In increasingly uncertain times no one has been left unaffected. Soul Doubt Digital Editor Cailean Coffey spoke to those in the music industry about the potential consequences of the crisis.
The current corona pandemic is unprecedented. With businesses being forcibly closed, freelance workers short of cash and families under immense pressure it’s an understandably stressful time. Health and safety is the priority and with no end in sight the government’s call to stay indoors will simultaneously save lives while harming numerous industries.
One sector hit badly is the creative sector, with venues, artists and individual freelancers now largely unable to continue operating.
The scope of the pandemic’s effects can be illustrated by Belfast hip hop group KNEECAP. The Irish hip-hop threesome took to Instagram to appeal for help as six out of their seven planned shows in the US were cancelled. Subsequently leaving the group hugely out of pocket for flights, accommodation and equipment. The trio set up an ambitious crowdsourcing campaign which was met with continued support by fans, even after the goal had been successfully reached.
Unfortunately, KNEECAP will not be alone in fearing for their livelihood over the next couple of weeks and months. Increasingly, full-time independent Irish artists rely on live ticket sales, including festivals bookings, to pay the bills – which are now put at risk indefinitely. With other creative freelancers careers now at risk, Digital Editor of Soul Doubt, Cailean Coffey chatted with members of Ireland’s music community to assess the potential damage of COVID-19.
At the time of the announcement of the government shutdown, CWB Management had two artists touring internationally: Thumper in the UK and the Two Johnnies in the US. Luckily, manager Joe Clarke and his team had thought ahead. A week before, Clarke had begun to wonder whether his trips to the US and UK were worth the risk. As he watched the reports flood in of lockdowns and border closures in central Europe, he made the decision to begin planning his artists journey home.
“We started off by telling artists that coming home was an option” Clarke recalls.
“Very quickly it became the case where we had to tell them we thought they should come home and that we were going to reschedule everything. The Two Johnnies were in Boston when we made the decision telling them to come home, but the promoters in Boston were still ready to go. Now everyone was very accepting of it but they were like ‘Well nothing has changed here’”.
Benjamin Magee, manager of artists such as Cherym and Joshua Burnside, had a similar story. The seriousness of the situation first began to sink in on his way home from London after hearing confirmation of the first COVID-19 diagnosis in his native Northern Ireland.
“It was reported that he had travelled up through Dublin by bus and that’s when I realised then that this isn’t something that just the rest of the world would have to deal with, it’s something that is right on our doorstep”.
Immediately, he jumped on the phone to promoters to reschedule shows as far into the future as possible, “it’s not even that we’re organising large groups of people into a room but we’re actively promoting it too, so it’s difficult for that not to seem foolhardy in the face of our current situation”.
Both Magee and Clarke agree that the government shutdown was the right decision, yet both worry for what will undoubtedly be a difficult few months. The trouble, however, will be in keeping business ticking over while waiting for the viruses to pass. With the music industry so reliant on cash flow, it can be difficult to watch as fans begin requesting ticket refunds rather than waiting for a rescheduled date. As gigs become an impossibility, both Clarke and Magee admit to seeing live-streamed gigs as key to the industry’s survival, as demonstrated by The Mary Walloper’s St. Patrick’s Day performance in their makeshift bar at home.
“We have a tour booked for Easter but now we’re looking at making it a pay-per-view online” Clarke notes. How long we have to wait before we see Thumper host a Twitch session is yet to be seen.
Touring and session musician Joe Furlong was expecting the virus to arrive in Ireland sooner or later, but it didn’t make the sudden halt in his income any easier.
While he thinks the government’s decision to shut down was the right one, he remains unsure of how effective it’ll prove to be. Pointing towards the number of people known to have the virus and the often asymptomatic nature.
The day after the shutdown was announced, Furlong was in the social welfare signing on for self-employment job seekers allowance, with no sign of work returning soon.
Festival season is a make or break time for musicians to earn a large percentage of their income. Being a session musician Joe has no merch or music to sell and he relies on his musical ability alone to pay the bills. The almost inevitable cancellation of festivals will leave him and many other session musicians without a source of income.
He reiterated the need for a moratorium on rent and mortgages saying, “without it it’s going to be very difficult for a lot of people”.
Once it became clear that there was no way of avoiding COVID-19, Ronan O’Shea’s schedule went from packed to barren within minutes, as almost three months of working hours were wiped clear.
With Cork’s Midsummer festival the next event on his calendar, all stage professionals like O’Shea can do is wait and hope for no further cancellations. “It leaves a lot of uncertainty hanging over us for the next couple of weeks and months” O’Shea admits, “especially for the festival season which we hoped to kick off in June, you know? It’s a big chunk of income affected for us, but also the technicians, designers, and show organisers”. O’Shea had managed to save up money in a rainy day fund, but for many in his positions with commitments such as families or children, that simply wouldn’t have been a possibility.
“In the last recession the people bailed out the banks and it’s looking like it’s time for the banks to bail out the people” O’Shea laughs when asked about the possibility of government intervention for creatives and freelancers.
“Most people in Ireland rent so when you’re talking about freezing mortgage payments, you’re talking mainly about the older generations who are in a better position to cope with the situation, whether they’re employed or receiving their pensions. I’d like there to be a ‘freeze’ for some period of time, to give people an opportunity who work to get by”.
It was with a heavy heart that Jonathan Ngog, better known by his stage name EDEN, announced the cancellation of the European leg of his world tour in support of his ironically titled second album ‘no future’. Having already performed in Dublin, London and Manchester, the team were ready to take a flight to Amsterdam before being told during at the end of a ninety minute phone call that all shows had been cancelled and there was no option but to call it a day.
“We were watching capacity bans slowly creeping into place, but we were fine up until the WHO announced it as a pandemic. Once it got announced as a pandemic everything changed” Ngog recalls.
“A lot of my crew were US citizens so they started to get worried once the US introduced the travel ban. Thankfully the UK was exempt so they were okay to get back home from there, but we wouldn’t have been able had we gone on to Amsterdam”.
The crew had been working on perfecting the live show since the start of January, and Ngog himself had been working on the stage production for over a year, so the decision wasn’t an easy one, but was made with no alternatives.
“Apparently we were the last tour in Europe to cancel, everyone else had already pre-emptively cancelled their stuff but we were still trying our best to keep going” Ngog laughs, “The decision was made for us, there was nothing we could do”.
According to his accounts, this decision will cost Ngog and his manager a sum of over five figures.
Despite the pessimism in the media, Ngog is quick to look to the positives of the situation and the added time he’ll now have to work on new material. “With the new album out this year I’ve actually wanted to just keep making music, so I actually have a carry-on suitcase that’s basically a studio so I’m going to set it all up and start working on some new music” Ngog announces, before adding “but I was really enjoying doing the shows”.
As the world comes to grips with the new reality that is COVID-19, there has never been a more important time for people to work together for the good of the community. In the greatest irony of all, the world is being asked to pull together by staying apart. As the world readies itself for weeks, if not months, of social deprivation; music will play a more important role than ever in everyone’s lives. It will become their solace and shelter from the anarchy in our ecosystem.
It is only through following the HSE guidelines and doing our best to break down the chain of infection that this crisis can be diverted, and if not diverted, at the very least manageable to an already cash and labour strapped health service.
If you are self-employed, you can find information on how to apply for online jobseekers allowance here.
A new COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment is available for employees and self-employed people who are unemployed or who have their hours of work reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can apply for the payments here.
Photos: Nikos Mav // @starfckers