Monday, 11 May 2020

Live Music in the wake of Covid-19

What kind of world will we inherit when Covid-19 is finally brought to heel? I’ve been asked this a number of times recently – in particular in relation to music, both its performance and the business.

Because those who look at a musician’s world from the outside often see it as vaguely glamorous and self-contained, they often miss how frequently it is impacted by world events.

Within a year of arrival in New York City Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had secured an album deal with Audio Fidelity Records and was enjoying considerable radio play with our first single, Neck & Neck.

Alas after the 1970’s Oil Embargo vinyl was rationed, whereupon our record company suspended operations and our dreams of stardom were put on ice.

Some years later Pierce Turner and I became the nucleus of the New Wave band, Major Thinkers. Our timing left much to be desired for in 1981 we began an Irish Tour in the midst of the Hunger Strikes, most gigs were cancelled and we limped back to New York penniless.

In our absence, however, a track of ours called Avenue B (is the place to be) had become a radio hit and we were signed to Epic Records.

We were on the pig’s back for the next few years touring the country with Cyndi Lauper and UB40; but unbeknownst to us large corporations were busy consolidating independent record companies and radio stations.

Progressive Radio died, and Major Thinkers became a minor casualty of this corporate takeover. 

The rise of Black 47 in the 1990’s has been well chronicled, however in retrospect much of it was fueled by our constant presence in the music and gossip columns of a thriving independent press. 

But this mighty industry was already being supplanted by the Internet and within 10 years few newspapers could turn a profit because of the availability of free news.

9/11 changed the world of music irrevocably. By the time New York City recovered 3 years later most Americans had curtailed their partying to weekends.

This wreaked havoc on national touring as a band driving from NYC to LA had to play at a loss on weekdays and hope to balance the budget with well paying weekend gigs.

Oddly enough Black 47 did well in the immediate post-9/11 years as we were regarded as “New York City’s house band” and greeted everywhere with open arms. This changed quickly in 2003 when we came out against the Iraq War. 

You get the picture – your simple rock & roller is forever at the mercy of world events.

So how will Covid-19 affect music and musicians?

Badly, I’m afraid. The very essence of live music is challenged. Social distancing will kill any kind of gig profitability, while band and audience must now consider the threat of mutual contagion.

Even with a vaccine we’re talking years until people feel safe again in confined spaces. But music is like water – it always finds its own level, and musicians are nothing if not innovative.

If you can’t go to the musician, then the musician must come to you. Take the large numbers who tuned into the recent Irish-American Heavy Meitheal Watch Party In Support Of Healthcare Workers.

Now I know none of the artists participating got into this business to perform for a camera lens. It’s a cold, distant medium but I enjoyed watching my New York peers, and I got to try out a new song for a large, if socially absent, audience.

If I were a young hopeful I’d be setting up a video studio, forming a band called Mask 47 and creating a sight and sound tailored for these dark days. Think Devo with a brogue!

But I have enough irons in the fire. A heads up for pub owners though – unlikely as it seems the humble seisiún is made for our strange new world. 

Point a camera at whatever corner Tony DeMarco, Mary Courtney, Chris Byrne or Margie Mulvihill are playing in, broadcast the session and I’ll be at home watching, pint in hand, enjoying the craic and slyly commenting on the “rare shtyle” of masks being flaunted nowadays. And the message? 

“We will come through this together
We will come through this stronger and better.”

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