Being an independent musician was hard even before the coronavirus brought the world to a halt. With venues being shut down, tours cancelled, and releases postponed, the ongoing pandemic has shaken up the music industry as a whole, and independent artists are among those whose livelihoods are most threatened by the global crisis. To understand the different ways in which the COVID-19 outbreak has affected artists, we reached out to a number of musicians and asked them how quarantine has impacted their day-to-day lives, as well as their thoughts on how the current situation will shape the music landscape in the future.
Most obviously, the pandemic has forced musicians to cancel or postpone all live shows for the foreseeable future. “At first, I felt disappointed,” says experimental electronic producer Dasychira, who was set to go on tour in support of their debut album, xDream. “With all my shows either postponed or cancelled in Los Angeles and New York, most plans for the year were basically thrown out the window.” Beyond individual shows, festivals taking place in the summer are of particular importance for emerging acts looking to gain more exposure, such as the Australian psych-rock outfit The Lazy Eyes, who also had big plans for 2020. “This year was shaping up to include a lot of firsts for the band, namely going overseas to play at SXSW and The Great Escape,” they say. “We were all a bit down when the initial shock of losing so many exciting prospects was thrown on us, but we are just learning and adapting to these new and weird times.”
Playing live isn’t just an opportunity to promote one’s music – for the majority of working artists, it’s their primary source of income. Given that a recent report found that just 17% of musicians said that they were always able to pay their bills every month even before COVID-19, it’s a particularly dire situation with seemingly no end in sight. “Though most independent artists don’t make a lot of money from music, touring is still our best way to do that,” says Stephanie Phillips of the black feminist punk band Big Joanie, who, like many artists, released her debut solo EP Girlhood digitally due to the difficulties of getting a physical version together in this climate.
But beyond the financial losses suffered due to the cancellation of shows – a fact that highlights the fragility of the business model the industry is currently running on – the inability to play live has also taken a mental toll on many musicians. “Of course we’re economically distressed,” says Japanese singer-songwriter and poetry rapper Haru Nemuri, “but I’m suffering mentally in particular ‘cause when I can truly feel alive is only during my gigs.” For many artists, performing live isn’t just a necessary creative outlet, but a vital part of their artistic identity. This is the case with TV Priest, a UK post-punk outfit that recently put out their debut single, ‘House of York’. “We formed the band primarily as a live experience, to try and connect and commune with other people in a physical space,” they say. “That’s obviously not possible at the moment so it’s forcing us to think about how we can at least try and translate some of that feeling digitally.”
Like most professionals, artists have had to find innovative solutions to try to survive in this rapidly transforming, increasingly digitized environment. As Peter Bibby of Peter Bibby’s Dog Act notes, “one of the most interesting things about this whole thing is how people have adapted to it and found new ways to do what they do.” The most obvious example is the rise of virtual gigs, wherein artists stage livestreams from their living room or home studio and sometimes ask fans to donate whatever they can, if at all. While it doesn’t provide the same kind of financial stability, it helps strengthen the artists’ online presence and retain a connection with their fanbase. But the experience often just isn’t the same. “I’ve done a few Instagram live shows now but they don’t really replace the joy and connection of playing live in front of a real audience,” says Stephanie Phillips.
In the same way that we are now often prompted to look at past works of art in a new light, many musicians who have recently released music they recorded before the pandemic are now finding it take on new meaning. One such case is that of Henry Jamison, the Vermont singer-songwriter whose latest collaborative EP, Tourism, was recorded on or between tours and is “all about the the joys and terrors of life on the road.” Reflecting on the record now, he explains, “it’s almost as if all that touring was building up experiences within me, to be understood in this time away from it.”
Katie Harkin, a musician known for touring alongside the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Courtney Barnett, and Kurt Vile before taking center stage on her self-titled solo debut, finds herself in a similar situation. “I’ve spent most of my life touring since I was a teenager,” she says. “In so many ways this album is a reflection of that.” Interestingly, though, this isn’t the only way the context of the pandemic has reframed the making of the album. Harkin wrote much the record in a cottage in the UK’s Peak District, not far from the village of Eyam, whose self-sacrifice during the 17th century bubonic plague led to the first recorded use of the phrase ‘self-quarantine’. But the connection doesn’t end there. “Much of the interior artwork of the record comes from rolls of undeveloped film I found in my grandparents’ house after they passed,” she says. “They met in a TB sanatorium on the outskirts of Belfast during the outbreak in the 50s. My grandfather spent most of his twenties there. Releasing this record from lockdown, against the backdrop of mourning on a colossal global scale is something I could never have envisaged.”
Staying in quarantine has affected the artists’ creative process in different ways. Devenny, of the UK hip-hop collective 404 Guild, says it’s strengthened the desire for him and his friends in the guild to push themselves and do the best they can. “It has been hard on mentally but I think music has grounded me most days and allowed me a place to express my frustrations and feelings through experimenting and making music,” he says.
Henry Jamison has also been trying to take a practical and positive approach to lockdown, writing a song a day in an effort to “reenter that old way of doing it again.” In contrast to Tourism, he says his next release might be about “the joys and terrors of life at home (and probably everyone else’s will be too.)” But quarantine has made him focus his writing more on the world at large, and less on himself. “It’s almost paradoxical, but also isn’t, that retreating into our homes has led to a palpable feeling of mutual care, and that feeling is coming through in what I’m working on at the moment,” he explains.
But trying to remain productive during these times can often feel pointless. “I’ve just been making silly music on my computer at home rather than making music with my band,” says Peter Bibby. “I’ve found the whole thing quite uninspiring so I’ve definitely given myself a bit of a break from creative pressure and put my energy into other things.”
Part of the problem is having so much free time than that it becomes difficult to focus. “I always felt like a forced moment to breathe or rest would come as a positive experience, like a time to reflect and maybe a time to work on my personal development,” says BABii, an electronic producer who’s part of the GLOO collective featuring Iglooghost and Kai Whiston, and who also released a solo EP called iii+ this month. But it hasn’t always been easy. “Although my body is being forced to stay still, the freedom of time has opened up this huge deep pit in my mind of potential creative endeavours, as well as a huge amount of anxiety about the future. So much so that I am overloaded, unfocused, frozen and slowly edging towards some form of nihilism.”
But even when artists do manage to stay active during this period, it can feel strange to release or even talk about their music with a pandemic going on. “It’s kind of hard to know if it’s even ‘correct’ to be putting work out at the moment when so many things seem so much bigger than a song,” TV Priest say. “But we hope in the very least it’s a bit of a distraction from the world for whoever it reaches.”
Whether or not the current situation has been conducive to the artists’ creative process, it has certainly been a time of reflection for everyone. “Despite the Covid-19 chaos, I’ve managed to find a silver lining under this dark cloud,” says Dasychira. “I’ve been rethinking my intentions as an artist in an unpredictable reality, and how a lot of these intentions stem from self-reflection. By spending the time to get to know ourselves, and how we as individuals effect everything around us, I feel positive that we will all come out of this with a stronger sense of self-awareness in our expressions and actions.”
For singer-songwriter Johanna Warren, who has been touring extensively since 2012 with the likes of Mitski, Julie Byrne, and Marissa Nadler, having this time away from touring has proved unexpectedly valuable. “I feel like a kid who’s been put in time out, and I didn’t even know how bad I needed it,” she says. “I’ve spent most of the last decade on the road and I just put out a new record, so was planning to be on tour for the foreseeable future. But now, being forced to stay in one place, I’m realizing how exhausted I was, how much pain I was in, and how much much I like waking up in the same place day after day, eating at regular times and getting the recommended amount of sleep.” She adds: “The massive carbon footprint of life on the road had also been weighing on me for a long time, so I’m thankful for this opportunity to pause, reflect and re-strategize.”
In terms of how the pandemic will shape the music industry going forward, it’s hard to be certain of anything at this point. As TV Priest note, “it’s troubling to think of the economic impact on venues and spaces for live music and the arts in general.” Stephanie Phillips adds: “Many small, DIY venues will not be able to last the year so we will have to find another way to support independent artists and music organisations.”
But there seems to be sense of hope that, in bringing us together, this crisis might also have positive implications for the music industry in the long-term. “I think it will make the music community tighter and stronger after having to work together to get through such a crappy situation and has opened people’s minds to new possibilities in how to deliver music and performances to the world,” says Peter Bibby. BABii shares a similar view. “I think this will end up morphing the way the music and art world works, it’s gonna take a hard hit but we shouldn’t forget that art and music has never died and has taken worse beatings than this in one way or another,” she says. “I have a strong hope that we will all come through the other side, it just might be a bit of a different place when we get there, and that’s okay, because if nothing ever changed there would be no butterflies.”
Nobody knows how long it will be until we reach the other side of this crisis, but what’s certain is that the music landscape won’t be the same. As The Lazy Eyes note: “It will probably be a while before things go back to normal – and in saying that, there may be a new ‘normal’ to go back to altogether.” Articulating a vision for what that new normal could look like is not the easiest task, but TV Priest argue that “the best possible outcome could be a hopeful return to a more DIY atmosphere; rooted around community and human connection rather than musical proficiency, statistics, marketing collateral, endless content nausea, technological gatekeeping and economies of scale.”
Until then, though, direct fan support matters more than ever – especially as it’s still unclear how governments will act to support the creative sector in the coming months. Whether it comes in the form of buying an album, purchasing merch, or simply seeking out and sharing new artists, every contribution helps. We’ve already seen how powerful it can be when fans come together to collectively support artists: when Bandcamp waived its revenue share in an effort to help musicians impacted by COVID-19, it raised a combined $11.4 million in just two days. After all, giving something back is the least we can do when music has been one of the few things capable of providing comfort during isolating times – COVID-related or not. And as TV Priest put it, “There will be nothing better than that first night out in a dark room surrounded by your friends.”