Isolation Gigs - A journey through lockdown
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
It started with a live stream..... and then we got a bit busy!
Isolation Gigs started on a bleak afternoon in late March, initially as this image that you see above, but the seeds of the idea, you could say, had already been planted in my mind sometime before that.
March 2020 - Covid-19 Lockdown
I think the experience of Lockdown will be something we all tell our grandchildren about in years to come when we are sitting around playing board games and eating too much, somewhere between Christmas Day and Boxing Day. That experience however, will also differ from person to person, country to country and continent to continent. One thing is universal though - we were entering stormy waters and none of us could truly say what was to come next.
I remember my last gig in the real world vividly. It was March 14th 2020 and I had agreed to travel to Wolverhampton for a last minute wedding in an art gallery. I remember taking the booking and feeling a little sheepish about it. Normally I would go full steam ahead without thinking, but this felt different. I had been following news of the Corona virus since January, when a good friend of mine came back from Beijing - considerably closer to the epicentre than we were. He warned of things to come and like most of the country, I listened, but largely didn't really consider it a major inconvenience. Looking back in hindsight, I do think as a nation we sleepwalked our way into the end of March and I do believe a lot more could have been done to prepare people - but that's another blog entirely!
So off I went to Wolverhampton. I was uneasy that day, and a little sick in the stomach, I think it was probably a sign. I remember setting off early (the ceremony was at 2pm) and it's a good 3 hour drive for me. The roads were deserted... It was very eerie... like the world had already decided they weren't going to wrestle with this mystery virus and had already pulled their curtains. In a way it made my journey very easy as there were no cars on the road. Wolverhampton was like a city that time forgot, but the venue was amazing and the Steinway Grand Piano (and the look on peoples faces when they heard the songs) was worth the trip. I remember thinking, I hope no one here is ill.... and at the back I saw a man coughing intermittently and was quite glad I was on my own at the piano - this is an indication of the level of uncertainty we were all under at the time!
I completed the gig and left very swiftly. Something told me I needed to get home, and quickly. Little did I know that I was not to leave my immediate area for the next 3 months as just about a week later, Boris Johnson announced a full UK lockdown - something I never thought I would ever see, and we were all stuck inside for the foreseeable future!
Due to work being cancelled, and a general feeling that I did not want to really be out in the world, I had begun self isolating on 16th March, eagerly tuning in to the daily briefings each day to see what terrible news was about to be cast upon us. I cancelled an appearance in London and slowly, one by one all my remaining gigs and events for the next 6 months or so started to fall by the wayside. In this respect, starting the lockdown early had given me extra thinking time. I had got the feeling that gigging as we knew it would have to be curtailed for a considerable amount of time, so it got the cogs turning. Personally I had also been planning to take a break from the live scene and music in general, but not on these terms!
So it was something of a surprise to me that I acted so quickly in setting up Isolation Gigs - a platform for live streamed performances. I think it was precisely because our way of life had been taken away from us overnight, nowhere near on our terms, and also because I was already hankering for something new - and this could be it.
If nothing else, lockdown was uncertain, unknown and slightly scary - in ordinary circumstances that would be seen as exciting. In the Covid-19 era, it was excitement tempered with the knowledge that tens of thousands of people were going to be suffering at the hands of this cruel disease.
The idea came about from a conversation with a good friend of mine, who wishes to remain nameless, but who I will still credit with helping me set it up anyway. We wanted an online platform where musicians could play gigs in their homes, earn a little bit of money through donations, and give the people at home suffering from lack of amenities and places to go some much needed entertainment. The initial reaction was amazing. We were one of the first platforms to launch (partly due to my early self isolation) and within the first 10 days we had nearly 1000 followers on our facebook group.
My sister Chloe came onboard as co-admin of the group to help me out with the approval of posts and also to bring in some talented people she knows from her side of 'show business'!
The initial few weeks were a lot of fun, watching peoples gigs, posting our own and also helping musicians with the technical side of putting on a live stream (something we were all having to learn quickly)!
By this point, the live streamed gigs page on Facebook had now grown into a Youtube channel and a Twitter and Instagram account! Its amazing how quickly you can work when the inspiration takes you, and we felt that we were providing a service, both for musicians and the music loving public so we wanted to make it good. During this time we also decided to start running a weekly video podcast/vodcast where we would invite guests on to talk about their experience of lockdown and their specialist field. So far to date we have done 14 weeks of podcasts, with a few special events thrown in for good measure (including our first virtual festival) and it has been amazing. I had wanted to start an audio podcast for years but never seemed to have the catalyst to do it, and this just seemed the natural route to take. I am sure now we have the platform, I will launch my music based audio podcast on the back of it.... watch this space.
How were people doing?
Part of our remit with the podcast was initially to find out how people were coping with lockdown and how their particular field was dealing with the sudden and scary stripping back of its normal existence. It was fascinating to see the different ways people were tackling self isolation and dealing with their life being literally cancelled overnight. There was also a real spirit of 'we're all in this together', and I'm not talking about some bullshit slogan Dominic Cummings had thought up here, more the fact that lockdown had been a great leveller for everyone.
It didn't matter about people's status in their industry or their relative success - everyone was stuck at home and in the same proverbial boat, and it became a time for people to come together and make the most of their friends - some they had probably forgotten they had. I saw my role as co-host of the podcast with Chloe as bringing people together to create some value for the watching public, as we were already doing with Isolation Gigs.
I think it is worth noting that we did see variables in how people were dealing with the crisis, and this was completely understandable considering the severe and worrying situation people were finding themselves in: no work, no money and an uncertain future. I actually went on BBC Essex to talk about loneliness as I was self isolating alone, and without wanting to go too far into this, it had been both a massively positive experience for me and also very hard at times. Positive aspects of this time were that it was great for reflecting. I was able to reflect on things that I had been doing beforehand which were not really making me happy and use the time to connect again with things that did make me happy. I also started drawing up a post lockdown plan, which included a lot of changes! Time will tell if they will come to fruition or not, but I have a feeling they will.
One element of all this is that it became very noticeable, not just in music, how people at the opposite ends of the social behavioural spectrum dealt with the initial rules and regulations. Introverts seemed very content and almost unmoved by the thought of isolating at home, whilst extroverts took some time to adapt - seemingly lost without the constant attention of others and social interactions.
Some people replaced the pub with sitting in the park with beers, which I happen to think is a good thing as it encourages better interaction, whilst others no doubt completely flouted the rules, unable to tame their human desires. Overall though, I feel people did all find a balance they were at least partly happy with and able to tolerate for a sustained period of time, and for this I think people should take a lot of credit. Make no mistake, this was a tough time and to come out of it took a lot of strength.
So you might think a gigging platform, a new podcast and a busy live stream gig schedule would be enough to keep us busy.... wrong! During this time, I was starting to think of all the things we could do to take this up another level and really try and make a difference. With this 'great leveller' I figured out that if I was to time it correctly, I could connect with many, many more people than I would ordinarily be able to do in normal times and try and create something tangible out of this time.
I had been playing the song 'Be More Kind' by Frank Turner in my live stream gigs and the message behind the song just seemed very pertinent for the times we were in, and indeed still does.
Be More Kind had been the song which took my admiration for Frank Turner up to a new level, and I had probably listened to the original hundreds of times when it came out, and that is not something I usually do, so I knew this song was special. We had also been talking about how we could help the NHS from our position of relative comfort - bunkered down in isolation, whilst the frontline workers risked their health, and indeed their lives to fight this cause. Making music is what I know how to do - so I set about getting the ball rolling.
Recording a song is what musicians do well, alongside playing live, but for me this was to be a journey of discovery. I had only ever put out my own material before, and worked with a maximum of 2 or 3 people at one time. What I was planning to do was to put out a cover song for the NHS with 17 other musicians... Did I know how to do this? No! So I had to learn quickly.
Luckily I had some experienced heads in the industry to call on for advice, and I managed to re-connect with Stephen Maclachlan who I had previously worked with on a couple of tracks and he very kindly agreed to produce the record and play drums for us.
Everyone was doing it for no fee as it was a charity single, and the support they all showed was amazing. Some short time later I had connected with 17 other friends of mine, some old and some new and they had agreed to be a part of it.
Recording was going to be an issue; everyone was in isolation with varying degrees of equipment upon which to record, so we had to rely on the professionalism of all the artists involved which I am happy to say was first class. With some help from Stephen, we managed to slowly piece together everyones parts. First to go down was my piano, then drums, bass and electric guitar and then all the vocals. It took me literally days to decide which parts to give everyone. I wanted to get exactly the right lines for the right artists because I really wanted them to connect with their individual line and the sentiment behind it, and I am happy to say I wouldn't change a single line in the song - it's amazing.
A very happy accident which occurred was in the way people naturally sang harmony lines that worked brilliantly with another singer who they had never even met or discussed singing with - it all 'fell into place' as they say.
Behind the scenes, I had to decide how to piece together a campaign. I had never run a charity campaign before, so that involved more learning. I should also point out that right from the start I had made it a priority to get Frank Turners approval. I feel that if I was an artist of his stature I would still like to hear from people if they were covering my song - and he did. I emailed him as I knew he was one of the few top level u artists who answer their own e-mails, as I've been a fan for a while, and he replied almost straight away, giving us his full backing and some lovely words. We were later also able to get him to record an intro for our video and send us a quote after hearing the final recording, which he loved and we have our friend Jon Snodgrass to thank for that as he and Frank are good mates. Jon was brilliant in facilitating this and it was a huge boost to the video and our overall project.
Once I had got my head around the licensing issues and various obstacles around releasing something with 18 people on it - many of them recording artists in their own right, I had to build a promotional campaign as quickly as possible as we needed to release ASAP to capitalise on the mood of the country in helping the NHS and get money to the frontline as quickly as we could. This was tricky because we could only go as fast as we could go with the recordings, mixing and mastering so as soon as we got that go ahead, I built a campaign to last about 2 weeks.
Most campaigns for a single or an album would be anything from 6 weeks to 3 months, but we figured that the unique nature of this period meant that all of this effectively goes out of the window - so we went for it. I managed to get a great PR team onboard at Big Wave PR and along with the artists involved we set about building up to the release. There was one potential banana skin moment when I was unable to get a guaranteed release date due to a worldwide slow down in distribution (due to Covid), but the guys at CD Baby UK were brilliant in helping me push this forward as they recognised the need to get it out to people asap.
Part of my other concern was that I wanted to work as closely with the NHS as we possibly could. Obviously in normal times I would have gone into hospitals and radio stations and played live sets with some of the other 'Isolation Artists' but given the strict guidelines, this was just not possible. So we set up some live stream sets with various NHS partners and other platforms to do all we could do. This culminated in a live launch on release day and a world premiere of the video for NHS staff at my local hospital - Addenbrooke's in Cambridge.
This connection was very important to me and I think it really gave a nice feel to release day. We then did the rounds with radio, appearing on BBC Essex, BBC Cambridge, Cambridge 105 and eventually BBC London with the legend that is Gaby Roslin on my birthday, which was very exciting.
The whole experience has been heartwarming and exhausting but 100% worth it in every way. I hope through our on-going podcasts we have helped people in some way through this tough period, and we endeavour to continue to do these, branching out into new areas and new shows. One thing we always ask people is; what have you learned about yourself during this period? and it would be churlish of me not to answer this myself!
What I think I have learned is a sense of perspective on the world, and perhaps on the life I was already living. I had been looking for a change, and through lockdown I think I have seen a few things that I want to change in my life, and a few things that I want to add to enrich my human experience. I've learned that I can exist on my own a lot better than I thought I could, I've learned the depths of my resolve are much deeper than I knew and I have also seen this in other people.
I have definitely realised that I am more of an 'in the moment' creator (which I think I already knew) rather than a methodical one. For business purposes I probably require someone with systematic impulses to bounce off, whereas give me a blank slate and freedom and I will craft something. Give me structure and it will probably stifle me.
Above all I have learned the power of people should not be underestimated, and ultimately kindness is the most noble of virtues which we should all aspire to include in our everyday make up.
'In a world which has decided that it's going to lose its mind, be more kind my friends, try to be more kind' - Frank Turner, Be More Kind.
To listen to Be More Kind: https://cdbaby.lnk.to/BeMoreKind
To Watch the Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fdyi3s_AVOg
To Follow Isolation Gigs: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4C4q4cZjb0wuPccZh6oquQ