Creative solutions from creative people. As our daily lives turn upside down because of the coronavirus pandemic, there has never been a greater need for connection and entertainment. I’ve been talking to some of the music community in Sheffield to get a sense of the impact and to share some ideas to keep us positive.

On Sunday March 15th I went to see Liam Walker at Cafe #9, my local music venue.
I have written about Liam before. He’s a wonderful singer songwriter and has a strong local following. There were less than dozen of us in the room. We all knew one another. It was warm and cosy, we were happy to be there, but beginning to recognise the impact of isolation on this kind of gathering. We knew it would be a while before we would be able to enjoy another evening of live music in such a setting. By March 19th Liam had set up a ‘watch party’ on Facebook, sharing film made that evening.

I live in a city that thrives on leisure and entertainment. While I have been writing this piece the directive to shut pubs, clubs, cafes, bars and restaurants has gone out. Theatres and cinemas have already closed. Libraries, museums and galleries are also shutting their doors. Culture is on lock down.

Many of my friends and neighbours are musicians. I’ve written about some of them for this magazine. People I know are also promoters, sound engineers, DJs or booking agents. Others work in the venues on the bar or on security. There are so many roles that are being hit right now, many of them on zero hours or casual contracts.

As writers for Pennyblackmusic we love our live music and we write to praise and promote it. It hit me that I won’t be going to see any live music for a while now. I’ve bought tickets for events later in the year that may never happen. It’s hard to look forward to anything.

Music has been my therapy and consolation over the years. Going out to a gig, meeting like-minded people, sharing that experience, is really important to me.
I put out a call to some musician friends a couple of days ago to see how they were coping and whether they had any strategies.

Michael Walsh, whose album ‘Quarehawk’ I reviewed recently, was the first to get back to me. He teaches flute and he can do that via Skype, though the delay makes it impossible to play along with his students. He has also shared some videos of himself on Facebook for fun. On March 11th I had seen him and cellist Liz Hanks perform songs from ‘Quarehawk’ at the Merlin Theatre, a really magical evening. He and Liz met because they are neighbours and heard one another practising. That inspired Liz to set up a garden concert this week, with several neighbours taking part in their own back gardens. A short video made it on to BBC Radio Sheffield. Great for morale, but not for making a living. Michael Walsh is in the final stages of a PhD looking at links between Celtic and Asturian flute music. He’s done his fieldwork so he doesn’t have to worry about travelling to Spain, and he was planning to take a break from concerts for this summer.

Rob Lee is a promoter with Heretics Folk Club and also Live Events Organiser at the HUBS, part of Sheffield Hallam University’s students’ union. He’s also a musician and a touring member of California folk-rock outfit GospelbeacH (who have also featured in this magazine). The HUBS is closed until at least the end of April with other cancellations coming in for later in the year. He pointed out that many musicians have alternative jobs, while trying to maintain a touring schedule. The dependence on touring has already been questioned in the light of sustainability, so he feels musicians and small venues will suffer on both counts.

The alternative jobs are a problem too as musicians tend to work as freelancers or on zero hours contracts to give them the flexibility to pursue their musical careers. It’s a double whammy for those affected.

Jen Webster, aka Banjo Jen, has been forging ahead with appearances at Americana festivals and local venues over the last couple of years. Now her freelance work is on hold and festivals are cancelled. I asked her about using online platforms to get her music out there, but like many of us, she doesn’t have the technology or a good enough wi-fi signal to create a professional looking concert. She’s planning to use her background as an artist and graphic designer to produce some alternative work.

The HUBS is also the venue used by Talking Gigs 2, a series of concerts I was involved in promoting until recently. Five concerts were planned for the 2020 season, but as the emphasis is on world music, the second concert had already been cancelled by the musicians before the HUBS announced their shut down. Ticket sales were inevitably down too when people are uncertain of where they can and should go.

The Dorothy Pax is another popular venue in Sheffield. They very quickly invited all the musicians they work with to share links on their Facebook page to their websites for merchandise and CD sales. In further good news Bandcamp have announced that they will forgo their percentage of artists’ sales this weekend and a lot of musicians have shared that news.

Poet and musician Mark Gwynne Jones and the band Psychic Bread were about to launch a new project that they have been working on for months. Voices From The Peak is a journey through the Peak District in word and sound, using field recordings and music, highlighting wildlife, landscape and stories. The project has been supported by Arts Council England and the Peak District National Park. Both launch events have been cancelled but Mark is going to record his introduction and deliver the whole piece as a podcast, available on his and the Peak District National Park’s websites on March 31st. He recognises that he will reach a wider audience and create a more permanent legacy by doing this. Something to look forward to. Paul Cross, who runs a vinyl label Sonido Polifonico, is also looking for a new way forward in what were already tough times for live music.

I recently posted a review of Stephen Fearing’s new album, ‘The Unconquerable Past’. Back home in Canada he has had to change plans and launched it via a Facebook live stream.

Ash Gray, a singer songwriter from Texas but now living and working in Sheffield, is hoping that there will be opportunities for making music in an informal way in the days to come. In a major blow for up and coming and established acts alike, there’s no SXSW for anyone this year.

Finally, I need to mention Frogbelly and Symphony. Two members of the band, Thomas Lebioda and Liz Hanley, are friends and neighbours of mine. Thomas has a recording studio and Liz is a wonderful Irish American fiddle player. Over the last months they have completed a new album and put an enormous amount of work into setting up a promotional tour in the UK and in the States. I saw them at the Greystones in February and they were amazing. I’ve been so aware of the organisation and logistics that have gone into their plans. There’s been an enormous amount of hope and enthusiasm too. The US leg of the tour was cancelled and Liz, who was there to do some solo concerts, was trapped in New York for a few worrying days. She’s now self-isolating and will soon be offering singing and fiddle lessons online.

So, follow your favourite musicians on their social media platforms. Lots of people are streaming live performances. Buy those T-shirts and CDs. Purchase tickets in advance and in hope where possible. Donate your refunds. Send them messages of support. This could be a time for some new songs and some new music to be written but I know it’s hard to focus when everything feels so uncertain.

I asked Michael Walsh for a song for these troubled times. He came straight back with ‘Before The Deluge’ by Moving Hearts. Canned Heat’s ‘Let’s Work Together’ is running through my head. Thank you for reading this.

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