The world has changed for all of us, but particularly for musicians, at least for the foreseeable future. Concerts and festivals cancelled or postponed, no new gigs, no opportunities to travel or collaborate: how can they continue? Alex Monaghan looks at the way the folk music world has changed since March.
What COVID did to folk music has been repeated across all genres, and across many other areas of life. Some of it will be obvious to you, other aspects perhaps not. In this article I wanted to look at the effect of the COVID pandemic and consequent restrictions, and how musicians and their audiences have responded. In a follow-up article, What COVID Did Next, I'll look at the future of live folk music, as far as we can tell, and some of the longer term effects of this global crisis.
My choice of title is not to trivialise the problems we face: I was inspired by Enid Blyton's stories of a well-ordered school where one destructive element causes chaos, but eventually has a positive effect on the whole environment. Our global environment is already benefiting from the decrease in traffic and fossil fuel consumption: I wonder if COVID can also have some positive effects on folk music.
The wave of gig cancellations, festival cancellations, travel restrictions and eventually the end to almost all social gatherings in many countries was catastrophic for performing artists. In perhaps two weeks, just in time for St Patrick's Day as luck would have it, the live music industry ceased. The consequences of this are still unknown for individuals, businesses, venues and more. Some will certainly not survive, at least as part of the folk music scene. There was a great deal of private and public grief, shock, panic, and depression. But then our creative fellows began to find ways to work around the situation, to extend or invent solutions. There was a new hope.
By far the largest amount of creativity was poured out on social media - Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. The trickle of Skype lessons which already existed became a river, with musicians using video to conduct lessons for existing and new pupils. Suddenly almost everyone was advertising for online pupils. The live streaming tasters and vlogs, which some performers had used as a showcase of work, now became the entirety of their work, with album launches, entire concerts, and virtual festivals happening over the Internet.
It is not so easy for some to do their jobs online. The busker, the bodhran-player, the big band - how do they translate what they do to the virtual world, when they cannot be in the presence of their audience or even their fellow musicians? The problem is even greater for the armies of support workers and "music industry" roles: promoters, sound engineers, roadies, venue staff, cannot do their jobs online. There have been a few attempts to market studio time or mastering skills, and a couple of heated exchanges about the managers' or promoters' percentage on online donations, but in general the folk music world has now become almost entirely a direct conversation between the artists and their audience, although often separated by thousands of miles of high-tech cables and routers. Could this be a good thing?
In the beginning, the rush of online performances and workshops seemed to be more about artists expressing themselves, finding an outlet for their creativity, and connecting with their fans. That, after all, is why most folk musicians perform. The likes of dobro legend Jerry Douglas, fiddle icon Patti Kusturok, and concertina firebrand Mohsen Amini were quick to go online with video performances which were almost casual in their brilliance, and which certainly didn't seem to be about the money. Patti for instance had already recorded a thousand or more free-to-view YouTube videos. Jerry's shows were - and probably still are - free to air, with a nudge towards the US musicians' charity Musicares. Mohsen was just having fun performing, initially with his various band colleagues, and then on his own with some technical wizardry for accompaniment and harmonies. Some family groups were out on their driveways, performing for the neighbours. But things soon changed.
It might be reasonable to think that established performers would have a buffer, a financial cushion which meant they were not living hand-to-mouth. However, it soon became obvious that our whole society lives hand-to-mouth, from the mega-corporations to the man delivering pizza, from doctors and nurses to hairdressers and bartenders. Musicians are no different, certainly no better provided for. Many of our cultural icons are old enough to be drawing pensions, assuming they built a pension pot somehow. In Irish music, a common retirement plan was to buy a pub, but the famous Matt Molloy's Bar in Westport is not bringing in any income for its celebrated owner right now. Younger performers, particularly those just starting out on a musical career, don't have any such funds to fall back on, and have been hit particularly hard by the cancellation of spring and summer tours in Europe and North America. In a matter of weeks, online music became less about self-expression and more about survival.
Fortunately for musicians worldwide, some very clever solutions were found to the immediate funding gap. Galen Fraser and friends launched the Stay At Home Festival on social media, and several real festivals copied their example to organise online versions of the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, the Alaska Folk Festival, Folk Weekend Oxford, and others. In Scotland, the Lomond Ceilidh Band began streaming daily concerts of dance music, soon stretching to two hours a night with over three hundred listeners. MacGregor's Bar, a music pub in the centre of Inverness founded by fiddler Bruce MacGregor, re-invented itself as a daily online magazine programme, focusing on music and beer of course, but also on local life in lockdown, and pretty soon on food and fluffy animals.
After a few weeks of COVID restrictions, the flood of gig cancellations was replaced by other scheduled events such as album launches and workshops. Artists like Brown Boots, Katie McNally, Neil Pearlman and Kevin Henderson moved their CD launches to the Internet. Even sessions went online, or used Zoom or Skype to organise private video conferences. We all discovered that you can't play together on video, but you can pre-record parts and you can take turns to lead. As musicians became more familiar with these technologies, and more confident in reaching out from their homes to an audience they can't see, some people saw the potential of ticketed events, paying for a virtual ticket, booking a virtual seat in a workshop. In Ireland the national music competitions were cancelled, but in North America some have been re-organised as online events. Goodness knows what we would have done without the Internet and social media platforms, or free video services. The recent emergence of Patreon, and video-sharing sites such as the Fiddle Tunes Video Library and Tunesday Tuesdays, have been a boon to many players. Audiences have been generous - Jerry Douglas has raised thousands for charity in a single night. I myself have spent hundreds a month on live music, and I don't think I'm unusual. We want to support our artists through this, and although some countries and organisations have been thoughtful and pro-active, many have not. Those with grants already awarded, with "regular" jobs as music teachers or therapists, or with well-earned pensions are the lucky few.
It's early days still, but there are already signs that this crisis will destroy many things we took for granted in the folk music world. The economics of live music has shifted from door money to donations, from festival stages to fireside streaming. Maybe this is a way to put the finances back in the hands of the artists, to learn from the micro-payments of Spotify and the subscription model of Patreon. Maybe audiences don't need big venues and scrupulous sound-checks. Of course there will be sad losses, artists who choose to retire and those who switch careers, those events which cannot bounce back, and totems such as The Lounge Bar in Lerwick whose closure is now being suggested. But the music will continue, the traditions will be maintained and evolve, and a new generation will accept the post-COVID world as normal.
In many ways, folk music is lucky. There may be other genres where the online economics are more advanced, or where live performances are not the most crucial part of the story, but there can be few where the music is closer to community and family, where so many performers have learnt their craft locally and still practice it in small community halls, and where the next generation is already raring to go, regardless of venues or funding. Because of COVID I've discovered the likes of Irish Millie in Ontario, the Carter sisters on Prince Edward Ireland, Arthur Coates from Scotland's fiddle heartland, and many more young talents who are now getting as much exposure as previous headline acts. How will they thrive in a world of reduced travel and restricted social gatherings? Only time will tell.
In the second part of this series, What COVID Did Next, I will look at how things progress and what the future may hold.
Photo Credits: (1)-(5) Photo Collages (by Alex Monaghan).