Electronic music has gone downtempo during the pandemic – will it last?

Gabi takes you on an exploration of musical creativity through three long lockdowns

Bristol’s nightlife is electric, and pre-pandemic, the streets were frequently filled with vibrant music and mingling people exploring the small, energetic city. It is famous for hosting impressive events combining the most creative acts in the South West. There is no doubt that the theatrics of partying inspires musical creativity, and both audiences and music acts are missing out on that right now – but even through lockdown, which has seen events and venues shutting down until further notice, still some magic has continued to spread in our wonderful urban space.

Music is intrinsically linked to its historical context. Songs can freeze moments in time by capturing relevant thoughts, emotions and feelings. For example, Nina Simone candidly caught the despair and collective strength of the civil rights movement of the 60s in I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, which has become timeless. Similarly, we can look to the music that is being made right now to gauge this moment in history.

For some musicians, the closure of music venues has been experienced as grief. Jamie, one half of the Bristol-based breakbeat duo Morse, explained how it has been devastating, not only not to perform but the“inability to make connections… pre-Covid you could often approach somebody, and ask to send them some tunes, which is a pretty fool-proof way of getting on someone’s radar.” The virus has dampened people’s ability to share themselves and their passions. The music industry is based on collaboration and for those without the right circles, it has been difficult to find a foothold.

Some musicians have lost employment, resulting in financial instability. Nonetheless, Jamie is reflective on how his shift away from playing live music due to event cancellations has meant more time with family, as well as time to develop creative stylistic confidence: “The main thing I was able to focus on though was perfecting my own sound, which in part is thanks to the shift from club listening to home listening. It made me think about what I was making, why I was making it, and who I was making it for.” With this time to find clarity, artists like Jamie have been able to delve into different sources of inspiration. Although it has been testing, less connection with others has meant more soul-searching, sometimes leading to more balance in their lives.

“The main thing I was able to focus on though was perfecting my own sound, which in part is thanks to the shift from club listening to home listening. It made me think about what I was making, why I was making it, and who I was making it for.”

Long-time electronic music producer and DJ, Versa, views his recent unemployment as something that has encouraged his productivity as a producer, and motivated his micro-herb hobby. I have realised that I don’t need to be working full-time if I can put more energy into my creative goals,” he explained. “It’s been good to have a chance to get ideas down when I’m feeling inspired, not just a small window of time in-between work.” Versa’s most recent releases Flutter and Bloom, on Bristolian record label The Moth Club, meditate on hope and rejuvenation. The upbeat B-side, Bloom, contrasts with Flutter, which features a melancholy melodica echoing in and out of a heavy dub bass. The variety of this vinyl release perhaps shows the deeper connection with his roots Versa has made during lockdown, which is now blossoming into his growth in 2021.

Even so, while some have discovered more time to create, it is without question that  a lack of payment for a lot of those in the events industry, and the subsequent personal impacts of this, have all been difficult. Although the government has provided some stimulus packages to clubs, for new venues such as Strange Brew near to the Old Crown Court in Bristol have not made the cut and are now facing possible closure. along with numerous other spaces.

In the context of heavy bass music, digitalised consumption not only strips a producer of seeing how an audience reacts to a song, but the lack of freedom to dance amongst others takes away a joy of the scene sorely missed by many.

These losses seem even more wounding in the context of the city’s history. Bristol’s rich history of sound system culture stems from the arrival of the Windrush generation, which saw migrants from the Caribbean settle in Bristol from the 60s, and this vibrant city continues to boast some of the most prominent sound systems in the UK. I spoke with Jevon Ives, a musician with multiple cross-genre aliases, about the impact of being unable to listen to dance music in its usual setting. “When the sound system is out,” he told me, “the engineer becomes the artist, when you tailor each little knob to make a song sound perfect.”

In the context of heavy bass music, digitalised consumption not only strips a producer of seeing how an audience reacts to a song, but the lack of freedom to dance amongst others takes away a joy of the scene sorely missed by many. Not only are these actions therapeutic, but in Bristol, they speak to freedom of expression that originated in oppressed communities.

The Bristol’s clubbing community’s mental health has also been affected by bans on clubbing. Club culture can help us to develop our identities and can help to express unprocessed emotions, and dancing can even act as an antidote (amongst others) to depression and loneliness.

Another musician I spoke to, Ellis, a recent graduate of Mix Nights with her own residency on SWU, appreciates her close friends that DJ and continues to connect with them online. “Mixing is very creative, the curating of playlists, time spent listening to different sounds and playing around with songs, seeing how they go together and seeing how far you can push it with blending different genres, styles BPMs,” she says. She has faced the hurdles of the lockdowns by “being more digital with things and consciously making an effort to connect with others.” Ellis has also been able to focus on her goal of championing female DJs on her new radio show (yes please). Could developing a larger online presence be a next step for all performers?

The Bristol’s clubbing community’s mental health has also been affected by bans on clubbing. Club culture can help us to develop our identities and can help to express unprocessed emotions, and dancing can even act as an antidote (amongst others) to depression and loneliness.

Working online on radio stations, sending stems via email and collaborating via Instagram have been normal for musicians for a while, and some even draw their inspiration from a night on Spotify, like Jevon. Increasingly changing ways of working has been especially beneficial for cross-industry work, as being digital sidesteps the pressure of being in a studio. “Working online is so important, and has definitely been highlighted,” Jevon continues. “It’s a new age of collaborative techniques. Having to confront it there and then [in the studio] can be awkward, or if you’re going round to someone’s house you are kind of in the hot seat. I have to be fully relaxed to be in the creative flow.”

Jevon emphasised the balance of finding his flow and being in healthy competition with others, which might be easier to measure in real life meetings. He explained that when he solely connects to himself, it’s a beautiful thing because he is expressing his own feelings, thoughts, and vibrations, but sometimes he misses collaboration as he could be shooting in the dark.

While audiences miss out on listening to music outside their homes, some producers and mixers are enjoying more time to work in peaceful environments. Whether this slowed down pace will last over summer is to be seen, but musicians can be assured that while the world continues to change at record pace, the music industry stays at the forefront of our minds.

With thanks to:

Jamie Walford

Michael Versa

Lola Ives

Jevon Ives

Ellis Roberts

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