For Britain’s independent music scene, lockdown is taking a toll. Venues are closed, so no gigs. Studios are closed, so no rehearsal space or recording time. The innovation shown in producing virtual performances can plug a gap, but it struggles to recapture the thrill of performing live in front of an audience. Even though the easing of lockdown means pubs can reopen this weekend, bars that specialise in live music are ordered to keep their stages closed.
Steve Strode, the man behind Tyneside’s Cruel Nature Records and a guitarist with ‘howling surf garage hardcore’ band Fret!, is facing a challenging time – and one that he fears could spell the end for his band after almost a decade of whipping up a frenzied noise in the north-east’s underground music scene. At the start of the year, this three-piece was preparing to record another album; since lockdown was introduced in March, they’ve been silenced.
“We’re very much a live band,” Steve said. “Even when we’re recording, it’s about trying to capture sound and energy of our gigs. And we write together as well. I’m working from home at the moment but it’s just not practical to write on my own. It all comes together when we are rehearsing.”
The band’s music doesn’t lend itself to the kind of stripped down, unplugged renditions that can easily be streamed from a spare room. “I know that Cath [Tyler, the band’s bass player and vocalist] and her husband Phil have done a few live streams from their home, but they play as a folk duo so it kind of works for them,” Steve added. “For Rob [Woodcock, drummer] and myself a live stream just wouldn’t work.” Throw in family commitments and a surge in work in Steve’s day job, and you’re left with a band on an unwanted hiatus.
A cultural community
However, the Cruel Nature label, a cult purveyor of limited edition releases on cassette and, increasingly, digitally, continues to flourish. The appetite for new music is still there, despite the lockdown; indeed, it may even be growing as people have time on their hands and fewer places to spend it.
After initially suspending plans to release music amid the initial disarray of lockdown, Steve quickly realised people still wanted music and has been working hard to meet that demand. Cut-price offers on digital editions of sold-out tapes proved a hit – people responded to the idea of supporting artists and ‘pay what you can’ became ‘pay over the odds’ in many cases. Bandcamp’s decision to waive its fees on certain days, coupled with Steve’s decision to donate any extra profits to local foodbanks and community projects, tapped into a resilient community spirit among the indie scene. As well as the usual collectors and completists buying up every tape that Steve can release, there was a new audience emerging – and evidence that there is a least a section of market that wants to engage with small-scale suppliers who are willing to invest in their local communities.
“It’s been a mix of people. I have some hardcore fans, collectors, who want to buy a copy of everything I put out irrespective of genre,” Steve explained. “But, especially on those Bandcamp days, and when I first put those discographies on offer, we saw a lot of new people taking that up. And I’ve been the same as everyone else, I’ve been buying a lot more music myself during this time!
“I’ve certainly had more digital sales. Before I sold hardly anything digitally but when Bandcamp waived its fees I started selling more, perhaps also because people knew the money was going to a good cause.”
‘Americana, shoegaze, psychedelia’
The Cruel Nature philosophy is only to release music that Steve enjoys listening to. Thus, asking for recommendations is a bit like asking someone to choose between his children. But while there’s enthusiasm for Friday’s release by Lovely Wife, and satisfaction over Ballpeen’s recent offering, an upcoming effort from the wonderfully-named Salisman & His Blessed Eunuchs sparks even greater excitement. An unlikely collaboration between two guys in Chicago and a Newcastle-based producer, Chris Tate, who has worked with Cruel Nature before, it promises to be something special.
“When the demo first came through I sat on it for a while because I thought it might seem a bit off-kilter with the rest of the label,” Steve admitted. “But it turns out to be a really good fit. It’s like a really good fusion of Americana, shoegaze, a bit of psychedelia. The craftsmanship, the song writing that’s gone into it is just amazing. It would sit comfortably on the 6 Music daytime schedule, which isn’t always the case on my label. It’s just brilliant.
“I like everything that I put out but I’ve probably been listening to this more than anything recently. They should definitely go on to bigger things.”
Sounds at risk
And that’s why the independent sector is so important. It’s about more than small groups of musos noodling away for small audiences in obscure venues. It’s also a breeding ground for future talent. And, right now, it’s under threat.
Money is tight. Not just for bands – many of whom, like Fret!, can fall back on day jobs to pay the bills – but more crucially for the venues and studios that sustain this cultural eco-system. At First Avenue Studios on Newcastle’s Chillingham Road, is turning to its artistic talents with illustrator Daniel Hughes producing mini portraits of regular visitors in return for donations to help keep the venue afloat during its enforced closure.
The British government’s decision to ease lockdown by allowing pubs, bars and cafes to reopen – albeit under significant restrictions – this weekend leaves venues excluded. The rules don’t allow for bands to play, for the foreseeable future everything remains online or on record. Coupled with government financial support that is difficult for many in the freelance or creative economy to access, it’s a recipe for frustration with the politicians.
“I know this is probably a low priority in terms of how to ease lockdown, but maybe it would make more sense to try to open up smaller, specialised venues to smaller audiences, rather than just throwing the pubs open again,” Steve added. “Do you know anyone who is planning to rush to the pub on Saturday in these circumstances? I certainly don’t. It feels like the government is looking for ways to set it up so if there are problems later they can blame people for not following the guidelines responsibly, even though they are easing off the restrictions pretty recklessly.”
And even as things return to normal, the future is far from certain.
“If we assume that the current situation is going to continue for a while, or even get wore, how are we going to be in a position to get back to putting on gigs?” Steve wondered. “It’s not going to be the same for a long time, in some respects it’s hard to imagine going back at all.
“When I think of any gigs I’ve played, or been to, they tend to be smaller venues, very hot and sweaty. As a band, you feed off that atmosphere and it creates the whole kind of experience for everyone. If people can only stand in certain places, if you are worried that singing might be a greater risk, you just kill that atmosphere. In some venues, the stage is so small that bands might not even be able to perform at all.
“Short of a vaccine, I’m not sure how the live music scene could approach what we had before. And that could mean the end of our band if we no longer have opportunity to play liked we used to. I can’t see us being a studio only band.”
This is one of a series of articles about the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the north-east of England. Previous stories include REfUSE cafe, micropubs in Durham, a music venue in a launderette, and a football team attempting to play socially distant soccer.