As we start to come out of lockdown, we know that we have all faced challenges but I am writing this to highlight how it has affected musicians. These are the people that we turn to when we seek entertainment, community cohesion, celebration, a chance to dance, or a way to feel. We are not frontline workers, but we are an important part of any functioning society.
The initial impact was the immediate end of income and I want to start with a MASSIVE thanks to all of the organisations that came forward with emergency money for musicians without work. It has been so deeply appreciated and more of a relief than I can properly express! Our society previously primed us for maximum productivity (in many cases, overworking) and for folk in the gig economy, staying home equates to no money. For freelancers, an empty week is scary. There is the social guilt about ‘time off’, the worry about never getting asked to play again and the fear of general economic insecurity. As an unproven newcomer to this scene, mine was a pretty precarious existence anyway, but nobody foresaw the shutdown of the entire industry. After a couple of years here, I felt I had reached a point of traction, where much of my summer was booked and I was really looking forward to what was lined up. Imagine our shock in March (for me, it was Friday the 13th) when all of the gigs suddenly disappeared, within hours!
They say that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. As a child, I intended to be a scientist when I grew up and earned a degree in geology and geophysics to that end. However, I graduated as the bottom fell out of the Australian mining industry – just in time for mass unemployment in that sector. Having applied for lots of graduate geology jobs that subsequently no longer existed, I did need some time to grieve. It is really hard to watch the career that you thought would be stable and secure just evaporate! I am still unbelievably grateful that I earned a classical music degree concurrently, because I was able to go to work in music and music education, which I have loved and (until March) that served me extremely well. That too suddenly become a dead end, but it happened to every musician I know! For myself, finances made my period of denial extremely short, but the other stages of grief took time. When I remembered having to reassess my identity and purpose without geology, I was still extremely upset, but felt slightly more prepared for this situation.
I was a shadow of myself for about a month. I felt angry every time I looked at my fiddle and played the absolute minimum for several weeks. I felt betrayed by it (irrational, I know) but I had been so excited about the gigs I was booked for – both the music I was preparing to play and the fact that I had been asked to play them. I had been booked for plenty of “depping” (filling in) for other fiddle players, which only works when everyone is busy and I definitely felt the loss for the whole team. It is still unbelievably hard to accept that all of my favourite musicians are also mostly unemployed – they definitely do not deserve to be! While I couldn’t look at my fiddle, I put my practice time towards guitar, old time banjo and resurrected some classical viola repertoire. (I still feel pretty bad about inflicting so many very average banjo and guitar sounds on my flatmate.) But it showed me that, even when my relationship with my main instrument turns sour, I still cannot turn away from music altogether. With enough determination, every cloud can have a silver lining.
Being a musician is an interesting way of life. We get into it for many reasons. On the noble end of the scale is bringing people together and on the more exuberant end, is a love of the spotlight. There are many reasons in between, but it is quite confronting to realise that, though the gigs might disappear, the high that comes from being in a room with applause actually has no substitute. I think some musicians are dealing with this by doing online concerts, which I have been enjoying watching, but personally, I am intimidated by the amount of computer and gear knowledge needed to do a good job of it.
Music here is a way of life – more than an occupation. Nearly everyone I know in Scotland, I know through music. Entertaining hours are the opposite of working 9-5 (thanks Dolly), so we end up socialising at times that seem ridiculous to other folk and working every Saturday night. I never fully unpack all of my suitcases, because I expect I will need them again soon and I always look forward to travelling, then returning with new tales of adventure. It is strange for the whole music scene to be equally free to play and yet, unable to hang out together. Also, to have hardly any stories to share when we do talk, because what we do and where we are, are suddenly very similar (“I sat at home, ate food, listened to music and practiced a bit. You?”). My solution to this has either been to chat about what we’re learning, or if my friends find music too sad right now, use our imaginations for big concepts (for example, redesigning society on the other side of the pandemic – not that anyone will ask us, but we can dream).
I have heard a lot of people saying that creativity has become a challenge. It has not all disappeared for me, but I did think that I would be much more prolific than I have been, in the event of so much spare time. I think this is associated with the grief we all feel for our industry and also, our lack of social interactions and travel. For many, creativity requires time, investment and some feeling of security and at the moment, we only have one of these things. I think society too often romanticises “the struggling artist” but this is problematic, because I do not think panicking about living is conducive to creativity (unless there is something really specific to be angry about). We are perhaps not sure where to look for inspiration anymore, nor have we made enough sense of this situation to know what to say. It is also really hard for deadline driven people to work with so much uncertainty. For these problems, I don’t have any good answers, but have to opt for patience, self-forgiveness and to keep faith that creativity will return when we can experience proper human connection again.
My bargaining stage of grief took an unexpected twist. Mostly, I felt helpless and overwhelmed and could not see how bargaining would help me. At some point, I remembered all of the time I spent in my university days trying to teach myself fiddle via the internet, in preparation for seeing friends and international artists at folk festivals across Australia. I have always gained most of my motivation to practice from social interactions. That is to say, I have always wanted to improve so that I could keep up with my musical friends and be allowed to hang out with better players than myself. With none of that on the horizon, I had to have serious words with myself and this eventually brought my practice mojo back, by trying to learn lots of things that have been broadcast by musicians I have met (weirdly, the more fleeting the acquaintance, the better). I listen to, or read, music interviews again and try to do all of the relevant listening. I indulge in diving down musical internet rabbit holes and am enjoying research more than I did at university – now that I have travelled and asked lots of questions, I have better ideas about where to look for the information that I want. It is strange to strike such a flimsy, unsubstantial bargain like this with oneself, but it has restored my enthusiasm for fiddle playing again, so I am sticking with it! For anyone struggling with musical motivation, I’d suggest that a form of related diversion helps (mine has been research). I hope that it will come back to you and when it does, I hope that it comes back with renewed force, as it did for me.
I also have to remind myself that while my social media is full of musical content, that is in fact, not normal. As I mentioned above, professional music in Europe is all-consuming and, given that we live in a bubble of musicians, our social media (now our main way of interacting with folk) would always be full of new releases. At first in lockdown, this seemed really overwhelming and brought on more insecurity for me – not being comfortable with recording technology and being generally disastrous at promotional media on behalf of myself. But I think that we all need to remind ourselves of our bubble – of course my feed will be full of music! That does not mean that I should feel inadequate. I need to be happy that my friends are creating and bear in mind that if someone releases one thing a month, my feed will still be full of new music – that’s basic statistics. The other thing we know from “the before time” is that in cities like Glasgow, it is good for all of us if there is lots of good music coming out of here. I remind myself that just because I might be technologically challenged it is great that folk from here are putting out great content – that will keep Scottish trad in the spotlight, which will be good for all of us, whenever we are allowed to gather and travel and make music together again. I feel a lot better if I can frame this as a team sport, rather than an individual race for the most likes/followers. On a related note, if any non-musicians want new music recommendations, let me know – I’m keen to share the great stuff I’ve heard!
Getting to know a different side of Glasgow, mostly through walking, has been great, but there have been times it has been overwhelming to remember how far I am from where I grew up. Before closed borders and airline shutdowns, I always had the “two days and lots of money to see mum” in the back of my mind – knowing that it was possible to cross the world if there was an emergency. Something strange happens internally when you know that all of the money in the world would not be enough, if there are literally no planes flying. It was also interesting to realise that the folk I mostly spoke with through lockdown were also expats. Closed borders are scary! So as we “unlock”, please do check in on your expat friends – they are a long way from their family, which is confronting in a pandemic.
A few years ago, I started wondering if the path to happiness is gratitude. This is a time when it is so easy to focus on what we cannot do, or have, anymore. But my lockdown got a lot better when I decided to be really grateful for the absolute basics – a roof over my head, enough food and my good health (while it lasts – grim I know, but silver linings, for now). If you catch me complaining about anything else, please stop me! It will not do any good for me to wallow and I do not want to want more, when this is such a hard time for so many people across the world.
Another takeaway from my time trying to be a geologist is how many senior people were worried about the boom and bust cyclical nature of the industry. They said that the industry lost so much talent at every bust, as people (like me) had to find alternative occupations. I am worried about what happens on the other side of this. How many of us have a Plan B, or have brainstormed what else we can do, or might be interested in doing? Will all of this isolation, loneliness for people who thrive on social interaction, lack of inspiration for creative folk and financial helplessness in the industry actually be too much? I am worried, but I have to believe that we cannot be living in a place so full of excellent and exciting musicians for nothing. Surely, with all of the big ideas and awesome brainpower here, we must be capable of banding together and coming up with something that is both safe and fulfilling for us to do as we come out of lockdown?
The most reassuring thought for the future is that hopefully lockdown has shown us how much we really need human connection, especially the sort that transcends words (community, hugs, live music, etc – I write, as I bring up a large word count). I am hoping that when it is safe to connect without distance, people will want to come together and appreciate live art without taking it for granted, as perhaps we were before. I know I am so ready for that partying, when it happens!