Culture

This Is How You Can Support the Independent Music Industry During COVID-19

We spoke to a handful of small labels, artists and industry workers in the UK about the problems they face, and what you can do to help from home.

by Emma Garland; illustrated by Kieran Gabriel
27 March 2020, 4:40pm

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the independent music industry has been swift and devastating. Escalating in the run-up to festival season, all upcoming events – including Coachella and Glastonbury – have been cancelled or postponed, with those happening later in the year faced with the difficult decision of whether to cut their losses now or continue in the hope they’ll be able to go ahead.

Tours were abandoned mid-way, with bands losing out on unsold merch and ticket sales while paying out more to travel home. In the UK, already struggling grassroots venues have shuttered for at least three weeks. Some may never re-open. It’s a similar story for record shops, who also face the possibility of stricter lockdown measures temporarily halting online mail orders.

It’s taken a global pandemic to bring structural inequality to the fore, but it’s inescapably obvious now that temporary and precarious work in the UK has long been unsustainable. The culture sector – overwhelmingly comprised of self-employed people and small businesses – cannot survive without support. The term “gig economy” literally comes from musicians, whose existence has always been unstable – when the gigs dry up, so does the income.

So far, most support for the independent music industry has come from within the industry itself. A global campaign has been launched to boost independent record stores; coronamusicians.info was set up to provide a central source of support for musicians; Arts Council England announced an emergency fund of £160 million to help artists, venues and freelancers in the cultural sector, and Help Musicians has launched a £5 million Coronavirus Hardship Fund. On March 20, Bandcamp lifted their fees and saw $4.3 million paid directly from fans to artists – 15 times more than an average day. This week, Spotify announced the Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief project, which pledges to match user donations to Help Musicians, MusiCares and PRS up to the collective total of $10 million.

Since the independent music industry has little to no financial backing, everyone – artists, labels, venues, record shops, promoters, festivals, agents, booking agencies, merch companies, tour crew, small van and backline companies – will be taking a massive hit, with those operating on a grassroots or independent level being most affected. VICE spoke to labels, artists and industry workers across the UK about what you can do to help from home.

THE SITUATION RIGHT NOW

Kay and Andrew, Specialist Subject Records: So far we’ve had to cancel or postpone five gigs/events, including Record Store Day. Overall I think we’ve adapted pretty well, but this is just the beginning. We’re currently navigating how soon we can book gigs, how to plan upcoming record releases, and if online sales alone will keep us from going under. We can’t really plan anything more than a couple of days ahead. The government has continued to drip-feed vague advice and unclear support – it’s taken weeks for them to acknowledge that self-employed people exist. Currently our understanding is that online retailers are allowed to continue trading and the public are actively encouraged to use them, so that’s what we’re doing.

Gareth David, Los Campesinos!: The biggest blow is doubtless the cancellation of shows. I have friends in bands who have been impacted hugely, having to abandon tours midway and drive across the US in order to return home. Bands whose albums have been released in the past fortnight who will have scheduled touring around the release. Income from said cancelled tours would no doubt have been used to recoup against outlay that record labels had made towards recording and manufacturing. Merchandise sales would have been used to pay rent and bills. The knock-on effect is huge for bands and labels.

Dana Margolin, Porridge Radio: It's been bad timing for everyone. We were planning on being on tour pretty constantly this year and were making the transition to this band being our job, so it's put a stop to that pretty fast. We cancelled our first US trip and we've postponed a headline tour with a bunch of sold out dates. We’ll probably have to cancel and postpone a lot more this year, but taking everything as it comes. Now we're all out of a job and have been trying to come up with ways to fill the time. None of us live in the same place, so it also sucks that we can't play music together right now – but we’ve started remotely demo-ing songs, which is fun.

Stephanie Phillips, Big Joanie & Decolonise Fest: Big Joanie have had to cancel two French shows and all of our shows at least until the end of May. Since Decolonise was planned for May, we’ve decided to postpone the festival to later this year. It’s disappointing and we are a small, DIY festival so it can be difficult for us to manage big hits such as these. Luckily, it was still far away enough that we hadn't spent much money, and everything we've planned now can be diverted to a festival later in the year... I assume Big Joanie will have to cancel most of our summer festival circuit shows. It's frustrating because it’s a huge financial loss, and this year we were starting to book much bigger spots. We're booked to play Latitude and End of the Road, but they could potentially be cancelled as well. We're also half way through writing our second album, but since we're self isolating in separate houses we haven't been able to make music together for a while. I miss the band.

Jess Clarke, Tour Manager: People who'd already started tours and had to cancel them mid-way and get home lost a lot of money. People who hadn't started may not get refunds on things like flights, hotels and busses. Companies have laid people off. Thousands of touring crew are without any work for the foreseeable. Festivals are cancelled because of uncertainty... You can't plough money into things that you don't know are going to happen.

Sarah Maynard, Major Press: The sheer uncertainty is very stressful for all involved. Independent artists make the majority of their money from playing live. One band on Major’s roster – Wargirl from California – were seeing realtime effects as they toured Europe and the UK a few weeks back. An independent band can often take a hit on a tour so far away from home anyway, but they were having shows cancelled day-of and finding themselves playing last gigs at a lot of venues before they had to close. It took a massive toll on the band’s mental wellbeing, and they were unsure whether they’d even get back home at the end of it all (they did and are safe and sound, thankfully). Of course everyone is very aware that these things are being shut down for the good of the world, but it’s also going to stress musicians and freelancers in music out.

Clémence Godard, Bird On The Wire: We’re having to reschedule most dates (or cancel, although we’re doing as much we can to avoid that) which may seem like a straightforward job but actually takes a lot of time and thinking, as it’s a lot of back and forth on new dates and we need to figure out the messaging we’re sending to concert goers each time. It was suggested that we offer ticket holders the option to donate their ticket money in support of BOTW instead of asking for a refund, so we set up a donations page, which we spent a bit of time on as we weren’t sure initially and wanted to make it as little invasive as possible. Obviously as long as we don’t put any gigs on we don’t have any income, so that's the big issue.

Sarah: It’s a large workload behind the scenes with no guaranteed pay-off. The knock-on effect for record labels and the marketing teams they work with is still to be fully seen. I feel fortunate right now that we’re able to work with amazing bands who have releases coming up that will go ahead and hopefully provide some light in this time. But physical manufacturing of records etc will likely become more difficult and a longer process and this will see a lot of releases pushed back.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN

Kay & Andrew: Honestly, I have no idea, and I think the entire music industry is finding out at the same time. I think bands are going to be playing everything safer over the next few years, especially with Brexit. In an ideal world we’d have universal income, free wi-fi, nationalised public transport and mail to keep people connected and out of poverty, so more people can explore and enjoy the arts. We’d have protection and support for live music venues, free movement of people so UK bands can tour the world and worldwide bands can tour here easily, and streaming platforms giving a fairer cut of income to bands. It sucks that a lot of musicians are in a position that if they can’t tour for a short while they are unable to pay rent or support themselves. Hopefully this will encourage the industry to value and support artists more, and for fans to value music and their local venue/scene.”

Jack Clothier, Alcopop!: The outlook is bleak, but no one signed up to running an indie label for an easy life. If anything, the relentless year of horrors that is 2020 will only serve as a reminder that we have to be constantly able to adapt, change and keep nimble in the face of adversity. New labels are always coming through with fresh ideas, great hearts and good people. The traditional workings of the industry that were never set up to support the indies anyway could do with a bit of a refresher and some common sense.

Stephanie: A few years ago, when rents started to rise in London and austerity kicked in, the punk scene lost so many venues and people. Staple spaces where people would regularly meet like The Montague Arms and Power Lunches disappeared overnight. Individuals, bands and collectives either left the city or left the scene as they were overworked or had to focus on their 9-5 job to keep food on the table. I think this time will be similar. People in precarious work will have less money and therefore less time and energy to be part of the scene so we'll lose a lot of organising power. I think venues like DIY Space For London will also struggle. It's hard to imagine how many of them will outlast this period.

Gareth: By now, the band is something we use as a release from the reality of our day jobs – so it’s the impact that COVID-19 will have on those that is more significant, and in turn how the loss of “real world” work could impact our status as a band.

Kevin Douch, Big Scary Monsters: Realistically, I’m assuming it’ll be autumn at the earliest before things properly resume, and even then life will continue to be affected. We’ll see some tours sadly being postponed for a second or even third time, more festivals cancelled and unfortunately a bunch of businesses go under. Freelancers and the gig economy in general need way more support. I think we’re going to see some incredible creativity (as already starting to bloom with so many live streamed shows) as well as new, mini-industries appearing and flourishing. The DIY spirit, resilience, entrepreneurship and creative thinking instilled in this sector of the industry has primed everyone to do anything they want and now’s the chance for that to shine.

Sarah: It’s so difficult to say how big the impact will be long-term, but it’s already massively detrimental to bands – the longer they’re unable to tour, the more uncertain their future is. Many band members have other jobs that they may not be able to do right now, as they’re often in hospitality or ad hoc, so it’s going to be tough for a lot of people.

Kay & Andrew: If this lockdown is tightened there is a risk that we won’t be able to continue as an online retailer. Royal Mail might stop collecting our post, we might not be able to buy in new stock, so we can’t be 100 percent reliant on people buying stuff getting us through. We’re grateful for every order we get, but my biggest worry is that if we go into hibernation for weeks/months we'll be on the back foot when things start going again. Some people will pretty much have to rebuild their business from scratch.

Stephanie: Though this period is difficult, I think the hardest time will be the aftermath. How will we be able to put on gigs? Will people still want to come to crowded spaces? It has left people with a lot of questions.

WHAT THE INDUSTRY IS DOING

Dana: I’ve been doing a lot of live streams, sometimes playing songs and sometimes doing other stuff like live painting and an agony aunt session. Hopefully we’ll be able to use the time to record more music, but that remains to be figured out. Live streaming is fun, but it's never the same as playing a show and feeling the energy of people around you.

Clémence: We’re trying to use the time to be creative with new ideas, do a bit of clean-up of our documents and emails – anything we rarely have the time or mind space for. We're working on putting together a specific action plan to make our whole activity environmentally sustainable in the long term, for example. We’re also supporting a new artist led project called Quarantunes who are organising live streaming on YouTube.

Stephanie: At the moment the Arts Council aren't funding the National Lottery Project grants we would have applied for, because money is being redirected to help the coronavirus effort. We don't meet the criteria for the COVID-19 funding as you need to have a track record in publicly funded culture. Relying on our fans and festival-goers at the moment is our only way of raising money. We're trying to get the same artists [booked for Decolonised Fest] to come back – and we still want the Kenya punk band Crystal Axis to play, so we're keeping the crowdfunder going to help cover their travel expenses. We want to focus on doing other things in the meantime, and will hopefully still release our annual zine and a compilation tape of our favourite punks of colour.

Kevin: We’re all spread across the south of England so quite used to remote working, but we’ve introduced regular video chats on Monday morning (to talk about what’s coming up this week), Wednesday morning (for updates and brainstorming) and Friday afternoon (to recap, plan for next week and drink some beers!). I’ve also encouraged all of our staff to think about things they’d like to learn during this quiet period. Not necessarily work related, but things to keep brains active and to hopefully give a sense that this wasn’t entirely wasted time.

Jack: It’s vital to have understanding PR and radio people in these uncertain times. Everyone’s going to have to pull together, take a bit of a hit and make campaigns work whatever we’re dealing with. Communication has been absolutely key and, if anything, it’s been a case of making lots of phone calls, listening to each other, and ensuring decisions are as open and informed as possible. We’re in the lucky position that while we have an in-house artist, A&R, PR and radio plugger – they’re very much freelance with Alcopop! only one of their concerns, so I’m confident we can continue to pay them all for the foreseeable – and, being very indie in spirit, I’m out there trying to seal up some new acts as well. Being quick to adapt has been part of our strategy moving forward through this. We’ve already run a pay what you want vinyl sale to try and cheer up our wider community, and we’re looking at a load of new ideas now.

Kevin: We’ve also been working with bands to help them reschedule tours, tweaking a couple of timelines to slightly delay certain announcements, chatting to festivals about their best way forward, communicating with suppliers to check on production times and taking a few hours each day to call friends and see how everyone’s doing generally. I’m a huge advocate of communication at the best of times and don’t think that’s ever been so important. Overall though: this will pass and the world will start spinning again. My number one thing for staff, artists, friends and everyone else is to try and stay positive, take time to adjust and then think about opportunities and what you want to achieve after.

Stephanie: I think we'll all have to think about ways to get people out into public spaces again as everyone is going to be nervous to mingle. We'll need to find ways to make money as people may not have the disposable income they used to have to spend on gig tickets... Small grants, support and funding from the government could help stop the music industry from collapsing. Countries across Europe have done it for years, but the UK has always refrained despite the vast amount of money the music industry brings to the economy.

WHAT YOU, A FAN, CAN DO

Dana: Share music you like with people you know, buy records and merch if you can. Buy tickets for rescheduled shows if you can. Stream music if you can. Follow artists online and send us loving messages.

Stephanie: For bands, you can still buy merch and download music from Bandcamp – that money goes directly to the band and is necessary at times like these. For festivals like Decolonise Fest, we're relying on crowdfunding and selling merch. We have a Bandcamp, where we have digital compilations of bands from our previous festivals that people can download. We want to sell our next zine, and hopefully a compilation there as well. We also have a paypal.me page where I'd encourage people to donate. Decolonise is a small DIY festival that aims to connect the punk community and create a space for people of colour in the scene. We know we need to keep going and be a part of the community we love.

Kay & Andrew: Hopefully to some people we are that! The last two weeks we’ve hosted two livestream gigs from our Instragram account – they’ve been really fun to do, and people have been messaging saying they’ve discovered bands they’ve not come across before. It’s something we’ve never experienced before and I think it’s helped bring people together in real-time, which is difficult to do online. I quite like that if the band doesn’t save their set (or after 24 hours) it’s gone forever – like a real gig, you have to be there. The feedback has been amazing and really helps us keep going.

Sarah: The sheer number of livestream gigs and entertainment out there right now is heart-warming and necessary. Get some friends together (remotely of course) and chat with each other on Whatsapp or your preferred platform while watching some of your favourite artists take requests and play intimate sets, often on a regular basis (see Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie and Matt Pryor from The Get Up Kids). Some record labels are also setting up ambitious festival-type livestreams with Specialist Subject leading the charge, already live streaming two versions of “Distant Together” with loads of amazing artists (Jeff Rosenstock, Camp Cope, Big Joanie etc) taking part.

Clémence : A few independent venues have already set up crowdfunding campaigns, and I think more independent promoters will have a donations system in place. If these are venues you used to go to and promoters you enjoy the gigs of, even the smallest amount of support is appreciated. We’ve received messages of support too which is good for morale!

Sarah: If you’ve bought tickets for a tour or festival that will be or might be rescheduled, hang onto them in hopes that you will be able to use them down the line.

Jess: The National are doing something very kind and directing all profits from their online merch store to their touring team. Public Service Broadcasting also sold some early / rare test pressings and EPs to set up a fund for their crew and session players.

Kevin: It’s important people feel safe and look after themselves before they consider spending elsewhere, so we’re intentionally not making any kind of sales posts over the coming weeks (we’d rather see everyone’s working from home pet photos!). Unfortunately others aren’t so fortunate with timing and cash flow, and [financial support] is going to be absolutely crucial to them. So consumers spending money where and when they can spare it will be important, but also just engaging and showing support online.”

Jack: Buy from us if you can, but please don’t feel you should! I think one real positive thing, with all this time we have, could be to craft and create some indie label/ band playlists and hammer the fuck out of those on the DSPs. If you’re going to listen to a major label artist, why not give a new indie artist from a label you dig a go instead?

Gareth: It’s difficult for musicians to request financial support from fans knowing that your fans themselves are likely experiencing the same uncertainty as you are. Fans will always want to help, but might not be able to. For me, in lieu of cash, and I hate how this sounds but kindness goes a long way. Seeing people being effusive about your work and sharing it with potential new fans – that’s a show of solidarity that everyone is capable of.

Kevin: Something I don’t think is being spoken about enough is mental health through all of this. Staying inside and the break to usual routines is going to hit everyone hard, and business owners have all that personal stuff going on in addition to worrying about how they can keep the lights on and pay their staff. Sending some love and promising your support when possible may just be the encouragement they need to find ways to keep fighting.

Kay & Andew: Last year we wrote a free mini-zine all about how to support bands during the streaming age. It’s essentially about being purposeful with who you listen to on platforms like Spotify – making playlists, talking to your friends about bands you like, turning off auto-play. So people can look at that if they want some ideas (there’s a free PDF online if you don’t want to pay postage).

Sarah: You can buy pretty much any music magazine on the internet from your sofa. These mags support bands and are vital cogs in every music scene, so pick one up and you might find a new gem. If there’s a band / publication / festival / venue or any part of music that you particularly care about, seek them out online, see if they’re asking for support and find out how you can help them. Messages of support and love really go a long way to raise morale right now. If we rally together, we can keep independent music alive and well.

@emmaggarland

List of Resources (to be continually updated)

For Artists:
Coronamusicians.info
Arts Council England Emergency Measures and Funding
Help Musicians Coronavirus Financial Hardship Fund
PRS Emergency Relief Fund

For Fans:
- Google your favourite independent labels and record shops and order from them online.
- Stream the fuck out of your favourite independent and DIY artists, the major labels will live for a few months.
- Buy a music mag via Newsstand.
- Sign The Music Venue Trust’s petition for Boris Johnson to take immediate action to protect Britain’s Grassroots Music Venues, and the petition for the government to offer economic assistance to the events industry during COVID-19.

Fundraisers for Venues, Record Shops and Artists:
Save The Windmill in Brixton
Save The Village Underground & EartH in Hackney
Save Sister Midnight in Deptford
Save Small Pond in Brighton
Help bring Crystal Axis to Decolonise Fest

A Guide to Supporting Musicians in the Streaming Age is available for free via Specialist Subject.

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