Keeping It Live – In Lockdown

Keeping It Live
Greg Russell

We’ve had four months or so of lockdown, the build up to it and the slow move out. I’ve just checked my diary; the last gig I travelled to see was Bronwynne Brent on March 11th. I had tickets to see Ray Cooper on the 14th and I was probably going to make the trip to Hull to see Elles Bailey on the 15th. I did neither because my friends in the NHS were suggesting it wasn’t a good idea.

About the same week, the music sessions/singarounds I go to stopped suddenly and my world shrank.

Back in May, apropos something other than music, it was suggested that I should write things down because, when I looked back on Spring/Summer 2020, I would forget what it felt like. So I also started to write this piece. Then I put it aside for several weeks. This was partly because I didn’t know where it was going and partly because the world of live music was rapidly changing around us. It’s the end of July and that makes some things much more urgent. So, I’ve picked up the article again and I’ve added a few things that we’ve learned in the last six – eight weeks.

When Lockdown Started

Facebook played a bigger role in in my musical life. I collected my Top Ten Albums and I watched my first two ‘Lockdown Live’ events – a mate playing guitar on Facebook on March 23rd and then Richard Thompson on March 29th. A few years ago at a Festival, I saw Richard Thompson play one of the best acoustic guitar sets I’ve ever seen, possibly the best I’ve seen; I’ve also seen him play a great electric set on the ‘Electric’ tour a few years ago, when he hit everything right and the atmosphere at the gig was….err….electric? I think there’s only one other artist (Nils Lofgren) I’ve seen, i.e. live, do a complete electric and a complete acoustic set as well as Thompson. I say this as a preamble to making the point that RT from home on his settee, though, just is not on my list of memorable sets. Still, we’ve all been learning over the past months – which is how come we’ve seen the pioneers of home sets visibly learning in front of us all, and more power to their elbow for doing it.

The World of Music

Outside the ‘folking world’ there have been a number of different kinds of response – the Royal Albert Hall has launched a series of Royal Albert Home concerts; the Download Festival became the Download Festival TV; choirs and orchestras have zoomed together; Elton John has launched videos of his classic concerts; Planet Rock has just put on three live bands, playing full electric sets, with several cameras, all designed to be broadcast live and unavailable later. Sometimes money has been asked for upfront, sometimes through voluntary donations, sometimes its music for the sheer fun of it. It’s only about four months since lockdown but it’s clear that the simple love of music (playing, listening, joining in or solo) and the enormous capacity of human beings to be inventive have come into play.

It’s also clear that it can’t last – not only the musicians but stage erectors, electricians, those with studios or venues, dining staff, bar people etc who work there, they all have little or no income. Venues have fixed costs which mean they appear to be going bust and won’t reopen. Venues which haven’t yet closed appear to be wondering how they can avoid it. All of them are no doubt questioning how they can make live performances work financially, not least if the audience has to be, say, two or three seats apart and can neither sit inside to buy a meal beforehand or drink sufficient beer (so there is no auxiliary income from these – and if they do how the venues can be reconfigured to allow it both safely and cost-effectively).

Folk On-Line

As time has passed, people have learned how to cope with on-line better – and they’re still improving. Since I mentioned him by name above, let’s start with Richard Thompson. His performance at the end of the Folk On Foot Front Room Festival 2 was immeasurably better than the one in the first week of lockdown.

Everyone else has been improving as well. From an ‘audience-technical’ point of view (i.e. how well it came over to me watching it) both the sound quality and the video quality of Greg Russell at the Fifty Fifty Concert in support of the Helen Loewenstein Memorial Trust were the best I’ve seen.

People are ‘more human’ from their front room/garden/home studio space. Two examples from Folk on Foot:

Kathryn Tickell said something to the effect that she hadn’t played live much, not played for many years and felt exposed. It was a reminder that all of us have experienced lockdown in different ways. She shouldn’t have worried. In a live festival set or a concert the distance between performer and audience can be measured in yards not hundreds of miles, but it feels to be a greater distance than a very personal on-line performance. She needn’t have worried; I got a sense of someone whose humanity came over strongly and I loved it. Similarly, when Tickell played the Reedsdale hornpipe with River Rede in camera in the background, the music was enhanced. I also dug out a map to see where I would have crossed that river when I walked the Pennine Way. I wouldn’t have done that at a gig; nor would she have to have been concerned about the cat and hens getting in, which we also saw on the film. Interesting differences.

O’Hooley and Tidow with a baby and a cat, wandering around their house, came over as even more warm than when I saw them live a year or so back in a small venue. Again, the general feel of the on-line event was one of closeness.

I’ve watched various live events, of at least three kinds:

‘really live’ – the cameras are rolling as the artist(s) play;

‘live yesterday’ – i.e. played live, not cut and edited, but recorded a day or so before – which has meant: any technology issues have been dealt with;) the performer(s) have been able to respond to text/chat comments as they’ve come in. I’ve enjoyed, for example, Winter Wilson, playing both live-while-I-watched and also live-recorded-the-day-before in the early weeks. And they’ve kept this going every Thursday evening since lockdown, not least because they’ve alternated fortnightly between their own songs one week and covers, suggested by people writing in, the next.

‘live playing prepped and cut’ – I enjoyed, for example, on Folk on Foot Front Room Festival 2, seeing Chris Wood in his garden in Kent telling tales of gardening and then appearing in his pretty professional set up in his garage. Unless his garage has a Star Trek transporter amongst the equipment (to allow him to have got from one place to the other in an instant) this must have been recorded and put together.

To me, though, I don’t think it matters which of these three styles are used, certainly not at the moment though it probably will in time to come. The really important thing right now is “I’ve enjoyed seeing….”

What I do think matters is the sound quality. Generally, I’ve watched the performances on a desktop plugged into a hifi amp/speakers, very occasionally off a laptop with earphones. I’ve watched performances of very varying sound quality and some of dubious video quality. There’s some I wouldn’t watch again (presumably because their broadband provider hasn’t got internet of sufficient quality to a locality) whereas I’d probably go and see an artist a second time if they’d been playing a small festival/bar stage and I’d barely heard them over the sound of conversation.

I realise it is unfair of me to expect someone – especially if they’re starting out and are as skint as most musicians at the start – to be able not just to write, sing and play but also have the space, the IT and the skills to position the camera and get the sound right…..But I imagine that’s what will be needed going forward, simply because, from watching TV et al, that’s what our expectations are.

Which is OK, kind of. Lots of other people are having to do this for work. But companies big and small (especially big), public sector bodies, charities etc have IT departments and policies to help their staff make the changes. My sense is that various musicians are working this out for themselves.

My fear is that if the medium (on-line performance from something other than a venue/studio) becomes too much of a problem, too much of an expense, for too long – good musicians and good performers might dip out.


Let’s return to that previous comment, “I’ve watched performances of varying sound quality” but this time not how I’ve watched but where I’ve watched – the laptop tends to be used because the bigger screen isn’t available to me. Currently I’ve tended to watch at home (I’ve been locked down) but in the future this is something that we can do on a commute, a tent/camper van/hotel room, a friend’s place, sitting in the garden etc.

What I’ve lost is that sense of an occasion – getting ready, going to the venue, meeting friends for a chat and a drink, all the other stuff – but what I’ve gained is the opportunity of watching music I enjoy even though I can’t physically get to a live gig.

Is that better? Dunno, too early to tell. Mind you, forty years ago I wouldn’t have gone, for the evening, to a gig in a city forty miles away – but I do now. I’ve gained from the range of artists I can see, I’ve probably lost from the smaller number of local sessions which I (and others) would have gone to otherwise. This isn’t a value judgement, it just is. Going forward, we’re going to have to work out how that works for us. In particular, how that works for folk bands (as opposed to solo artists) as well as rock bands and orchestras.

People spend years on getting stagecraft right and we can all feel it when we see someone who has. Over the past four months any artist performing on-line has had to learn something different. Let’s give them time – the camera looking at the nostrils doesn’t work, but I doubt there’s a headline act who hasn’t connected to the wrong microphone, played a badly tuned instrument, forgotten the words etc at some point in their career. But in the corner of a pub we’re sympathetic, whether it’s being watched by a one man and his dog, a bunch of mates, or a growing fan club. The difference is that a second later its gone. If a performance is always available on-line it doesn’t go. I don’t know how this will alter things, but it will.


If we find a Covid-19 vaccine today (and mass produce the required 9 billion doses tomorrow), by the time we vaccinate everyone, open venues, book the artist, do the health and safety stuff, get the beer in and let it settle etc etc it will be September 1st if we’re really lucky, more likely October 1st. By the sounds of it, at best, we’ll get a vaccine towards the end of the year. So, we desperately need the folk/ acoustic/ music/ live performance world to come together and get over the hump for six – nine months.

Just over 20 years ago, I was chatting in my local to a neighbour who worked in a bank. I remember him saying, “Not sure anyone’s yet got any business out of the internet”; a year or so later an American guy delivering a presentation that I attended said, “There are only two types of successful business going forward: those that are successful over the internet….[Pause]…and those that are going to be successful over the internet”. I’d only logged onto the web for the first time a year before. I stored this mentally as an interesting, if slightly over the top, comment. “Brickies and electricians will never go on-line,” I remember saying – how little I knew. It seems to me right now that on-line, mixed with live when we can get back together, somehow is going to have to work.

Many of the sessions I’ve watched have had the option of giving money either/both for musicians/local charities. It’s been a bit like dropping cash (remember cash?) in the busker’s case. But it doesn’t allow too much certainty to make a living. So…are we looking at charging for on-line performances?

And if you can see a performance of say, Something And The Somethings, in, say Truro whilst you’re on-line in Glasgow or Lucca or Dallas or Sydney, does that change things? I seem to remember that in Australia they don’t sow Test Matches live in the city in which they are being played. Going forward, do we limit the ISP’s so that you can only watch gigs locally?

If an on-line event is free, it can just be broadcast. If it’s not then there’s a whole mixture of pricing and payment options. Would we go for different bandings of ticket prices as you would at a live event? To move away from the folk world, Planet Rock’s event on July 25th sold tickets a) through registration b) at £15 in advance c) at £20 on the day. There was no limit to how many people could sit round the screen because “Due to restrictions place on live music, you cannot attend Planet Rock Live Rocks The Asylum in person – the only people in attendance will be the bands and the crew behind the event. The best and only place to enjoy it is from the comfort of your homes”.

How about those smaller scale things – the Local Authorities that fund events in village halls? The enthusiasts who run folk clubs or half a dozen concerts a year in a local church hall or community centre? My sense is that these events are generally run on good will and enthusiasm. If the costs increase, if the complexity of putting something on (to create a bio-secure environment) increases, if the numbers of people who can attend is smaller because we won’t be cramped together etc, then it’s pretty unclear how this is going to work. It’s unlikely that video equipment will be available (though audio is probably ok?). Will these events stop/not start up again? Dunno, but I suspect there’s also something about supporting your local enthusiast.

I’ve written elsewhere that it seems to me that £500 to 10 small venues might do more that £5,000 to a larger one i.e. the former might keep ten places going, the latter might enhance the experience at a bigger venue – but I don’t know. More pertinently, I don’t know anyone who does know (I’d be delighted to be wrong). This is a start but if venues I know (like the Welly and the Polar Bear in Hull, which are mentioned in the article) have to go into administration, other venues will before any money feeds through. Experience suggests that the complexity of administering grants will make it difficult to access funding for the smaller venues, up to about 100 seats say (either in a permanent venue or a flexible one like a village hall), but these venues are the heart of the folk world.

It’s too soon to know how it will work out, but the one thing that feels clear is that the financial model that has been working for the past fifty years has just been broken….and probably won’t return. If I can watch a band on-line, just as I can watch, say, ‘Casablanca’ on TV does it matter? Again, Dunno – but, right now, it feels as though it does.

Going Out

To state the obvious, there’s a difference between going out to a gig, or going off to a Festival, compared to sitting and watching on-line events. Some comments below.

How do you want an on-line gig to finish? I say this in the context of the walk/bus/drive home or the trek back to the campsite – maybe early evening to get the kids to bed, maybe after the last band have played, maybe direct, maybe via a festival bar and not getting to the tent until dawn is breaking. When an on-line event stops and you walk back to your kitchen, it’s different. Is it important? Dunno – but it feels as though it is, albeit in some way I don’t yet know.

Meeting people? I’ve had the odd text chat with people on live streams that have been fun, rather like meeting someone at the bar and having a brief chat. But I’ve not yet experienced anything like the year we took the very cute springer spaniel to Cropredy and a) lots of women came to talk to me (to my partner’s amusement, I hadn’t noticed that all but one person who came to chat were women until she pointed it out) and b) the exception was a very large and very pissed bloke who tapped me on the shoulder (you know when you wonder what you’ve done to upset the big bloke behind you and you wish that whatever it was you hadn’t?). All he wanted was to stroke the dog because he hadn’t brought his and he was missing it. Lovely. But not an interaction anyone will get on-line. I doubt that in the year 2035 I’ll be telling stories of on-line texts that I’ve read or sent in the I’ve just told this Cropredy story from about 15 years ago.

The outside world. I remember being at Shrewsbury Festival when I saw reports on the Sunday Papers that three cricketers had been caught match fixing. I was a bit surprised – but bought coffee and went on with my usual routine of going into the town for a swim and then to get a seat at the café doing the best Full English breakfast. By contrast, while I watched one on-line Festival, the news was breaking about the Prime Minister’s Advisor having a trip to Barnard Castle….and (albeit separately on my phone) I kept flicking to the News. Apart from proffering my sincere apologies to those who were playing at the on-line festival, it meant that I didn’t get that literal and metaphorical trip to the place where we leave the day to day life behind and refresh ourselves as we often do at a festival (it’s so deep in our psyche that it’s a device Shakespeare uses fairly often whereby he creates this image of a separate place where renewal takes place, most obviously in the Forest of Arden in ‘As You Like It’ or in ‘The Tempest’ as a whole). Whether it’s a bar, a concert hall or a festival field, is this lack of physically going to a different location important? I suspect so, but in what way? – again, dunno.

The little things. For on-line stuff, I’m not going to meet the lovely couple running the best snacks tent I know; a couple I like and chat to for three days each year at Southwell when they sell hot and cold drinks plus variations on flapjack-type foods. They get not just my business but that of my friends because we can meet up there, sit and watch the world go by or the stars come out. If that never happens again, my life will be diminished; in the scheme of things it’s probably not in a big way, but it feels like something that shouldn’t be lost. As we recreate music events following Lockdown, we shouldn’t let things like that just fall out of our experience because we’ve neglected to think about what’s important.

Scheduling. This isn’t so much an issue with one-off concerts, but more so with Festivals (It struck me from having watched both the Folk on Foot Festival and the Fifty-Fifty Festival). There are performers I’ve wanted to see at Festivals who I’ve missed because a) I’ve bumped into somebody (generally at the beer tent but sometimes just walking round the site) and stayed chatting, drinking with them, or b) I’ve just been hungry and needed food. As well as music, these are important at a ‘live’ Festival. With an on-line festival, the schedules I’ve seen (my limited sample of two) haven’t built in the hour or two to go to the food tents/beer tent. We’re a (happily) captive audience on a site, but on-line there’s something to learn about scheduling so we can do this – I’ve missed a few artists on-line because three hours of sitting in front of my computer/TV was enough and I needed to get up and walk around, get something to eat, walk the dog etc. I’m not quite sure what, but going forward there’s something we need to learn about scheduling.

Going Forward

No-one asked me to write this piece but it felt like I needed to do it for myself – to pull together the mish-mash of thoughts and conversations from the past few months – and, if were to get published, to see how far anyone else agreed with it.

Most importantly, I wanted to see if it might provoke some thoughts/actions about getting live folk back up and running again – in whatever way that can be. As I’ve put above, my sense is that, even with a good back wind and a downhill run, it will be 2021 before the majority of venues start being able to put live music on again in any way like we have known it to date.

My wider question, then, is how we keep this going – there’s a thread from the early 60’s to the current day of developing the scene we know. I’ve seen enough young performers to feel that it’s time isn’t yet over; I’ve seen enough teenagers and twenty year olds at festivals walking round enjoying the ‘feel’ (the vibe, if you prefer) and either impromptu-ly playing music or singing/playing in the bar at an early stage in their not-yet-career and going on to be a success. More broadly, I’ve seen lots of people of all ages just enjoying music at a concert as well as the additional fun that comes with the freedom and space of a folk festival, whatever non-musical jobs and careers they go back to when the gig/festival is over.

In sum, I think there’s something about looking at what’s needed:

  • for musicians, venues, related professions (technical and hospitality), particularly if there’s anything that can be done to tide them all over during the next six months or so
  • to make the ‘audience experience’ the best it can be as we go forward, both on-line and on-line-and-live
  • whether this all just left to market forces or/and whether there’s something else that can be done more collectively

Finally, over the past few months, I’ve loved the mix of music I’ve attended on-line, both the cut and the uncut, both the studio-like and the more homespun, with the kids popping their heads round the corner.

Many thanks to all the performers for all they’ve done to keep music live in lockdown. I’ve had a great time watching and listening.

Mike Wistow

Here’s Winter Wilson with one of their Live From The Lounge shows.

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