The Scots are universally known for their entrepreneurial spirit. As musicians, our creative spirit is generally at the heart of what drives us. Never have these two values been so important as we try to overcome what is the most testing period of our generation.
Back on the 9th of March 2020, we had just landed in the United States to begin the first North American tour of our 15th anniversary year of Skerryvore. It was to be our biggest ever year of shows including our own one day festival ‘XV’ to be held at Inveraray Castle, Argyll. Just seven days later we would be arriving back in Glasgow as the COVID-19 pandemic hit globally and all our plans for a special year were hanging by a thread.
Looking back, that period of time was just a whirlwind of emotions driven by the uncertainty of the situation. I think travelling back from the USA we all were thinking “this will be over in a few months and we’ll be back on the road by summer” but it soon became clear that would not be the case. On arriving back in Scotland we immediately set up a weekly meeting online for the band (our first introduction to zoom, which is crazy to think given it is now the new norm for meetings!). Initially these meetings were to update everyone on the situation and to share information on the pandemic, the support available and moral support to each other. However it quickly shifted to being a time and space for creative ideas that would see us embark on a series of projects that were very different to what we had planned for our 15th anniversary year.
Everyday Heroes happened very quickly as my brother Martin had an idea for a tune following a discussion with Brian Gibb (who manufactures all our merchandise). He suggested we should compose a tune or song for the frontline workers. Within the space of a few days, Scott had recorded a guide track from Martin’s phone recording and our first attempt at recording in isolation as a band would come together. As community was at the heart of the track, it made perfect sense to then reach out to lots of friends within the industry to be part of this track and we were delighted so many wanted to support this cause including the ‘spin doctor’ Alasdair Campbell who we knew from his Tiree connections and love of piping. Within a week we had a track ready for release and a video edited together from various pieces of footage recorded on iPhones, iPads and desktop cameras. With the weekly ‘clap for carers’ scheduled for 8pm every Thursday, it made sense for this new track to be released at that time since it was written for them and to help raise funds for the NHS Charities.
The reaction was incredible and soon we were being flooded with videos and messages of people playing the track on their doorstep in support of frontline workers and entertaining their lockdown neighbours. To build on this sense of community we then started a campaign for people to ‘join the band’ virtually by sending us videos of them playing the track and we received content from all over the world. Our website hit record traffic of over 100,000 hits and the track achieved No.1 in the Official Scottish Chart. We went from the despair of cancelled tours to achieving our first number 1 in the space of three weeks. It was such a welcome lift to everyone involved and in a way the success of it helped keep a positive and creative mindset despite the ongoing pandemic and daily gig cancellations.
We already had planned to release our first live album as part of our 15th Anniversary as this was pre-recorded in December 2019. It was a relief that we were still able to progress with one aspect of the 15th anniversary plans. Live Across Scotland was released in June on the date that we would have been performing live at Inveraray Castle. The album was a great success and we are thankful that so many people globally committed to ordering the physical CD to help us recoup the costs quickly rather than have to wait 10 years to recoup costs via streaming. It has been another positive event in the past year that the streaming remuneration for artists has been raised at government level. In any other industry, corporations like Sony and UMG would be accused of exploitation based on how content creators are remunerated for their work. I’d urge every musician to support the BrokenRecord campaign for change in the streaming model. I would point out that this is not an anti-streaming campaign as the technology and concept is amazing, it is a campaign for change in the remuneration model as it is not right that these corporations achieve millions of pounds in record profits yet musicians continue to receive a fraction of a penny per stream. Music has been devalued and it is so important that we as musicians address that issue.
Value is a good starting point for discussing another element of what has become central to our plans in the past year – live streaming. This is a topic that generated a lot of discussion and debate in the early months of the pandemic and value was a key topic. We all watched as live streams from living rooms took over all social media feeds and although we had some initial discussions about trying to do a free live stream feed in isolation from our homes, something just didn’t feel right. We saw a lot of poor quality streams in that format and we also felt that musicians were being taken advantage of in some cases with them being asked to perform for free to help raise money for other organisations, events, festivals but forgetting that musicians themselves were in a time of need. Where everyone has the right to make their own choices we also felt that this along with music streaming was further devaluing music and musicians so we decided to wait until we could safely be together as a group to host our first live stream.
Live Across the World was the title for our debut stream and when planning this event we had 3 key objectives:
1. High quality audio & visual output
2. Connect with as many of the band’s global following
3. Take Scotland to the world at a time when they can’t visit us
To achieve this we wanted a special and unique venue so after researching many places we were delighted that the relatively new Clydeside Distillery in Glasgow were willing to host the event despite the restrictions. We wanted the live stream to be more than just another performance so we added in a virtual tour of the distillery, a special whisky tasting and exclusive add-ons like a unique bottle of whisky, merchandise and ‘bootleg’ copy of the performance. We had a target of achieving a global audience of 2000 people so we were delighted that we managed to attract over 5000 people in 22 countries. It was a very different live gig experience however we learned so much from that first stream and it became the blueprint for our future streams ‘New Years Day Live’ and most recently ‘Onboard’. To date we have reached a combined audience of 17,000+ people in 27 countries over these three streams which has been a fantastic way of promoting the band at a time when we can’t tour physically.
Our second live stream, New Years Day Live, also played a key part in one of the major breakthroughs for the band in that it led to our song You & I being play-listed on BBC Radio2 for six consecutive weeks. During the live stream we had no idea that a member of the playlist committee was watching so it was a complete surprise when we received an email the following week to confirm the song had been selected off that back of that stream. It again reconfirms that old saying that you never know who could be in the audience and that’s why every performance should be performed like your last.
When we look back on this time there is no doubt it will always be remembered as one of the most challenging times of our generation. However, I will focus on all the positive events that were part of it – our first official No.1 track, our playlist on BBC radio2, the support we received globally for our music and live streams, and finally, the time we got to spend with our families as that put into perspective the most important aspects in life.
The Scottish music scene has never been so strong in terms of talent, creativity and energy. Those aspects combined with the famous Scottish entrepreneurial spirit will ensure our industry not only bounces back from this pandemic but in fact adapts to and thrives in the ‘new’ music landscape facing us.
📷 Photos by Michael C Hunter