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Covid has decimated the live music business – and its unsung heroes

Posted at Dec 28, 2020

F or the vast majority of people, gigs are – or perhaps, were – a simple pastime to be enjoyed, places where memories are made. But for me and others in my profession, it can feel a lot like work. Being a music publicist, gig-going is a requirement, and usually a welcome one, though it can create a disorderly work/life balance.

I’d be lying if I said that, at times, I haven’t had a deep sense of sadness when I’ve found out that the stage time for a gig I should be at is at 10pm and is on the other side of London from where I live. It may seem silly to people with “normal” jobs but we miss the simple pleasures. Sometimes I’d rather be curled up on a sofa cathartically crying to an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and making a fresh meal, rather than backstage at my fifth gig of the week, eating warm hummus and soggy cucumbers from the band’s rider as random people look me up and down, wondering why I’m here.

As Covid-19 forced us all into our homes earlier this year, it savaged the music industry. It was sobering to be at home, watching helplessly as my industry was turned on its head. But it wasn’t lost on me that the area where most of my sympathy and worry was directed was also the part of the industry I often have the most complaints about: live music.

Since March, coronavirus has decimated the live industry. A lot was made of the importance of saving music venues and supporting musicians, and rightly so. Many venues, especially in London, were already under enormous economic pressure due to rising rents. Now they were shuttered completely, and touring is the primary source of income for the majority of musicians.

But not enough has been said about the workers who make live music tick – the people whom fans and gig-goers barely know about. Managers and tour managers, festival staff, sound technicians, promoters, and booking agents and their long-suffering assistants. As a publicist, I work very closely with them for all manner of reasons. I couldn’t schedule a day-of-show interview without a manager waking the artist up from their slumber to make sure they were on time for it. I couldn’t cheekily negotiate extra tickets on the door because a journalist has a cousin in town and can’t possibly go to the show without them, unless I had the helping hand of the promoter. I have a story about a 2014 Glastonbury ticket stranded in the Netherlands that had to make it to the back of the Pyramid stage within 24 hours – I’ll spare the details, but a tour manager made it happen against all odds.

The way in which the livelihoods of people working in live music have been upended by the pandemic puts into stark relief the inequalities and gaps in the music industry. We talk about the industry en masse, but we rarely consider the split between industry executives like me, who sit behind desks, and our counterparts “on the ground”.

Some executives have a strong structure to fall back on when the wider music machine stutters. Our jobs weren’t immediately upended by the pandemic. While I was worried about work a lot this year, I felt confident that I’d still have a pay cheque for a few months at least – but many people working in live music didn’t have that privilege.

Thankfully there have been some support networks for music industry workers hit hard by Covid-19 lockdowns: the Association for Independent Music launched a support fund for music professionals who were freelancers and contractors – including most people in the live sector. The Arts Council and the Music Managers Forum also provided help.

MPs to hold inquiry into ensuring post-pandemic survival of music festivals Read more

Major label artists such as Niall Horan and indie powerhouses such as Angel Olsen set up paid-for live-stream concerts with proceeds going to their touring band and crew members. Paul Redding, chief executive of one of the largest independent record companies, Beggars Group, swam the Channel with some of those proceeds going to music industry workers in need of financial relief. These efforts showed at least an understanding that people working for touring musicians are integral to the industry – something the government was rather more blase about.

What is a more long-term solution to protect these people’s income? It’s hard to find a complete answer. The economic upheaval caused by Covid-19 has given reason for everyone working in music to examine their privileges, exercise compassion and deeply consider the most precarious parts of our sector.

I’ve had a lot of the best nights of my life at gigs in tiny bars, and seen artists I work with grow from venue to venue as their audience expands. It’s strange now to no longer be regularly bumping into promoters, tour managers and festival organisers along the way – and a lot have become friends. Occasionally during lockdown I have even missed going to five shows a week. When live music does return, I expect I’ll still be stuck backstage refreshing work emails, but I’ll certainly be more vocal about my appreciation for my colleagues on the ground, and not just when I need to squeeze a person or three on to a guest list.

  • Michelle Kambasha works in the music industry