2021 has been a strange and difficult year for live music in the UK for obvious reasons and remains so. A new study by the Music Venue Trust has reported a "catastrophic" drop in attendance at gigs as well as spending at them and has identified that there remains a huge risk of permanent closure without further support from the government. Attendance has dropped overall by 23% and even sold out shows are not as good as they seem - with a higher number of no-shows by punters than pre-Covid, which means less spending in the venues. Cashflow is also being significantly effected as punters are buying tickets later - understandably as the risk of having to self-isolate at any point in time makes advance planning more risky. Add onto this tours being cancelled due to artist risk around Covid, logistics and positive tests and its easy to understand why the Music Venue Trust is using words like catastrophic.
I’ve been fortunate enough to go to quite a few gigs as the UK opened up and reduced its Covid safety measures as vaccines were rolled out. Ironically I only missed one due to a work commitment rather than anything health related. First there were some small socially distanced shows (a couple with an audience of no more than 30 people – incredible in their own way, especially as one of them was by an artist who has had a UK Top 5 album), then some bigger ones, then outdoor festivals, then indoor festivals, then some near arena sized events. In total I’ve seen over 200 artists play live this year including festivals and support slots.
Those shows, in relation to Covid, have been like learning to swim again; gradually reducing the air in the arm bands and feeling OK that I’m at low risk of drowning. There’s always some risk a wave might wash me away, but as the current got stronger and I stayed afloat, I became more confident. I stayed above water - for now at least.
One thing that has struck me, attending various venues and festivals, is the lack of consistency over Covid precautions and the way the are implemented. This is 100% to be expected in the UK of course, where this year the government have very much taken a 'devolved to businesses and the public' approach to safety. With the recent vote to include Covid passes, moral and medical arguments about their use aside, at least it will bring a degree of commonality to the approach to entry requirements - although punters are still going to have to check with venues before setting out if they are unsure of the capacity, and some under 500 capacity venues will no doubt continue to impose their own additional entry requirements anyway. So my advice if you are going to a show is make sure you check with the venue on their website or in person before setting off if you are unsure about requirements or feel unsafe if certain requirements aren't required. And if you are asking in person, do ask about ventilation. It's still the elephant in the room that the government seem to be paying little attention to.
Some of the gigs that I’ve been to in 2021 have probably been some of the most emotional and all consuming shows I’ve ever attended. When live music wasn’t happening, bizarrely I didn’t miss it massively. I thought I would, but I didn’t. You could do a deep psychological investigation into the depths of my brain to understand why that was, but I’m worried all you’d find was an empty void and no brain at all! However, once I was there, in the crowd, taking it all in again, live music felt momentous and important. More than ever.
I thought everyone felt like this. But as time went on I realised they didn’t. There were at least 2 gigs I attended which were utterly spoilt by not just a few members of the audience, but the vast majority, chattering away and ignoring the artists. One band even ironically commented: “Isn’t it so good that we can all be together again, chatting to our mates?” Of course, nobody heard the singer say this – they were too busy in conversation. It made me wonder what is going on inside someone’s head that after months of not being able to go to gigs, they buy a ticket to see one and then ignore the music. It’s rude, arrogant and smacks of repulsive privilege. It seems that the previous months have already been forgotten by some.
But in the main, the gigs I’ve been to have been pretty remarkable - in a good way. Sometimes because of the musicians and performance, but some of the most special gigs this year have been because of wonderful audiences who are wrapped up in the moment, feeling the music. Sometimes the non-stop applause as the artist has taken to the stage - much longer and more passionate than ever before - has been a thing to behold. But also, sometimes, being with friends, experiencing this all again has been what has made these shows special. Thanks to everyone who has been to a gig with me or said hi / recognised me at a show. It’s been a grand.
With no explanation as to why each show was so good (it could be one or more what I’ve just described, but we'd be here all day if I explained, so I'm just keeping it to a basic list) here are my 10 favourite live music performances or performers of 2021. They are listed in no particular order - each one was very special in their own way.
🔘 Damon Albarn – Latitude Festival
🔘 Lynks – Various gigs in Reading, Cardiff, Green Man Festival and Latitude Festival
🔘 Self Esteem - Southampton Joiners
🔘 Little Simz – Brighton Dome
🔘 Chic – Victorious Festival
🔘 Vlure – Various gigs in London and Cardiff
🔘 Amahla – Jazz Café, London
🔘 Wet Leg – Latitude Festival and Green Man Festival
🔘 Pom Poko – Bristol Thekla
🔘 Keg – Portsmouth Loft