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No shoving, no standing… Going to a ‘socially distant’ gig sounds like heaven

Live music is pricey, loud, exhausting, cramped and has remained the same for years. If Covid-19 is upending things, bring it on

Claustrophobic: live music 
Claustrophobic: live music  Credit: Matt Alexander

I have a single event pencilled in my diary for the rest of 2020 – anyone else regretting their Christmas Smythson? – and it’s for London’s very first “socially distant” gig, to be held in October. 

Put on by One Night Records and held at a “secret location” near London Bridge (Omeara, obviously), it promises staggered arrivals with a “maze of tunnels” featuring six different concerts of early jazz and blues, performed by British “rising stars”. You reserve a spot with a small group of friends or family, are given a food and beverage “package” for the table, and you and all the other attendees will pass like ships in the night. 

Elsewhere, drive-in gigs – at, for instance, Brent Cross shopping centre – are being tentatively rolled out, while some live music venues such as Studio 338 are drawing up ambitious plans for outdoor events in July. Others are considering selling nights at 30 per cent capacity, with extra-long bars and restrictions on the number of alcoholic beverages consumed per person, so that social distancing doesn’t tumble into the bin along with your fifth bottle of Red Stripe.

Some of my friends have said that if this is the sad (and sober) state of live music post-pandemic, then they’re staying at home. I, however, am thrilled. 

I realised I’d stopped enjoying gigs (excluding festivals) last year, just after turning 26 – the universal age at which, inexplicably, a range of previously acceptable activities suddenly become anathema. These include: mosh pits, queuing, tinned G&Ts, night buses, rosé, staying at friends’ houses, diet lemonade, not sitting down, going out on Tuesdays, teenagers, and touching strangers. Unfortunately, gigs tend to have several of those things going on at once. 

James Blake performs at Eventim Apollo Credit: WireImage

Not to mention, too, that none of your favourite artists sound as good on stage as they do on the record, that it’s almost curfew and they’re not even on yet, that you can’t even see the stage, that your whole evening takes place through the lens of somebody else’s iPhone, that the special guest wasn’t special, that you can’t even buy a warm pint because a couple of 30-year-olds are using the bar to stand up straight. Or the sinful absence of a cloakroom.

In fact, I remember the exact moment of love lost. It was when I emailed a music publicist about a Drake concert that I had to review, to sheepishly check whether the ticket was seated. I still shudder at his reply: “Will you be wanting a blanket with that, too?” 

The idea of a socially distanced gig, then – as a temporary stop-gap while a debilitated music industry gets back on its feet – sounds idyllic. With half the capacity comes half the noise – my favourite moment from Billie Eilish's 2018 gig was when I left three songs early and heard my eardrums whisper “I love you” – and half the people. No more men putting their hands on my waist and saying “sorry, darling, can I just”, as they slowly feel – no eyes, apparently – their way towards the bar. No women hissing and clucking like mad geese as you dare to exhale near their fiercely guarded “spot”. (Name a more vicious weapon than the sharp and vindictive elbow of an angry woman, I'll wait.)

That said, there are some anxiety-inducing issues even a socially distanced gig won't solve, such as my crippling inability to learn song lyrics (no matter how much time I spend on Genius). It means I never feel worthy enough to claim a spot at the front of a gig with the real fans, and can never climb on my boyfriend’s shoulders at festivals for fear of the panning camera. Is there anything more mortifying than genuinely loving a song, having listened to it a million times, yet when your friends shoot you a look during the hook, you’ve either got your mouth sealed shut or the wrong word on your lips? (Actually, there is: finding that exact moment the next morning on your friend’s Instagram Stories.)

In fact, the possibility of being filmed while at a gig fills me with existential dread. Not only because the way I dance on a tired and sober Tuesday night is not unlike a wooden Pinocchio shuffling on a string, but because I always look extraordinarily miserable. The more engrossed I am in a performance, somehow, the gloomier I look – it’s the same with all things I love, ask my boyfriend. On reflection, this might explain why during last year’s James Blake gig – when everyone was immobile, seated, silent and crying – I felt inexplicably joyous. 

Lizzo performs at Brixton Academy in 2019 Credit: Redferns

All things considered, maybe I’ve never loved going to gigs. Perhaps my enjoyment has always been performative: proof of my dedication to a passion, a subculture, a person. Proof that I am interesting and interested. I wonder, though, how many “fans” would still pay for the ticket if they were told they weren’t allowed to post receipts of the night on Instagram. I wonder how much my sense of intellectual accomplishment after attending a gig, an exhibition or the theatre would dim were I unable to pompously recommend it at dinner parties. 

I certainly don’t wish a forever future of socially distanced gigs on the music industry; it has suffered a great deal at the hands of coronavirus and needs as much support as it can get. But I do wonder whether a moment of upheaval could do it some good.

Before the pandemic, live music was in rude health. The industry body UK Music reported a 12 per cent rise in audiences in 2017, with 30.9 million gig-goers contributing £4 billion to the British economy. But the way in which live music is consumed has remained completely stagnant. While I may be a little older than the average concertgoer – and I admit, a little more socially anxious – I can’t be the only one that feels the experience could be better, particularly for more mature audiences with a little less energy and patience, and a little more money in their pockets. 

Intimate: Stormzy performs at the Rose Theatre Credit: Steve Gillett

While I’m not suggesting Brixton Academy should start rolling out armchairs and table service – I’m well aware that tickets are pricey enough – it’s worth using Stormzy’s Rose Theatre gigs and Madonna’s Palladium concerts as useful starting points. When Madonna performed at the Palladium (a cosy capacity of just over 2000), everyone had a seat, but those who wanted to dance could get up and shimmy down the main aisle, disturbing no one yet contributing to the fun. If she had turned up on time and kept the show under two hours – a rule I wish applied to all forms of entertainment, including film and theatre – it would have been a near-perfect evening. 

Similarly, the tiny Rose Theatre could only hold 800 fans (versus Brixton’s 5000), and so they had the brilliant idea of putting on two Stormzy concerts in one night. Not only did this ensure the evening started and finished refreshingly early for a weeknight – and ran to a super-tight hour, making every minute count – it also allowed for one of the most beautifully intimate and emotional concerts I’ve ever been to. Stormzy was able to converse directly with some of his fans in the audience – who, incidentally, were mostly seated – and in exchange we could hear, and see him deliver, every word. 

I don't have all the answers, and I love music too much to ditch gigs altogether, but please, whatever you do, don’t suggest I stop whining and attend a virtual gig instead. I’d rather get elbowed in the face.