Without Live Music, I Literally Wouldn’t Exist

Arts, culture and events are facing uncertainty amid COVID-19, so here's a new column about how shit our lives would be without them.
Emma Garland
London, GB
illustrated by Christa Jarrold
Illustration for VICE's 'Without the Arts' series
'Fund Our Fun': A series celebrating the UK’s music and nightlife industries, and a rallying call to protect them.

The creative industries. The arts. Events and nightlife. Call them what you want, but at the end of the day what we’re talking about is FUN. Music, film, TV, theatre, radio, galleries, big nights out – these aren’t just job sectors, they’re the reason we work in the first place. They’re how we socialise, how we express ourselves, how we make sense of the world.

COVID-19 has taken a sledgehammer to arts and culture in the UK, and while the government’s rescue package will come as a lifeline for some, things have been on the rocks for a long time. How many beloved venues have you seen bulldozed to make room for another block of luxury flats? ‘Fund Our Fun’ is a series that goes beyond the industry’s economic contributions to tell the stories of how arts and culture impact our lives in immeasurable ways.


My dad’s band played at my mam’s 21st birthday party, which is something they discovered several years later when they actually met. She’d celebrated another year around the sun the way she celebrates most occasions, whether it’s a birthday or a Thursday: going to a local venue to dance, drink and watch live music. Home at 3AM, ready for work at 7. The same goes for my dad, though he was typically on the other side of the stage, mic’d up behind two keyboards with a powerful mane of feathered hair and some leather trousers I wish I had never seen in photos.

At some point, their paths crossed; two music lovers thrown together by the heaving local gig circuit of the South Wales Valleys in the 1980s. Nights out at Llanharan Rugby Club and The Navel in Tonypandy; group coaches to London to see bands at The Marquee; dinner in someone’s front room – socialising involved music, always, not just for my parents but for anyone with a passing interest in rock music. Some characters in the sprawling friendship group they formed through going out have become a kind of surrogate family, playing a bigger part in my life than many of my extended relatives.

Growing up, my weekends were beleaguered by seemingly never-ending after parties in our living room (there’s only so much hiding space in a two-up two-down). I can recall with Charlie Babbitt-like precision the feeling of plodding downstairs in my pyjamas, way past bedtime, and stepping over ten cackling adults blasting Genesis to go for a wee. At least half of my childhood memories involve festival camping or running around a beer garden, eating crisps and categorically not paying attention to whoever was playing (which, in retrospect, sounds more like a modern festival experience).


Did I whinge and ask “when are we going home” constantly, like a little shit? Probably. Am I now grateful they cared enough to bring me along with them, providing the pub wasn’t too rough, instead of palming me off on a babysitter? One hundred percent. On balance, I would guess I attended more gigs in the first ten years of my life than in my 20s.

I learned early on that music is more than entertainment – it’s a language; thousands of touchstones and memories and values and in-jokes communicated through mutual enthusiasm. It’s a language that drew my parents together, but behind them are two sets of grandparents who passed it down to them; an Elvis obsessive and long-suffering Eagles fan on one side, a brass band player and post-war dance hall enthusiast on the other.

My aunt – the chaotic evil to my mam’s chaotic good, with her plum-coloured hair and carbon black sense of humour – had the same DNA and ran in the same crowd as my parents. When she died her affairs were a mess, but she did make sure to scribble a list of songs to be played at the funeral on the back of an envelope (Red Hot Chilli Peppers for “the button pressing”), along with a specific request that everyone wear band tees instead of black tie.

I could go on, but to get a true sense of our family you need only look at me and my cousin – two only children, one musician and one music writer, still fighting over AJ Soprano-style merch that I may or may not have swiped from him in the early 00s, positioned at the end of the family tree like a meat fork – and work your way backwards.


For all the hammered-home statistics about deprivation, what’s rarely celebrated – on a wider scale – is the incredible wealth of cultural output that has come out of the Valleys and what that means to us. In this case “music” doesn’t necessarily refer to “music that has been released”, but life organised around it. It’s the same ecosystem that birthed mainstream successes like Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics, but more importantly it’s the one thing, besides sports, that provides community when no one else gives a shit.

The impact that has on opportunity and quality of life, even – in fact especially – in the context of financial hardship, is huge. So it’s baffling, although does not surprise me in the slightest, that when it comes to making “necessary cuts” to “save” the economy, cultural and social services are always the first against the wall. People rarely consider things they don’t need, and no one needs fun less than rich people.

When successful artists come from rural or deprived areas, they’re often spoken about as if they rose up out of nowhere, like the result of a summoning spell performed by executives on the site of an old colliery. As someone who watched some of those bands happen with my own eyes, I can tell you that is not true. Behind a successful artist is usually one of two things: a robust local music scene full of places to play that are accessible to all ages, or a well-connected relative.

It worries me that option A is becoming increasingly rare. Culturally speaking, what comes out is typically a reflection of what goes in, but in order for that to work you need places to actually put people in; a conduit to complete the feedback loop. Without that, the whole thing collapses. What you have instead is entire towns full of people listening to music at home, wishing they had somewhere to go. Terminal lockdown. Many areas across the UK have been allowed to slide into this rut, and many more are likely to over the next few years if nothing changes.

Inevitably, I followed in the footsteps of my parents and spent my teens in a revolving door of pubs, venues and community spaces watching metalcore bands from Porth (lol). It’s pointless to wonder what I would’ve done had those spaces not been there, because I obviously just would have found something else, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s unlikely my parents would have met if it weren’t for the music scene in that place, at that time. My middle name is taken from a song my dad wrote, so even if I had rebelled against my parents’ lifestyle, which I’d have had to be a proper boring bastard to do, there’s no escaping things. Wherever I go, I take a little piece of Welsh music history with me.


To support local venues through Covid-19 visit the Music Venue Trust’s #saveourvenues campaign here.