Creating and connecting online during COVID-19 Jump to main content

Creating and connecting online during COVID-19

Photo: Martin Shields

In his second blog for the ISM, Nicky Spence further explores the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on musicians’ mental health and on those who are new to the industry; discussing his thoughts on continuing to work, the young musicians’ failure to launch, using social media with a clear conscience and producing content online.

Failure to launch

When we alight from this corona-coaster, some of us are lucky enough to have careers robust enough to pick up where we left off, but there are fantastic young musicians who have lost vital shop windows and a few key debuts: the pinnacle of many years of training, which they had high hopes pinned upon. There are various fantastic companies endeavouring to make an online offering available, but this notion of ‘failure to launch’ is further exacerbated by a lack of financial support from higher powers, as these young musicians fall through gaps in government funding schemes.

While we’re desperate to get back to performing, and mourn the loss of our own engagements, let’s spare a thought for those who had just started or were about to launch their career. Having had a bumpy journey as a younger singer myself, I’m of the mind that second chances do exist, but the situation that musicians who are entering the industry find themselves in should prompt those in a position of influence to offer a hand to a younger colleague where we can.

Social media: It's all fun and games until somebody loses their self-esteem

Young (and established) musicians can often feel the pressure to embrace social media but Twitter and the like can be a confidence killer, especially during lockdown when some people’s instruments may feel very much on the subs bench. The established ‘thrilled to announce’ buzz was swiftly replaced by almost competitive ‘devastated to inform’ cancellation notices. This tumbled into details of artist’s generous severance payouts (or lack thereof), the unforgivable shock of ‘news to me’ season cancellations and that ‘I’m-a-musician-who-plays-for-the-love-of-it-but-why-is-he-getting-more-money-than-me feeling.’ I've noticed with my own mental health that using social media can lead to a sadistic spiralling, and believe me, that way madness lies, so I’ve given myself a few rules when using it:

1. If you feel unsure or uncomfortable when you’re posting it, then it’s probably not a good idea.
2. Have the courage to mute or block anything that doesn’t make you feel good.
3. Keep it classy and kind.

Feel free to adopt these rules or disregard them entirely, but either way, know your own terms and conditions for what’s helpful to you.

Online content

The overbearing questions for a musician during lockdown range from: should I or shouldn’t I record an online video, to will somebody keep that dog in the kitchen long enough for me to lip-sync with this Purcell arrangement? I’m sure we can all agree that some of the online content we’ve seen during lockdown has been an asset to the interspace, often gloriously inventive or moving. There are also some truly positive skills and new ways of communicating and connecting with our audiences from this time that we must press ‘save’ on, develop, and take forward. But in the same breath, let’s not look sideways and feel the pressure to attempt such a thing for the wrong reasons. It seems detrimental to our artistry to allow our capabilities to record a duet with a far-flung collaborator several postcodes away define our profile or position in the music business for all time.

If recording a video or connecting with your audience makes you feel good, then go for it. And why not go for it by collaborating with some of the brilliant new, emerging digital platforms which will not only be essential to our regrowth in the coming months, but can help you do it with enough pixels that we can recognise who you are. There’s some growing pressure within the music community to monetise our online performance platforms until we can take to the stage again and I think it’s important that we tackle that together as an industry. There’s no point in us giving away free high-quality content if it undermines our fine art and hides the gap, which needs to be supported at a higher governmental level.

Power of collaboration

Everybody is up against it. Venues and companies are in dire need, educators are being minimised and even our artist managers, once heralded for sculpting our careers, have had to turn their hands to being workaday debt collectors, rattling the skeleton staffs of promoters globally, and bracing themselves for another day of delivering bad news. We all have our eyes on returning to the stage, but let’s be sensitive to each other’s journeys, as sadly not every musician is going to make it through this treacherous time.

This next phase in finding a way to make music again, in a live setting, will be an interesting one, but I feel far less anxious when I think of us as a community of music-makers and music-lovers. One doesn’t exist without the other, and they rely on the grandest principle of collaboration, which might go some way to explaining the inherent disconnect between our supposed value and some powers that be.

It may feel scary to look at the big picture, but next time you don your sunglasses to review your diary for the next six months, there is peace of mind and empowerment to be found in thinking of ourselves as a whole community struggling in similar and sometimes more challenging ways. While we can’t always choose our spokespeople, let’s just be glad when these conversations are happening and wish our colleagues well. Similarly, let’s not sweat it if you’re not the one being asked to sing in the few high-profile performances happening that week. Your artistry is essential to the cultural landscape and just because you whip your cape off for a bit doesn’t make you any less of a superhero. Let’s keep creative, keep a check on each other’s mental health, and the music industry we return to will be the stronger, more diverse and kinder for it.

If you feel your mental health is suffering during COVID-19, or just require further some advice and support, you can look at what’s available to you via the ISM and Help Musicians UK.

Nicky Spence
Opera tenor

A musician’s mental health in lockdown

Opera tenor and ISM Council member, Nicky Spence offers his perspective on lockdown and opening the dialogue on how it has affected his, and other musicians, mental health.