Coronavirus: Scottish musicians are staging online gigs as venues close – Brian Ferguson

Musicians find a way to carry on as anti-coronavirus measures see cultural venues close, writes Brian Ferguson
Even the pubs that are open, like this one in Edinburgh, decked out for St Patrick's Day, were unusually quiet (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)Even the pubs that are open, like this one in Edinburgh, decked out for St Patrick's Day, were unusually quiet (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)
Even the pubs that are open, like this one in Edinburgh, decked out for St Patrick's Day, were unusually quiet (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

The pace of developments over the coronavirus outbreak in Scotland has been so rapid it feels almost impossible to recall the state of play 24 hours previously, never mind a week ago.

Last week’s column was probably the most optimistic I’d written in months, given the ­double dose of good news for the film and TV sector in Scotland, with an operator announced at last for a permanent studio in Leith, and a big announcement of a long-awaited new home for the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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This week, the entire Scottish cultural sector is in the grip of what must be its biggest ever crisis, due to the global pandemic and increasing severity of the warnings from the UK and Scottish governments to help ease pressure on the emergency services and prevent the spread of the virus. Every hour seems to have brought news of ever-tighter restrictions and warnings over public gatherings, events being cancelled and venues going into lockdown.

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Already affected are cultural institutions like the National Museum, the Scottish National Gallery, V&A Dundee, the Edinburgh ­Playhouse, the Glasgow Film Theatre, the ­Theatre Royal in Glasgow and Pitlochry ­Festival Theatre. It is hard to imagine how many visitor attractions will want to remain open in the face of plummeting tourism numbers and official advice to stay at home as much as possible. There is also the question of how safe it is for staff working in any cultural venues during the still-escalating pandemic.

While high-profile institutions are certain to reopen, the same cannot be said for many performing arts venues, particularly at the lower end of the scale, due to a complete loss of income. Worryingly for all involved in the Scottish cultural sector, it already feels as if it could be months rather than weeks before there is any let-up in terms of the official restrictions.

Events due to be held in the next few weeks and months have either had to completely pull the plug, such as the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh or the folk festivals in Shetland and Orkney, or postpone for several months in the desperate hope of a reprieve. Other festivals around Scotland are looking extremely precarious given the current advice to people to limit social contact, reduce trips on public transport and avoid gatherings of any size.

While scaled-back versions of the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe and the Tattoo could be envisaged a week ago, it is fast-becoming a case of wondering what culture will be on offer in the city this summer. In the space of a week, the prospects for such events ­happening have gone from cautious optimism and admirable defiance to deeply dark pessimism, ­particularly in the face of expert ­predictions that restrictions could be in place for more than a year. The scale of the devastation already feels heartbreaking and there is a sense of overwhelming loss at the tap of ever-flowing arts and culture being turned off.

Yet there are signs of optimism. Musicians, in particular, have not been slow to take to Facebook and Instagram to stage house gigs, offer online tutorials and run their own crowdfunding campaigns in the face of so much lost work.

I already have a feeling that the online world is where Scottish cultural figures and institutions will have to find a home and build new audiences in the weeks and months to come, where discussions about future collaborations, where new support networks can be developed and where the first blocks can be put in place for what feels like a huge rebuilding job.