It’s been one year since concert venues and music festivals have indefinitely closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the music and culture sector, the cancellation of Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in March would be a harbinger of the crisis to come. The event marks the start of the all-important spring-summer festival and touring season, as its music portion showcases rising young talents. With the decline of physical album sales, the festival doubles as the economic backbone for artists and behind-the-scenes workers, from managers to caterers to venue owners, who make it all run.
SXSW’s music festival returns March 16-20 as a virtual international event. Though it signals a proverbial light at the end of a tunnel, its digital comeback also illuminates the long and uncertain road to recovery as venues await reopening and the industry reemerges into an increasingly digital landscape.
Each day this week, KCRW is spotlighting different artists playing SXSW 2021 alongside other workers in the live music world. They all reflect on the past year and share their predictions for the future.
For more than a year now, London’s Black Country, New Road has patiently teetered on the cusp of success. The seven-piece experimental rock outfit emerged from relative anonymity in 2019 with just two songs, and was quickly embraced by publications from the New York Times to the Guardian to the Quietus, who declared the group “the best band in the world.”
With a visceral sound that melds post-rock, jazz, and post-punk into dynamic compositions, the band would soon sell out shows across the country, book international festivals, and land a record deal with independent stalwart Ninja Tune.
Hype surrounding Black Country, New Road crested just as they were set to play SXSW last year, on the heels of wrapping the recording of their acclaimed debut album “For the First Time.” They’re now one of the few acts from 2020 that were rebooked for the festival’s virtual edition this year, in part due the delayed release of their record in February, and in part due to a steadily building online fanbase despite an opaque social media presence.
KCRW spoke with bassist Tyler Hyde and saxophonist Lewis Evans about navigating the delicate momentum of being a breakout band in a world on hold, their virtual debut in America, and the future they envision for those following in their footsteps.
KCRW: As a rising band, what did the opportunity to play SXSW last year represent for you?
Tyler Hyde: “When you're a really young band like us, and you've never had a chance to leave Europe, it seems like this is your one and only chance to do that. At the time, it felt like, ‘Oh, my God, South by Southwest wants us to play. And now that it's gone, we're never gonna play there ever again.’
Just these silly panics that go through your head when you're a young musician, because of how fast-paced the music industry is. All the hype that we've worked for could have just disappeared completely. We're very fortunate with how well it's gone, considering.”
How did the disruption continue to affect you? Was there a conscious decision to put everything on hold and just wait?
Lewis Evans: “We finished off the album just before lockdown in the U.K., and then we just chilled out, worked on ourselves, pushed everything back, and made sure that we were just fine and happy mentally. I think we all really benefited from that break a lot. I certainly did. I got healthy, I got fit, started being a lot more productive with my life, and I'm very grateful for that. I probably wouldn't have ever got into that frame of mind, otherwise.
But as a band, we pushed everything back. Once everything started getting cancelled, we figured there was no point in trying and let's just hope to do it next year. I think we were quite naive and thought things would be back normal by January 2021, when we planned to release the album. We ultimately pushed it back to February. And I'm kind of pleased we did, to be honest, it was the right time for it.”
What kind of opportunity does playing virtual SXSW this year present for you? Does it still feel like it has the same sway that it might have in person?
Evans: “Lots of gigs is what we want from it. And hopefully, that will come.”
Hyde: “We just want to play in America. So we hope that this helps that. We're still very young. We don't know what the hell we're doing. More than anything, it has just been an amazing experience, just to be there as English people who have never been to America. Before, that was going to be the best part of it.”
How did you think about planning this year’s virtual performance, considering it’s your American debut and there will be a lot of new eyes on you, but also that it’s more limited than the dozen sets you might have played at the in-person event? Do you feel it can represent you in the same way?
Hyde: “It’s quite funny. We filmed the performance at this warehouse in Southwest London, which felt like it could have been anywhere in England. To make us feel like we were in Texas, there was this banner that had a big image of desert space. And then there was a tent with an ambulance man to poke things up our noses for COVID tests. It was pretty bizarre. With any of these kind of virtual performances, it doesn't really feel like you're part of something that a lot of people are part of, or anything like a festival experience.”
Evans: “Firstly, the performance was only 15 minutes. So we were like, ‘How can we possibly play the least amount of songs in 15 minutes?’ We picked two songs, and we came in just under 15 minutes. You're less likely to mess it up if you play two songs, as opposed to three.
It personally stresses me out so much, these live stream gigs, so much more than a normal gig. It's in the same way that I actually really don't enjoy recording. Because so much could go wrong, and it's printed there forever. It makes me so much more nervous when it's a live stream, because I know that someone's going to rip it and put it on YouTube somewhere and it's going to be there forever. I find that so daunting and a bit scary.”
It seems a bit antithetical to the whole idea of what a live, in-person performance is.
Evans: “Yes, exactly. And also, it’s not the end of the world, but the fact that this kind of streaming performance is in the most high quality audio format it can possibly be in a live show. You can hear every single little dodgy note I play. I don't want I don't want them to hear that! I want them to hear a version of me that doesn't exist, which is the one that does it perfectly [Laughs]. So it’s a bit weird. It just freaks me out.”
Hyde: “I don't like the way our mentality changes about it, how you think about correcting mistakes and doing it several times in order to make you the happiest. Whereas if it was a regular live gig, you’d probably be just as happy, because the adrenaline's different. You become a perfectionist, and I don't like that.”
Your music is very visceral and improvisational, and feels very bound up in the shared energy and presence of an audience. Is that something you’ve had to adjust in context of virtual performances?
Hyde: “That's something that has changed over this whole period, especially since we’ve been working on the second album, is that we've had to change and stop being the live band that people know us as, and stop relying on an audience to write music and play it. And to instead just look at one another and talk to each other more.
Because, yeah, we are called a live band. But actually, when people come to see us live, we're essentially performing to one another, with the way that we set up and look at each other and talk to each other throughout the set. We're relatively fortunate in that we're kind of used to not focusing on a big group of people standing in front of us. So that's been relatively easy to work with when it comes to live streams. It's kind of a cool silver lining.”
How do you envision the world of live music in the next, say, two years? Is there going to be a kind of new normal?
Hyde: “One thing, which I think is a positive about what's happening right now, is how people around the world that normally weren't included in these live experiences, can just click a button be there. Someone in Brazil can be watching a gig that's happening in London. That's pretty cool, and I think that could be something that carries on into the future. Not to the same degree, but, for example, the last show at the end of everyone's tour could be a live stream, so everyone around the world can watch it.
Other than that, I'm really, really, really scared about small venues. I don't know how they're going to pull through. I'm quite scared. I envision a future where a lot of them are shut down, unfortunately. Which seemed like a fantasy, the idea of these places shutting. But it's happening right now, and it's terrifying.”
Evans: “We have a very rich music history in the U.K. Loads of people have come through these grassroots venues, and our government is letting these places be destroyed. Completely neglecting the fact that every time Adele sells a record, she makes so much money for our economy, yet people like her come from these grassroots venues. It's just idiotic. They're actually stupid.”
Has there been concern for you as a band over the past year that you would be able to even keep doing this, in terms of just surviving financially and continuing to receive support from your label?
Hyde: “That's what we were scared about the whole time. We're very fortunate with how we timed it, with just signing the contract with Ninja Tune. But the fear was the loss of that hype that we've worked so hard for. We have relatively forgiving fans, because the way we set ourselves up on the internet was to kind of not really talk and not really do much. So they were mostly chill about us not doing or saying anything in this time period.
For me, personally, I've spent my whole life working really hard for this. This is all I've ever wanted, and the thought of it being taken away totally terrified me. I don't want to have to be relying on the government and Universal Credit to live. I don't want to be getting money off my parents. I'm a 22 year old person meant to be living in London, and I feel like a child again. I would be able to live if we could play live. But there are people that are suffering, so I should shut up, really.”
Evans: “I also think, with this stuff, it's not really us who are going to suffer the most. Like Tyler said, we got in just before the COVID window. It’s those bands just behind us in trajectory that are really going to suffer. People who would be putting out their first album two years from now will really suffer because the music industry is not going to be the same. The money might not be there for awhile, for smaller bands. It's going to mean that an industry that already requires you to have money to do it in the first place, is going to get even more so. So the poor people in the country are probably not going to be able to make their dreams possible. Which is becoming more and more apparent every day.
We're very lucky to come from privileged backgrounds, in which we had the feeling that we could be musicians, that we came from privileged enough backgrounds that our parents could drive us to gigs and could afford to pay our musical instrument lessons. So it's not only going to be hard for everyone making music in the future, but especially those who aren't as well off as we have been.”
Black Country, New Road play SXSW 2021 March 18-19 via the British Music Embassy Presents showcase.