Live music in the pandemic: The 13 lessons learned

Festivals are happening. Hell, festivals are being washed out by torrential rain. I went to a gig last week, where people actually moshed and everything. And the record labels are gearing up for an autumn of unrestrained mega-releases.

In short, nature is healing, as the coronavirus pandemic finally – hopefully, fingers-and-everything-else crossed – shows signs of being in retreat and it starts to feel like music business as usual.

But, much as a battered and double-jabbed industry longs to get back to doing what it does best without restrictions, the industry shouldn’t just return to normal. Surely too much has changed, and too many have been through too much, for that to happen?

And so we present 13 lessons for the industry from the Covid-19 crisis…


Would the DCMS Committee inquiry into the economics of music streaming have even taken place if the Covid-19 pandemic never happened? We’ll never know for sure, but certainly the devastation of live incomes helped shine a brighter light on streaming revenues than had ever happened before. It also galvanised artists into backing the #BrokenRecord and #FixStreaming campaigns. And it was artist testimony that helped persuade the Committee into putting forward a series of recommendations that, if enacted, could reshape the entire music business. The government doesn’t actually have to do any of them, of course, and lobbying will be intense for the next couple of months, but things are already changing at both macro (Sony effectively deciding to write off all unrecouped balances for contracts signed pre-2000) and micro (my sources indicate many record deals now offer much more favourable terms) level. So, whatever the arguments on either side, the direction of travel seems clear – the only real question for the wider biz now is surely whether they want to get there under their own steam, or wait to be pushed.

Read the DCMS report highlights and what the industry thinks – we chat with the campaigners that made it happen.


Assuming the devil has all the best tunes, that is. True, every ‘lockdown album’ rushed out at the start of the pandemic sounded like it had been put together by hyperactive children on the exact day that homeschooling became too much for their parents but, later on, all that time at home paid huge creative dividends for the likes of Taylor Swift, who released two of the greatest albums of her career (Folklore and Evermore), and completely remade another of her classics (Fearless) in the time it would normally take to complete one leg of a world tour. If this doesn’t make people think about the way albums are made, promoted and toured, then the industry will be missing a trick.

Read our take on the Taylor Swift Fearless re-recording…

Fearless Taylor's Version


The e-word is one of the most overused in the music industry lexicon, but the nightmare of the last 18 months has shown that it indubitably exists in the touring business. Turns out you can have all the headline acts you like, but without the venues, agents, promoters, roadies, security, bar staff and everyone else in the value chain, you aren’t going to have much of a show. Given that much of the sector has only survived through sheer passion and bloody-mindedness, let’s hope that’s remembered as live music returns and the industry expects the sector to just carry on as if nothing happened. Nurture the grassroots and the entire ecosystem will flourish.


Sorry, but it turns out you don’t need that big, shiny HQ in the middle of town after all. It’s hard to imagine the industry’s executives ever returning to the office five days a week now they’ve proved the industry can survive without the commute. Instead, expect music company’s buildings to evolve into creative hubs and actual face time to be reserved for things that are either really important, or really fun.


The pandemic didn’t just make artists take action on their recorded music revenues, it also made them take a long, hard look at the cash flowing in from their songwriting. No wonder many heritage artists decided to take the hefty multiples on offer from Hipgnosis, Primary Wave, Round Hill Music et al, with the majors also belatedly getting in on the act. Few of those veteran acts will live to regret it, but the younger ones also rushing to cash out might not be so lucky. The steady, eternal income provided by traditional publishing, along with greater control over your work, has long been the bedrock of the business. The industry needs to find a way to convince songwriters that playing the long game can also result in big wins.


We knew it was getting harder and harder to break new acts long before there was a rush on hand sanitiser. But now it’s harder and harder to break new records full stop. Figures from the US show that 66.4% of music consumption now comes from catalogue material, while the numbers racked up by the biggest hits have dropped year-on-year (although some actual superstars releasing new music may of course change that). So how much longer before the emphasis at labels shifts from pushing new music to maximising the income from older hits?


If pandemic accepted wisdom had a catchphrase, it was this: livestreaming will remain part of the picture, even once things go back to normal. But that’s only true if the industry doesn’t throttle its potential golden goose before it’s actually laid any eggs. The PRS For Music livestream tariff has already put some artists off the format, while the technical problems endured by anyone trying to watch Live At Worthy Farm or other high-profile events may have done the same for a chunk of the audience. Livestreaming needs support, reliable tech – and more ground-breaking, umissable shows like Dua Lipa’s Studio 2054 – if it’s to add up to anything more than a brief slot on future documentaries about how we coped with isolation.

Read the interview with the people behind the Glastonbury livestream.


When the #TheShowMustBePaused movement brought the music biz to a standstill in June 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it felt like genuine change on industry diversity was in the air. One year on and, while there have been some key appointments and a degree of progress, too many of those grand statements made by companies about taking action against inequality and racism in the industry still reside in the ‘good intentions’ file. That needs to change, and fast.


Don’t ever call public performance licensing boring again. PPL and PRS may not operate at the sexiest end of the business but, despite plummeting revenues caused by the loss of income from shops, pubs, venues and clubs, their payouts have continued to show just how vital those operations are. Here’s to them coming back with a bang now things have opened up.


The social media phenomenon surged even further under lockdown. Going viral on TikTok has become an industry obsession, not to mention the one single way to absolutely guarantee a hit. But it’s also doing more than that – TikTok is changing the way records are constructed as well as taking songs – old and new, from any genre – giving them a new life and, in the process, becoming almost a new format. The question is, how far will the industry let TikTok creators go in pursuit of that hit?


Sainsbury’s may be the first supermarket to pull out of selling CDs, but it surely won’t be the last. And to do it in a year when new albums are expected from Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and Adele – the doyennes of the two-albums-a-year crowd – shows just how marginalised the format has become at non-specialist retail. Yet the industry still needs a budget physical option for those who can’t or won’t embrace streaming. Meanwhile, vinyl is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success, with the biz reverberating to daily tales of maxed-out capacity, pressing delays, Brexit delivery hell and endless represses of classic albums pushing out new, independent music. If the industry doesn’t fix this, the vinyl revival could yet hit a brick wall.


True, the government has put its hand in its pocket a few times during the pandemic. But again and again, its policies and decision-making have let musicians and the music industry down. That’s why many won’t be able to tour Europe, even when the pandemic eases. That’s why so many festivals are off, because of a lack of a Covid insurance scheme. And that’s why so many self-employed workers have left the business, because they fell through the cracks of the support schemes. Yet some sections of the industry still carry on as if the Johnson administration is a vital ally. It isn’t, and the sooner the music business realises it, the better.


When the industry pulls together, it can achieve amazing things. The widespread support for the Music Venue Trust’s campaign to save grassroots concert halls shows that. But too often during the crisis, different sectors have been at each other’s throats, while the haves and have-nots divide has grown wider with every lockdown. The biz’s post-piracy recovery was characterised by a remarkable industry-wide unity. If it loses that completely, it could also lose a lot more. Time for everyone to cool the Twitter spats, take things offline and try and find some common ground, before the real sharks move in…

Read our interview with Isle of Wight Festival boss John Giddings…