System of a Lockdown: Coronavirus and Music

More than a Big Mac, even more than a cold Guinness out a tap in an old man pub, the thing I’m missing most in lockdown is live music. The throng of people, the energy of anticipation as the lights come down, the chaos of the pit, the sheer euphoria of singing that chorus with your pals and the band. There’s nothing better for blowing away the stress and angst of the day and celebrating life.

I’ve tried filling the void with live sets on YouTube, sharing stories of favourite concerts with mates on our Zoom hangs, blasting Testament to drown out the Clubland hits creeping over the garden wall from next door’s speakers, but it’s just not the same. In fact, I can feel my relationship with music shifting. It’s become less about the excitement of new sounds and celebrating emerging talents, and more about seeking comfort and escaping back to happier times. Rather than the freshest Italian goth-rock or boundary-pushing Indian death metal, my headphones are occupied with pretty much the same stuff I had on loop a decade ago: Megadeth, Arch Enemy, and endless pop-punk playlists.

Jamie, a Kiwi artist and writer, feels the same way: “At the moment I’m actually digging artists I’ve seen live. I really need to just go somewhere else right now, and where better than the gig I went to years ago that some choice songs will take me back to. So, I’m all up in that Maren Morris, ThunderMother, Volbeat, Carly Rae Jepsen, Green Day, Opshop, Nickelback, Hawxx, Foo Fighters, and Taylor Swift. Can’t wait to see ‘em all again properly some day!” Milan-based language teacher and rock fan Nika is looking for music which offers emotional catharsis, as well as a sense of familiarity. She writes, “Chiara Tricarico’s voice is very healing these days. And, of course, Temperance’s lyrics are the ones that will help you cope with emotional breakdown. I’m also listening to Vanilla Sky at the moment. This is my guilty pleasure ’cause they’re a pop-punk band from Rome. They sing in English, Italian, and Russian, which especially warms my Russian soul.” Liv, an actor-musician from Yorkshire, builds on this idea of emotional comfort, revealing that she finds music healing at a spiritual level: “Music is definitely a very powerful and healthy outlet for our emotions, and a very personal one too. It can allow us a space to safely feel and process complex emotions as well as alter our state of mind entirely. Right now the music I’m playing and listening to is keeping me uplifted and connected to my sense of spirituality.” But, alas, not every music fan is finding their favourite sounds to be all that helpful at the moment. I’ve been to dozens of gigs with Kate, but right now she’s “not really using music much, except when I’m trying to drown out next door’s music which is annoying when I’m trying to work from home.”

Despite our seeking solace in familiar sounds, musicians are still working, and this seems to be helping them a great deal. Liv sees a silver lining to the lockdown, insofar as “I now have much more time to write, compose, practise and – would you believe – play for pleasure!” Michele sings for two of Europe’s biggest melodic metal bands, Visions of Atlantis and Temperance, and is incredibly prolific as a musician, engineer, and teacher. “Luckily I have my home studio so I have the chance to keep on doing one of my jobs as I am engineering some albums I am working on, recording some vocals for a couple of projects and pre-productions and I am also giving some online lessons in vocals and engineering. So, music is still surrounding my life and helping a lot in this crazy time.” 

Alas, with the restrictions on gatherings in place throughout most of the Western world, musicians are being denied the chance to share the fruits of such labours on stage. Michele laments the loss of an exciting touring calendar for 2020. “I was on the road with Visions of Atlantis in the USA in our tour supporting Unleash the Archers and DragonForce, and at the same time I had Temperance touring with a substitute to replace me in Europe with Tarja. Both tours got cancelled while they were already started. It was a financial disaster both for Visions of Atlantis and Temperance, and of course I suffered this on both sides. I also had more tours and shows planned both with VoA, Temperance, and ERA that are now cancelled or endangered. This should have been the year when I played the most ever in my life: my first Wacken, my first USA tour…” Liv suffered similar disappointment, and is very aware of how this disappointment is shared by her would-be audiences. “A lot of the paid musician gigs I’ve had in the last year have involved me going into nursing homes to entertain residents, which is impossible right now. I am especially sad at this as I know how much live music helps and means to them.” And fans’ plans are shot to pieces too. Nika was lucky enough to hold tickets for System of a Down’s comeback tour, which is now in that limbo between indefinite postponement and cancellation, while Jamie was denied a proper send-off from his time living in London due to country stars Midland cancelling their show at the Roundhouse.

As Michele alludes to, this situation has the potential to financially devastate the music industry. It’s a well documented fact that the business has been turned upside-down by the advent of streaming. Now, instead of touring to promote record sales, bands won’t make any significant money until the concerts, where they’ll make money from tickets and merchandise sold. Denied this (in many cases, sole) income stream, bands are having to consider new tactics to connect with fans and bring a bit of cash in. Michele details online events which allow him and his bandmates to stay in touch with fans, but anything like live-streamed concerts (which have been successfully monetised by acts like Suicide Silence in their ‘virtual tour’) are impossible due to restrictions on travel in his native Italy which mean he can’t bring his bands together. Yet, he does think that “this will be a way to entertain the fans that many bands will adopt.” I ask if his bands are trying to push merchandise sales and he says that this is something which they are “always trying to do”, but that he is prioritising getting shows rebooked. This is smart, because while lots of bands are prioritising their merch offering, with some even making tasteless, quarantine-themed products, this is a divisive notion among fans. Nika notes how the crisis has impacted fans’ wallets, but thinks that buying T-shirts could help local bands. “If metalheads feel like ordering something online these days, they should definitely consider supporting bands of their local community. There are already too many metal fans wearing Metallica and Slipknot merch, come on.” Jamie, on the other hand, seems to share Michele’s sentiments in thinking that fans are better to hold on to their cash and look to the return of shows, albeit with a slightly different focus. “Unfortunately, the most desirable way to help anyone at the moment is financially, and I don’t know a lot of people who have money to spare. It would be great to fall back in love with local artists as soon as this is all over so maybe some local showcases for these?”

Perhaps it’s fear for the future of international travel post-lockdown, or re-evaluating what’s on our doorstep, but a general sentiment is that local talents will be the first to bounce back. Richard is a hardcore promoter here in London. He writes that he’s “really hoping that we see a strong resurgence in regular show attendance when this is all ‘over’. Don’t get me wrong, things weren’t in any kind of bad way before the current situation, but we can always do better to make this thrive more. I want to see it across the board, but I especially want to see the UK backing its own local DIY bands/ shows more. […] Too often we see people only going to see the US equivalents of what we already have here. Hey, we’re all into bands from all over the world, but if we aren’t supporting our homegrown first, that’s very strange to me.” Indeed, my respondents from places with tight-knit local and national scenes seem most positive about the short-term future of live music where they are. Michele says, “I guess that every Italian artist feels part of a big family… We are always ready to help each other.” Nika echoes this by writing, “My belonging to an Italian metal community, especially here in Lombardy, is getting stronger and stronger… I do care about the community where I live and I wanna be proud of it. I want to say: ‘Look: Lombardy has these and those bands. Italy can produce metal music at an international level.'” Conversely, Jamie laments the lack of a scene around Cambridge, New Zealand, but hopes that the need to nurture local talent in the aftermath of this crisis might change that. “I don’t feel connected to my local music scene because I don’t really know what it is. We don’t really have the grimy music venues here that Camden does so it’s a bit tough to discover grassroots talent. Again, something I’d like to see and perhaps will at the end of this void of local entertainment we’re currently experiencing.” Thinking beyond rock music, Liv thrives as part of a folk community wherever she is. “I come from a folk music background, and folk by its very nature is all about community and coming together to share something. I enjoyed three glorious years on the York folk scene before I moved South in 2016, and I miss the community vibe. I hope to explore more of what London has to offer in this regard as soon as I am able.” But Liv reminds us that musical communities are no longer restricted by geography. “One thing I’m delighted about is the fact that social media allows us to share music at this time. I’ve been uploading videos as and when people request their favourite songs and I’ve also just recorded vocal and fiddle for an international collaborative cover of ‘What A Wonderful World’. It’s vital to maintain a sense of community right now.”

Social media has definitely played a big role in keeping artists and fans connected through the crisis. As aforementioned, Michele has been using it to host chats and other events with his fans. London-based pop-rocker Cloe Corpse tells me that her Instagram views have more than doubled during lockdown. “I’m so grateful that I have the opportunity to make people smile. People say, ‘you’re making me forget about the situation, making me smile.'” She feels that this connection with fans has raised her profile, and therefore demand for future shows. Further, Glasgow hardcore frontman Andrew just released a demo for his new project, Despize, and while he is grateful for online tools to promote it, he doesn’t think they can compare with the live experience. I asked him about how it was different to promote a record on social media rather than with gigs, and he wrote: “The main aspects that seem to be different from my personal experience is knowing that social media only has a good effect for a short while. There’s so much stuff, especially arts wise that the internet makes so much more accessible. So, as much as I do like to use social media, […] a live setting is a lot better, especially for heavier bands, through hardcore, punk, metal. You have a merch table, you’re getting paid to be there, and you are in charge of how good you play. So, if you play well, chances are promoter will want you back, crowd will have a few new fans or people interested, and you sell some shirts – all round success. With social media being the only real promotion tool during a pandemic like this, you have to try to come up with more material to share and post while trying to space out things you have coming up, whether it be merch online, new music or just any other band related stuff […] to keep people interested. But hopefully, if everyone sticks to the guidelines, the music industry can be back up & running before the year is out, but we’ll have to wait and see!”

These are tough times, but I feel more positive about the future of music post-lockdown after talking to these musicians and fans. Many of us are using music and fond memories of gigs to help us through these dark days, and while artists are struggling now, their local communities and supporters from around the world, using social media, won’t abandon them. Artists can’t wait to be back on stage, and the fans can’t wait to be there with a can in hand, horns held high, screaming their lyrics back at them. And whatever gig it is we get to first, where it’s a cover band or some insane experimental hardcore or even just a boy with a guitar doing some Oasis standards, we’ll stand there swaying in the chicken shop after kicking-out time, ears ringing, grins on our faces, and we’ll say “that was worth the wait.”

Check out Jamie’s art on Instagram: @jamietypes

Hear Michele’s bands: Visions of Atlantis | Temperance

Check out Liv’s page:

Explore Nika’s wonderful resource: EnglishRocks

Hear Andrew’s bands: Despize | Revulsion

Keep up with Richard’s upcoming shows: Ready Eye Collective

Hear Cloe Corpse’s anthems: Cloe Corpse

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