Arts review of 2020: Fiona Shepherd on the year in pop

From gigs to awards ceremonies, 2020 was a year when the entire music industry was forced to migrate online. Fiona looks back on a year like no other

Laura Marling
Laura Marling

Under old normal circumstances, Brummie indie rock stalwarts Ocean Colour Scene would have been right about now rounding off a triumphant four night residency at Glasgow’s beloved Barrowland ballroom, while Elton John would already have played his farewell Scottish concerts and Genesis would have delivered the equivalent of musical pipe-and-slippers on their Last Domino? reunion tour.

But instead the dominos toppled in 2020 as tour after tour was cancelled from March onwards. In the end, there was nothing comfortable about this year, and little that was foreseeable, beyond perhaps the “gift” of a Robbie Williams Christmas single.

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This was the year the venues, big, small and everywhere in between, fell silent and semi-redundant, reverberating with the ghostly resonances of their recent residents – such as Lewis Capaldi on his debut arena tour, where he introduced the thoughtful gig buddy scheme for those who love music but find the prospect of crowded gigs overwhelming. Little did he know how grimly prescient that provision might be.

Gerry Cinnamon

Understandably, mass gatherings were the first cultural casualty of Covid, meaning poor old Ozzy Osbourne has to wait until 2022 before there are no more tour dates on his No More Tours 2 tour. Surefire successes such as TRNSMT, Summer Nights at the Bandstand and the Edinburgh Fringe all eventually succumbed, leaving artists adrift, and fans and industry wondering when – or whether – gigs as we knew them would return.

After the initial rug-pulling, scores of musicians took to online performances from their bedrooms, outhouses and even bathrooms (good acoustics). The Scotsman was an early adopter of the home gig, introducing the Scotsman Sessions the week before lockdown hit on the understanding that there would be no in-person cultural happenings on the horizon for some time – and who knew quite how far away that horizon would be. In recent weeks, the series, which commissions exclusive clips from Scottish artists across the performance spectrum, has passed its milestone 150th session in the company of Amy Macdonald and won the Innovation of the Year Award at the British Journalism Awards.

The now Los Angeles-based KT Tunstall was the star of the 100th Scotsman Session back in early September, playing against the glorious vista of Topanga Canyon. Tunstall, like many of her peers, determined to use lockdown as an opportunity to reshape her relationship with her fanbase, using crowdfunding platform Patreon like an old school fanclub to host “KT raves” and attend Zoom craft classes hosted by her patrons. Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess spread the albums love around with his popular Tim’s Twitter Listening Party which encouraged communal, if remote, album playback sessions with live tweeting from participants.

Music lovers also took advantage of more traditional methods of supporting your local artist. There were three – count ’em – Record Store Days scattered throughout the year and a grand total of 11 million vinyl records sold on the Discogs website. The Bandcamp streaming service emerged as Covid heroes with their regular Bandcamp Fridays which waived fees and allowed artists to take home the full proceeds from sales.

KT Tunstall performs the 100th Scotsman Session from her home in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

Independent labels also rose to the occasion with impressive release schedules from the likes of Eigg-based Lost Map and Last Night From Glasgow – from Glasgow – who commissioned the Isolation Sessions, where artists on their roster covered each other’s songs, as well as releasing one of the year’s best albums, While I Sit and Watch This Tree Volume 1 by Edinburgh-based Romanian singer Lizabett Russo.

Individual acts took the additional time gifted by lockdown to raid their archives. The Twilight Sad released a live version of It Won/t Be Like This All The Time on a pay-what-you-want basis, Bis unearthed their long-lost Music for Animations soundtrack and Arab Strap scoured the dustiest corners of their back catalogue to make a host of rarities available online. US country star Sturgill Simpson recorded much of his back catalogue in a bluegrass style, resulting in the sonic joy that is Cuttin’ Grass.

Some big name artists, such as Biffy Clyro and Lady Gaga, postponed major album releases, but then relented. Gerry Cinnamon stuck to his guns to release his much anticipated The Bonny on schedule, while Laura Marling brought her Song for Our Daughter album forward and was among the first artists to monetise the livestreamed concert with her show at Union Chapel watched online by 6,500 paying customers.

For Taylor Swift, that would count as an intimate soiree. Inevitably, there was a soul-searching song-and-dance about her tepid “surprise” album, Folklore, and its newly birthed younger sister, Evermore, with which she rounded off the year. Charli XCX went one step further and got her fans involved in the writing process of her lockdown album, How I’m Feeling Now, via livestreamed lyric sessions, while Snow Patrol released their best work in eons, The Fireside Sessions, in collaboration with a rag tag team of online contributors they dubbed the Saturday Songwriters.

Charli XCXPIC: Andrew Toth/Getty Images

As autumn brought further lockdowns – and an uplifting new Kylie album –award ceremonies went online, though Scottish Album of the Year winner Nova, a largely unknown rapper from Leith, couldn’t even make it to the socially distant presentation as she was recovering from a bout of Covid.

While such accolades showcase the stars of the future, uncertainty prevails for the live music scene. Gigs were the first activity to fall in March and will presumably be the last to be reinstated. Meanwhile, we can only hope that the various crowdfunding campaigns and hardship grants on offer will be enough to sustain Scotland’s beloved venues through a winter of discontent to emerge fit for purpose on the day when, to quote the late Vera Lynn, we’ll meet again.

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