Leeds DIY Underground Is Refusing To Buckle Under The Weight Of COVID-19

Leeds DIY Underground Is Refusing To Buckle Under The Weight Of COVID-19

If anything, the city's creative networks are thriving...

2020 has been a year, hasn’t it?

It doesn’t feel quite right calling it that: years are usually categorised by the passing of twelve months one after another, but it’s been more like a season-long Groundhog Day for the past three. It’s all rough and tumble and we’re just over the halfway point, teetering on the edge of something apocalyptic in its own right.

For the Leeds music scene, this must have been a hammer to the knees. Creatives swept off their feet by the power of a small tsunami, tossed into unfamiliar waters where venues are battening down the hatches, band members are kept at arm’s length and recording equipment drains to an iRig. You’d think so.

Here’s the kicker: in the years I’ve lived in Leeds, I’ve never known there to be so much going on. Instead of stumbling and falling at the first hurdle, most have chosen to think bigger and jump higher. Everywhere you look there’s creative content being churned out by artists, venues, collectives; there’d be a danger of it feeling oversaturated and exhausting if it wasn’t all so eclectic.

Still, it’s the collective effort and comradery that makes the city of Leeds the place to be, albeit virtually.

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On the phone to Tim Malkin (of Talkboy fame), he couldn’t help but gush over the community spirit of the Leeds music scene, a spirit felt in their latest project, 'Empty Days Club'. In what can only be described a musical trust fall, Talkboy got to work recording six new tracks, sending the recordings off for various other musicians to add to.

Working with the likes of Marsicans, The Howl and the Hum and Catholic Action, the project feels less like a collaboration and more like something created by close friends; intimacy is at the centre despite the restrictions that kept them at a physical distance from one another.

It’s precisely these relationships forged during lockdown that are integral to how the Leeds music scene has survived, thrived and flourished. In a city packed tight with independent venues, the rapid closures left no time to think about a long-term plan for existing post-lockdown. This has been an urban episode of The Island; thrown from a great height and struggling to adapt to this new way of living, venue owners have teamed up to cling to the lifeboat together.

In conjunction with Music Venue Trust, Oporto, Boom and Santiago Bar joined forces to create a line of prints, merchandise and commemorative gig posters to raise money to keep them afloat, but it’s their commitment to their audiences that really strikes a chord.

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All three venues have taken to social media to keep the music alive for those who relied so heavily on it, stretching from livestreams all the way to fledgling TV stations. Yes, there’s a mutual ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ between venues and their regulars when it comes to gathering funds, but this has meant a hell of a lot more than that. For the people here, it’s less about keeping their doors open, and more about giving people a place to be; without the Friday night salvation of live music people begin to feel absent and isolated, separate from the community they grew to be a part of. 

With this in mind, Holbeck-based charity Clothcat have shifted their music courses for young people into the online realm, with their Man About Town song-writing sessions soon following suit. Every Zoom call, every online open-mic and every vinyl picnic acts as a lifeline for those feeling the harsh realities of isolation, reaching vulnerable people far beyond Leeds. But this isn’t just about when live music will start again, when you can get your next pint of Yorkshire Blonde or when you can stand shoulder to shoulder with someone you don’t know. At the very heart of all this effort is a shared compassion for people.

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Tackling adversity with one hand and cooking up a storm with the other, Hyde Park Book Club nobly provided free meals for NHS staff from the get-go; in a similar philanthropic fashion, Wharf Chambers opened up their doors to give a safe and socially distanced space for demonstrators to make signs for the Black Lives Matter protests, and Clue Records have donated funds from their Bandcamp to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.

This is the Leeds music scene in a nutshell: modestly selfless, not selfish.

These acts of kindness, the willingness to sacrifice and the care for people reliant on others are the very pillars that hold up the creative industry that brings us so much joy. If it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes shared values to build community, then it takes this solidarity to strengthen an entire city. This is the hope that gives us a music scene to return to.

So, vicissitude? What about it? There’s a downright refusal to let things come to a grinding halt; Leeds keeps the world turning on its axis with each new venture, even when the chips are down.

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Pre-order the 'Come Play With Me' compilation HERE.

Words: Abi Whistance / @a_whist

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