NZCA LINES On Independent Music Under The Shadow Of COVID
In late January of this year I played a small show at SET in Dalston, London. This was my first NZCA LINES gig since 2016, and I was nervous; it would also be my first experience of playing solo, and I was premiering material that would appear on my new album 'Pure Luxury'. Technical issues abounded, and I was frantically soundchecking until doors opened.
Despite my panic, the show was tremendously fun and life-affirming; I had forgotten that people would be excited to see me play. It made me eager to perform again, anticipating the year to come.
The gig was something of a dry run for supporting Metronomy, and therefore myself, in the spring (I’ve played in the band since 2014). A couple of days after the SET show, I boarded a plane to Washington for Metronomy’s February US tour, after which we’d return to Europe and I would be supporting as NZCA LINES. We had a bumper year ahead of us - summer festivals were to follow, and I would be releasing my own record in July.
I remember thinking to myself, don’t take this for granted. All it would take is for one us to break a wrist, and the whole glorious stack of cards could come crashing down.
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I thought I was being pragmatic by acknowledging this worst-case scenario. The one thing I didn’t see coming, as few of us did, was a global pandemic completely altering the fabric of our collective lives, and laying waste to every aspect of my primary source of income - live music. I’m talking plane travel, airports, shared spaces and crowded, sweaty rooms - all my bread and butter, all off the menu.
Date by date, we saw the work year slowly evaporate before our very eyes. Our booking agent heroically rescheduled dates, as we pushed the tour to September whilst holding out for festivals to still happen. Of course, none of it did happen, and we are faced with the reality that most venues in the UK, Europe and the US haven’t opened their doors since March.
Once the tour was cancelled, like many musicians at the time, I had to decide whether to proceed with my album release. There was no indication of how events would develop, but the general assumption was that we might be playing live shows again later in the year. So, after much deliberation, I decided to press ahead - a slightly insane decision, but one that actually kept me focused and grounded through the whole anxious time of March to June.
I turned my attention to livestreaming as a way to promote my album release and keep the campaign alive. I loved this experience - I’ve never played so much of my own music, performing stripped back arrangements which actually boosted my confidence in singing. It led me to connect with fans in a way I’ve never done before, with a performance of one song frequently leading to a casual half-hour Q+A with people across the globe.
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As much as I enjoyed this process, however, there was always the hope that our respective governments would figure out a system to enable concerts to happen again, once the worst was over. Livestreams are not a replacement for live shows, both from the perspective of enjoying live music, and from the fact that generating income from streaming is very hard.
I myself did a ticketed album launch stream in July: blackout cloth on the windows, I stacked furniture against the wall and turned our living room into a stage for two days. This was made possible by the goodwill and free labour of several talented friends, and I spent two weeks of solid work programming, rehearsing and mixing the show. We sold tickets for £6; after paying the promoter and livestream producers their nominal cut, my profit covered a bottle of Mezcal for our lighting designer Chris.
This kind of work would usually lead up to a tour, where the set could be honed and would steadily pay off the time and effort. Yet this wasn’t the case: I recently postponed my UK tour, originally meant to start on Oct 28th, until May 2021. This is the same story as every other musician I know, and it’s crushing to have to do it, essentially wasting months of work.
Our live music industry is in an unprecedented crisis. For smaller artists, rescheduling to 2021 or 2022 simply doesn’t address the problem facing us right now - namely, how one can make income, and how one can build a career. Without touring, releasing records in a DSP dominated, increasingly online-only world can be a bleak prospect. Artists spend years creating music that can fall from public interest in the weeks after release. As a music manager put it to me recently, releasing an album used to be the beginning of a campaign - now, it’s the end of it.
As well as providing much needed financial support in a world where selling recorded music is increasingly difficult, touring gives longevity to the music an artist creates - fans are able to rediscover an album weeks or months after its release and experience the music collectively, in person. The show itself can remain stamped on an audience’s memory for many years after.
Which brings me to say that, six months on from being abruptly shut down, Britain’s live music industry needs further help to ensure it survives. Venues have been supported by unprecedented government aid, which is incredible, but they are still unable to viably open because of social distancing regulations. I’m not advocating an unsafe return to live music, but it does sting to see packed bars, trains and restaurants and be told that you still can’t return to work.
The reality is that self-employed support and furlough schemes have left many musicians slipping between the cracks and eligible for neither, because artists often rely on both payroll and self-employed earnings to survive. These people are left in a brutal Catch-22, and I’ve heard of musicians becoming Deliveroo or Uber Eats drivers to pay the bills.
One thing that’s clear to me is that musicians desperately want to return to the stage. If the government could offer some kind of targeted support to enable venues to safely open, a musical ‘eat out to help out’ where unused seats or spaces are underwritten, perhaps that could help. This could provide a roadmap to enabling all the rescheduled shows to happen in 2021 - which, if it happens, would mean a mad springtime for live music lovers. I’m picturing matinees to fit in all the concerts.
Let’s just say I’ll see you then.
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'Pure Luxury' is out now.
Catch NZCA Lines at the following 2021 shows:
19 London Heaven
21 Manchester Yes
22 Bristol Exchange
25 Birmingham Hare & Hounds
26 Glasgow Broadcast
27 Leeds Headrow House
28 Nottingham Metronome
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