In 2020, we learned just how much we need new music. Bored and prowling around the confines of our houses, we turned to artists for entertainment (and made private vows that, once venues reopen, we’ll never turn down a mid-week gig invite again).
Perhaps you found solace in a song like Arlo Parks’ ‘Black Dog’, which speaks to the anxiety of lockdown life with a tender precision. Maybe you hosted a kitchen dance party soundtracked by the brightest new star in dance music, India Jordan. Either way, you probably scoured the proverbial shelves of the internet for new tunes to entertain your frazzled brain – wrapping your ears around a new musician most likely brightened up a thoroughly bizarre and weird year.
Aside from a smattering of socially-distanced shows and streamed concerts, live music was more or less out of the question in 2020, and pandemic restrictions have impacted every aspect of being a musician – everything from collaborating and recording to filming music videos into a logistical juggling act.
While established artists with major label budgets have adapted quickly with glossy high-production virtual shows, safe studios that stick to distancing guidelines and albums released more or less on schedule, it has been a trickier route for indie artists trying to break through and be heard in a pandemic.
It’s also been a unique year here at NME: usually we’d be checking out exciting new live acts ahead of bringing you our 100 essential new artists to watch out for in 2021. The wealth of talent on offer proves that there’s light at the end of the pandemic-shaped tunnel, but there’s no getting away from the fact that these acts will all face challenges as uncertainty around live music continues into this year.
It’s been hard for those we tipped at the beginning of last year. “A lot of bands going into the beginning of 2020 may have been tipped and they might have albums which would have originally come out this year,” explains Pierre Hall, co-founder of the cult indie label Speedy Wunderground, home to releases from Black Midi, Squid and Sinead O’Brien.
“They haven’t had the outlets there to keep that momentum up, or the outlets there to keep playing live. It’s going to be so congested next year, with a real build-up of bands, albums, gigs and releases that haven’t come out, blocking the road. Combine that with things like the potential impact of Brexit on touring Europe – it’s a very difficult time to be a musician. I’m not going to lie about it – it’s going to be tricky for those bands coming back to make an impact.“
As well as helping to run Speedy, Hall is a manager at the indie label family PIAS, and works with the likes of DFA, Bella Union, and Mute. Though these labels get to hear about new acts in a number of ways – including listening to demos and generally keeping an ear to the ground – checking acts out early on at smaller venues, festival sets and support slots forms a crucial part of the process. The permanent closure of small venues – the bedrock of new music – could be particularly catastrophic.
“I do think there could be a longer-lasting, more disastrous impact if places like that don’t survive the pandemic,” he says. “Primarily, the main way we get to see people we want to work with is live, at small venues”. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to throw your support behind important campaigns such as Music Venue Trust’s fight to Save Our Venues.
In 2020, Speedy Wunderground – who are well known for releasing rapidly produced live-take singles, all produced by their in-house producer Dan Carey – put out their first full-length album by south London psych-pop group Tiña, recorded just days before the first national lockdown. It’s just one example of many bands who first came to the label’s attention at a show: “That release came about because Dan produced Goat Girl‘s debut – he met them at The Windmill, and they said, ‘Come to our party in Deptford’. We saw Tiña play there.”
In the past, Speedy has been known to reach out to bands after gigs and record with them the very next week – a kind of spontaneity that just wasn’t possible in 2020. And all over the world, these musical scenes have temporarily stayed at home due to lockdown, from Dublin’s thriving post-punk crowd and Berlin’s club circuit to Brooklyn’s regular orbit of weirdo alt-pop and the DIY scene in Leeds.
“It’s about being in a live venue,” says Pierre. “Being around that community of artists and people saying: ‘You know, what, I think you’d dig this band’. That kind of thing is definitely missing.”
Finding new ways to adapt to a tough year has been a recurring theme – but will the absence of thriving live scenes impact the kind of acts that get hotly tipped in 2021? Looking back at some of last year’s top-charting records, it’s evident that there’s still a hunger for the sorts of bands who thrive on playing to thrashing crowds on a darkened stage: IDLES, Fontaines D.C, Blossoms, The Killers and Haim all scored Number One albums in the UK, with the likes of Sports Team, Dream Wife and The Magic Gang all entering into their own impassioned ‘chart battles’. But overwhelmingly, the year was dominated by solo pop powerhouses: the likes of Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift releasing some of the most talked-about records.
Several of the NME 100 alumni that we spoke to for this featured highlighted the impact that playing new music festivals such as Austin’s SXSW, Dot to Dot – a trio of new music festivals held in Nottingham, Bristol and Manchester – and Brighton’s The Great Escape had on their careers. This year’s crop of newcomers won’t have the same opportunities.
“Festivals like The Great Escape were hugely important to me,” says L Devine, who played her second-ever show at the Brighton new music festival, “because a lot of people from the industry like labels, radio, streaming services go.”
Nick Buxton, of 4AD-signed band Dry Cleaning, agrees. “We wouldn’t be in the position to record a debut album this year if it wasn’t for what we did last year at those festivals. We met our label and built a team through those kinds of festivals. I’m hoping a lack of these festivals in 2020 just delays everything by a year.”
And for NME, too, these festivals are simply unbeatable when it comes to finding and experiencing new bands for the first time – it’s the bread and butter of our new music coverage.
In the absence of these typical milestones, new acts, labels and small venues have all been getting creative to spread the word and find new fans. With normal studio sessions at Carey’s Streatham HQ off the table for much of the year due to restrictions, Speedy Wunderground has adapted by starting up the Quarantine Series – a run of remotely recorded tracks. The series started back in March 2020 with the prescient words of Kae Tempest atop a skittering, menacing beat. “It will be a good year for the crematorium, and the people who make the soap, long-life milk tea bags, eggs, loo roll / This is the way we cope,” they deadpan. South London trio PVA, post-punk group Warmduscher and Goat Girl’s Lottie Cream have all contributed elsewhere under various monikers.
It’s also become L Devine’s chief aim to provide a bit of escapism. The Newcastle pop artist spent March feeling pretty “gutted” about her huge plans being scuppered, having featured among the ranks of last year’s NME 100 and following on from a busy summer of conquering new music-leaning festivals like The Great Escape in 2019. In 2020, she was supposed to level up with important slots that would win her new fans. Her debut album plans have been moved back, in the hope that she can tour it.
“I had the whole festival run booked up,” she says. “I was doing Primavera, Leeds, Reading, Lovebox and so many more. My own headline tour, and my tour supporting [US singer] Fletcher were cancelled. I was super gutted, but I had to keep reminding myself that it’s not just me. It’s everyone in this boat together. And so I immediately got my thinking cap on to see what I could do with the situation. I think it has made a lot of artists think outside the box and push boundaries in terms of what we can do from home, while being safe.”
In place of touring the world, L Devine came up with the idea of a ‘URL Tour’ instead and played virtual shows on different streaming platforms over five nights. Though other artists would follow suit with geo-locked world ‘tours’ – broadcasting the same performance for various time zones – L Devine put on a different show on each occasion. “I was supposed to be going on this support tour with Fletcher, and the thinking behind a support tour is that you go with somebody whose fan-base doesn’t know who you are,” she reasons.
“In the same way that I’d be playing different countries, for different audiences, I felt like I could do the same thing online. It was a weird thing to get used to,” she laughs. “I did the first one from my house, and I had a little crowd noise clip on my laptop to hype me up a little bit.”
“I think it has made a lot of artists think outside the box and push boundaries” – L Devine
Crucially, an important element of finding innovative new ways to plough on through the pandemic often comes down to one thing: money. Dry Cleaning – also alumni of the NME 100 in 2020 – squeezed in some US shows and a couple of headline dates before live venues were closed. Despite the restrictions, they were still able to make their debut album as planned.
“We went to a studio and isolated together and we were really fortunate to be able to do that,” says bassist Lewis Maynard. The band drove to Rockfield, a dairy-farm-turned-recording-studio in rural Wales (where Oasis and Queen have both previously recorded) and bubbled there. “We were obviously quite lucky,” agrees drummer Nick. “We had just signed to 4AD, so we had the budget to go and do something like that. Otherwise, it would have been way more problematic. We’d have just done nothing, or made something very different from home. Fortunately, we had the backing of the label to go and do that, which just made everything so much easier. I appreciate that there are loads of bands at a similar stage to us who maybe don’t have that backing.”
Following the closure of nightlife spots, cancelled festival slots, and a series of tours that couldn’t go ahead, producer, DJ and NME 100 graduate TSHA saw her income hit hard in 2020. Last year she released her latest EP ‘Flowers’, cracked on with writing her debut album, hosted an online version of her London club night Jackfruit (she threw her first ever party just before lockdown, and had intended to make it a regular event), and DJ’d at a handful of socially distanced shows.
Looking back on the latter, she felt that seated events just don’t translate well to electronic music. “People couldn’t dance, and there’s no way of reading a room if no one can move,” she says. “Being mostly out of work has added a lot of pressure. Financially I could still make money from doing remixes, but my earnings have more than halved.”
It’s an all-too-familiar situation. South Shields post-punk Nadine Shah recently wrote a piece for The Guardian about having to survive on income from streaming alone after the live music industry shut down. She imitated naysayers – “’C’mon Nadine, you’ll be all right, you’ve been nominated for a bloody Mercury prize, you’ve over 100,000 monthly Spotify listeners. You’ll make the rent” – before adding that in reality she ended up having to move back to her parents’ house. Her comments came as a new survey by Musicians’ Union (MU) and music association The Ivors Academy revealed that 8 out of 10 artists make £200 a year or less from streaming – and with other sources of income like touring off the table, the impact is simply devastating.
Without a reserve of cash to begin with, it can be tricky for newer artists to get things like livestreams off the ground to supplement the hit their income has taken. Initially, TSHA mulled over the idea of putting out a livestreamed gig to keep the momentum going, but producing something that was up to scratch quality-wise would’ve left her out of pocket.
“I did try and plan to do a video live thing, but the cost of making it a really great show didn’t really balance out with what you’d earn from the livestream versus actually doing a live show,” TSHA explains. “It wouldn’t have been financially viable for me to do a big Dua Lipa style fantastic live thing [like the pop star’s Studio 2054],” she laughs. “I don’t have that kind of pocket.“
“I could still make money from remixes, but my earnings have more than halved” – TSHA
Reflecting on what fans can do to help new acts into 2021 and beyond, buying physical records and merch is “a great place to start,” says Lewis from Dry Cleaning. “[With] anything that you rate,” adds L Devine, “you can support artists online by sharing their music.”
When live venues finally reopen, TSHA says, music fans should take a punt on somebody you’ve never heard of: “People tend to save up their money, and go to the really big nights with massive artists, but there’s gonna be a lot of people that are struggling putting on nights. Give them a chance and you might find your next favourite DJ or artist.”
Though there remains a long way to go, this year will at least bring possibilities with it – in Melbourne, Australia, a bumper three-month-long event dedicated to new music is currently taking place. In Singapore, live music is gradually returning.
Though the situation looks very different in the UK, 2020 has proved that we’re able to adapt: with socially-distanced shows beginning to become more commonplace where restrictions allow them, and custom-built venues like the Virgin Money Unity Arena in Newcastle hosting gigs. The beloved 100 Club in London is trialing a new air flow system to make their venue as safe as possible. They’re by no means perfect solutions, but this – plus the progress made in rolling out a vaccine helping to control the virus – means that there’s some hope for new artists going forward.
“The last thing anybody wants is that when we can eventually come out of this, all the things we love not being there anymore,” says Speedy Wunderground’s Pierre Hall. “Anything you can do to support those small venues who are fundraising – or buying independently from record shops, and buying merch from bands – will pay dividends in the future.”