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Culture War

The inside story of Covid, Brexit and Sheffield’s music industry

Eighteen months of lockdown and tour cancellations coupled with Brexit-related travel restrictions and costly red tape have devastated an industry that contributes £5.8bn to the UK economy.

A DJ soundchecking at The Tuesday Club.

Sheffield venues like The Tuesday Club were closed for over a year as a result of the pandemic.

Danny Lines on Unsplash.

What impact has Covid and Brexit had on the music industry in Sheffield?

Thom Williams, public relations manager and promoter with Sonic PR – an agency that represents a wide roster of artists including Laura Marling, Richard Hawley, Sheafs and Fontaines D.C. – tells us his story.

What’s your role at Sonic?

I’ve worked at Sonic for the best part of a decade and oversee the UK print and online campaigns for a multitude of clients. I arrange interviews, and pitch for reviews, features and press materials. There’s a real focus on campaigns for live tours and events too.

And in early 2020, Covid arrived.

Yes, Covid changed everything. When the pandemic hit, the curtain came down on live events in Sheffield and across the UK. We were faced with having to significantly rethink our business model to ensure the survival of Sonic through the period of uncertainty that lay ahead.

Following the government briefing to remain at home and the subsequent closure of venues everywhere, our planned work for 2020 evaporated pretty much overnight. There was a mad scramble as everyone tried to ascertain what was happening with live dates, as well as trying to process the impact on us as a business.

But you needed to act fast.

We began announcing all of the rescheduling and cancellation of gigs, but as it became obvious no-one had any idea as to when life would return to normal, the announcements quickly became meaningless, and petered out as everyone came to accept that we were in this for the long haul. As tours were cancelled, so too were album campaigns and summer festivals. It was tough.

How did you support your artists?

We understood immediately that the difficulties we were facing were mirrored in their world too. Fees were frozen as campaigns were extended again and again, or simply cancelled. There are some campaigns we started two years ago that we’re still working on now.

The Musicians Union suggest that 30% of infrastructure support – lighting and sound technicians, venue staff, logistics – have left the industry permanently.

I think I can see this being an issue for some time yet. Recently Django Django cancelled their entire run of UK and European shows citing the impact of Covid creating “far too many uncertainties for us and our crew”. I think this is something we’ll continue to see while political differences and low levels of consumer confidence continue to hurt the industry.

Post Brexit, the UK government and EU have failed to agree on an arrangement allowing bands and artists to freely tour Europe. Cost prohibitive hurdles include carnet and visa cost. How do you see it?

In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure we’ve experienced the full extent of it yet. It does feel like a lot of the bands on our roster who would normally be jumping from a UK tour straight into a European tour, have either pushed the European leg to later next year, or scrapped it altogether while the picture clears.

And what about bands touring the UK from abroad?

None of the current tours we have lined up are by European or international artists. Is this the result of Covid, Brexit or both? Only time will tell, but if we asked our dear government, I think we all know where the blame would lie.

Has Covid changed the prospects of up-and-coming bands?

Yes, I do feel it’s been especially difficult for emerging bands. Without the opportunities provided by nationwide tours, festival appearances, support slots and all of the networking hook-ups, it’s illustrated how vitally important gig spaces are in galvanising their progression through the ranks.

How many bands could you truthfully say have broken through purely on the basis of material they released and recorded in lockdown? Not many.

How is the situation now?

We’re undertaking promotions for a mix of releases, mostly recorded during the pandemic. Festivals picked up over the summer. Live dates are happening, with the likes of Teenage Fanclub, Henge, Lump, IDLES, Frank Turner etc. all touring. With rumours of further autumn lockdowns on the cards, however, there’s still a nagging doubt that the horse could bolt at any time.

What about the press?

Two sides of the same coin, the spheres of PR and journalism co-depend on each other. Print media sales nosedived as advertising investments in magazines plummeted through reduced hard copy purchasing. As such, there were waves of press redundancies among many long-standing journalists, and in some cases closure of magazines altogether.

While financial pressures impacted the PR business, what it sadly has done – in conjunction with the pressures of providing paid-for media in the digital age – is to accelerate the decline of music journalism as a skilled profession. I do wonder whether the damage done to print media as an art form will ever truly be reversed.

Do you think the public will re-engage with live music?

I think it will take time. People I speak to do seem more reluctant to go back to gigs as they used to. For example, press list cancellations for reviewers hoping to attend and report on artists have been prolific, as journalists find themselves being pinged, quarantining or symptomatic. Vaccine passport entry for gigs seems to be in a state of flux as some venues are stricter than others in terms of entry. Overall, I feel like the return of live music indoors is probably a more complicated picture across the board than the perception offered by celebratory snaps of packed clubs that we’ve all seen in the media.

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