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Ministering music and making a crust: How 3 Christian musicians are coping with lockdown

Tony Cummings asks three full time musicians how they're coping with the financial effects of the coronavirus

1. Rob Halligan

Rob Halligan’s bluesily expressive voice soars at the climax of one of his new songs. His deftly picked acoustic guitar is the perfect accompaniment to the lyrics which resonate with truth, “Life might not have turned out the way I hoped / But many things have been learned.” Rob has played hundreds of concerts down the years but he’s never sounded better. As the song finishes, Rob flashes a smile before reaching for a different guitar for the next number. There is no thunderous applause, merely the sound of a few beating hands conveyed across cyberspace. For Rob is alone in a room in his Coventry home and this online concert via Zoom is being enjoyed by supporters who’ve bought their £7.50 tickets from Rob’s website.

A few days later I ask the singer/songwriter how he enjoyed the online concert experience. “I actually got on with streaming quite well. A lot of people comment as you're playing and if you can keep up with the comments, there can be a lot of interaction and banter with the people who have tuned in. I thought it would be weird not hearing a response but I’m so distracted by the chat and hoping it all sounds okay that I just bumble along! Zoom is very different from Facebook and YouTube because you can see and hear folk but it’s totally different from a live audience as well."

“The pandemic has also shaped the content of what I do as well. The concerts have been an important way of connecting people. There’s the familiar songs that people will know and want to hear but there’s also songs that are right for now, honest about uncertainty, psalm-like and ultimately hinting at hope.”

Rob has been steadily recording his music since the late 90s when he fronted the Goldsmiths rock band. His solo albums began in 2004 and since then he has put out a steady flow of independent releases with his forthcoming, Always Heading Home, set to be his thirteenth. He explained, “I was three songs into a new album when we went into lockdown. I record most of my music at the Foundry Music Lab in Motherwell but I also have a small studio at home. I’ve been able to record here and musician friends who have their own kit at home have been able to record and send me their tracks.”

Almost every month since lockdown began our income has almost exactly matched our outgoings and I really do recognise God’s grace and generosity in that

Rob continued, “To help keep the album on track I offer pre-orders and release each song on Bandcamp as it comes out. So far it’s been one a month and a handful of people have been downloading them. Folks who pre-ordered the new album get the tracks free. I have an incredible group of followers and friends who have been amazing. Some have used the tip jar, some have simply sent gifts or donated through Stewardship. Almost every month since lockdown began our income has almost exactly matched our outgoings and I really do recognise God’s grace and generosity in that.”

“Physically I’m fitter I think! I’ve been, for a long time, walking more in some woods near to us and I’ve had more rehearsal time which in itself can be a workout. Lockdown has been a time to step back from a lot of stuff and think on the future and where God might be leading us. It completely scuppered all our short-term (and some long term) plans. We've set up a group who I could be accountable to about my ministry and who my wife and I can go to if we’re unsure about things. We also have a prayer letter and I’ve joined a small group of independent Christian musicians who meet up on Zoom to chat and support each other."

“I’ve had a lot of anxiety, particularly about finances and there are a lot of unknowns. But the way I write is honest and I put all this into songs, and one thing I’ve realised is that people identify with those feelings and that’s really important. It links us. On the one hand I recognise God’s grace and the other I’m still trying desperately to learn that God is looking out for us.”

For more information visit robhalligan.co.uk

2. Sammy Horner

This veteran Ulsterman now living in Wexford, Ireland, has clocked up a staggering array of albums since his band, the Glasgow-based The Electrics, first emerged on the Christian festival scene in 1989. Today he records and tours the world with his wife Kylie under the name The Sweet Sorrows while managing to record 18 solo albums in styles ranging from Celtic to country.

Since lockdown Sammy has used his time at home to record two albums which have been in his head for years. He explained, “One is an Irish immigration folk song project called Far Away Places and one a post punk, metal gospel rock album called Rev. Sam & The Outcasts. These projects have of course cost money to make, but they have all been done over the internet, socially distanced by half the globe in some cases."

The human dynamo Horner has also kept himself busy with other projects. He's landed a publishing deal with Malcolm Down Publishing for his first children's novel Finn And The Wild Goose and has started on another called Fugglebum The Little Devil which he describes as. "a Screwtape Letters-inspired book for kids.” 

Global touring looks great on Facebook, but trust me, it has a very negative side

Has there been any revenue coming in from streaming, download or physical sales? “Not much, a few quid here and there.” What about supporters who’ve helped financially since the pandemic? “A few have helped. We had two tours booked for 2020 (UK Ireland in June, Switzerland/Germany in September) and a big songwriter workshop that we were hosting in Ireland that we have had to cancel. That's been a blow financially but basically we have stayed put and lived simply.”

“In truth, being on the road last year was killing us. My wife and I were struggling and knew that that kind of touring is just not sustainable, so we had planned to review how we were living. Global touring looks great on Facebook, but trust me, it has a very negative side."

“Spiritually I have more time than ever to read and pray. All in all it feels like I have more time than ever to work, be creative, pray, study, educate myself, be practical and spend time helping our neighbours. I almost feel bad saying this, but I have enjoyed being able to stop. I have hated not being able to see the kids and grand kids though, and cancelling tours means we miss seeing many of our dear friends around the world which is also a bummer. But we video call, write cards, sing birthday blessings on video, etc. Thank God for technology!”

For more information visit facebook.com/sammyhornerofficial

3. Pyramid Park

After a couple of EPs and album under his own name, the Cambridge-based Pete McAllen has developed an electro-pop sound and has released  two albums under the name Pyramid Park. Earlier this year he went full-time but almost immediately has been struck by the consequences of the pandemic. He’s been busy though, performing. “I’ve been doing live sessions twice a week on Twitch, and once a week on my YouTube channel. I don’t charge for this, but there is an option for people to donate if they want. Twitch has been particularly enjoyable, because I can see a small dedicated community growing, with the conversations varied and often steered by the people who join the stream.”

“At a normal gig you’ll have time to pause, maybe even have a break in the set, but with streaming a live gig you need to be switched on the whole time. Silence isn’t an option, so I’ve found it a learning experience and quite tiring by the end of the session. I miss the interaction you’d get at a normal event. Instead you have to plan exactly what you want to communicate so you have plenty to say.”

It’s important to have multiple streams of income as an indie artist

Pete’s Not An Island was released on 24 April. He said, “A lot of my energies were focussed on the release - marketing and working out how best to release it without the likes of a physical launch party. During June, July and August I’ve been going back to the basics; guitar, pen and paper to try to dig out some new songs. The first couple of weeks were hard going, but then I landed on an idea to livestream my songwriting sessions. It was daunting at first, but thanks to this accountability (and pressure), I’ve written at least a song a week.”

Pete continued, “It’s important to have multiple streams of income as an indie artist. Of course, playing live at the right events, and then selling music and merch afterwards is one way to earn money. Thankfully I have had some revenue through streaming and physicals, although I find people only tend to want to buy physical music at events rather than on the online store. Over the last three years I’ve slowly built a community on Patreon who have been an incredible encouragement. It’s like a subscription service, where members get unreleased music, discounts and additional content that I wouldn’t want to always share publicly. They know that by subscribing I can plan better for the future. It’s not a life changing amount, but it has helped me to keep going and cover some costs. There have also been a handful of fans who want to help and sent gifts through. I’m humbled by their belief in me and generosity.”

“We have a young child, so between my wife and I, we work in shifts to look after her. Over time I’ve found working late evenings to make up my hours draining. But I’ve enjoyed walking with my daughter most days and running when I can to keep my mind fresh. I have to remind myself why I do what I do - the calling - and keep my mind focused. These times have caused me to meet with God in a new way, and although tough at times, I know he is close. One of the positives of festival cancellations this summer is the extra weekend time I have at home. So instead of playing 10-15 festivals in the UK and mainland Europe over the summer, I’m able to be more present with family.”

For more information visit pyramidpark.net

 

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