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Reflections on unlocking live music by Tony Dudley-Evans

Tony Dudley-Evans writes 

Lockdown has given me the opportunity to relax, to think. And – I’ll admit it – I have enjoyed that…

…and I have been enjoying live streamed events such as Around The Houses, put together by musicians in Birmingham (Alex Woods, Chris Mapp and Sam Slater). And others too, notably Liam Noble’s Saturday afternoon solo piano session, Jazz at the Lescar’s sessions, Ronny Graupe’s Into The Shed sessions from Berlin, the virtual Ljubljana Jazz Festival, Liane Carroll’s sessions and several others. And I wrote about the positives HERE.

But reality has struck in the past week.

Here in the UK, in stark contrast to other European countries, live music with an audience is unlikely to be possible until at least next year. And even then it is difficult to see how venues will be able to open with anything like full capacity. In Birmingham I have been in touch informally with venues that Jazzlines and Fizzle/TDE Promotions use to present concerts. All of them are saying that they cannot see a way of opening up for events with an audience before next year. Music pubs such as the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath Birmingham or The Spotted Dog in the Digbeth area of Birmingham are clearly keen to reopen, but are struggling with the guidelines provided by the government.

Those guidelines and its five stages for presenting live music during and after the Covid-19 pandemic have reinforced this feeling of pessimism. And here is why

Stages 1 and 2 allow for the continuation of training and rehearsals and recordings, either in the form of livestreams or for distribution on CD, vinyl or online. Clearly we are in that stage now.

Then Stage 3 allows for outdoor performances with social distancing in place. Stage 4 allows for indoor performance provided social distancing is in place. And then Stage 5 would bring us back to normality with venues being able to operate with full capacity.

The Music Venue Trust, which has done incredibly detailed work and understands the extent to which closed venues are draining cash – see Sebastian’ s interview with Mark Davyd – has pointed out the urgency of the situation: these guidelines are unrealistic and many venues will be forced to close permanently unless they receive financial support. Even Glastonbury is saying that it will fold if it cannot go ahead in 2021.

There is a good summary of the guidelines and the Music Venue Trust’s criticism of them HERE.

The Music Venue Trust has also made the point that the music industry desperately needs financial support from the government and contrasts the situation in UK, where as yet the government has not come up with a support package for the Arts, with the situation in European countries.

At last week’s Jazz Promotion Network (JPN) virtual conference these issues were discussed at length, particularly in a number of group sessions. A number of interesting points arose from these discussions.

One is that audiences may well have changed as a result of the prolonged absence from attending live events. We assume that they will come rushing back once the lockdown restrictions have been eased, but it may well be the case that habits of attendance have been broken. We will need to think of what audiences will be expecting and how we can engage them more directly in the music community.

Part of this will be the integration of streaming as a supplement to live events. We also need to continue to make these live streams more professional in presentation, which means ensuring good sound and visual quality, but also ensuring the quality of the content. We know that the music is usually of a high standard, but live streaming provides the opportunity to do more than just present the music. We can learn from the excellent streaming sessions from, for example, the National Theatre or the Bolshoi Ballet which have featured interviews with directors and performers with the purpose of informing the audience and demystifying the art. I also think we can learn much from the best sports streaming which has a similar role of explaining what is happening in the sport.

At the JPN there was a consensus that building up ideas and practical aspects of community amongst both musicians and audience is key and from what I observe of jazz audiences as a promoter this is possible. Jazz may be a niche music, but it commands strong loyalty from its followers. Addressing this from the perspective of musicians, I have always thought that collectives are a way of creating a stronger musical community and of providing greater control for musicians. In UK collectives such as the Loop Collective and the F-Ire Collective have lost momentum or even ceased to exist after initial successes, largely as a result of the absence of funding; in France, by contrast, there are a number of well-funded collectives, e.g. COAX Collectif, Onze Heures Onze Collectif, that have had a significant impact on the French scene. I see re-establishing and funding UK collectives as a priority.

With regard to audiences, I believe that we should take a number of steps to create or boost a sense of belonging to the jazz community. Membership schemes are one obvious step. Subscriptions schemes can also play a role. For example, Dave Douglas in USA with the Greenleaf label and Dave Smith in UK have set up subscription schemes through which members are entitled to all new releases by the label in the case of the Greenleaf label, and individual recordings in the case of Dave Smith. The Greenleaf annual subscription costs $75 whereas Dave Smith’s costs £10 a month. The Smalls Club in New York also has a subscription scheme through which subscribers can access the archive of past performances at the club for just $10 a month. Such subscriptions benefit both the musician and the audience through this sense of belonging and in the current crisis by creating a feeling of responsibility on the part of the audience towards musicians.

Another suggestion from the JPN virtual conference is that Radio is in the position to support the music scene through commissions and live recordings. The move in recent years has been towards jazz programmes with playlists rather than recorded concerts, so that, for example, Freeness, the relatively new programme of improvised music, plays an excellent selection of recorded music, but does not have the budget to record live concerts or special sessions. I would like to see a revival of the Jazz in Britain programme on BBC Radio 3 that offered up-and-coming bands the opportunity to record and broadcast a 30 minute set of music.

An interesting article in the Guardian HERE shows another way forward. The La Gare club in Paris is setting up solo gigs which audiences can attend one at a time for five minutes. These one-on-one events can also take place in homes. This brings home one point about the differences between the UK jazz scene and scenes in other European countries. In UK with the notable exception of clubs such as The Vortex, Café Oto, Ronnie Scott’s and the 606 in London, The Band on The Wall in Manchester, or the Eastside Jazz Club in Birmingham , jazz, whether it be in a round the year programme or in a specific festival, is presented in arts centres, concert halls and pub rooms, usually on a hire basis, sometimes as part of the venue’s broad programme. This restricts the freedom to carry out experiments such as that in La Gare club. Surely in the long term jazz should be looking to establish more of its own venues.

The jazz community needs above all a voice and a body that takes up the issues with the Arts Council and government. JPN can and should do this. The newly-formed Musicians’ Movement has also made a very promising start.

With thanks to Paul Kelly and Ken Killeen for their summaries of the group discussions in the JPN virtual conference.

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