The Long View | Here's to 2021

Andrew Mellor
Monday, January 4, 2021

Andrew Mellor reflects on 2020 and the lessons the industry must take forward into the new year

In the first week of January every year, I scribble a list of objectives and resolutions in the front of my new diary that I hope will bring focus to the twelve months ahead. They’re a mixture of individual goals and broader guidelines that overlap the domains of work and life. Though a journalist, like many musicians I derive all my income from short freelance jobs – usually a handful every week. So there’s a degree of strategy in there too.

Looking back over 2020’s list is almost comically disheartening. ‘Cultivate your relationship with Newspaper A’ was at the top. In April, the newspaper in question told me they’d no longer be using freelancers. ‘See more of family and friends’ was next. As a foreigner living in Denmark, travel bans and lockdowns saw to that one. ‘Join a Danish conversation group’ was underneath. Ditto. And then the piece de resistance: ‘Have three full calendar months without alcohol’. Hmmm.  

But it wasn’t all bad. ‘Read more poetry’ sounds massively pretentious, but it has helped still the whirring mind on difficult evenings. I had also aimed to ‘Report more from Sweden’. In September, I sat alone in an empty concert hall in Malmö while a symphony orchestra played Sibelius’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, just for me. And a few cameras.

On that point and many more, I’ve been incredibly lucky in 2020. As a freelancer, I have learned skills that will carry me through similar turbulence in the future. I have been helped by loyal clients, kind colleagues and trusting strangers. I have never felt closer to family and friends, even though I’ve barely seen them.

Yet 2020 has still been an Annus Horribilis. For many freelance musicians out there, it has been that bit more Horribilis than for most of us. Is it too much to expect an Annus Mirabilis in 2021? Maybe, but I do anyway. The vaccine will work its way through the populace, more slowly than we may imagine but probably yielding faster results, in terms of the suppression of the virus. We’ll start to hear applause again – big, hearty applause with foot stamping, cheering and roaring (aren’t you looking forward to hearing the ‘bravo’ guy doing his thing once more?). We’ll know that when the chips were down, music really did matter and that nothing could silence it.

" We need to think more seriously than ever what big, expensive arts institutions mean to the communities around them – to promise to be there, with bravery and imagination, the next time things go really, really bad rather than staring frozen into the abyss "

I hope some things will change. Some already have. Classical music’s default ‘computer says no’ attitude to innovation is eroding so fast you can almost see it. Orchestras up and down the country have proved that there’s no reason to lock themselves into archaic planning processes which determine what music will be heard on a Thursday night three years from now. Repertoire has expanded downwards, backwards and forwards: we have heard more small-scale, High Classical, contemporary and improvised music from big symphony orchestras in 2020 than ever before. We have heard performances in the street and in parking lots. We have learned from our colleagues in commercial music that a music video means more than filming a concert with no audience (okay, there’s some work to do on that one…).

There is much still to do. There has never been a more opportune moment to rejig the repertoire to include more voices and styles. We need to think more seriously than ever what big, expensive arts institutions mean to the communities around them – to promise to be there, with bravery and imagination, the next time things go really, really bad rather than staring frozen into the abyss.

Most of all, we need to get back to what we’re best at: playing and singing difficult, meaningful music well enough to create an electric atmosphere in a room full of people who don’t know each other. That takes years of training, huge self-belief, months of logistical legwork, sound investment of other people’s money and professionalism from everyone from the box office clerks to the trombonist. 2021 is the year in which that’s going to happen again – and in such volume that we can start to see a future and begin to shape it. There will be crises and cockups on the way, but they’ll only prove it’s actually happening. Here’s to 2021. It’s going to be magnificent.