Humming a tune before strangers? Big no-no. Tinkling on a piano with forefinger only? Not the done thing. Slapping a gentleman with your handkerchief, tapping him with your fan or – Heaven forfend! – permitting him to inspect your brooch? Good God, child, were you dragged up in the Whitechapel gutters?
The above is just some of the guidance offered by Eliza Leslie in her 1853 tome The Behaviour Book: A Manual for Ladies, and by the sound of it the Government has hired Leslie to write the recent advice guidelines for pandemic gigging too.
“When members of the public are attending performances,” they read, “organisers should ensure that steps are taken to avoid audiences needing to unduly raise their voices to each other, such as shouting, chanting and singing along. This includes, but is not limited to, discouraging singing along to music or cheering, refraining from playing music or broadcasts that may encourage shouting, including if played at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult, for example during performance intervals.”
So, as the Government heralds the return of live music like a bunch of witless wannabe Michael Eavises joyfully throwing open the gates on what’s actually likely to turn out to be a cultural abattoir, the potential punter has many challenges ahead. First, you need to find a place that’s received its pittance share of the government’s inadequate £3 million funding (thus far) for grassroots venues in time to avoid permanent closure.
Second, it needs to be prepared to make a substantial loss by putting on gigs at around a third of their break-even capacity. And finally, it needs to be located in the 19th Century.
Let’s break those guidelines down a little. “Avoid audiences needing to unduly raise their voices” – so, sorry IDLES, we’re talking quiet gigs only. “Discourage singing along to music or cheering” – quiet, shit gigs then. The rules go on to advise venues to “enable audience to be seated rather than standing” and “prevent close contact activities – such as communal dancing in audiences”. So don’t book anything an audience might want to shake a contaminated tail feather to, basically ruling out any act that doesn’t suffer from a certified funk deficiency.
By the sounds of it, 2020 is going to be a big year for (checks carefully down list of all music acts ever) Newton Faulkner. You can rock, they’re telling us, but you can’t rock.
The sort of ‘gigs’ the toffs are imagining, of course, are polite recitals. The sort of thing Boris Johnson and his cronies used to flap their programme approvingly to in big quad every other Sunday before eventide circlespaff. ‘Gigs’, in their experience, are events to be endured with a superior indifference, like snipping the ribbon on a spanking new food bank. They don’t understand that masters of melodic quietude like Sufjan Stevens or The Magnetic Fields could turn up and play an un-amplified ukulele gig of Chris Moyles jingles and there’d still be a fair bit of whooping and hollering going on.
The only way to avoid that is by actively encouraging people to go to gigs by bands they can’t stand. Perhaps, to make these guidelines work effectively, venues could arrange crowd-swaps amongst acts, whereby Sam Fender plays to Anal Discharge’s audience, who in turn play for Laura Marling ticket-holders. That should guarantee the sort of awkward, muted, boring and apathetic nights out that the Government envisages saving the live music industry.
The alternative is almost too terrifying to imagine, an eventuality that nobody wants: a late-‘90s revival. That dreaded few years when, taking their cues from Noel Gallagher, everybody started sitting on stools with acoustic guitars at the start of their encores and brilliant rock music, a bit knackered from Britpop, went for a three-year piss until The Strokes turned up. You know: the age of trawlerman chic, bobble hats and ‘Driftwood’; the era that begat Turin Brakes, Starsailor, Snow Patrol and David Gray. We’re prepared for Covid to thrust us back into the economic dark ages, but for God’s sake don’t let it send us back to ‘Babylon’.
There is a better way, right there in our pockets. Last week Supergrass played an in-the-round VR gig at Oxford’s Bullingdon Club (not that one), setting a model for pandemic gigging that might benefit everyone. The band pays a hire fee for an empty venue with few overheads, the fans pay a few quid each for an entry code, everyone slips their phone into a £20 headpiece and thousands of us can squeal, holler, gob and gyrate as much as we please, our only fear not corona contagion, but that our flatmates will immortalise us in TikTok.
It won’t quite feel like ‘being there’, but then neither will the black holes of entertainment outlined by the Government’s guidelines. And surely even Eliza Leslie couldn’t deny us letting loose from the comfort of our own homes.