Well, this doesn’t half feel strange. In a normal month, these reviews pages would be full of tales learned from the floors of gig venues and arenas. Reports of sweaty, cathartic or moving gatherings – accompanied by photos taken from the upwards-tilted perspective of the pit – have been an integral part of Bido Lito! for the past 10 years. Though the hundreds of reviews we have published may not say it explicitly, their words speak of the thrill of experiencing something together; they are memories, homages to shared moments, a communion of sorts.
Then in March of this year, things changed. A live gig or concert of any type hasn’t taken place in Merseyside for almost five months since the country went into lockdown. And, with all of the Covid safety precautions still in place, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll see anything close to normal for the rest of this year. Our reviews section – half of Bido’s output – will be forced into hibernation for the first time (beyond exhibition reviews, of which we are continuing), until it can resume its place in documenting the stories made in the intense moments of connection that live performances bring us.
Despite the closure of venues and halting of all performances in March, the artists soldiered on, determined to still connect with their fans. As a way of relieving the cabin fever of lockdown, impromptu ‘gigs’ popped up on live streams all over the place, hosted by those gamely mastering the new skills of streaming and bedroom production. The sight of an artist (or occasionally a duo) crammed in to shot, the dusty acoustic guitar jostling for space alongside mics, laptops and novel lighting setups became normalised. As an immediate reaction to the forced isolation of lockdown, these certainly scratched an itch – see Bido’s own Friday Night Live! series of streamed shows with ZUZU, BYE LOUIS, STRAWBERRY GUY and DAN DISGRACE – but it wouldn’t be long until fans and musicians both started to grate at the limitations. Despite some great efforts, the production values of bedroom gigs were generally naff, leaving very little room to do justice to the music. And for those whose only problem was the buffering of a shaky broadband connection, think about those artists without the wherewithal to perform from home at all, cut-off from vital outside engagement as the walls closed in.
If there was any expectation that musicians would sit on their hands and accept their lot, then that was short-lived. SAMURAI KIP didn’t let the barrier of being quarantined in four separate locations stop them from putting together a live version of Smoke, with neatly collaged video to boot. ALL WE ARE weren’t content for even those restrictions, setting up in Vessel Studios for a full live set streamed on YouTube, amps, lights, natty outfits and everything. In light of their cancelled tour, this was a chance for the trio to keep contact with their fans ahead of their imminent album release, and also push a crowdfunding campaign to help them recover lost earnings from cancelled live dates. Indeed, the concept of leveraging financial support from fans through digital tipping and crowd funders was finally broached, which could well be something that stays in the artist’s arsenal once normal service is resumed.
Michael Lovett, aka NZCA LINES, was also not to be deterred from having a party for the release of his album A Pure Luxury. Along with promoters Bird On The Wire, Dice and Behind The Notes, he set up a virtual album launch party with breakout Zoom Rooms for fans to chat and show off their downloaded virtual backgrounds. A slick mastery of video streaming brought the requisite sense of occasion, but the performance was still a bedroom gig (albeit with programmed lights and great-sounding audio). Support act CHARLOTTE ADIGÉRY brought more of a suspension of disbelief with her green-screened set, beamed in from Belgium as an hors d’oeuvre. But this show wasn’t necessarily about the show – it was about the connection with fans, promoting the album, making it all feel real. Those points of contact that musicians have with their fans – when they can truly develop the world they’ve built around themselves – are few and far between. Performances like this will never be a substitute for concerts, but they might be able to open up a different kind of connection between artist and fan that has been long overlooked.
LAURA MARLING’s live streamed show at Union Chapel in June saw over 4,000 fans pay £12 for a ticket to see the Mercury-nominated artist play a show filmed in cinematic luxury. Despite thousands of fans (plus hundreds more US fans) taking the option to see Marling performing songs from her brand new album, Song For Our Daughter, for the first time, the show still didn’t run a profit. Or, at least, not the kind of profit you would expect for a full-house Union Chapel show with a live audience a quarter the size of the dialled in streamers. Naturally, the streamed set’s lavish production and multitude of camera angles will have had something to do with that, but the scale of economy shows the level of risk involved in these performances, even for artists of the profile of Laura Marling.
But the bug for the cinematic was catching, especially for those artists caught mid-album campaign who had seen touring and promotion plans pulled from under their feet. I tuned in to ANGEL OLSEN’s second Cosmic Stream in July, where the artist performed live from the Masonic Temple in Asheville, North Carolina. The performance was shot by Olsen’s long-time collaborator Ashley Connor in one glorious, sumptuous take, that occasionally pushed in close to Olsen as she sang forlornly to an empty room, circling around her to show the empty seats gathered in silent congregation. Even Olsen’s sharp quips fell eerily limp as the absurdness of the situation was laid bare in the awkward moments between songs. Yet, it all felt worth it when the camera took you inside the artist’s personal space, allowing you to feel an energy that you wouldn’t normally get to experience. When Olsen and support act HAND HABITS duetted at the pivot of the event, the crackle of emotion that coursed through my internet connection made me temporarily forget that I wasn’t there with them, in that room in North Carolina with other fans, revelling in the crispness of Olsen’s voice just as much as the bum notes and the mistakes. As the show ended and the camera retraced its route back through the entrance to the room, it felt like the ending to an arthouse film: perfect for the setting and the artist, but a reminder of the distance that was between us.
Jarvis Cocker’s fascination with the Peak District saw him bring his new outfit, JARV IS…, to Peak Cavern in 2018. So, what better place for Jarv and crew to host a live streamed show to mark the release of new album Beyond The Pale in the middle of lockdown? Streamed free on YouTube, the Live From The Centre Of The Earth show was shot by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who also directed the 2014 Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days On Earth. The Devil’s Arse, as Peak Cavern is affectionately known, added a delicious sense of oddness to the whole setting, a 53-minute trip inside the mind of one of British music’s most mysterious characters. The seven-piece group – featuring Serafina Steer, Emma Smith, Jason Buckle, Andrew McKinney, Adam Betts and Naala – came alive in a cave that was lit by spectacular lighting and visuals playing across the walls. “This is not a live album – this is an ALIVE album,” Jarvis intoned at the beginning, as their kitchen disco house music swept through the space in the kind of cinematic drama that only the British could dream of, never mind pull off. It was a shame when Jarvis bade us farewell in his breathy baritone; I’m not sure if it left me more likely to visit Peak Cavern or buy the record.
The summer shutdown has meant that festivals have taken a huge hit during the pandemic. Their very model relies on one, big communal experience, which leaves them more vulnerable than most in the live industry. Those owned by the large live industry behemoths are the most likely to be able to tide things over to next summer, while those festivals with smaller but loyal audiences had to think creatively if they were to have a future beyond 2020. Organisers of Bluedot and Supersonic festivals were, somewhat predictably, at the head of this pack, re-tooling some of their programmed content for an online variant.
Bluedot’s A WEEKEND IN OUTER SPACE featured plenty of their popular science talks, done as online webinars. HENGE presented some suitably oddball space-themed live streams, and ORBITAL signed off the live proceedings with a set streamed from a home studio, where the voices of Greta Thunberg and Brian Cox were sampled over some of their organic beats. SOFASONIC was Supersonic’s response, a similar collection of live streamed Q&As and sets, which served as a chance to bring their close-knit community together. PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS’ hosting of an online bingo and some cooking classes showed both ends of Supersonic’s bizarro spectrum, with recorded sets from previous years of the spectrum serving as a reminder of what should have been happening. Neither event was hardly a replacement for the festival, but the digital activity did give a chance for fans to show their support and raise some much-needed cash for the teams behind the events.
Tomorrowland, the Belgian EDM festival that welcomes 400,000 fans to its two bonkers weekends each summer, are renowned for doing things differently. So, when they announced that they’d booked KATY PERRY and were taking the festival online instead, not many eyebrows were raised. The festival is an OTT carnival with garish set design, which comes across as something between Disneyland and Middle Earth for fans of Euro house music. Their plan for TOMORROWLAND AROUND THE WORLD, their digital experience for 2020, was to create a whole digital environment in which to enjoy a still ridiculous line-up of performances: DAVID GUETTA, FEDDE LE GRAND, AMELIE LENS and STEVE AOKI among those joining Katy Perry over two days. At €12.50 a day, it seemed like a punt, even if the economics didn’t completely tally (until, that is, you sign up and get bombarded with never-ending ‘exclusive’ drink and merch offers) – especially when you see what your €12.50 granted you access to.
Pāpiliōnem was the virtual setting for the digital festival, realised by Tomorrowland’s tireless visual team, that came with the tagline ‘The Reflection Of Love – Chapter 1’. Entering the festival was like the beginning of a computer game – and, indeed, the whole festival felt like an extended cut-scene from an elaborate fantasy game, with various stages (one of which looks exactly like Fort Punta Christo in Croatia, used as the home for Dimensions and Outlook festivals) perched on mountains and in clearings on the island of Pāpiliōnem. As the camera swooped in to each arena, thousands of computer-generated arms waved as the most out-there light show danced over their heads. The performers on the stages were merely part of the vastness, with DJ performances melded into the environments using green screen technology. At times, it felt like the computer game engine controlling your viewing was more keen on showing you the elaborate structures it had built, making for a rather exhausting mental experience for someone sat in a chair at home.
Katy Perry’s headline set was a remarkable piece of digital wizardy, giving the impression that Perry and her dancers were performing on this blatantly digitised virtual stage. As bizarre as it was, you have to tip your hat to the Tomorrowland team for creating an experience true to their ethos which also gave you an excuse to suspend your disbelief long enough to have a good time. Isn’t that what live performance is meant to do, after all?
The efforts of artists, festivals and their teams to find a way around the problems that lockdown has thrown up have not only shown remarkable creativity, but a dogged determination to keep the music playing. However, this shouldn’t mask the catastrophic effect that the paralysing of the live music industry has had on thousands of people. Countless artists saw their plans go up the spout, with long scheduled release plans for albums and singles suddenly compromised. Without the ability to go out and perform in front of fans, the ability for all but a tiny handful of musicians to earn money was immediately shut off. And the teams behind the artists, in PR, radio and at labels, all suffered as a result. Venues and promoters have been pushed to the brink, and production crews are still facing huge uncertainty over their careers as the live industry remains in shutdown.
There’s a thrill to watching a live performance, a knife-edge uncertainty that it may all go wrong which tautens the senses. The pay-off when it lands is massive, a rush that is hard to replicate. Streaming live performances can get close to that sensation, but not close enough to give you the full hit. With the situation as it is currently, these digital shows can only be a temporary fix, a stepping stone towards normality. Hopefully, by the time we are able to return to the dancefloors again, we’ll have a full appreciation of what live music means to us, and be prepared to support it.