Livestreams in lockdown: how I learned to cope with Covid

King Size Slim playing guitar
King Size Slim plays to a socially distanced crowd at Rosslyn Court. Photo: Morag Butler

You might be aware of a music space called Rosslyn Court in Margate, Kent. You might have seen one of our live streams this year. Some of you may even have attended concerts there before lockdown. It’s a rare thing these days, a new folk venue.

We started Rosslyn Court after Chris and I visited the (now sadly closed) Reel in Kirkwall, Orkney, and the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool in the north-west Highlands while on holiday in Scotland.

Looking for a new challenge, we dreamed of a folk venue where people could play and listen to music and learn music-related skills in fun, encouraging workshops. I had run a few charity concerts in Effingham, Surrey. What could go wrong?

In the absence of any negative information and with minimal investigations, Margate seemed like the place. I loved the sea and the friendliness. I gave up my teaching job and we bought a small hotel in 2017.

We learned that it was formerly a brothel. However, Chris and I were both formerly carpenters and we set to work, every day for a year, to renovate. We used what used to be a bar (unlicensed!) as a performance space, with a capacity of 40. We created other breakout rooms for workshops plus three bed and breakfast rooms – handy for performer lodgings.

Our first concert was on 27 October 2018. Lunatraktors. It was magic. The next day a neighbour, Pete Doherty of the Libertines and Babyshambles, asked if he could play here, surprising us with his instantly sold-out audience and folk-influenced set. I had seen him with Bob Dylan at the Hop Farm Festival in 2010 and thought that of the two he performed better.

We had to consider who we wanted to hear. I wanted to have an inclusive gig list and was interested in widening the usual folk club audience demographic. How to encourage younger, more diverse audience members without alienating the rest? We have made good inroads here and are building a following. I think having younger performers helps.

Martin Carthy came to play early on and that encouraged others. Amazing and talented performers started to inquire about gigs, leading to many memorable evenings. Granny’s Attic came and led a workshop too … just wonderful.

An important part of our ethos is to encourage younger and emerging performers. We use the folk club concept of floor singers to showcase new talent. There are no house style rules, so long as it isn’t actively offensive. We are an acoustic venue, however, so when a grime boy band from New York asked to play here because they ”admired our ethos” I suggested other venues.

Americana came our way: the wonderful Allen Family, Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves, with Jeni Hankins lined up in May. Also blues: King Size Slim and Nigel Feist. David Sanger, a travelling showman, performed here before leaving the area in his horse-drawn caravan.

We were achieving a reputation for hosting quality music in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere with a fair-priced micro-bar run seamlessly by Una. We always offer coffee and cake, a nod towards the Reel and Ceilidh Place, which had wonderful cafes. We wanted to keep live music affordable so didn’t make a penny till we picked up an alcohol licence. I’m not sure what this says about the future of culture in the UK.

The workshops increasingly worked well; performers often elect to run a workshop before their gig but we also run regular groups – mandolin classes with Dick Smith, harmonica with Nigel Feist, vocal, songwriting and performance workshops with Hughie Gavin and clogging with the Arkwrights, fiddle with Krista Bubble and the French Connection afternoons of French music and dance run by Ernestine Lawrence are very popular, fostering new skills and friendships.

All was going well. We had a full gig list till May … then Covid. Everything stopped. We had to make decisions. We researched policy and protective equipment and got to work. We installed a Perspex stage screen, on-stage air extraction, bought personalised mic covers, and used an ozone generator.

I knew absolutely nothing about the technicalities of livestreaming – I had used email, had a web site and did internet shopping but that was about as far as my knowledge stretched. But we found experts and arranged training. Roger and Phil, regular gig attendees, volunteered to learn how to livestream and we pulled together the equipment we needed.

So, despite lockdowns, Rosslyn Court has kept musicians working by livestreaming performances on YouTube. It was difficult at first, with social distancing and masks. A stunning session with Bob Kenward and Steve Morehan was plagued by internet dropout. We had to organise a new provider and backup 4G supply. Each challenge is a learning opportunity, we tell ourselves.

Sessions available to view on YouTube include Falle Nioke, CoCu, Chris Cleverley, Lizzy Hardingham, Hughie Gavin, Helen North, Jon Beetham, Sally Ironmonger with Brian Carter, and AJ Clarke with Julia Porter.

I cannot state strongly enough the restorative effect of live music. I always feel happier after a gig. Always.

We ask for support for musicians via PayPal during our live streams and have received many generous donations. All the money goes to the musicians. We guarantee a minimum payment but have rarely had to implement this.

In the gap between the first and the second lockdown we had a small audience in attendance with masks, handwash, socially distanced tables, a quirky one-way system in and out of the building and Una serving at tables.

We always have a raffle. We raffle a CD and a “Who Gives A Crap” emergency loo roll. It’s free to anyone who donates (or buys a ticket when possible). Being inclusive, it’s also open to anyone who contributes to online chat during the streaming. (I like online chat – ironic, as talking during the performance is normally discouraged using a “toffee of shame”. How times change.)

We have loads more exciting online events coming up over the next months (obviously with no live audience until allowed), including Luke Jackson, John Watterson (Fake Thackray), Pat Turner and Lynne Heraud, Winter Wilson, Lunatraktors, John Kirkpatrick, Kath Tate, Elizabeth & Jameson, Steve Ashley, Wildwood Jack, Tom McConville, Maddie Morris, and the Magpies.

We are delighted that arts and music venues in the Cliftonville area of Margate are coming together to promote culture and raise awareness of the fantastic range of events we have here. Rosslyn Court is proud to be a part of the Cliftonville Cultural Quarter and is excited about the future.

Thanks are due to Thanet council, Arts Council England and the Music Venues Trust for supporting us to keep music live here in Cliftonville. We couldn’t do it without them.

So a new folk venue is born and although not making a fortune, we’re continuing to stage regular live music in safety. How are we doing it, you ask? We have a dedicated team, loyal supporters, lots of energy and pensions from previous jobs.

Up until January, when we received an Arts Council project grant, we were struggling financially. We are lucky that we own the building. We will keep monitoring, adjusting, adapting … and enjoying live music.

Top tips for livestreaming

Despite my inexperience I have found it comparatively easy to broadcast our weekly folk club and have had a great response from performers, viewers and reviewers. Given this, I would encourage anyone else to have a go. Here’s what I’ve learned from the experience:

• YouTube works perfectly for me. You can broadcast from one camera but I use a more complex arrangement, with what they call a compiled feed. This allows me to use several cameras. Others use Zoom (easier technology but not ideal for music) or Twitch (apparently more problematic if you use copyrighted materials).

• The most important thing was to create a folk club atmosphere and fill any empty space at the end of a song. I have a floor singer or two, a compère (me!) with a few jokes to hand, a small but enthusiastic tech crew who applaud at the right moments and shout comments, plus a free fun raffle.

• I have made our venue Covid-safe with a Perspex screen to separate the performers from the tech crew and simple on-stage air extraction. When lockdown rules allow, I can therefore have a small in-person audience.

• Performers need a separate room to relax in before and after the event and are not allowed to mingle with the audience. Solo performers and couples are comparatively easy to keep safe, but if bands include several people from different household then the performers themselves need to be disciplined.

• I have found the lockdown rules quite sympathetic to venues wanting to broadcast, but you need to be clued up on the legislation, to be able to carry out a formal risk assessment and to observe good practice.
• I have not bothered with a paywall but have simply asked online viewers for donations (fairly insistently!). I have been stunned by how generous people are – one performer got more than £600. I pass all donations to performers.

• Performers with a good social network do best. I guarantee a minimum of £100 to all artists but have rarely had to dip into my own reserves.

• I have received significant support from grants. I knew nothing about making applications before the pandemic but funders do seem approachable – and willing to offer support to newbies.

• We use OBS software running on a high-spec desktop to compile our output, two Lumix SLR cameras and half a dozen webcams to film, and a Yamaha MX16XU desk to process the sound. I don’t really understand any of the technicalities, but it has been easy to find supportive friends in the folk world – so put the word out.

• You do need a reliable internet link. Our home broadband was not up to speed, so I had an extra ADSL line put in. You need to connect to the router via an ethernet cable; don’t try to use wifi. I do not let anyone else (audience etc) log onto the same service while we are broadcasting.

• Unexpected things can go wrong so I never broadcast using any new equipment or techniques unless we have practised with them and made a trial recording first.

• I publish a YouTube link on Facebook and Messenger a week before the event. I make sure that joining and donating instructions are clear.

• We have someone who responds to live chat, passes on pertinent comments during the show and acknowledges all donations.

For more information, see rosslyncourt.com. Search for “Rosslyn Court” on YouTube to watch previous gigs. This article appeared in Folk London 311, February-March 2021