UK alt-pop outfit Swim Deep was set to open for Harry Styles at the O2 last week. The band made a comeback last fall after a four-year hiatus, with a new lineup and their third studio album – Emerald Classics. This was their year to carve out a spot in the UK’s indie scene once again. Exposure to 20,000 people at the O2 Arena would have been a game-changer, but the show was postponed until this time next year.
Swim Deep was also scheduled to play a show in Bangkok, where their fanbase is steadily growing, until the show was recently cancelled because of COVID-19 concerns. The band is also booked to play a couple of festivals throughout the UK this summer. The fates of these bookings are still being determined.
Instead of performing for audiences, frontman Austin Williams has found himself working from home, walking his three-legged rescue dog from Cyprus named Chance (affectionately referred to as Chance the Crapper), and struggling to adapt to the bizarre reality of the live stream concert.
“The first time I did it I was actually shaking”, says Williams, who has opened for major label acts like the 1975 and performed at Glastonbury. “It was just weird because I didn’t really know what to say or do. There’s no instant reaction. It’s silent… I was definitely more nervous than doing a show… it’s not my stage.”
The other looming difference between a livestream and a live show is that live streams don’t pay. The O2 and Bangkok shows would have provided a significant payout for the band, who at present have no regular income stream. Their royalties are miniscule (Williams revealed that their last statement was only $60, even though Swim Deep gets nearly 150,000 monthly streams). Fortunately, Williams was able to tap into the Music Union’s emergency fund for a £500 grant.
Spotify has introduced a COVID-19 support button on artist pages, which allows listeners to tip their favorite artists. Some artists question whether this is patronizing (why doesn’t Spotify just pay artists more?) but at a time where an overhaul of Spotify is not likely to become a priority, the tips are better than nothing. Selling band merchandise is another potential avenue for generating income, but not all artists can afford the upfront costs of producing merchandise, and many fans and potential buyers are likely to be trying to save money at this time.
Williams is making the best of his time at home by honing his production skills, taking odd jobs to earn some cash, and working to keep the band’s morale high. Swim Deep recorded a cover of Harry Styles’ “Falling” in lieu of their O2 performance. But Williams’ heart goes out to many of his friends and acquaintances, whether they are signed to a label like Swim Deep or roughing it on their own.
“We got kind of lucky,” he reflects. For Swim Deep, 2020 was not their year to prove themselves on the festival stage, showcase their first album, or embark on their first US tour. These are all things they have already done, but Williams has a heavy heart for those who were meant to be doing those things now. “A lot of our friends are in bands and you see a lot of peers… this was their album, or their first time playing SXSW or their first time playing Glastonbury. It’s truly heartbreaking because we had that experience and we were really really lucky to have that.”
For a UK act, the first time playing a gig in North America is a massive opportunity. This would have been the case for Manchester-based Larkins, who landed in Toronto in mid-March, right when the world of live music began to crumble. As soon as they landed, they learned that a couple members of their team would not be able to join them. The next morning, their label called and suggested that they come home.
Frontman Josh Noble was in denial. “Us being us, we all went down to the hotel lobby and were like ‘we’re not going home. We’re going to be fine. Everything is going to be okay. It’s going to calm down’ ”, says Noble. They played their first show in Toronto, but when they moved on to New York to play a headline show at Elsewhere on March 14th, things escalated. On March 13th, their show was cancelled. After visiting an empty Times Square, the band left for the UK to self-isolate and hop onto the livestream bandwagon.
“It was just so obvious that the right thing to do was go home”, explains Noble. “It’s one of those things that as a British band, going to America is such a big deal. It’s really expensive, but it’s also a really big statement. It was something that we always wanted to do, to really tour around some of the major cities in the states. It was just fucking gutting.” Larkins was also supposed to be kicking off their largest UK tour yet this month. For Larkins, an era of growth (and substantial income) was brought to a screeching halt.
The artist who would have opened for Larkins in New York was SHEARE, an LA-based, alt-pop singer/songwriter. As an independent artist without an agent, SHEARE had to hustle to secure this support slot. His backup band was already on tour on the East Coast, so SHEARE only needed to change the band’s flights and book his own. Everything was coming together. Just as quickly, it all fell apart.
The day before his flight, the United States was in a state of panic. His bags and gear were packed, and he anxiously awaited the verdict on the fate of the show. At 4 p.m. on the evening before his 7 a.m. flight to New York, he received a call from the venue: “show postponed until further notice.”
SHEARE lost the money he paid for his and his band’s flights. He was also meant to play an opening slot for Lean at LA’s Moroccan Lounge, but this show was also cancelled. Like Williams, he applied for grants, and managed to secure a grant from the Musicares Foundation. But SHEARE points out that these grant funds will not last forever, and that nobody knows when the impact of the pandemic will end.
As an independent artist, SHEARE explains that, “things were such an uphill battle before… If you were an indie artist you tour and you are reliant on streaming services to create a demand for a tour. Now one of those things is completely gone.” As an artist, performing live is a crucial source of income, regardless of the level of professional success that you have achieved. Just as importantly, the rush of the live performance is often what makes the hustle worthwhile. Live streaming pales in comparison.
SHEARE is sentimental, explaining, “I think [live streaming] is better than nothing but I don’t think that it’s ever going to replace the emotion or even simulate the same emotion of performing live and feeling the energy in the room and just feeling how a kickdrum feels in your chest when you’re playing live.”
Is the future of live music a glitching live stream blasting through tinny computer speakers, accompanied by a virtual tip-jar? Will audiences and artists no longer hear the vibrating bass in their chests, the ringing in their ears later that night as they get ready for bed? If the coronavirus pandemic continues to put a halt to live music gatherings, artists who have not tipped the scale into fame and fortune will be reduced to cyber-busking for Cash App tips, and sitting alone in silence at the end of each song.