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Can live music recover from the destructive forces of the pandemic?

Few areas of society have escaped the Covid curse and most have been sent reeling by its poison. The hospitality hit has been of sledgehammer proportions and within our small world of extreme metal many struggle to stay afloat. Paul Castles goes in search of industry figures – and a few fans – to take the temperature and to see if the light at the end of the tunnel is to be welcomed or treated with caution.

Covid-19 has pulled metal into its supine swamp in unforgiving fashion. Many have no doubt been pulled under for eternity never to surface again. But as the Government finally starts to gradually loosen the shackles, festivals may be among first to benefit.

While Desertfest has already been lost for the second successive year, and the fields around Donington will remain quiet this summer, elsewhere there are a few rays of light. Bloodstock have a spring in their step, while ticket sales for Damnation Fest in November are such that a momemtum of positivity is building around the Leeds Uni event returning this year.

“If we’re ever going to get back to a pre-pandemic life, it’s either going to be by November… or never,” says Damnation chief Gavin McInally, although the Scot remains uncertain quite where we’ll all be in seven or eight months’ time. “Talk of things such as digital passports is so far above my pay grade, I’d be foolish to even chip in with an opinion. The idea that a Scottish and Irish guy putting on some metal bands in England, are going to have any input or say on a matter a public health, at an international level, is too far-fetched for me.”

Assuming that Damnation does get the green light, exactly who we’ll find on the four stages is another question with so many bands scheduled to jet in; Onslaught, Pallbearer and Pig Destroyer from the US alone to name just three.

“It is the uncertainty of it all,” sighs Gavin. “If the UK is in the clear but the US is still in a mess, what will that mean for those bands? But stressing about issues that we have absolutely no control or influence over seems like a massive waste of time and energy to me, so we’ll go with Plan A until we’re told we can’t!”

Northern-based PR guru Simon Glacken works with a raft of big hitters including Paradise Lost, Mork and Mono and like all self-employed people it’s been a turbulent time of late. “It’s obviously been really tough to see a lot of bands lose a big part of their income, especially those who are in a band full-time,” says Simon. “Away from the financial side of things, just the fact that they aren’t able to get together to rehearse, write, record or play has been tough. I worked on Paradise Lost’s most recent album Obsidian and there was a special Leeds album launch show planned for 2020. It was then knocked back to 2021 and is now booked in for February 2022.”

While the traditional album release/tour cycle has hit the buffers, more enterprising artists have explored new ground. “Some bands such as Katatonia have played virtual shows and then gone on to release them as a live album,” adds Simon.

As someone operating at an international level, the murky travel window presents Simon with additional concerns. “If a band from a certain country on the red list is coming over here to tour or play a festival then any sort of quarantine won’t make that feasible,” he warns. As for the emotional pull of the past year, Simon has – like so many others – had to wade through some choppy waters.

“Emotionally it has been tough, especially during those first few months when there was so much uncertainty and you saw friends in the industry losing jobs. I’ve tried to distract myself by focusing a lot on music and my health too. I’ve definitely spent way too much money on buying vinyl and also beer from the brewery down the road… but I try and justify that as me supporting local businesses!”

As managers we have had to work harder, with less tools, under tremendous pressure knowing that the bands depend on us financially and look to us for guidance

Vicky Langham, Northern Music Company

Band manager Vicky Langham, of the Shipley-based Northern Music Company, has been through a similar experience and has supported her stable of artists in being creative in coming up with new ideas. “We have had to adapt and find new ways of working and creating income to help bands stay afloat,” says Vicky. “We looked at expanded merch ranges, online streaming, and utilising content like back catalogues. Bands have really had to step up creating content at home in order to reach the fans online, but obviously, some adapt better than others. As managers we have had to work harder, with less tools, under tremendous pressure knowing that the bands depend on us financially and look to us for guidance. It has been incredibly challenging.”

Uncertainty around travel also worries Vicky. “Touring margins were already very tight and, with so many venues going under and promoters being cautious, fees could be lower than usual, with fewer places to play. All this means we are starting on the back foot, before you add on any additional visa costs, carnets and customs fees for merchandise and equipment etc. When touring opens up again, the bands lucky enough to survive will be chomping at the bit to get out so there will be a lot of competition for venues.”

As for the lost tours, a couple hit Vicky particularly hard. “Paradise Lost and Katatonia, both released incredible albums that received brilliant reviews,” she says. “So, it was doubly disappointing to not to be able to see them go out and play them in all their majesty. I am looking forward to them being able to do that very soon!”

Swedish heavyweights Katatonia dipped their toe into the virtual concert arena

Across Europe, most summer metal fests have already been axed, and the same fate has befallen Download. There are though some summer showcases that are still afloat, Leeds and Reading, and in our smaller metal world, Bloodstock where organisers will be hoping that the withdrawal by Mercyful Fate is not the first of many.

Among the bands desperate to return to Catton Park in August are south coast heavy hitters Grave Lines. Their inimitable axeman Oli Irongiant has seen his life flipped on its head in the past year, losing not only band activities but his job too. “It’s been incredibly hard seeing our tours, festivals and gigs affected one after the other, but between the promoters and us we’ve carried the flame of hope by postponing gigs instead of cancelling,” says Oli. “We got together with Hotel Radio to broadcast one of the UK’s first live stream and socially distanced virtual gigs back in June which was a massive boost after months of not having been in front of powerful amps! We’ve had time to prepare for a new album in a more in-depth way which is a huge upside to being housebound for months on end.”

I only wish the government had done more to protect our heritage, and that some of the most vulnerable venues didn’t have to rely so much on their patrons support, whilst having to lay off their staff

Oli Irongiant, Grave Lines
Grave Lines guitarist Oli Irongiant Photo: Kan Lailey

But Oli also acknowledges the toll the past 12 months have taken on him. “Playing and watching heavy music is for me, as with a lot of my friends, a form of therapy, and helps to deal with a lot of mental health problems. Getting to perform in a cathartic and primal manner, helps in a way that medication and therapy hasn’t come close to. So to suddenly have that coping mechanism yanked from beneath our feet is both saddening and disorienting to say the least.

“I spent a long time anxious about my job. We held a very successful pub fundraiser, but after many continued months of closure I was made redundant from my managing role at the Lex. After this I had to let go of a lot of the fears and moved back to my old coastal home in Brighton and immersed myself with a lot more spiritual practices and songwriting – things that I’d neglected in the first bleak months,” adds Oli.

“I only wish the government had done more to protect our heritage, and that some of the most vulnerable venues didn’t have to rely so much on their patrons support, whilst having to lay off their staff. I also feel for all of the tour managers, stage managers, sound engineers and crew that lost their jobs and income. Thank goodness for the spirit of heavy metal, the burning torch will remain steadfast in anticipation of the resurrection of our beloved venues and festivals.”

Conjurer are hoping to return to Bloodstock in August

Midlands crushing crew Conjurer are set to make their main stage Bloodstock bow in August, but guitarist Brady Deeprose refuses to lose sight of the bigger picture.

“I think public health and safety is the most important factor and the last thing I want is to rush the return of shows if it’s not safe,” he says. “That said, this has been a really tough year and if we are able to make festivals happen it will truly be a time to unite and be thankful for this music we all love. We’ve been lucky enough to need a break – our 2020 was heavily booked with shows and there’s no way we’d have our record finished without a forced end to that momentum. It’s definitely got to us mentally in the last few months – this is the longest any of us have gone without playing a show in the last decade.”

Any talk of a return to ‘normal’ comes with a heavily underscored caveat from Brady. “I think it’s possible in the long term – but it’s a long way off. I think the way this generation thinks about physical space, hygiene, and safety has fundamentally changed and that won’t just go out the window for most people. I just hope that whatever we are left with allows people to get that visceral live experience as soon as possible.”

Bloodstock of course is nothing without its army of supporters, every single one of whom is hoping to return to the hallowed Derbyshire site in August. Matt Wathen from Tewkesbury, a Bloodstock regular since 2004, says: “It’s like a spiritual home for me. Since starting a family, my gig presence has reduced, and it wasn’t until I heard live music when on holiday (after the first lockdown) that I realised quite how much I missed it, but also sadly, took it for granted and quite how much it meant to my mental health.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Matt-Wathen.jpg
Bloodstock regular Matt Wathen, left, with family and friends….”Bloodstock is like a spiritual home to me”

Jon Sick from Hertfordshire has pitched up in the Serpent’s Lair for the past 10 years. “I was pretty devastated last year and I’m worried if the vaccine will be administered in time for the festival.” Jon’s must see holy trinity for August are Dark Tranquillity, Paradise Lost and Dimmu Borgir and he holds out that metal and the underground scene will bounce back

“I’m active in my local scene and everyone is eager to get back to rehearsals and gigs. At the moment, nobody knows what condition venues and support staff will be in. It also remains to be seen what many larger bands will do given the reduction of revenue. Overall, the scene will get to some sort of normal, but it will be a voyage of discovery and a long one at that.”

Steve Jenkins, from South Wales, played the New Blood Stage with Democratus in 2018. “I was gutted last year and while more hopeful now for 2021 I’m still fighting my internal cynic that something will go wrong!” says Steve. “As a punter and musician, it’s been so hard missing out on the catharsis of performing and the friendships. It will take a while, but I do believe we’ll get back to normal at some point.”

Birmingham wrecking crew Ashen Crown made their Bloodstock debut four years ago. “I was gutted it was lost last year as BOA has become a bit of metal mecca to meet up with many of the mates I’ve made through music,” says guitarist Ste Fowkes. “Live music is one of my main releases and escapes from the day to day. I’m staying optimistic for this year as a second postponement would be awful. Hopefully the masses will be hungry for shows when this is all over and events are well attended. “

Frazer Hart is another fortunate enough to be able to view Bloodstock through the eyes of both fans and artists, having performed with Leicester’s finest Blood Oath in 2017. “It was pretty gut-wrenching to miss out last year. We see so many people we only see on our Bloodstock holiday. Just like a holiday, for us it’s the build-up and preparation as well as the actual event. In fact we missed it that much last year we went to a campsite in the middle of nowhere on that weekend and randomly camped next to a bunch of Bloodstockers doing the same!

Bloodstock has a special place in the heart of Blood Oath Photo: Will Tudor

“We make no joke that Blood Oath formed just to play Bloodstock, to be a part of such a piece of British metal social history. We all go every year regardless just because it’s a perfect mix of friends at a giant party and a such broad spectrum of music but yeah we feel part of it in a small way and we, like so many of our peers want to continue being a part of it. BOA provides such an important opportunity for bands to network so I think all bands are really feeling the pain of missing all of that on top of the rest of the festival. Yes, we may have to queue for an extra hour or so to get in while we are tested or whatever but let’s face it we would all jump at that chance now, right?”

In touching upon what possible Covid testing may be required before gigs and festivals fully return there are already companies proffering possible solutions. London based start-up You Check has been exploring a coupling of its own innovative technology with the NHS track and trace software.

A ‘digital health passport’ would allow venue door staff to quickly verify an attendee’ name, age, ticket and important test result in one place as well as providing a crucial communication link between promoters and their audiences. Working closely with the Music Venue Trust (MVT), who fear more than 400 grassroots music venues are at imminent risk of closure, trials will take place at London’s 100 Club and Bristol’s 250 capacity Exchange.

Will the much talked about digital passport be required for gig and festival goers in the future?

You Check’s unique notification system has been adapted to assist track and trace by securely and accurately connecting with attendees and their accompanying test result data. As a result, event-goers can be channelled to test facilities. The plan is for the shows in London and Bristol to be at 25 per cent capacity, two sets of tests with the same people, and to build up from there at venues across the country.

The pandemic has been damaging to so many people operating within the music industry. Some magazines have ceased publication and photographers are among those to have seen their work opportunities fall off a cliff. Celebrated photographer Sabrina Ramdoyal lost out on around 70 gigs and four major festivals last year and things have inevitably taken a toll. Like so many people she has had to explore new work openings.

“I am fortunate that I have a day job to helps pay the bills and keep my mind active,” says Sabrina. “But, to have a day job day in and out with nothing else to do has affected my personality. Along with my fiancé, I have been exercising five times a week and it has boosted my morale so far. I have been studying food photography in the meantime and I hope to have a few projects confirmed soon. I have been listening to a lot of metal , both introduced and re-acquainted so it has kept me sane. 

Top snapper: Sabrina Ramdoyal

I am keeping an eye on Europe to see what rules will be on place when lockdown is lifted. I’m aiming to do at least two European festivals once things have come to some kind of normality,” adds Sabrina. 

“I was nominated for ‘Best Photographer’ at the Heavy Music Awards last year, and that gives me the push to come back stronger when shows are back. But, I will admit that this was not very easy.

“It felt as though I had lost my identity. Looking over my work and listened to music has helped me through the tough times.  I know things will be emotional on my first show back, but I’m proper upbeat for it! However, I will also make sure that I still follow rules when shows come back. I will still be careful even if the virus won’t go away quickly.

While Bloodstock and Damnation cling to the hope of a return this year, spare a thought also for Desertfest, who have seen their Camden colours lowered now for two years in a row.

“It goes without saying that it’s been extremely tough,” says Desertscene festival organiser, Sarika Rice. “It’s been distressing at times but we’ve received such amazing support from this community which has not only helped us keep our necks above water financially, it’s reconfirmed and reinvigorated how important & loved Desertfest is to underground music.

Pulling the plug for the second time was hard to do but ultimately Sarika felt the organisers were left with no choice. “How can you roll-over a line-up when half the acts aren’t even allowed on a plane yet? I totally understand why so many events have wanted to immediately go out with a line-up once postponing, but I’d rather hold on until things are more concrete. Brexit is an utter shambles and makes me sad, but we need to accept there’s no going back now.

“If we want to keep the magic of independent, grassroots touring alive, then promoters, agents and venues need to come together better than before to make this work. but this scene is so hungry to get back out and support. Our Desertfest line-up for 2022 is complete and I can’t wait to get that out into the world, as something fresh, concrete and exciting! “

Sarika has also been fighting on two fronts with the very public fundraising fight to keep the pumps pulling for the metal and stoner community at the legendary Camden boozer, the Black Heart. “As I write this they just hit the £100k mark!” says Sarika. “The Black Heart is so special to the London music scene, it would be a travesty if it doesn’t survive. But it will, there’s no way that tequila riddled black-hole is going anywhere!”

Bloodstock 2021

Damnation 2021

Desertfest 2022

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