The parts that seem to be lifted from Science Fiction. Queuing to get into the Co-op. Face masks. Death tolls. America. Cardboard cutouts watching football in Belarus. Zoom quizzes on Friday nights in place of going to the real pub with real people. On a very obvious level life in the times of Covid-19 is strange.
In this new world, the change of pace is worth noting too. I’m a self-employed musician. At the turn of 2020 I took a cursory glance at what was to come in the next 12 months and felt grateful to be so busy. Grateful and excited. I had a record coming out with Savage Mansion in April, our second album, Weird Country. I was doing a 16-date UK tour with Pictish Trail across March and April supporting that release. Martha Ffion, whose live band I play guitar in, had put the finishing touches to her second album.
It seemed we’d be on the move a lot, seeing some weird and wonderful places (and getting reacquainted with the country’s service stations). It’s May now, and the furthest from my flat I can remember being in the past few months is Pollok Park. New projects? I’ve been watching Deadwood. That’s it. ‘Announcing your plans’, as that show’s anti-hero, tough guy bastard Al Swearengen puts it, ‘is a good way to hear God laugh’.
The initial wave of disappointment was a struggle. We recorded Weird Country in April 2019, and it’s hard not to feel deflated when – understandably – after a year of work, with all the bits that go on behind the scenes, the thing you worked on for a long time isn’t anybody’s priority. Not even your own. That feeling passed, as it had to, and we looked to move on, but towards what?
What plans can you make with any certainty? So there are days when being stuck inside with no plans feels like a prison sentence, when you gaze out of a window and try to feel something, and you can’t. Willing time to pass. When you try to look into the future and the present uncertainty starts to overwhelm.
On a practical level, generating income is difficult. All my freelance work vanished after the first fortnight (I write for a couple of magazines and work as a gig rep for a concert promoter). I’m getting furlough pay from my retail job, which pays 80% of four contracted hours. I won’t tell you how many hours I normally work there on an average week, let’s just say it’s significantly more. I’d be in a trickier position if my partner wasn’t furloughed from her third-sector job, and her fortune somewhat balances things out. Paradoxically, this make me more reliant than ever on music as an income stream.
I say paradoxically of course, because musicians are paid terribly and an income stream without paying gigs is on shaky ground. Streaming services are the obvious target of ire, and with justification. Payment per stream on Spotify (to which I subscribe, and have complicated feelings towards) works out at around £0.003 and 1000 streams equates to around £3. As an interface it’s an unqualified success – user friendly and well synced with other social media platforms. As a research tool it’s a dream. As a teenager I’d have loved such instant access to new discoveries, (might have saved me from a few nightmare purchases). Even now with no commuting or travelling, I get a lot of use out of it. The downside is the payment issue, or lack of. Being paid that badly can only be chalked up as a positive if you use that magic word – exposure. And not everyone can. There needs to be enough infrastructure behind a band to generate then capitalize on exposure, and for that exposure to morph into a viable income stream. It goes without saying not everyone is in that position, and it’d be a boring world if the only music considered worth paying for was that which had commercial potential.
The event which has come to be known as ‘BandCamp Day’ has been a blessing. The platform, which allows for the sale of merchandise and digital releases, waived their revenue share (the 10-15% they normally take from each sale) for one day in April and then again on Friday 1 May. Response from the public was tremendous, a huge boost both psychologically and in terms of putting money in the bank for artists all over the world. Sales totalled $4.3m in April and within 14 hours they’d matched that total on Friday. They are set to repeat the trick again in June and July. We’re lucky to have them. The hope is that the buzz created by days like these encourages an enduring change in mindset.
Musicians have been further boosted by flash funding from the likes of PRS, Help Musicians and Creative Scotland. Savage Mansion were fortunate to be awarded a small grant from the latter towards revenue lost from the tour.
Aside from worries about money and where we’re headed, I can’t say it’s all bad. There are positives. This is the most time I’ve ever spent doing nothing, and when all returns to normal, whatever that looks like, I’ll be doing nothing more often. I’ll be spending more time taking everything at a slower pace. More time doing things for the sake of doing them, without some overarching notion of ‘being productive’. This is part of being human I suppose, the pursuit of happiness, the chasing of fleeting sensations of joy and exhilaration, never realising that they can’t be captured permanently. Everything bowing in service to that chase, the lines between a good work ethic and burnout blurring. With that in mind, being forced to slow down has been good for me. I’m conscious that, in the past, I’ve been too hard on myself, too quick to be critical of what I do, or don’t do. That will change.
No goal in mind – but that’s ok
I’ve been doing a creative writing class on Thursday nights called Pop Matters, in which Glasgow University PhD students Maria Sledmere and Conner Milliken adopt a muse from the world of popular music (so far Lana Del Rey, Grimes and Lizzo have featured) and, using lyrics and themes from their work, lead two hours of freewriting exercises. There is no goal in mind, no novel at the end of it, no ‘lyrics for album three’, no pressure even to submit work for peer feedback. This has been the highlight of my week, every week, without fail. I think there are many reasons, doing something you wouldn’t normally do gives an obvious buzz – but also it’s rare for me to do something creative just for myself. Working on a song, I’ll almost always try and view it as part of a bigger picture. Unlearning this habit, doing things on their own merit without overthinking and getting carried away, that’s all part of the pleasure.
I’m normally a guitar and vocals man, but I’ve also taken a lot of joy in learning how to use Ableton, a software programme beloved of electronic artists, musicians and DJs. Making drum loops and writing synth lines, I’m not thinking about anything other than the present moment. Which is just as well as, to be completely honest, I’m no great shakes at it. I marvel at the soundscapes people can create with it. But that’s OK – I’m happy to be there.
It isn’t perfect, and lack of physical space is tough too. It’s a small flat and there are two of us sharing. I spend the morning in the kitchen and the afternoon in the bedroom, or vice versa. I’d love a studio, somewhere to get properly immersed in new creative projects. Or a garden to read in. But I don’t have those things. And to be honest while that would be terrific, I’m fortunate to have my health, instruments to potter around with, a computer to work on, books to read – and a prestige television set in the Black Hills of South Dakota to watch. Of course, you could have a studio and a garden, but then there’d just be something else you’d feel you were without. Before long you’d be bemoaning not having a sauna in the gaff. Better not to let things get to that stage.
We’re getting closer to the real world every day, although the exact timescale is still anyone’s guess. So there are more challenges to come no doubt and lessons to be learned. But for the most part I’m excited to get out of bed in the morning. And when the bad days come, I’m happy to let them come, wait for them to pass and go again.
In the next Ventures in Lockdown Craig interviews songwriter/poet Declan Welsh.