also being monitored by members of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. While it is understandable that their main concern will undoubtedly have been the perceived welfare and safety of all present, it is interesting that they didn’t (at least as far as I could tell) ask any of the audience members or performers whether they had enjoyed the experience. It is odd to see people from the DCMS apparently operating as de facto health inspectors. And there is, after all, more to life than the avoidance of death (or indeed the avoidance of other people). Frank Turner spoke after his show of the importance of an ‘energy exchange with the audience’–it is hard or impossible to replicate this with an audience a fraction of the size one would normally expect. Venues should be lauded for trying to make something work at a time when everything is stacked against them, and it is helpful that the government eventually decided to support them with its £1.57 billion rescue package (which remains a pittance when compared with the entrenched subsidisation of the arts in many other European countries). But the trickle-down effect this stimulus will have on individual performers, at a time when performing is so difficult, is analogous with the benefits performers glean from recordings in the world of online streaming: negligible. Short of a sea change in the way we perceive, and consume, the performing arts in this country – in comparison with, say, going to the pub, apparently one of the cornerstones of our national psyche – I can’t think of a solution. Performing to an empty or near-empty hall is better than nothing – for the moment. Outdoor performances will be viable – and be enjoyed – right up until Autumn when it becomes too cold and wet. No doubt when the time is right (for some sooner, for others later), live performance will return to normal. But in the meantime we have learnt something about where the performing arts feature in the list of national priorities; and – despite the world-leading wealth of talent this country can boast – the answer is not pretty.

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