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WE COULD have mulled over life's past glories quite contentedly on an early-summer day when I spoke with Frank Turner, who’s enjoyed nearly two decades of success as a punk and folk performer.
But, in these pandemic times, what life is there without live music? That’s the burning question I want to ask.
In response, he’s in contemplative yet buoyant form, the latter no doubt due to the success of his recent benefit for the Joiners venue in Southampton, promoted by Music Venue Trust (MVT), and he’s keen to divert attention from himself and applaud its endeavours.
He livestreamed a show to help save the venue and it was something of a triumph, raising nigh on £20,000 in one hit. It’s another success story for the MVT, which is all about securing the long-term future of grassroots music venues by endless campaigning, fundraising and government lobbying.
It released a critical list of venues at risk since the outbreak of Covid-19 and has since raised over £1.5 million in funding, resulting in the removal of 140 small venues nationally from that list.
“Generally speaking, my work is more on a grassroots, punter-to-venue level,” Turner tells me. “In recent years, the MVT has had great success in getting the government to look at legislative changes — I worked on the successful Agent of Change principle in London a few years back — and in reducing business rates on small venues.
“Both of those things have helped enormously and I suspect MVT founder and CEO Mark Davyd has more plans up his sleeve. In terms of the current crisis, MVT has had donations from the government, which is great, and may have more.
“But none of that obviates the need for immediate schemes for relief, which is where what I’ve been doing comes into play.” Yet, far from feeling that the government is falling short in assisting grassroots or emerging music, he’s unsure that it’s a sector that really wants or needs much in the way of its involvement.
“Most of the campaigning work I’ve been part of has been about trying to reduce government interference in the sector,” he says. “Normally speaking, underground music can sustain itself, as long as there isn’t too much pressure from councils, legislation, business rates and so on.”
As a performer, Turner recognises that it will be different for him to break out of the Covid-imposed doldrums than it would be for a new or emerging act.
“Having an existing audience to appeal to is a great hope and there’s a glut of livestreaming and so on right now which I suspect makes it harder than usual for a new or emerging act to cut through the noise.
“A certain number of people are already primed to pay attention to what I do, for which I’m grateful.”
These last three months has seen a saturation of streaming from bedroom buskers to rock dinosaurs the Rolling Stones and Turner agrees that the glut is inevitable and that he’s as responsible for it as anyone.
“The nature of the internet is weirdly constraining. In normal times, I play a show each night, but it’s geographically specified, relevant to the people of the town I’m in. By design, online performance is universalised but then constrained by its channels of access.
“So, weirdly, you end up playing to less people even though in theory you’re potentially playing to everyone. I’m not sure there’s a way around that, it’s the only method of communication open right now but I do think that people are upping their quality as time goes by in an effort to stand out, which is cool.”
The big question, of course, is whether it’s here to stay as part of a “new normal” and Turner’s response is that it’s highlighted what’s special about real gigs. “It’s a fair enough stand-in for the time being but I don’t think I want to make this a permanent part of my performing life. It just makes me hungrier to get back to real shows!”
The emerging music market is going to look different within the “new normal” and, if and when we ever get out of social distancing, there’s sure to be some strain from venues to promoters to artists.
Turner says it’s very hard to make predictions about what anything will look like post-lockdown, or when we’ll get there: “On some levels, I suspect that ‘normal’ is unlikely to be a useful term going forward,” he says.
“There is a plethora of issues about social distancing, insurance and so on which currently look pretty insurmountable. But then, there is a real hunger out there for live performance and one facet of the lockdown is that it has very precisely highlighted what the benefits of real shows are, as opposed to live streams or drive-in shows or what have you.
“I think people are very keen to return to the atmosphere of a real gig, and I suspect that will help move things along.”
When I ask where as a performer he sees himself in a year’s time, Turner is “quite pessimistic” in the short to medium term: “I've seen people rebooking tours for next spring, even for the end of this year and that seems very unlikely to go ahead to me.
“But who knows, I wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised on that front.”
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