Will Glasgow’s iconic music scene survive the pandemic?

By Katy Scott

Last year the chief executive of UK Music, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, described the pandemic’s impact on the music industry as a “catastrophic blow”. He claimed: “The UK music industry was a vibrant, fast-growing and commercially successful sector before the pandemic hit.”

Earlier this month MPs met to discuss what support is needed for UK music festivals “to return in 2021, as they consider the economic and cultural impact of festivals across the country”.

Like the rest of the UK, Glasgow’s many popular music venues were forced to close their doors to the public 10 months ago. Even during summer’s brief reprieve for sectors like hospitality, gigs remained strictly off limits. So how have the people involved in Glasgow’s music industry managed to cope?

Carlton Studios is a popular studio space just south of the river, previously used by artists like Biffy Clyro, Franz Ferdinand and The Fratellis, as well as smaller local bands. Described as “an affordable space for musicians to meet, eat, learn, record, network, and enjoy”, the space has had to adapt to strict limitations. After being open for the past 30 years, co-owner Michael Taplin, or Barny to the locals, worries about the pandemic’s effect on the independent space. 

“Since the last set of restrictions, our rehearsal bookings have dwindled from about 70 or 80 a week to maybe 5 or 6,” he said. “It’s been pretty tough.”

“The City Council aren’t great about giving us any leeway. We’re still liable for non-domestic rates. They gave us a grant at the start of the pandemic, but a good part of that was eaten up by a rates bill. Other sectors like hospitality got a rate holiday, but we didn’t get anything like that.”

“So that’s why we’re doing a crowd fundraiser for ourselves.”

The Crowdfunder stands at £14k at the time of writing, with a target of £30k. The average donation is around £34, emphasizing the grassroots nature of the community organisation.

“Music is a big part of all our lives: most of the people I know I’ve met through music,” said Barny. “It’s good for you, it’s therapeutic.”

Matthew O’Donnell is the City Leader for the Glasgow leg of Sofar Sounds, a gig company known for their intimate evening settings such as coffee shops.

“We honestly can’t wait to be able to do live events again, but safety is the highest priority, and given the style of Sofar’s shows, I think we’d likely be some of the last gigs that will come back,” Matthew said of the current situation.

With the tight restrictions on live performances over the last year, Sofar has been limited to promoting new releases and organising future live stream events.

“We’re always happy for artists to reach out to us, and we’re always looking for new music to platform, so we encourage people to continue sending us their music.”

Larger organisations like festivals will be among the last pre-pandemic gatherings to return, due to the large numbers they draw across the country every year. As summer draws closer the likelihood of festivals continuing normally (if at all) is unknown. Glastonbury has already been cancelled this year.

The General Manager of the smaller, local Ayrshire festival Kelburn Garden Party, Frodo McDaniels, said: “We absolutely hope to go ahead. Uncertainty is the worst thing in the festival world. We plan to make a final decision once we’ve heard some news from the Scottish Government in March.”

“A festival the size of Kelburn Garden Party is almost entirely funded by ticket sales. Luckily, when we were forced to cancel in 2020, the majority of our ticket holders were happy to transfer their tickets to 2021. We’ve also seen steady sales for 2021 as people seem to be hopeful that we’ll be able to go ahead. On top of that, there has been some government funding available to us.”

“Everyone is clearly disappointed and desperate to get back on stage or to party in a field once more.”

As for the artists themselves, award-winning musician Kitti from Glasgow said: “I think every human being on this planet has had it tough, and for those of us who work in the creative industries there’s been frustration building among us since the start.”

“As an artist I’ve managed to teach myself new skills like playing the guitar and writing in a more fluid way than I used to. When it comes to band practice, we’ve adapted well to wearing masks and social distancing in the studio. It’s been weird but that’s how things are at the moment.”

“In terms of live performance, I believe we’re still a long way away from returning to festivals and live music venues. I can’t wait to play live again. It’s what makes me feel alive.”

Local band Shredd commented: “We had big plans for 2020 and had actually taken the start of the year off from gigging to really plan and prepare.” 

“Unfortunately that has put us in the position of not having played a show since December 2019, which is the longest any of us haven’t played live since we were probably 14.”

Like others, the band said the mandated time off led to more creativity. However when it came to booking gigs to debut their new material, they claimed previous bookings have been relentlessly rescheduled due to the short notice government announcements on restrictions. As a result, they are “reluctant to book too much as the situation keeps changing”.

“Unfortunately it will leave a lot of people in music with no other option than to get other jobs and put music on the back burner. It’s already hard enough to make a living out of music, never mind during a global pandemic.”

Another local band Peplo found creativity hard recently, stating: “The most recent lockdown restrictions have prevented us from rehearsing and recording together. Creativity’s tough in a vacuum – no one to bounce ideas off of, and nothing very inspirational happening to write songs about.”

“A silver-lining has been the time afforded to finishing off recording projects that we started pre-lockdown; our DIY production process has made this possible, but home recording in isolation and sending files back and forth is a slow affair.”

The band performed at the QMU last summer, engaging fans via a live stream on their social media and attempting to recreate some aspects of the long lost live gig.

Alastair Greig, a member of band Acting Strange, said: “We found it frustrating as we had been rehearsing new tracks in the studio for a while and were planning to tie in some gigs with an album release. We just shelved everything, bar one single release.”

However, he has high hopes for the eventual return of the local music scene.

“I feel live music will return with a boom when this is over and we’ll all get right into celebration mode.”