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6 May 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 9:03am

The arts after coronavirus

How our cultural industries are adjusting to the constraints and changing tastes of life under lockdown.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In April, Amazon reported that its customers were spending almost $11,000 (around £8,800) a second on its products and services. The online retailer is proving ever more convenient during lockdown. Its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns 11 per cent of Amazon’s shares, has further reinforced his position as the world’s richest person: some 20 per cent of his $138bn fortune was accumulated over the last four months.

Netflix is another media giant whose power has been intensified by the crisis. It reported almost 16 million new sign-ups in the first quarter of this year, more than double the number it had projected. It may then come as a surprise that Spotify has suffered a dip in listeners. Data from March suggests that music-streaming apps have seen an 8 per cent decrease in use, likely owing to the closure of restaurants, shops and gyms, which often stream playlists. Spotify has however reported a 135 per cent spike in streams of the original social distancing song, the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”, as well as an increased appetite for news podcasts, children’s songs and music described as “chill”. Listeners are also showing an appetite for supporting independent musicians. The online music store Bandcamp announced it would waive fees on the first Friday of May, June and July following a “fee-free” day on 20 March, when fans spent a record $4.3m in direct-to-artist sales.

In the UK, the trend has leaned away from streaming and towards radio, with Global, which owns Capital FM and talk station LBC, reporting a 15 per cent rise in online listening. The BBC has record numbers of people using its platform BBC Sounds to stream live radio and on-demand content, with 3.5 million listeners each week, and a 20 per cent increase in live listening since the lockdown started on 23 March.

In the book world, sales of paperback fiction rose 35 per cent the week before lockdown began, with Waterstones’s online sales up 400 per cent. Data showed an increased interest in classic yet timely titles such as Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and lengthy contemporary novels such as Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, as well as for textbooks and arts and crafts titles.

But with physical bookshops now closed and many unable to trade at all, sales figures for the past month are unavailable. Some independent bookshops are taking orders via email and posting to customers, and many high street booksellers continue a web service. But, with fears of long-term printing and distribution problems coupled with the cancellation of events, many publishers have pushed back their books’ release dates, and some – including Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette – have furloughed staff. There are fears that the knock-on effects of the crisis will disproportionately affect independent presses: they are less likely to have reserve funds, and publish lesser-known writers who, unlike big-name authors, can’t guarantee high sales in whatever climate awaits us.

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Many cultural institutions that traditionally rely on physical performance spaces are taking their work online. On 2 April, more than 200,000 households tuned in to watch the National Theatre’s live stream of One Man, Two Guvnors, the first of the theatre’s weekly live-streamed performances. The play received 2.6 million views during the live stream and via YouTube; 82,223 audience members saw it live at the Lyttleton Theatre during its original 2011 run. Such online initiatives may be widening access, but free events do not make up for lost revenue.

When the British Museum put its entire collection online in 2007 it was one of the first to do so. A long-term project to revamp the existing database was accelerated because of the pandemic and now over 4 million objects are available to view online. Michael Tame, the museum’s website and collections online programmes manager, hopes the revised platform will appeal to both academic researchers and a general audience. It seems to be working: in the month following the museum’s closure due to coronavirus, website visitors were up 120 per cent on the same period in 2019. “There’s something about the permanence of humankind and its ingenuity, how it can be creative under all circumstances, that has always led people to cultural institutions,” Tame told me over the phone last week.

For more than a decade, auction houses have run online sales: 64 per cent of Christie’s global clients bought or bid online in 2019, and 41 per cent of new buyers came in through online sales. The lockdown has only increased that trend: figures from Christie’s April jewellery sale show a 46 per cent rise in unique visitors compared to the February 2020 sale. The top lot was an emerald and diamond necklace that sold for $52,500, a huge amount of money considering the buyer had been unable to see the item in person. As Dirk Boll, president of Christie’s across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, put it, many clients “do still have money” to spend.

This is not true for all arts lovers, though now more than ever many of us do have time to spend. Where we choose to devote that time, and that money, however little it may be, is becoming increasingly significant. 

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain