Opinion: As the Irish gigging scene comes back to life after a Covid-enforced hiatus, Julie Hough from acclaimed indie rockers HAVVK writes about what the return to live music means to her...

So much of what makes up a music career happens behind the scenes. The proportions will vary across every project, but essentially, what you see on stage is just the tip of the iceberg. Releasing music is a full-time job, whether you're just starting off or selling out tours. But there’s something about those 40-odd minutes on stage that can do so much to offset that workload. We’ve had a really busy year, and not having access to the live community has definitely impacted us – and I’ve spoken to a lot of other artists who feel the same.

Without that human connection, it can feel like you’re operating in a vacuum – releasing music from your phone. It can all get a bit Black Mirror.

Watch the video for Halfway Out by HAVVK

When the pandemic restrictions kicked in, we were very lucky that we’d just finished recording our album (if lockdown had started a week earlier, we might have missed it). The record was ready to go last autumn, but we were at a crossroads as to whether to release it. By the time we’d had our third lockdown, we felt we couldn’t sit on it any longer and I’m really glad that we decided to push ahead. But releasing music this year has been strange – full of great supportive moments – but strange. Working in isolation was tough, especially with the pressure to be busy on social media. Gigs are a chance to offset all of that screen-time, admin and the strange existential process of wondering if it will get picked up on playlists. Being around real humans, dancing, sweating, screaming – it’s a much healthier reward for your hard work than social media likes.

I want us to do better and have a live music scene that allows every artist to feel safe and valued.

It’s also a chance to express ourselves, to let off steam and let the music move through us the way it was supposed to. It’s fun, it’s physical, it’s emotional - it reminds us that we’re human. And we get to see our friends and be part of a community – something bigger.

Artists have been hit really hard over the last couple of years, and the lack of road-plan for live music has been extremely disappointing (while also somehow not being surprising at all). Seeing sporting events going ahead and pilot events with no real outcomes has said a lot about how much our government appreciates the artists impacted, as well as the importance of these events to the public. Arts and music are worth more to the Irish people than this.

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Watch the video for Home by HAVVK

The pandemic situation has done a lot to highlight this, but it’s also not really new news. A lot of artists have come out of the woodwork (which is not easy in an industry as tightly knit as ours) to talk about poor fees or unsafe gigging environments, particularly for women, queer and minority musicians. There’s a collective responsibility with all of this stuff – to demand better treatment for artists and to call out abuse of all types in the industry. But it’s exhausting when it falls on artists alone to do this. If we had the infrastructure and funding to do it, more artists could dictate the kind of music scene we want to operate in, with fees that reflect the amount of work that artists are putting in. I think we’re making slow steps towards this but there is a lot of work to do. It’s not just a case of opening the venues again and getting back to capacity. We’ve all learned a lot about self-worth this year and I hope this will be reflected when we see next year’s festival line-ups and funding announcements.

At the end of August, we played our first show in 561 days – a punk weekender at the Grand Social. I was so nervous that I fell into a state of anxiety for about 24 hours beforehand. But the second we started to play, it melted away. It wasn’t perfect, but it was loud and fun and cathartic, and we were so well taken care of all night. It felt like a glimpse of what live music should be like from now on.

All of a sudden, we were back to being a real band again. It’s felt great to find our footing again. I’m excited to fall back into the cacophony, to scream on stage and have a reason to dress up (my wardrobe has been so sadly neglected this year). But a part of me is anxious and it’s not just stage fright. I want us to do better and have a live music scene that allows every artist to feel safe and valued. I want everyone, not just musicians, to learn from the impact of having music without gigs for almost two years, and the value we should place on the artists making it happen.

HAVVK's latest album Levelling is out now on VETA Music.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ