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UNITY MAKES STRENGTH: Belgium and its battle to protect an underground music scene in crisis

When COVID hit Belgium, things looked bleak. As spring turned to summer Dark Matter spoke to Charlie of Studio Brussel radio station and Isa from Slow Crush to find out how the live music scene in Belgium is reacting to the crisis...

Once all this COVID blows over, and assuming Brexit doesn’t cut the UK off from the rest of Europe while we munch chlorinated chicken and over-wrought gammon with cockroach pate, you should visit Belgium. Aside from producing some of the most awesome beers on the planet, you can also enjoy a great show while you’re sipping. Touring bands criss-crossing the continent stop over to play, while a thriving home-grown scene grace stages from Antwerp to Zaventem, of which emotional firestorm Amenra and death metal maniacs Aborted are but the tip of the iceberg. The sun shone, beer fizzed and Belgium, like everyone else was looking forward to festival season.

And then COVID happened. And overnight the thriving gig scene was shut up. Charlie Buyse had just finished an internship as assistant promoter at Antwerp venue Trix when the order for lockdown came through. “We know when it started in summer in China, but we never thought it would come over here and we had to cancel stuff. But bit by bit, we realised that that would be the case. Because Belgium is really small, all the venues talk to each other, like my boss worked in AB before Trix, and worked in another venue before that. so we all know each other, and especially the bosses, they all communicate and they've known each other for a long time. So everybody was texting to other people from venues they knew, asking, what are you guys gonna do because it's getting really big and getting really close. So eventually on that Thursday, I think 13th of March something like that I'm not sure the venues in Belgium decided to cancel everything, without the government asking us to do but we decided to cancel everything for the entire month of March. Then that evening, the government forbid events.” And just like that, a silence settled over Belgium.

For Slow Crush, it also came at an awkward time. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the dream-rock four piece have clocked up more miles than the mining ship Red Dwarf, with three tours alone in the UK in 2019 along with all the other innumerable jaunts across the land and overseas to the US. This year, Coronavirus threw everything up in the air. “The travel bans were officially announced two days before we were supposed to leave,” bassist/frontwoman Isa Holliday laments. “For a week and a half just before the tour was scheduled to kick off, we were just sort of discussing among ourselves and the band were going to tour with Cold Dreams, what would be the right thing to do and we were already sort of trying to plan out our trip to avoid the risk areas like Italy at the time. But then shows started to get cancelled, and then more shows started to get cancelled, and then the travel ban and then ‘OK, nothing's happening...’ Then the second leg of that tour would have been in the States, where Mr Trump decided we were not welcome any more anyway. I mean I think we're very very fortunate to have had to make that call or to have that call made for us before we'd even left the house.”

She goes on to tell the tale of former tour mates from the US who were stuck rather far from home in the Greek capital Athens. Obviously a shifting landscape of travel bans and quarantine regulations alongside local lockdowns is not conducive to a smooth touring schedule, quite apart from the worry of actually getting ill in the close confines of a van. With the constantly changing situation, Isa thinks it will be while before anyone can even be certain it’s worth booking tours. “I think that might be the stance that the bookers are taking at the moment, just to see what makes the most sense. Because I think with the current situation and without there being a vaccine it's kind of hard.” She explains. “How it is with Europe right now, they've kind of got colour-coding for regions and countries that have higher COVID numbers. so that really changes on a day by day basis, so one day Berlin can be really good, but then the next day they could have so many hundreds of cases. And then it could turn code red and then you're forced to quarantine when you reach another country. The sort of overall rule is that certain countries, they're trying to look out for themselves. So of course, if you would have to travel to a red zone, they would want you to quarantine yourself to self-isolate for 2 weeks before seeing other people when you return. But then for the code orange, for the middle ground sort of thing, certain countries might say quarantine is compulsory but other countries might say it's not. To book a tour in this kind of situation is really risky, cos you don't know if you'll be able to get to point B.”