Live music, pilot events and hopes dashed

I’ve had an inkling of what it’s like to be a political journalist this week. Or at least what i think it might be like, starting the week thinking the angle on live performance was documenting the first tentative post-COVID steps and the hope that emanates from attending DCMS ‘pilot events’ at St John’s Smith Square or invitation recordings at Hatfield House. A few days later, ending the week feeling oddly crushed that venues I hold dear having to shelve plans for socially-distanced concerts in August because of Boris Johnson’s surprise announcement pausing the easing of lockdown restrictions. It’s difficult to pinpoint what the angle is when the target keeps shifting.

I started the day with a press release about Snape Maltings innovative response to managing the demand of a socially-distanced audience by offering ‘pay what you want’ for access to a 45 minute programme of live music. A pragmatic response, I thought. A vision of the future. Maybe the start of a new path. Could I combine a weekend trip to East Suffolk on the 7th or 8th or 9th with a parental visit in West Suffolk too, I pondered. Could I justify that expense? And if I could, why was I doing it? Was it for me? Was it for a blog post? Was it for the venue? That’s what it’s come to. In case you’re wondering: it’s a little from columns a, b, and c.

A radical shake up is what’s coming. I’ve heard three different PRs (not this week I hasten to add) say that to me as being the opportunity for the industry presented by COVID19. The most obvious example of that opportunity already being grasped is digital. Some organisations get it and have responded editorially in an authentic and relevant way. Others have been a little twee. Some have even dared to take the plunge with paywalled concert performances. One starts this weekend – the Live from London Festival.

That such projects have sprung up without the slavish deference paid to the likes of Medici TV (until they truly offer a casting facility that supports actual video their £14.99 a month subscription is an extortionate amount of money to spend chained to your laptop or mobile) highlights the next step U.K. arts organisations might as well take in the twelve months: daring to ask its audience to actually pay for its content. Those organisations who do so first will rightly take the glory. Because in the absence of a viable independent live-streaming platform that serves U.K. musicians, they might as well give it a go. According to the FT for example, Live from London secured 2000 subscribers a week before the first stream too. Even accounting for over-inflation of figures, to have secured revenue at all right now is a story worth shouting about.

As far as I’ve witnessed this week there are three possibly four people in the game – Stagecast, a chap from Cambridge, Apple and Biscuit and Barney Smith (plus the producers the ensembles have kept on). They all have the business acumen, strategic vision and the kit to offer the infrastructure which could create a platform for organisations to serve up their content and, importantly, get a fair cut. It won’t substitute ticket sales and album sales (I don’t think) but it would be a start.

I like too the nimble responses of organisations – the resourcefulness and pragmatism – to make something of this, to dare (as far as I can make out) to press on regardless anyway. To do the very best they can. The idea of a 45 minute concert does seem crushingly short. But then, what’s more important? That groups of up to 25 can hear a Mendelssohn Cello Sonata in an intimate setting or than we wait until more financially viable audience groups can hear a longer concert performance and in the meantime there be silence? I’d go for the former. And if I got used to that maybe shorter concerts would be something I just got used to anyway. It’s what the New Music Biennial we’re doing a few years ago. I remember quite appreciating that format.

Is it heartbreaking or is it all in my imagination?

One thing that did surprise me interviewing people this week at St John’s Smith Square was the extent to which the shutdown of live events had prompted me to project a lot of my own sense of disappointment onto performers and arts administrators. Neither Richard Heason nor Gesualdo Six Director Owain Park bit on the emotive question in the way I thought they would. That’s either because I’ve assumed their heartbreak to be the same as mine and completely misjudged things or they’re utterly professional. Let’s go with the latter (because they are actually professional anyway).

Still I think of those who have spent time building up to their own organisations moment of reemergence – orchestra managers, chief execs and musicians – and can’t help but think they must feel massively disappointed. Effort expended for a particular deadline, only to have hopes dashed. It won’t be a fortnights delay – this will surely go on for longer than that. And when I think like that I can’t help but think of this not as live performance stopped, but people struggling to do the right thing not for audiences but for their colleagues. Because the arts enables livelihoods.

In conclusion

The Johnson announcement was a blow. The conversations where one industry expert posited that orchestras wouldn’t play for a year was probably true but still too difficult to hear. Everybody should stop thinking describing their season as a ‘virtual festival’ is endearing or acceptable because it’s annoying the hell out of me: virtual isn’t a substitute for real, stop trying to make out it might be – at best it’s quaint, at worst it’s fascile.

On the plus side, Elder and Coote’s Sea Pictures, the Helen Grimes and Beethoven 3 that followed in the BBC Proms archive concert this week was a blissful treat – so full of energy, rasp and depth. I’m now wondering whether COVID19 was the best thing that could have happened to the Beethoven celebrations this year.

Onward. This blog has a revised editorial vision: keeping the flame alight for a year (or however long it takes).

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