Collabavirus: Manchester’s music scene in lockdown

By Emma Pirnay

When Jay Plent saw that he would be stuck inside for the foreseeable future, he decided lockdown wouldn’t constrain Manchester’s vibrant music scene. And so, Collabavirus was born.

A tough year for everyone involved. The first few months of quarantine are now behind us, and we seem to be losing sight of the end of this pandemic.

Throughout history, music has stood in moments of difficulty as an act of connection and resistance. The outbreak of the plague in mid-14th century Europe saw people gathering for religious processions and nihilist parties alike. Where medicine failed, music had to make do. Back in March, people sang from their balconies in Italy, a habit that faded as their population was left deflated from lack of financial support and hope in the future. 

In particular, Manchester’s music sector has received a harsh blow from the COVID-19 pandemic – the majority of live events have been cancelled or postponed until 2021. There were no queues in Oldham St for Record Store Day this year, and a lot of album releases appear to have come to a halt. The independence of Manchester’s music scene and the laissez-faire policy of the Northern Quarter, one of the cultural centres of the city, means that a lot of venues now depend on charity support and online streaming to stay afloat. 

Musical collaboration in lockdown

Artists in lockdown have been physically separated, making collaboration challenging. However, some have taken the physical constraints of quarantine as creative inspiration, creating new DIY musical projects that channel this fragmentary period (honourable mentions include entries from Little Simz and Charli XCX). When Jay Plent, vocalist of Manchester-based Scatterchild, saw that he’d be stuck inside for the foreseeable future, he decided to form a collaborative musical project on Facebook, aptly named Collabavirus. I spoke to him about the project, life for independent artists, the future of the music industry and its digitalisation within the context of the pandemic. 

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JP: “I’ve been hit quite hard by the coronavirus thing, since there’s no gigs and it’s put a lot of release schedules into disarray. It’s been really nice to see how the music community has come together to support each other with the Save Our Venues initiative.” 

#SaveOurScene is a crowdfund offering financial support to benchmark venues in Manchester and Salford, such as Soup Kitchen, Peer Hat, Hidden, Partisan and Eastern Bloc. Keeping these venues alive and pushing creativity during these times benefits the cultural identity of Manchester. We all need places to come back to when this is over. Moreover, music provides emotional respite, benefitting those feeling generally uninspired and restless while at home – an idea at the forefront of Jay’s mind when he created Collabavirus. 

JP: “It occurred to me that everyone nowadays who makes music, makes music on their laptops. Everyone has a recording interface. Everyone has equipment at hand. A lot of people make music on their own, and then branch out to the collaborative bit later. If people are going to be stuck indoors, they’re going to be bored and will want something to work on – so why not start a community of musicians or creatives?”

Photography by Farida Karim

Why should we support up and coming artists?

During this pandemic, funding policies for the arts have been few and far between – meaning that they are not seen as a necessity. Yet, we rely on the arts for normality. While I was completing my dissertation in lockdown, I joked to my friend that I should include a dedicated Acknowledgements section for Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92. It is too easy, in these exceptional times, to feel like we’re occupying a vacuum. Music provides structure and rhythm to our lives where it is otherwise lacking. 

We also need to maintain human connection in times when we are physically distanced. “When you distil Collabavirus to one thing it’s about connection; connecting people and connecting musicians to each other,” Jay explains. This is especially important for smaller artists, who are rarely discovered outside of live shows or the festival sphere. 

Amid the streaming era, smaller artists have been hit the worst by the pandemic – despite efforts from Bandcamp and Spotify to address their disproportionate income distribution. While bigger bands and artists have adapted by selling branded face masks (even survival has a personality stamp!), relying on touring and physical releases for income is unsustainable in the long-term. 

Looking ahead

Direct online funding may be the way forward. Will there be any changes to the music industry following this pandemic? It’s complicated. Using past pandemics to predict how the situation will evolve is contentious. Regardless, I have enjoyed seeing how artists are adapting on their own terms. This was thought echoed by Jay when I asked him about the future of the music industry:

JP: “It’s a tricky one, because I’m sort of in two minds about it. On one hand, I’m thinking that the majority of people in the industry, especially professionals, will want to get to a back to a business-as-usual model. That model being ripping off artists and following trends, not trying to push anything new. On the other hand, I do think new methodologies are growing out of this pandemic.”

Collabavirus originally started as a one song project: “The initial goal was that if one collaboration came out of it, then that would be good”, Jay said. However, the team now plan on releasing a full charity record, with all proceeds going to the Olympia’s Music Foundation. It’s a project that has grown in a very organic way, based on improvising on and remixing uploaded stems and samples from group members. 

JP: “That’s one of the things I love about it … there’s a lot of wackiness, people are trying odd things. It’s one of the benefits of working this way, it really encourages you to try different things. I’ve always felt that having a set of restrictions encourages you to think outside the box.”

“Levenshulme is the new Berlin” was a phrase I found scribbled on a bathroom door at Salford’s White Hotel. It’s an adornment that once reflected the thriving techno scene in Manchester. Today, it seems like a sad and distant time capsule. Make and listen to more music, and we might just get through this. 

Photography by Emma Pirnay

Photography courtesy of Farida Karim, find more of her work on instagram.

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