Only Forward

Only Forward by John Tron Davidson

When Break the Machine approached me to do this article, the initial idea was to write about musician’s lives during COVID. I looked at my pages of scrawls, littered with references to Brexit, part shortages, a well-considered lack of support for the self-employed and the escalating horrors of instrument retail and felt unsatisfied.

There’s a lot of anger doing the rounds on matters of both great and small importance. Anger at the callousness of a government telling its arts community to retrain in cyber security, anger at the sabre-rattling short-sightedness of an older generation desperate to simplify a complex world. So much is still wrong and it’s understandable to think it’ll never be right, but today, I thought I’d examine what goodness has come from the last 2 and a bit years of financial ruin, punishing uncertainty and overwhelming divisiveness.

Front Doors at 7
The immediate cessation of live music hit a lot of people extremely hard. Bands lost months of careful work/life balance, booking agents screamed into their Rolodexes, and tense homes were filled with pit and session players considering their options. A number of venues closed their doors, too small to have limitless funding or too big to be commercially viable.

This forced an ever-expanding and more technologically astute music scene to adapt. Artists of all kinds began doing concerts from home. Post Malone livestreamed a set of Nirvana covers with Travis Barker. Metal Injection began their Slay At Home series, with disparate artists worldwide collaborating over the internet.

Many people took it as an opportunity to hunker down in their studios, myself included. Not all musicians take naturally to the production process but spending a whole year staring at a computer without a mandated schedule pushed many to deepen their knowledge of recording, production, and the real limitations of their equipment.  Netlabels were set up, remote ventures begun, and in doing so, many found a purpose.

Talk To Me
This precipitated a slow change in musician’s outlooks. We don’t often have the time or inclination as a species to communicate with each other in a meaningful way. During the lockdown periods however, time was in abundance, and thousands of players worldwide took to forums, Facebook groups, Discord servers, Twitter and Reddit to talk. Changing one’s interaction from carefully-shaped mic-drop missives to something resembling a conversation in digital space was incredibly refreshing, and seeing messages of encouragement manifest between strangers was truly excellent.

This also meant a change in what we value. Much that was taken for granted was now completely absent. Telling your pal that you can’t come down tonight but you’ll catch them at (insert local venue) next time carried an extra sting. Artists had to spend time with themselves, leading to much introspection and self-assessment. We’d taken rehearsals, rushing to fit our true interests around our day jobs, the joy of sharing a room with friends, even fighting over songs, as eternal. Now without it, we started to understand how much it meant.

Punched Out
More people started to realise what their lives were really like and what they needed out of existence rather than what was there. As cries went out that ‘no-one wants to work anymore’, individuals worldwide began abandoning their 9-5’s and trying to make a go of their passions. Pottery, painting, writing, endlessly looped ambient soundscapes with 150 pedals; going back to the macrocosmic world of office small-talk and thoughtless grind was infinitely less appealing. There is, after all, only so much television that one can consume before spreading your wings becomes a compulsion.

Get Out Of There
The ubiquity of centralisation brought another aspect of daily life to the fore – commerce. The massive uptick in those taking up an instrument for the first time pushed hundreds into the chaotic tides of online musical retail. A confluence of seismic changes in trade relations worldwide and the resultant lack of product from a year and a half of factory closures pushed margins for new stock into single digits, and prices for second-hand items hurtled into space.

Despite the agony of skyrocketing wait times for your new exciting item, musicians with idle hands tend to seek out new makers, new sounds, and new approaches. The amount of rig consolidation and the breadth of information now available on every platform regarding equipment – particularly that which was designed for home use – brought more and more independent pedal makers into the light. This, in turn, led more musicians to try companies they had never previously considered. As word of mouth about new discoveries filtered through the internet, the ever-present concern of having to sell your second-hand kit became less daunting, and what had been niche makers emerged from their solder-choked sheds, blinking in the burning light of the mainstream.

With the relaxation of restrictions and the rabid desire of bands to get back in the van, post-COVID festival bills were stacked. Bigger names booked smaller festivals, and big festivals threw everything they had at building titanic line-ups. Everyone was desperate to both get back in the saddle and do the best they could.

The gap between those in the public eye and the great unwashed closed ever further as artists of all kinds looked to their communities for companionship and support. More and more makers tried to move away from a YouTube-driven existence to something more direct, with Twitch, Patreon, Koffi and OnlyFans receiving a big uptick. For all the tittering about OnlyFans, it’s given hundreds of skilled people the opportunity to connect directly with their community on a platform built specifically for fan-centric interaction.

Onward, Forever
The age-old problem of being an artist is the compulsion to create irrespective of financial reward. In this increasingly streaming-driven era maintaining the excitement around a project or an endeavour can be supremely draining.

Those who’ve never picked up an instrument will refer to it as a ‘labour of love’ or ‘passion’. This is a tacit indicator telling you that you should be satisfied with creating, rather than expecting anything for your endeavours. It is my belief that Covid went some way to addressing that ethos by making many people realise the value of what they were consuming. Without art, we’d have been neck deep in a civil war overnight as humanity had nothing to comfort it other than itself, and traditionally, that’s not our strong suit.

Big End
Genuinely, this is an exciting time to be crafting in niche markets. The cretinous stigma of buying things outside the norm or making sounds for the sake of them is slowly dying out, and the knowledge that there’s room for individualism in every walk of life is truly great.

We’re in a very difficult, confusing period in history. Many ideals are beginning to run their course or appear absurd, and as man moves towards what appears to be a more understanding, educated future, this period will be seen as an important fulcrum.

Support your local builders, buy merch, see bands, big them up online, and we’ll see a brighter tomorrow for everyone.


John Tron Davidson is the owner of Heavy Repping (the shop to end all shops) and is also a markedly excellent human being and very, very good musician.