James A. McDermid joins the conversation in the 13th instalment of Music in a time of Global Crisis. James is a musician creating within the realms of ambient, drone, electronic, and neo-classical, with a discography including Shimmering Mood Records, Cathedral Transmissions, Whitelabrecs, La Petite Chambre Records, and many more. James launched his own label, Mailbox in early 2020, the first release being a split album shared between James and Brad Deschamp’s project, anthéne, titled ‘Transit |Transition’.
In this feature, James talks about the impact of Covid-19 on his recent music making, nostalgic listening, how the music industry is shifting and adapting to current circumstances, and the importance of music in a time of global crisis.
How have the widespread lockdowns in response to the Covid-19 crisis affected your music making?
It’s been more angular than I first thought. I assumed it wouldn’t affect or change the way I work because I tend to be locked down anyway when I write music; sometimes for 12-15 hours a day if things are going well. When I took on board the quiet streets, the noticeably better air quality (from lack of traffic) and the sudden silence from no more daily grind chaos – I think it got me wondering that this might be a truly peaceful time for the world to take stock and sort of reset the madness of the last few years. I started writing some really nice pieces to begin with.
The reality, however, was that there was absolutely no peace, and I was completely naive to assume there would be: the death toll kept on rising exponentially; news reports on how hospital staff were without PPE; predictions on the economy tanking; people losing their jobs; the poor getting poorer. Reality fell into place pretty quickly; to the point it was all I could think about – the misery of so many people. I felt guilty that I was absolutely unaffected by the virus and the lockdown, when so many thousands of people and their families were. I really haven’t been able to write anything of note since March 2020; the scale of this thing has been too much to disappear from.
What music, new or old, have you been listening to lately, and have your listening habits changed as a result of the current situation?
I’ve definitely been going back to music I enjoyed before this happened; often going back to music I was listening to 20 years ago. Nostalgia can helpfully lie to you when you need it to and suggest there were no problems back in the 80s or 90s when you were young. So, I’ve been seeking comfort in music that makes me feel safe and, like I mentioned, nostalgic; anything from Galaxie 500 to Susumu Yokota, and Björk to some Portuguese Fado.
Consequence of Sound reported the worst week of album sales since the 1960s (28th March 2020). Do you think the coronavirus outbreak will have a lasting negative effect on the music industry?
The music industry has been shifting and morphing constantly for a couple of decades now, with people buying music less and less anyway. When one considers those furloughed from their jobs or struggling financially because they lost their job completely – because of the coronavirus – they might not be buying music in the same way they were anyway. Having said that, Bandcamp have done pretty well on their no-fees day which is encouraging. I think the corporate side of the industry will just adapt like it always has; the artists themselves will always rely on touring for the main income, which is where the long-lasting negative impact will hit, I think.
As far as post-Covid-19 goes, I wonder if the idea of musicians getting back to touring will stay off their radar for a while, despite how devastating it’ll be for them, financially. Covid-19 has decimated how we interact with each other; we’ve all learned a lot about everyday hygiene and what the simple touch of a contaminated surface can turn into. I think once the lockdown ends across various countries, it could be 12 months before artists feel gigs in crowded places are safe to be booked again.
With more musicians live streaming from their homes than ever before, do you think this trend will continue once things improve?
The bottom line is that live streaming gigs aren’t the same for the audience and it isn’t the same for the artist. Some ambient/electronic artists live streaming can be a little dull to watch, especially if the sound isn’t set up right, and often it’s not; plus, it’s hard performing to an audience you can’t see. One needs that interaction. The same can be said for some singers I’ve watched live streaming through Instagram – it can be a beautiful and intimate moment being sung to live… but, again, in general the artist needs their audience. Like electronic artists, some live streaming singers appear a little lost and/or awkward standing there performing to themselves and an audience they can’t see. Most of them would rather be engaging with their audience. I think live-streaming will continue, but the growth we’ve seen since lockdown will gradually taper off over time, I think.
What do you think we as music makers can be doing to create positivity right now?
It feels misguided and/or a little arrogant to overstate the positivity a music maker might create during this time because doctors, nurses and key workers in general are the ones bringing positivity beyond compare; their words of comfort, their ability to care for people and save lives are unparalleled and humbling. Having said that, after a long gruelling shift at the hospital, that one Rafael Anton Irisarri album might be just what a nurse needs on their bus journey home. People need music.
Music has saved me a thousand times: it’s made me strong when I’ve been weak, and it’s made me happy when I’ve been sad – something everyone can attest to, which is why such a strong engagement has developed between the musician and the listener because of sites like Bandcamp and its relationship to social media. From my perspective, the community that’s been created from the connection between Bandcamp, Twitter and Instagram are a strong one. We can offer up free music in return for a charitable donation and/or release music on Bandcamp’s no-fee day in order to send the money we’ve saved to, again, notable charities – it works, and it helps.