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From touring to Tesco: How live music crews are coping during the pandemic

The live music industry has been one of the worst-hit sectors during the pandemic. Roisin O’Connor speaks to crew members about what they’ve been doing to survive in such a challenging time – from stacking shelves to cashing in their pensions

Roisin O'Connor
Music Correspondent
Thursday 04 March 2021 13:47 GMT
Experts discuss Rishi Sunak's budget

When the pandemic set in at the beginning of last year, the live music industry was one of the first to feel the effects. Stadiums and arenas that had once been filled with thousands of screaming fans fell silent. Small music venues were forced to ask regulars for donations just to keep from shutting down permanently, while thousands of workers across the UK found themselves sitting at home, as the industry they loved was brought to its knees.

“It’s not so much a job as a lifestyle,” says Karen Ringland, co-founder of the We Need Crew initiative, which was launched to support out-of-work crew members struggling to cope with life without live music. “When you have to spend so much time at home, it really plays on your mental health.”

With Alice Martin, Ringland has been volunteering her own time to help raise £250,000 since October, which is turned into grants for the most financially vulnerable touring, theatre and events crew. Between them, Ringland and Martin have worked with bands including 5 Seconds of Summer, Spice Girls, Westlife and Sigur Ros, overseeing shows at arenas and other venues around the world. Yet all of that came to a crashing halt in March last year.

“We set up We Need Crew purely because we were disheartened by everything, including the stories from our friends and colleagues,” Ringland says. “Ordinarily we can spend 10 months of the year away, and you’re living in this bubble with artists on tour.”

Among the artists to have supported the campaign is former One Direction star and successful solo artist Niall Horan, who sold more than 125,000 tickets to his livestreamed Royal Albert Hall gig in November.

“He was amazing at promoting it, doing interviews and everything he could to raise awareness,” Ringland says. “I think the timing of that was really poignant; we needed something positive.”

Their new initiative, the GoFundMe campaign #MoveforCrew, aims to raise more vital funds for the charity Backup Tech, while also improving crew members’ mental health. The initiative works with counsellors and with Music Support and Music and You, providing mental health therapy to industry professionals.

Martin says they’ve had a fantastic response from artists from all different genres. “We’re going to keep going with it.”

Their campaign comes just as the latest Budget omitted any kind of insurance scheme to support live music this summer, despite urging from the DCMS and pressure from festival organisers who have already announced their plans to go ahead with 2021 events.

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This will likely throw the live sector into even more uncertainty. Smaller-scale and independent festivals will be unable to go ahead without the assurance of financial protection should they be forced to cancel due to Covid. This means members of the live music sector are facing another summer with no work.

Julian Knight, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee, says the absence of any kind of insurance scheme in the Budget was “disappointing”.

“It is welcome that the Treasury has listened to the case pressed by this committee for additional support for our outstanding arts, creative and sporting sectors that have been hit so hard by the impact of the pandemic,” he says.

“However, it is greatly disappointing that the government appears not to have heard our call to give its backing to cancellation insurance schemes for festivals, which would provide a safety net should organisers need to cancel plans and enable more to go ahead with confidence this summer.”

Andy Washington, 57, was forced to cash in his pension after being put out of work by the pandemic. He’d previously been employed by “a very popular London venue”, when he wasn’t touring with US Americana and folk acts, including the late Justin Townes Earle, The Handsome Family, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Mary Gauthier.

“The combined effects of Brexit and Covid have killed off my business for the foreseeable future,” he tells The Independent.

“I’d normally pick up an act at Heathrow and stay with them for a long pan-European tour ending back in the UK three or four weeks later. Even when it’s safe to do so, this type of touring will not be financially viable any longer.”

The live music industry is full of uncertainty about when things will get ‘back to normal’ (AP2011)

Washington adds that even before the pandemic, the “new horrors” of crossing borders post-Brexit had already been putting off US-based acts from touring in the UK. “Some won’t be coming here at all as our economy has been hit so hard,” he says.

He reveals that, while his mental health has been OK, the pandemic has taken a physical toll because he is no longer running around after bands: “I am currently dieting for the first time ever to try to address the weight gain.”

One guitar technician for a major UK arena band, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he has been working on a building site since October. He describes the job – along with a few gift payments from his main band – as a “godsend”.

“Money-wise its not close to my regular pay, but it’s work,” he says. “The mortgage is being paid and my kids are getting fed. I’ll be eternally grateful to my friends for offering that job.

“Now I’m just waiting for gigs to start again. I’m hopeful for the autumn and next year, I do worry if there will be an industry to return to though.”

Dick Meredith, 57, is the tour manager for Bastille – one of the UK’s most successful pop bands of the past decade – but since March has been working as a shelf-stacker and delivery driver for Tesco in Lincolnshire. He’d been working on a show in Cardiff for The Script when he caught Covid-19 himself and was ill for two weeks. Predicting it would be some time before his industry was back to normal, he then applied for a job at Tesco and spent six months stacking shelves overnight in his local store.

Bastille tour manager Dick Meredith (Courtesy of Dick Meredith)

“It was quite the ego-shatterer,” he admits. “From being senior management doing arena shows to stacking soup and baked beans. It gave me lots of time to think – it also destroyed my knees.”

Meredith lost his job as a shelf-stacker in September last year due to redundancies, but then got a job as a delivery driver (alongside the stage manager for children’s entertainer Mr Tumble) which he found fulfilling as he felt he was helping vulnerable people. “I see these old ladies who haven’t spoken to anyone all week,” he says.

Thanks to Bastille’s touring crew, Meredith says most major supermarkets are “covered in the delivery department”.

“We have a WhatsApp group of all the delivery drivers,” he says. “Our keyboard tech is at Asda, our guitar tech drives for Morrison’s, and our production manager’s been doing the local bakery for Amazon.”

He remains sceptical about plans for festivals and tours taking place this summer, pointing out logistical issues like artists and their crew from overseas needing to quarantine for 10 days: “Who’s going to pay for that?”

Many crew members, faced with losing their homes or finding work elsewhere, have ended up launching businesses in industries they previously knew nothing about.

Andy Bibey, 33, was working as an independent tour manager for artists including Declan J Donavan and Rhys Lewis before the pandemic hit – before that he was the head of international for record label One Little Indian. However, after six months of no touring work, he set up the South London Sauce Company, which he runs from his own flat.

“It's as close to ‘retraining in cyber’ as I could get,” he says. “It's a whole new process, lots of new things to have learned and keep me busy running a start up in the middle of a pandemic.”

Bibey says he was “absolutely clueless” as to how to start or run his business, calling it a “steep learning curve”.

“But like the touring community, there's a wonderful group of supportive people in local business who have been awesome supporting my venture.

“I'd love to be able to somehow run it alongside touring when we are able to get back on the road.”

It’s been almost exactly a year to the day since he had a paid live music gig: “What I’d give to get back to a sweaty club or festival!”

Stephen Kirkwood and Steven Galloni’s music and training studio business, SKapade Studios, was the product of six years of work, growing a business from the Scottish town of Dumbarton that encompassed gigs, production, live events and working in schools teaching young people how to create music.

“It all disappeared overnight,” Stephen says over email. “It was a very scary time and we had to think very quickly as to what we were going to do next.”

Knowing he and his partner had to move fast to adapt to “the new normal”, Stephen decided to launch their own pizzeria, their other passion outside music. “I started making calls to shops that unfortunately didn't survive the pandemic and weren't reopening,” he says. “ Our first choice was an old roll shop situated very close to Dumbarton Rock and has an amazing view of the castle.”

They were in luck: the owners wanted to sell the place. Within a few short months, they’d managed to secure the funds to launch their new business and set up Dumbarton’s first authentic Italian pizza place, Bangin’ Pizza.

“The response since opening has been overwhelming,” he says. “We’ve been completely sold out of pizza every night and we’re a firmly established part of the local food scene. We are constantly learning and adapting as we go, and we’re so proud of our pizza and what we have created in the community.”

Describing the experience as “completely surreal”, Stephen says he still hopes that they can rejoin the music industry in the near future. “Until then, it’s pizza pizza pizza!”

Meredith thinks the pandemic will spark a serious reassessment of the business structure for the live music industry, which employs a vast number of freelancers who didn’t have pensions to fall back on when they were put out of work.

“Lots of us live very much day-to-day,” he says. “I think the pandemic is going to make people rethink how things are done. Because this is not sustainable.”

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