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10 February 2021

Fearing for the future of the music business, I’m haunted by the ghosts of gigs past

Glastonbury’s cancellation comes as another blow upon the painful bruise being felt by the whole music industry. Yet the magnitude of the crisis is under-recorded.

By Tracey Thorn

Glastonbury being cancelled again feels like a big deal, doesn’t it? For the past couple of months it has seemed inevitable; yet still, when the announcement came, I got a sinking feeling. Not that I ever actually go to Glastonbury, you understand, not since the time Everything but the Girl played the Pyramid stage a hundred years ago, but I do like to watch it on TV, and I like the idea of it, and take vicarious pleasure in how much other people love it; how it is the highlight of their year and how their joy radiates from the TV screen on those late summer afternoons as the sun dips and the flags wave.

Its cancellation comes as another blow upon the painful bruise currently being felt by the music business as a whole. I’ve never known a time of such struggle and difficulty, and it still seems as though the magnitude of the situation is under-recorded. On the news, there are regular updates about the state of the hospitality industry, and the same questions are asked: When will the pubs open? How can restaurants operate safely? I understand this entirely, and yet I could stand to hear more often about the plight of the live entertainment scene, and what is being done to help those involved.

Venues and theatres have sat dark and empty for ten months now, and with no hope of opening any time soon. I think of them sometimes at night, and how, although we can’t visit them, they are still there, waiting for us to come back, wondering where we are.

I think of chairs stacked on tables and dust gathering on bottles behind the bar; of cloakrooms with no coats and tip-up seats which are never folded down; shuttered box offices, and dressing rooms with no rider on the table, and the Hollywood lights around the mirror all switched off. I picture ghosts sweeping through deserted halls and arenas, the spirits of every band that has ever toured silently haunting venues up and down the country. Or perhaps noisily haunting them. Perhaps in the dead of night the walls of tiny clubs ring with the sounds of rock ’n’ roll, and the dance floors of empty discos pound out a repetitive beat, and the lights flash, and the phantom crowds all sing.

[see also: The thing I miss most is dancing: that rush of euphoria, all caught up in the thrill of the moment]

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I imagine all this because the alternative, the reality, is so strange. I witnessed at close hand the moment tours were shut down overnight in spring 2020, as Ben’s was among them. He’d played two weeks of gigs, starting in early March, and even that seems incredible now. Consulting his doctors in February, he’d been told to wash his hands a lot and to try to avoid other people. But each night he’d gone on stage and sung in front of a couple of hundred fans, all shoulder to shoulder in a little club, and the next day he’d travelled to another town to do it again.

The day before his London gig on 14 March we were becoming more alarmed and uncertain. Friends called to ask if the gig was still on, a note of anxiety in their voices, unsure about going out. Nothing had been banned by the government – concerts were still permitted. Yet, like many others, Ben took matters into his own hands, and cancelled at 24 hours’ notice.

We sat at home and watched, somewhat bitterly, as other gigs took place that night, some of them with quite large crowds. It still shocks me that, in that moment, decisions of such importance were being taken by individuals – not experts, or elected officials, but artists, trying to decide whether it was morally defensible to gather people together in a hall, or whether it might kill them.

In that initial moment of shock, there was also an unfounded optimism. How long could this go on for, we wondered, and came to wildly inaccurate conclusions. Ben’s gigs were rescheduled for October 2020, then May 2021, and now they are cancelled, the endless postponement more depressing than letting them go and moving on, at least for now.

Ben is just one of many, of course. For a lot of our friends – musicians, DJs, actors, directors, sound engineers – this is a bleak and difficult time. The world of live music, and clubs, and theatre, is in peril like never before, and it’s by no means certain that all small venues, or all careers, will survive.

[see also: How Boris Johnson’s government “took a wrecking ball” to the music industry]

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This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair