Mykolas KATKUS | When the Music Stops

I meet Rolandas Venckys from Lilas and Innomine two weeks before quarantine and he seems a bit stressed. ‘If only we had planned our concert a month earlier,’ – he says. At the time, Lithuania still had to confirm its first case of the novel coronavirus, but videos from Italy and other worse hit countries had created public anxiety and sharply cut ticket sales to shows and concerts.

The farewell concert of the wildly popular Lithuanian hip hop duo was announced months before COVID-19 hit – and many tickets to the 15 000 capacity Žalgiris arena had already been sold as millennials rushed to nod farewell to one of the most prolific pop acts of the decade. However, the expected sell-out in the last few weeks failed to materialise. The arena seemed almost full but people were somewhat reserved compared to the other concerts played by Lilas and Innomine.

Other musicians consider them very lucky – that was the last major concert of the year as full quarantine measures hit Lithuania in late March, much earlier than most Western countries. Planned arena shows from famous pop acts Justinas Jarutis, Jazzu and Marijonas Mikutavičius were cancelled or postponed along with large festivals and smaller performances across Lithuania. Musicians, stage actors, sound engineers, promoters and organisers were suddenly out of work, even if the majority of the country managed to carry on with its business. Those with jobs in the public sector were lucky – the government paycheck continued to arrive on time. But those working in the private and NGO sectors were hit hard. Most people involved with the music scene were registered in the Tax Inspection as freelancers – and benefited from a lower tax rate in return for forfeiting the social guarantees provided to those with regular employment agreements. As early as April, stories were emerging of musicians and sound engineers taking jobs in the gig economy and becoming drivers for Bolt (which offers vehicles for hire, micromobility, and food delivery services) and Barbora (an online supermarket with a delivery option), explaining that they needed to feed their families. 

The indie music scene was hit even harder. 2019 was a boom year for the independent bands and venues as the scene grew more diverse and professional. Most were expecting an even more robust 2020. As the gigs started to fill up, a growing number of bands were able to finance their craft and lives from non-mainstream music. Young talent flocked to the scene and musical incubators Tamsta and Novus were able to spawn at least a couple of strong debuts each year – unprecedented for Lithuania where the same few bands had been playing for many years. The scene was young, enthusiastic, self-managed and mostly poor, investing hard earned money in equipment and international ambitions. 

One of the leading Lithuanian indie bands, Solo Ansamblis, were expecting to have a breakthrough year. In February, their darkly poetic electronic post-punk album Olos was released by Canadian label Artoffact Records. It garnered enthusiastic reviews and started generating buzz in global indie music circles. The band sold out their Lithuanian shows in April and filmed stunning (and expensive) video clips for Dansingas and Baloje. International appearances were soon to follow as the band was frantically preparing scenography and music for its performances. Vytautas Leistrumas, a member of the band, admits that the shutdown was painful as the band watched their plans collapse. But as time passes, emotions fade. ‘Actually, when the activities stopped, many problems disappeared as well,’ – Leistrumas opines philosophically when Solo Ansamblis played its postponed Vilnius shows in the early autumn.

The government was mostly not there to help as mistrust between the political leaders and the culture community runs deep. Music and nightlife culture have been at odds with the ruling Peasants and Greens party since 2016 when new harsh alcohol control measures were introduced and festival promoters were lobbying the government with a free concert held in front of the Parliament building.

Živilė Diawara, owner of Loftas, one of the biggest music and art spaces in Vilnius, calls the aid ‘minimal’ and ‘slow.’ The government has granted freelancers an emergency benefit based on their revenues from last year. The Lithuanian Council for Culture has made some new funding available for artists and institutions. Fast help also came from the Lithuanian Neighbouring Rights Association (AGATA), which extended some of its savings for its members. But insiders say that the help was small and fragmented.

‘There is a lack of understanding that in cultural affairs everything is integrated and you cannot save just one part without helping another,’ – says Diawara about the measures which were mainly focused on saving artists rather than the infrastructure and other workers in the music industry. She and most of the sector managers point to Germany – where the federal government dedicated 50 billion to direct support for small businesses and single self-employed persons. Germany helped artists directly, gave free grants to small and large businesses and even paid the rent for those in need – including artists.

Art in the Times of Corona

More than a hundred cars are neatly parked in front of a stage in a big field about 25 km from Vilnius, speakers blast from the open car windows. On a stage Happyendless, grandees of Lithuanian electronic music who have just released their fourth album Utopia, are confidently moving through their set. It all seems rather normal while sitting in the car, but if you decide to leave for the bathroom the sight is uncanny and amazing at the same time. There is no sound coming from the stage. When Happyendless starts playing their wicked danceable cover of Atbėgo kariūnai, sušaudė Brazauską the unease grows – the music invites you to dance while you are locked in the car and cannot leave. Some find an emotional outlet in honking their horns and during the last song the random beeping becomes constant. ‘It was interesting, but I would never want to repeat that,’ – says Andrius Kauklys, half of the electronic duo, after the show.

Car concerts were a purely Lithuanian innovation for delivering music to live audiences. Besides Happyendless, Giedrė Kilčiauskienė, Jurga Šeduikytė, Colours of Bubbles and many others have taken part in various stage-car-radio based experiments. Although not as popular as expected, they have injected a sense of dynamism into the scene. The initial anxiety and denial were quickly replaced by fear for the future and anger, which has resulted in a flurry of activity for some. Mostly they have been doing similar things to their peers around the world – unplugged concerts, Zoom broadcasts from the kitchen, Tik Tok dances and virtual reality experiments. Sapiens Music started a project where a single artist on a white screen sings an acoustic version of their song as if on Zoom. Loftas launched the broadcast records of previous shows and made some new ones. ‘The quarantine forced us to focus on the future – 3D, virtual reality and other digital content production. The problem is that this transformation requires skill, investment and so far there is no working monetisation model,’ – says Diawara. 

On a personal level, artists have been affected as much as any of us. ‘At first I was very afraid of the virus. I was also anxious about the future – professionally and financially. But when the panic subsided there was only reality, ordinary life left. The essence of life – being with my kids, making food, doing household chores, playing games and – what I liked the most – being bored, doing nothing, staring through the window. It was a pause which my mind and body had needed for a long time,’ – says Leistrumas. 

Blogger Kornelija Anelauskaitė, who also manages math rock band Jautì, opines that during quarantine the connection between artists and listeners became more intimate. ‘It seems that more understanding, and even love, from listeners and viewers reached musicians and artists. Music, as well as other art forms such as theatre, cinema, painting and literature have become a temporary shelter and help during these critical times.’ She also talks about the special quality of the first concerts after the quarantine – it seemed that the musicians were playing from the very depths of their hearts.

In early June the Lithuanian Government allowed the reopening of restaurants and limited open-air concerts. My band, Sinstation, played one of the first of them in Vasaros Terasa, an open-air space in the Old Town of Vilnius which was the first venue to open and start daily concerts. The atmosphere was still very cautious. Some fans bought tickets but decided not to show up. At the peak of the performance I jumped off the stage and walked into the audience for a singalong for our song Naktis. Few of them stood up (as you had to wear a mask while doing it), but people were humming while sitting glued to their tables. There was a connection with the audience, but it was very different to that felt during normal times.

On subsequent nights – when Jazzu, Gabrielė Vilkickytė, Alina Orlova and others played at the same venue, the audiences started to become livelier. Although summer festivals were cancelled, the crowds at the autumn ones – M.A.M.A. and Loftas Fest – were almost as lively as usual. But there were far fewer people. Most organisers and musicians blamed the government for not allowing them to restart full-scale activities. But not all problems come from quarantine and the government as people are far less keen to buy tickets to shows for fear that they could be cancelled or postponed.

Although the public reason given for festival cancellations was the fear of the spread of the virus, it is a well-known secret that the actual culprit was lagging ticket sales. Well-publicised examples of people catching Covid-19 during the stand-up talk show Kitokie pasikalbėjimai and at the Schlager festival Pravalfest didn’t help sales either. A concert which hoped to gather 15000 people was announced by controversial artist SEL with a big fanfare and then cancelled, officially because of the threat of the virus though others say that the actual culprit was weak ticket sales. Soul diva Erica Jennings had to cancel her show, while other big-name artists have had to play for much smaller crowds than usual. The organisers say that during the almost carefree summer peak only 1/3 of the usual amount of tickets were sold.

The Lithuanian economy has proven to be robust – and as of September some economists have even been predicting a modest growth – but people still avoided going to events. The majority of them followed the recommendations and avoided large public gatherings, especially middle-class people in their thirties and forties with small kids and elderly parents. The 30–50 demographic which was the driving force behind the music industry now live quieter lives protecting their elderly parents and worrying about their kids.

From the beginning of September, limits on the number of participants at public events have been lifted but the number of concerts is still small. In the middle of September daily coronavirus cases spiked to a level unseen since May and there are now more diagnosed cases in total than ever before. Although the government has constantly said that the autumn-winter measures will most likely not be as draconian as they were in spring, everyone understands that, without an available vaccine, uncertainties will continue. Most organisers and artists, expecting that the live music scene which generates most of their income will only be vibrant again next summer, are saving money and looking for alternative sources of revenue. The whole community – musicians, performers, stand-up comedians, event organisers, sound engineers, promoters, managers and office workers – have been following the news and rumours about the quarantine situation very closely.

The beginning of autumn bears an eerie resemblance to March. With daily new cases of Covid-19 reaching into the hundreds everyone is waiting for the seemingly inevitable second quarantine. Night clubs are closing after the ban on activity after midnight while the concert venues where music still sounds sit tight so as not to attract any attention. Crooner Justinas Jarutis has silently cancelled his second large show of the year – a Red Bull sponsored Battle of Artists extravaganza with fellow pop singer Monique. The outgoing government seems to care even less about the music and culture industry than in the spring. Promises to revive the best practices from Germany seem to have been forgotten and there is no talk of support for musicians, composers and venues.

How will all this impact the future of music and artists? One industry veteran is very sceptical. ‘It’s a repeat of what we saw in 2008 – all the indie bands were swept away as they had to ditch their guitars and look for other jobs. Even the pop landscape changed drastically as people forgot their heroes,’ – he says. According to him, a return to arena shows will also take more time than now seems likely – as people will spend their money elsewhere and not want to pay high ticket prices. ‘Concerts are still open to everyone but people fail to materialise,’ – he says. Others are more optimistic. It is a good time to create. ‘Just give it some time and it will ripen,’ – says Anelauskaitė. 

English text edited by Erika Lastovskytė