“It feels weird to do this, but also nice,” says Elin Ramstedt, lead singer of shoegaze trio Spunsugar, halfway through the band’s lush, euphoric set of fuzzed-out guitars and drum machines.
The crowd at Malmö’s famed independent music venue Plan B hollers and applauds in response. We’re modest in number – there are 39 of us, to be exact – and everyone starts off a little shy, hanging near the back and the sides before slowly being drawn forward. Heads nod and feet tap enthusiastically; there’s even a little dancing. What began with an air of uncertainty ends in triumph, joy, and chants for “One! More! song!” Everyone orders more drinks.
Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be an unusual situation. But it’s Thursday April 9 2020. With the world in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, virtually every country is in lockdown – whole cities shuttered, people confined to their homes. But not in Sweden. Here we are at the only show in Europe.
This is not some illicit, underground guerrilla gig. It’s unadvisable, maybe – especially when healthcare expert Zeke Emanuel recently warned that widespread gigs shouldn’t return until autumn next year – but certainly not illegal.
Although – controversially – there’s no hard-line lockdown in Sweden, as there is in other European countries, current government guidelines allow for gatherings of 50 people or fewer. Bars and restaurants can open, but must offer table service only; social distancing and ‘common sense’ should be followed. Nothing tonight breaks these rules. Most Swedish music venues began to close in the second week of March, and Plan B’s founder and owner Carlo Emme checked in with the relevant authorities before his venue reopened on April 7. Tonight’s concert is completely above-board.
In a room that can hold 350, capacity is restricted to 40 punters – plus a sound engineer, two members of staff and the band, bringing the number up to the guidelines of 50 people in total. The original plan was to have everyone seated, but this was scrapped due to impracticality. Punters are not allowed to walk up to the bar; card machine-wielding staff operate a table service of sorts by milling around the crowd taking orders.
It’s bizarre, to say the least – both to watch a band take to the stage, and to feel the surge of euphoria live music generates, after weeks without either. At the start, no-one’s quite sure how to react; a few people exchange nervous glances, some stare at their phones. Nobody dares cough. Even Spunsugar seem a little tentative, playing somewhat hesitantly and feeling their way into the set.
A couple of songs in, though, the mood breaks and everyone visibly relaxes. Looser, the band come alive, their fuzzy mix of dream-pop, shoegaze, and ‘90s drum samples full of hazy textures and insouciant charm. Ramstedt jokes around with guitarist Cordelia Moreau and the cheering gets louder. Even a sheepish apology for the lack of an encore – they simply don’t have any more songs – fails to dent the heartfelt applause that greets the end of a brilliantly entertaining 45-minute show.
“It felt quite surreal at some points,” bassist Felix Sjöström tells NME afterwards. “But we are following all the rules that our government has set – we wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.”
Ramstedt adds: “Yeah, we’re not trying to be ignorant, or ignoring what’s going on. We’re more than aware of the situation. But the regulations don’t prohibit us to play to this amount of people, so I guess it’s fine.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many in the crowd. “It’s not a massive risk – there aren’t a lot of people here,” says 28-year-old punter Astrid Lindberg. “It’s a great opportunity for people to support the band and the venue, but also just to meet each other in a relatively safe way. It’s been really nice.”
“People are taking [coronavirus] quite seriously,” adds her friend, 31-year-old Jesper Nilsson. “Anyone who’s sick at all, or has ad any symptoms, is staying at home. So I feel that those who do come out are safe to be around.”
Everyone NME speaks to tonight understands the controversy around Sweden’s approach to Covid-19 and why some look on gigs not just as an unnecessary risk, but as madness. A few people don’t want to be quoted for this article, fearing that international friends and colleagues will judge their actions. Even so, they are unequivocal – they’re not worried, and don’t feel the need to isolate unnecessarily.
“There are more people than this in some places in the city centre,” says Sjöström. “The only difference is here we’re playing music. But we’re doing this because we want Plan B to survive.”
This hints at the economic reasons for keeping Plan B open during the coronavirus crisis. “Ironically, there’s no Plan B for Plan B,” Carlo Emme tells NME. “As things stand, if we don’t open – if nobody comes here – we’ll go bust. It’s as simple as that.”
Plan B’s story will be familiar to anyone involved in grassroots cultural activism and DIY music. Formed originally as a record label in 2014, the venue blossomed in a basement room where Emme and the rest of the team could showcase their artists. Slowly the gigs became the collective’s main focus and their manifesto describes the space as somewhere for people to “meet, connect, and create… where artists are not perceived as products and the audience wouldn’t feel like consumers”. It’s also become a lightning rod for debate around live music, alcohol licensing, and the “dance permits” required by late-night venues in Sweden.
The venue got around several licensing issues by being “members only”, amassing 23,000 members and operating in a somewhat legal grey area. Closed by the authorities in September 2018, it reopened a month later as a legitimate rock club but with no alcohol permit, a problem for a late-night music venue. Having finally secured all the relevant permissions by April 2019, Plan B was able to expand and put down more permanent roots. They now have three separate rooms, a proper bar and a huge terrace.
“We have a history of doing things in an unusual way,” says Emme, “so being probably the only venue in Europe putting on official shows during a pandemic fits our story – a story that has, since day one, been about survival.
“The government hasn’t offered anything that could cover basic costs, and they’re telling people to stay home while telling us to stay open. It’s confusing. But you can’t just sit there and bang your head on the table.”
Fiercely DIY and independent, Plan B serves as welcoming space for the types of artists poorly served by more mainstream venues. And as is the case with any such venue, money is tight; bankruptcy is a constant worry. But Emme is optimistic. He is planning to put on more gigs and this week has booked a food truck to turn the terrace into a pop-up restaurant.
“We are creative people,” he says, “and we’re wired in that special way that only those who have been putting on DIY shows can understand. We make things happen. It’s more than just a job; it’s our life.”
The following night it’s the turn of The Hypnagogics, a five-piece hard rock band from nearby Kristianstad. There are fewer people here, but it’s still a proper show. A drunk guy dances wildly at the front, spilling his beer, and there’s even a merch table. The band themselves are loud and heavy and loose; at one point, singer Lina Paasijoki apes Cardi B’s infamous Instagram post on the outbreak: “Coronavirus!” she shouts, laughing. “That shit is getting real!”
The vibe is relaxed, and slightly less intense than the previous night. It feels… normal. “It’s cool because the band are our friends,” says 30-year-old audience member Jessica Sandqvist. “I don’t know how it feels elsewhere – I don’t have a reference – but I’m not worried though. I interact with more people at work every day than are here tonight.”
“It’s weird thinking about it as a unique gig,” says Hypnagogics guitarist Frida Johannesson after the band’s show. “But given what’s happening in the world, it is. We’re just happy to play.”
”You’ve gotta do what you gotta do to survive,” says bassist Oskar Jönsson. “For Plan B, that’s live music. And that’s what we’re all out here to support.”