By now, the last reverberations of Liverpool’s live music scene have faded into prolonged silence.
Around the weekend of 14th March, as guitars were packed away, sound desks switched off, vans loaded and bars wiped down, few will have known that this near-nightly ritual in venues across the city will have been the last for almost six months. As lockdown came and partially lifted, these closing rituals are no closer to reestablishing their regular shift pattern. They’re no closer to happening again at all.
Without an active live music scene, Liverpool’s offer as a ‘music city’ is weakened. Without active venues, there’s no foundations for a grassroots live music scene. There’s no draw for touring artists. But away from the more obvious limitations of social distancing, lockdown put a stick in the wheel of the local music ecology, exposing all of its short-comings and precarious nature in the abrasive fall many experienced.
These arguments aren’t exclusive to Liverpool, but it’s important to look close to home to best understand the sharp-edged reality lockdown delivered to the music sector locally. Without shows, musicians, for the most part, aren’t being paid. An active following on social media and streaming figures stretching into five figures does not pay the bills.
Without an ability to play shows, tour the country and further beyond, the majority of musicians are losing out on their main source of income. There’s no option to play record store gigs in the hope of flogging a few vinyls. There’s no potential to rake in some cash on the merch table after a performance. Musicians live on the very edge of the freelancer safety net. Ironically, they’re the definition of the gig economy. But when that ‘flexible’, work-as-you-like mantra was proven redundant by a global pandemic, the government did not rush to save those it coaxes into flexible, yet precarious, employment. With the furlough scheme winding down, many are going to be cut adrift.
In a survey carried out by the University of Liverpool and Bido Lito! Magazine, based on the 175 respondents, it is estimated that local musicians lost out on a combined £1.75m due to social distancing measures from March to August. If venues and live music does not return before the end of 2020, this will rise to £2.2m – based on the number of shows rescheduled or outright cancelled. Yet more worryingly, this figure does not include the dense calendar of shows that are usually booked in during the summer months and take place in autumn and winter. With them, the £2.2m would therefore be undoubtedly higher.
The devastating outcome for musicians across the city is just one aspect. As lockdown came in, the vast web of Liverpool’s music scene was exposed and broken. It’s intricate links buckling under the weight as even largest establishments proved a break in the chain. From sound technicians, security, cloakroom attendants, cleaners, graphic designers, tour managers, photographers, writers, lighting technicians to the acts on stage, all are essential to the overall picture of the live music experience. This is true for everywhere from Matthew Street to The Echo Arena. It’s easy to become wrapped up in on stage displays at gigs, but those artists would not be there if all the other cogs in the wheel weren’t turning. The most recent Red Alert demonstrations by those working within the music industry across the country are continuing to highlight their plight in being cut off from their revenue source as government support thins out. It still unclear when so many in the industry can return to work.
For all of the pandemic’s ills, it has given the space to rethink what works and what doesn’t. In six months with no live music, it’s painfully clear to see that an industry built on ‘gigging’ employability and freelancing will not protect those who devote their lives to it. Even before Covid-19 the music industry was a wobbling Jenga tower. Lockdown was a brash hand swooping in for one piece too many. Now, within the rubble, secure restructure is necessary for a working music scene to take shape when regulations allow and it is safe to do so.
As it stands, the arts are set to be one of the biggest losers due to social distancing. It’s a sector geared towards the biggest institutions with the lowest community outreach. Those working to sustain grassroots involvement are likely to receive trickle down funding to continue their essential work. For too long music and the arts have been viewed as a hobby, a weekend investment. Something we fall back on in our spare time, an escape when we need it. But how many of us actually made it through lockdown without the services of musicians and artists? A writer, filmmaker, musician? They were no less essential that those driving transport or working in supermarkets. Therefore, the precarity of music, nationally and locally, needs to be overhauled. Talk of a universal basic wage needs to gain pace. Only then will music and the arts not be dictated by an on-demand transactional cycle of product and purchase – a make-up not conducive to avoiding a fall into a state chaotic neoliberalism.
The closures of The Zanzibar and Sound on Duke Street are the two defining casualties of lockdown within Liverpool’s music scene. With live music nowhere on the horizon, we’ll be lucky if they’re the last as we endure the long wait for live music to return to the city region.
Yes, live music has returned to some bar and outdoor venues in Liverpool in August – predominantly stripped-down sets or minimal audiences. But social distancing, according to the Music Venue Trust, makes live music, with full production values, a financially unviable entity for near on all venues across the country. Reducing capacities by 75% does not cover the overheads for all those integral to the inner workings of the live music experience. And thus, venues will remain shut until limitations are lifted. Some will close, and many worker’s employment will be put at risk – if action isn’t taken by the government. It’s difficult not to view these realities as bleak. Rather than when, it remains a case of if and how live music returns to Liverpool.
If, then, live music can return in by March 2021 (viable, but may yet prove unattainable), this result would stand as a valiant second half push to rescue the situation. The damage done in the first half of 2020 was, however, almost unsurmountable. It will have left its mark on all invested in the local music scene when those final closing rituals were deemed the last for up to 12 months back in March.
Bido Lito! magazine had been publishing for 10 years as of this May. In March, we had to cease printing for the first time in that decade stretch. Unlike other, much larger music titles, we were lucky enough to return to printing this month. However, a glaring omission in the magazine is its always energetic reviews section. Those live reviews are the coal-face of the health of Liverpool’s live music scene. They capture the very essence of why the magazine exists: a reflection of an impassioned and alluring music scene that deserves documenting. Without them, the magazine isn’t the same. Without live music, Liverpool isn’t the same city. Not in the way that we know it. Live music can and will return eventually. But how many of its integral links will not due to lack of a safety net remains to be seen.
Sign up to Scottie Press for all the latest local news and events.
Sign up to Scottie Press for all the latest local news and events.