One year on: Artists and performers tell how they coped without live events in Scotland

For thousands of artists and performers across Scotland, the sudden clampdown on live events meant a dramatic change to not only all of their plans but their ability to earn a decent living.

Leith-based rapper, DJ and producer Nova Scotia won the Scottish Album of the Year Award last year.
Leith-based rapper, DJ and producer Nova Scotia won the Scottish Album of the Year Award last year.

A year on from the introduction of restrictions, there is still huge uncertainty over how and when they can reunite with audiences.

Award-winning comic Mark Nelson, who hosted a regular online show for The Stand during lockdown, says: “The restrictions had an unbelievable impact on me. Essentially my job ceased to exist overnight, which was a very sobering prospect.

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“The thought of doing stand up online a year ago was terrifying. We had no idea if there would be an audience, whether the technology would work or if it would just fall flat on his face. It proved a bigger success than we thought possible.

‘My own mental health has deteriorated so much, but without those live streams, it would've been so much worse. They literally kept me going at points.”

Singer and harpist Rachel Newton, whose bands include The Shee and The Furrow Collective, is one of the leading performers in Scotland’s trad music scene.

She says: “In March last year I was on a week-long residency in Argyll with a group of musicians and circus performers.

“It was a dream week in which all involved gained so much, and as I had done many times before, I reflected on how fortunate I was to get to work with such a wide variety of creatives from all walks of life for a living.

Singer and harpist Rachel Newton. Picture: Somhairle MacDonald

“We were all receiving an increasing number of emails and phone calls from colleagues and employers informing us of cancellations. It was like being in a bubble, and we became ever more aware that this could be the last piece of work we'd have for a while.”

Newton describes herself as “one of the lucky ones” among her peers, saying that many have “fallen through the cracks of emergency funding schemes. She also credits her fanbase for helping to sustain her – “financially and emotionally.”

However she admits the online world has not been the same as a performer.

She says: “I've been involved in quite a few online gigs and, while it's still possible to make that much appreciated connection, for me there's a certain sadness that goes with it.

Actress and comic Rachel Jackson invested in new equipment to help her record gigs at home shortly after lockdown restrictions were brought in.

"I've learned I'm not really a fan of talking to camera and I miss performing to audiences so much. I miss singing with my bandmates in a physical, yearning kind of way. It's actually painful.

“I miss the interaction and improvising a set list based on the feel of the room. I miss singing with my bandmates in a physical, yearning kind of way. It's actually painful how much I miss singing with others. I even miss the long car journeys! There was always a great long heart-to-heart to be had.”

When comic and actress Rachel Jackson realised most of her work was going to be from home for the foreseeable she invest in a microphone, studio lights and a new laptop.

She said: “It was quite expensive getting everything but I thought normally I’d be spending money on trains and hotels so it balanced out.

“I thought I was going to hate doing zoom gigs but I actually really enjoy them. Nothing beats gigging in real life, but this is a pretty decent alternative for now. I love being able to gig all over the world. I had a gig in America the other night, which was pretty cool.”

Leith-based rapper, DJ and producer Nova Scotia had arguably the most remarkable year of any performer, being nominated and then winning the Scottish Album of the Year Award, which she won while she was self-isolating with coronavirus, all while studying sound production at Edinburgh College.

She said: “I have felt an intense pressure inside my head over the last year which has told me to keep doing stuff. That’s been my main motivator.

"As soon as the pandemic hit a lot of people who had music ready to go out put it out to try to combat what was going on. I really felt I had to try to keep up.

“I’ve only had a couple of weeks off over the last year when I didn’t really do anything. I feel like I’ve grown up so much as an artist over the last year. I feel a lot more confident in myself and that that will come through when I am performing again.”

Although hopes are high that the Scottish Government will next week indicate when events may be able to resume, any return to normality is likely to be a long way off.

Newton admits: “I am wary of the responsibility in bringing people together again. The thought that people could fall ill attending a gig I am involved in scares me.

"I’m focusing on writing and recording new projects. I'm excited to get into a studio and create with others again. I have some summer festival gigs and I’m hopeful for those. My first actual tour isn't until October and then the diary is pretty packed, but who knows?

"I’m trying to adapt to a much less predictable future. It's exhausting to try and predict what will happen, so I'm taking it all as it comes and appreciating every second I get to make music with and for others again."

Nelson is far from optimistic, saying: “I think we will be one of the last sectors to come out of lockdown and I don’t think we will ever return to the ways things used to be.

"Sadly, a huge number of venues have struggled financially and haven't been supported by the government. A lot of these will never open again. The uncertainty and cautiousness about a way out of this doesn’t help.

“It’s a shame because the audience demand, I believe, will be huge. The appetite for comedy is even greater than before. I just hope the government allow us to get back to work.”

Like most performers, cultural commentator Pat Kane, singer with Hue and Cry, admits he has not idea what the future is likely to hold.

He says: “It all depends on whether we manage to suppress the virus, or we’re in a cycle of lockdown/open up, as nature tries to get us.

“If the former, there’ll be a relieved outburst of socialising and we’ll have more live work than we can deal with.

“But if the latter, then I think we’ll have to intensify the experience of beaming live into people’s living rooms.

“The livestream can be intimate and friendly—but it will be weird for the balance to be tipped this way.

"I hope, either way, there is an increased commitment from both bands and fans to much greener lifestyles. It’s the only way to fix the problem at source.”

Jackson is upbeat about the prospects of a return to performing live this year.

She says: "I think things will be back to normal-ish soon. The Covid numbers are going down and the vaccine numbers are going up so it’s all looking pretty hopeful.

“I’m seriously excited to be on a stage with hundreds of people packed into a room again.”

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