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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.”

Meanwhile for those stuck at home in Belgium, the prospect for entertainment is as bleak as this country. As a graduate of Event & Project Management at Arteveldehogeschool based in Gent, curator of the alternative guitar music-focused Bruut segment on Studio Brussel radio station among things, he’s well connected to see the state of the music scene in Belgium. For him it’s a source of pride, and not a little amused exasperation at the Belgian political establishment’s approach to supporting the arts and those who work in it. “For employees of music venues, they gave possibility for technical unemployment or temporary unemployment. It's not a lot but it's something. But the problem is that in Belgium, we work a lot with freelancers. For example, if I were to work for Trix, I would be on their paycheck. I get their money from them. So that wouldn't be a problem because I can show that I have worked for them. But the sound technicians we use, we only have one in-house sound technician, the sound technicians we usually use are freelancers. So, the government told them, you can get help, which was I think one time 2000 euros for three months, which is not a lot. And freelancers have to show that they worked, I think seven days or 20 times in 2020, but it was beginning of the year so it's pretty difficult. They basically fell through the net, like a musician that just became a freelancer, there was a big possibility that he couldn't get grants or subsidies or something like that,” he says. “I know a lot of people like one of the best tour managers in Belgium, had to sell his van, and is currently working somewhere else in another sector, because he can't get help and he doesn't have jobs. A lot of musicians are starting to look at other sectors.” Going on to say: “So yeah, mentally it's getting pretty hard and the government keeps ignoring us or that's at least it feels. And then more and more we start to get the pension but it's not easy. Especially for a country that prides itself on its culture.”

Unlike our British model where it’s every place for itself and money has only been dolled due to the current emergency, the provision of support in Belgium seems to be much much higher. “The commercial players [e.g Live Nation], they don't get subsidised. Venues usually get subsidised and in a structural way from a year basis because they are, what is the English words?... Non-profits. The biggest reason why they do that is actually so that you can support a culture that isn't profitable, yet. So for example, my boss and me find a band, we're in love with it. And we know that's exactly what the Belgian people want to hear. Like, for example, there's a Belgian rock band called Dirk. Now, they're getting to a point that they can start to make a bit of money. So as a venue with 4 halls, with small halls and big halls, it's our job to make sure that they get the chance to play supports, get a chance to do an after show, to make sure that they can grow, that they have the possibility to grow without us having to say yeah, we want to give you guys a show, but you're not profitable, so it wouldn't be good for us. We want to do a show it's not going to be profitable, but that doesn't matter. That's what our subsidies are for. So it's really an investment.” Under the current circumstances, Charlie reports subsidies have been reduced to 60% of the usual amount. “But it's gone because they don't really see the importance of it. In normal circumstances, we get a lot of space to breathe. But in these days and ages, it's not easy because they expect the same results, but with less money. That's practically really hard to do.”

Another part of the problem for Charlie and his cohorts in the gig business is the ever evolving regulations, sometimes nonsensical and others completely overlooked, where for example, football matches were given the green light to happen, but not gigs. “Every one of my friends and colleagues and everyone is pretty pissed. Because commercial air flights with 300 people packed close together with only a mouth mask is allowed. But since that Corona happened, we organised a lot of shows. And there hasn't been one single outbreak of Corona. Yeah, it's all tracked back to tourism and social bubbles and stuff like that. It feels more like a like a political move not to spend attention to culture than it does an economic reason not to, because we are, or were, the most profitable sector in Belgium or the fastest growing economy in Belgium. We give jobs to 80,000 people as the event sector, I think we did 14% of all Belgian freelancers' work. In the event sector, we were 5% of the total GDP.”

Mix in social distancing regulations and you have the capacity for confusion. “There's an event matrix, which online file where you have I think 18 required factors that that have to be met. And if they are met, you get a green code and you can organise your event safely. But the biggest joke of it all is that they didn't work for events under 200 people. So if you checked with the event matrix, and your capacity was lower than 200 people you always get green, always. So it was actually broke before they introduced it. They never put that in the media. They never talked about it.” Charlie rues; at the opposite end of the scale, he says, “Starting from August, it's 200 people in a bar and 400 people outdoor. But because of the second wave, we never got to 400 people outdoor. The biggest problem with that is that if your venue is huge, you can only go to the maximum capacity even though you can organise way safer they don't look at the capacity of the venue itself.” Obviously, the running costs for an event of a reduced capacity do not equate to a profitable gig, with the pre-eminent Brussels venue Ancienne Belgique recently letting go of the equivalent of 30 full time staff members.

From the point of view of performers, would a socially distanced gig be a good thing? Isa's uncertain: “I don't know! I think it’s something that everyone would have to get used to. I know I myself would feel very uncomfortable playing a gig like that, but again it's probably something that you just have to get used to if that is going to be the only way you can perform right now. It's not the best way to bring your music across, but I think that it's just something that you'd have to sort of kind of wipe from your mind and just be in that zone, which I think that is something we do in general anyway with all the smoke and lights we use; we get into the zone and disappear into the music and we don't even see who’s out there so...I’m hoping that will be the case if there is a next Slow Crush gig in these weird sort of lockdown restricted circumstances.” And while they have streamed a live session and had their own space to practise and finalise the songs that will appear on the follow up to 2018’s ‘Auroa’ with recording plans pencilled in for January, it’s been an odd time for a band whose touring schedule is usually packed to the gunnels.

With winter approaching and no signs of COVID abating, it’s a case of wait and see as the possibility for outdoor gigs fades for all but the hardiest. With Belgium having lots of youth clubs that are heavily subsidised by government (and where young Belgians can cut their teeth organising shows without the pressure of having to turn a profit), hopefully the impact will be minimal. But for hardy road warriors, who casually drove all over to play gigs, it might be a very different landscape when they head over the border. “I'm hoping in Belgium because there are a lot of youth clubs and stuff that are venues, that they are getting some support from the government, but some venues are small bars that haven’t been been shut for a couple of months and now they have been allowed to open, but we know of bars that have had to shut down so, not necessarily music venues, but that's the case for all across Europe and all countries. In the US some of the venues that we were supposed to play have also shut down and when that's rescheduled we won't be able to play in those clubs that we would have played in this April. It's sad!”

Charlie identifies the nature of the entertainment and arts sector as a potential weakness in dealing with the layers of bureaucracy that makes up the Belgian governmental structure. “It's really fragmented. We felt that had to change. So we all came together. And created Live 20 20 Fund, which people can support and that base employees or people who work in the music business that don't get support, like for instance, tour managers,” he outlines. “We also created a crisis cell where from every aspect of the event sector, the music and suppliers and theatre and bands and stuff like that everyone is represented so that we can start to have a big good lobby towards the government because, why are airplanes allowed to be filled with 300 people and soccer is allowed to go on? It's starting to improve, and there's going to be a lot of advantages later when we recover. But it just showed us that sector that's focused on organising wasn't organised well enough.”

With a new national federal government finally sworn in after last year’s general election and proportional representational wrangling that characterises Belgian politics, there’s hope for the future. With a weary shrug that has become the hallmark of anyone in these COVID times, with all the entertainment sector in Belgium organising outdoor events and unique events to keep doing what they love while keeping everyone safe, Charlie sums up the stoicism and pragmatism and also the collective spirit that’s heartening to see in sector that has struggled more than most in these unprecedented times. “It's not fun, but it's better than having nothing. It's better than staying indoors and taking another breath or something like that. In Belgium, we have a really big beer culture. Bars are really, really important to us. It's where we meet people and where we see people is where we have meetings. So they were suffering as well, and that weighed a lot on us too, because you can't go to the bar with your friends and go see shows and stuff like that. So yeah it's pretty rough, but we'll get through it.”

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