“Normal wasn’t good enough”: why gig-going needs to change after lockdown

The rise of livestreams has opened up the conversation around accessibility for disabled music fans. El Hunt hears from the activists, artists and punters resisting a return to the old order

Throughout the pandemic there has been much talk of the ‘new normal’. For many, lockdown was partly a time to reflect on the choices that we made when life was chugging along ordinarily before: from rethinking our choices as consumers to seeing the environmental benefits of a less busy world. If there’s one vague silver lining to arise from this enormous shit-show, it’s hope that a few positive lessons can be learned along the way.

For years, we’ve been told that so many things that have now been achieved in a matter of weeks – from mass home-working and cultural livestreams to economic grants and schemes and a dramatic reduction in pollution – were lofty, impossible pipe dreams. Now, that myth has been totally busted.

“I’ve been astonished at the amount we can do from home,” says Ruth Patterson, a solo musician and lead singer of Newcastle band Holy Moly & The Crackers. “In the past, if I couldn’t get to a photoshoot, radio station or to a gig, it’d simply be cancelled. But we have proven that we can do more to accommodate those of us who can’t get out all the time.”

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Ruth is a wheelchair user, and is currently shielding as she’s at a higher risk of complications around Covid-19. Despite being at home she was able to broadcast live from her home studio and perform on BBC Radio 4 during lockdown.

“That is something that would never have happened pre-lockdown,” she points out, “but it’s so exciting to know that it’s an option now. I hope these new skills and the ability to adapt is proof that it can be done and something we take into the future in all industries, hopefully levelling the playing field for disabled people’s access to work.”

And as music venues prepare to reopen their doors again – with live-streams remaining the norm for now – leading disability and deafness charities in the UK are urging for accessibility to remain a top priority as venues incorporate social distancing and the live-streaming industry continues to grow.

“You don’t need me to tell you the effects that Covid-19 is having on the industry,” says Jacob Adams, Head of Research and Campaigns at Attitude is Everything. The organisation has partnered with venues, festivals, artists and gig-goers for the past 20 years to ensure that live music is accessible to everybody. “But from the access perspective, the immediate issue is that we were gathering a lot of steam and engagement with this topic, and Covid has blown everything out of the water.

“One risk is that accessibility will fall off the radar and become less of a priority in some quarters. It’s really important to nurture the visibility of disabled people during this time. It’s important that recovery is done in a way that welcomes everyone back. There’s a lot of talk about this idea of the ‘new normal’ versus going back to the normal we had before – and we’re very interested in the idea of the new normal. Normal wasn’t good enough in the industry.”

He continues: “Another thing we’re concerned about is the general risk of attitudes shifting in relation to disability generally. You’ll see the narrative around Covid-19 is all about vulnerability, and there are deep, deep concerns in disability activist communities about disabled people being reduced to being seen as vulnerable people. Of course nothing could be further from the truth.”

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According to the Office for National Statistics, 16 per cent of the 13.9 million disabled people in the UK are shielding due to heightened risk of complications relating to the virus. “The concern now is that without proper guidance around disability awareness and venues operating with good practice,” Adams says, “you could well find situations where people visibly identified as disabled could be turned away from a venue. That is a risk.”

Attitude is Everything awards Bronze, Silver and Gold chartered status to the venues and festivals that it works with: their partners range from huge operations such as Glastonbury and Manchester Arena to scrappy Brixton venue The Windmill and the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds. Almost a quarter of the venues holding chartered status are grassroots. In a survey of just 50 chartered venues, conducted in 2018 and 2019, Attitude is Everything found that 133,268 tickets had been sold that year to disabled or deaf gig-goers

“It has never been more important that next summer is the most accessible yet,” Jacob says, “so that as many people can support the industry as possible.”

Understandably money is tighter than ever – fitting stair lifts in older basement venues, for example, is an expensive business. Major acts may well have enough cash to hire a British Sign Language interpreter for shows, but for a fledgling band launching their first EP, the cost is totally prohibitive.

However, “we would always say, don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good’,” explains deafPLUS CEO Gary Williams. The east London-based charity works to improve accessibility for deaf people and those with hearing impairments. “Do what you can, and have the conversations. Perfect doesn’t mean that in every instance you’re ticking every particular box – but you’re thinking about it, and using disability confidence and being deaf-aware. There’s an onus on promoters to at least think: is there more we can be doing?”

Charity Attitude Is Everything has worked with Glastonbury to make the festival more accessible

“It’s about attitude,” agrees Holy Moly’s Ruth Patterson. “It’s about being willing to engage in the requirements of disabled musicians. Don’t generalise, or stereotype, or guess – ask questions and listen to what we want and need. If a venue gets it wrong, that’s fine, as long as they are willing to change and prioritise that change. It’s also really important to be honest about access. Over the last eight years I’ve played hundreds of venues with varying degrees of access, but it’s really important for me and my team to know what to expect when we arrive. For example – if there will be stairs, how many, how steep and how narrow [are they]?”

Providing accurate information, Jacob adds, is one of the most important steps that venues can take – it costs almost nothing to put into action, and Attitude is Everything also offers support to help venues do so.

“This has been a message of ours for years,” he says, “but it has never been more important than now: people are now looking for information about Covid-19 [measures], let alone access and ticket prices. Access starts online. Any venue can provide information for people, particularly specific information for disabled people, so people can make informed decisions.”

Gig-goer Sasha lives in South Wales, and has been shielding at home since March: before the pandemic, she and her partner regularly travelled to gigs in Cardiff and beyond. “I have Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy and I’m a motorised wheelchair user,” she says. “I cannot walk and am entirely reliant upon my wheelchair and assistance from my carer for my mobility.” She’s hugely missing live music: “When I’m at a gig I’m no longer someone who is confined to her wheelchair. It breathes life into me in ways nothing else can.”

As well as clear information about access, Sasha says that a fair booking system can also help enormously: “For me, it all really starts with the booking process. Things have definitely improved but sometimes you miss out at the very first step. I feel venues need to do more about scalpers who buy up a tonne of tickets on different accounts, leaving none left. And for me,” she says, “free carer tickets are vital. I wouldn’t be able to attend without my partner’s assistance.“

The Tramshed, in Cardiff, Sasha says, does an “epic” job. “The access and security staff are so helpful. They enable access to every element of the experience of live music, from the bar and getting you to the front of the merch booth to getting you comfortable in the viewing area safely. Even though the viewing platform is above the stage, it gives a great view. A lot of the acts end up watching the gig after their sets there! Many a rock sign, high-five and even cwtch [Welsh slang for ‘hug’] has been exchanged up there.”

Ruth Patterson adds: “There are loads of independent venues putting the larger corporate venue companies to shame. One particular horror story: in an email thread with my agent, which I was included in, I was deemed a ‘fire hazard’ by a very well-known chain of venues. I was subsequently uninvited to play after sharing details about my disability, and received no apology or statement to say they wanted to improve access.”

Yet, she says, “it’s just as important to celebrate the wins, as examples of what can be done with effort and care”. As an example she cites Parisian venue La Maroquinerie: “It’s a really old building but there’s a lift straight into the dressing rooms and it’s possible to scoot onstage. It proves that even old buildings can be adapted.”

She also references Scunthorpe’s Café Indiependent: “It’s spread across three floors – seemingly not accessible at all – but they have put stairlifts large enough for wheelchairs and an accessible bathroom. It’s a great place to play. And in some cases, I’ve been invited as a consultant to improve access. It makes a difference knowing that those venues are at least trying to change and are asking the right questions.”

While venues have been closed for months due to COVID-19, a new kind of live music has become increasingly common. At the beginning of lockdown, a huge number of artists including Christine and The Queens, Yungblud, and L Devine hosted virtual events. Over time, streams have evolved into slick, ticketed productions: The Streets brought prop urinals and a replica record store to Hackney, while Nick Cave hosted the cinematic ‘Idiot Prayer’ at north London’s Alexandra Palace.

It’s a trend that looks set to continue after live music returns, too. A survey in the US conducted by MRC Data found that 74 per cent of respondents would attend a livestream even after concerts make a full comeback.

Though more options for gig-goers – and opening gigs up to a global audience – is clearly a positive thing, Attitude is Everything’s Jacob Adams is keen to caution against livestreams being viewed as a viable replacement for accessible shows.

Nick Cave’s ‘Idiot Prayer’. Credit: Joel Ryan

“We’ve always had a private concern about the potential risk of things like live-streaming replacing accessibility, and being an excuse not to do it,” he says. “That hasn’t borne out to date, but now we’re seeing an explosion in live-streaming. The penny is dropping that this is an additional market, and we may well find an industry where live-streaming persists.” It’s crucial that everybody is included.

Yet live-streaming proposes its own accessibility issues: many such shows aren’t accessible to deaf or hearing-impaired people, for example.

“Hearing people may feel like they’re missing out on going out to live shows and hanging out with mates, but at the same time, there isn’t any shortage of home entertainment for us,” explains deafPLUS’s Gary Williams. “That has been fantastic – every cultural centre has been streaming their greatest hits. But very little of that is accessible to deaf people.” There are also numerous access issues affecting blind or visually impaired fans.

Attitude is Everything will soon publish a series of accessibility guidelines for anybody hosting live streamed events, and has also been working alongside artists to support them in putting together inclusive shows. Ways to help include adding audio descriptions and captioning videos.

“I received some coaching and did some research into audio description which was really helpful,” explains Patterson, who performed a solo livestream earlier in the year, “and it’s something that I’m going to try and do at all shows. I’ve also learnt a lot more about captioning, and now I live caption all of my social media videos. There is lots of advice out there.”

READ MORE: The show must go online: inside the rise of virtual gigs during the coronavirus crisis

She adds: ”Reach out to people who might have visual or audio disabilities and ask about what they want from a concert. Even as restrictions are being lifted, it feels like touring won’t be business as usual for a long time and that live streams will be an important medium to fill that gap. And so we should, as artists, take the time and care to make these shows accessible for all audience members.”

“There are solutions,” says Jacob Adams. “A basic thing that any band, anywhere, can do: if they’re doing a live-streamed show, they could share their setlist and lyrics. That’s a really simple thing which doesn’t cost any money.”

All of the organisations and individuals that NME spoke to agreed that Covid-19 presents a real opportunity to work together to make our new era live music a better, more inclusive place: many of the challenges faced during lockdown, Ruth Patterson points out, are familiar to the disabled community already.

“Disabled people have something of an advantage,” she reasons. “A lot of us have already faced long periods of self-isolation due to compromised immune systems or physical and mental health; not being able to leave the house or even get out of bed. When the Government announced lockdown, a lot of my non-disabled friends started asking for advice about coping mechanisms for isolation, change and uncertainty – things I’ve had to learn to live with since my diagnosis 13 years ago.”

Gary Williams concludes: “I hope that the punks, the kooks and the queers come together to build something fresh out of the ashes. I have in mind a very DIY ethos: people thinking, ‘OK – if we’re going to build this afresh, what should it look like?’ We can’t build back in the same way. We’ve got to build back better.”

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