Next Normal?

Whilst the easing of restrictions gives us a lot to be positive about, I feel that we all need to be prepared for lots of young people talking candidly about their year and the impact it’s had – there’s a lot of catching up to do.

As AudioActive (our youth music organisation) prepares for opening the studio doors again – it’s hard to imagine what engagement will look like in the ‘next normal’. Will our young musicians flood back eager to pick up where they left off or will they have a newfound introversion leftover from the effects of social isolation?

I think it’s fair to say, we’ve had mixed results from our online provision, but we envisage some remnants of digital engagement will continue as face-to-face group work resumes. Location is no longer an obstacle and an unexpected side effect of running rap jam’s over Zoom was surprise appearances of AudioActive alumni dropping in from their new homes outside of Brighton – even as far as Switzerland. It’s certainly opened the doors to national and global collaborations with similar organisations at the very least.

Group work online has had its challenges but projects with a strong regular core group – such as ‘Equaliser’ (a young women’s music tech project) and ‘Room to Rant’ (a young men’s rap session with a focus on mental health) – transitioned easily to digital delivery and proved to be an essential support space to keep in touch with each other. I’m sure this continuity will be essential in rebuilding our open access sessions in the coming weeks – as will the mentoring we’ve delivered.

One-to-one work is much better suited to a video call format, however, for those who started their mentoring working face-to-face at our ‘Bottega Rooms’ studios (with its infinite possibilities), being offered a move to online, working only with what they had at home often proved to be an unsatisfactory alternative. Many elected to re-engage when they could get back to what they were doing previously, opting to save their valued but finite mentoring time. For those who got referred during lockdown, where the relationship was established online from the start, the opposite was true – they appreciated the weekly appointment and chance to talk to a knowledgeable, trusted adult. The promise of continuing the work and meeting their mentor in the flesh at a proper music studio being an enticing carrot to dangle. However, a mere phone check-in and a chat was widely welcomed as a much-needed human interaction – for many – the simplest solution.

It’s got to be said, some young people thrived in a cyber realm – those with access to their own equipment, privacy and social media connections made the most of the time on their hands to be creative. Others suffered from digital poverty, lacked the space to create and were unsatisfied with transitioning to virtual workshops. In all honesty, the same can be said of our 30+ practitioners. This period has seen polarising situations for the young people we know – some have made content that surpassed millions of views, or been signed to labels, others have had tours and festival dates cancelled or have simply lost contact with their music-making community. With news of venues closing and European tours becoming problematic, I wonder how many young musicians will have pondered a career change before they’ve barely got started?

We found young people often presented entirely differently when broadcast live from their own home – in part because parents and siblings were in earshot, but also because we were asking them to engage over similar formats to that they had been using to talk to their teachers and professionals all day, a strange parallel for an organisation that prides itself on being very much separate from the authoritarian structures in their lives.

Our workshops are essentially a social experience for many beneficiaries – although they do learn from us, the youth-led, semi-structured nature of our work means that collaboration, conversation and friendship is often the motivating factor for returning week-on-week. It’s easy to see how this is impacted on by being reduced to seeing faces in rectangles – if they ever even turned the camera on at all.

I’ve spoken to lyricists who have suffered a new variant of writer’s block, in the sense, they have only been able to write about loneliness, depression and the government’s handling of the crisis itself. The more astute amongst them have recognised no one will be likely to want to hear that theme once gigs and festivals are back so they are forcing themselves to write uplifting positive content – no mean feat under the circumstances.

It was a real eye-opener seeing the imbalance of connectivity in our cohort. Although some households did have a device or two – a sibling or parent may have needed to work online at the same time, who should be prioritised? Beyond digital poverty, lack of data and young people not being able to connect with us via their devices, we also found issues around the routine and structure of their normal week. They often missed sessions due to forgetting the appointment, disrupted sleep patterns and immersion in gaming. I’m sure anyone reading will understand there was also an element of ‘Zoom fatigue’ and numbers dropped off somewhat as we went on. We were able to loan instruments and kit in some cases – but nowhere near as much as we would have liked to.

I think it’s important to remember that no two young people have had the same experience of this crisis – just as we adults haven’t. In the worst examples: I’ve spoken to those in supported accommodation that have struggled more than ever and some who have lived in fear due to shielding vulnerable parents. I’ve read the feedback from our online consultation on burgeoning mental health problems, being imprisoned in toxic households and total disconnection from being able to access support services. Those involved in crime, violence, exploitation and substance misuse haven’t exactly been following the guidelines. On the other hand, some people have got to get to know their wholesome families more, have realised their dreams through artistic experiment and have had the perfect excuse to disengage with negative influences/harmful behaviours. I must admit, I got mildly jealous when I heard about raves in the woods on the youth work grape-vine.

Most young people I’ve spoken to are fairly nonplussed about Covid, if not wildly conspiratorial, but the reality is: young people have been disproportionately impacted in terms of what they’ve missed out on. Education and unemployment are the obvious ones, but, the sad reality is that there are 19-year olds today who still haven’t had the opportunity to taste Brighton’s infamous ‘night time economy’ – let alone perform at one of its legendary venues. I sincerely hope there will be something left of the music scene we’ve all built over the decades for them to rightfully inherit. I went to a few ‘Cultural Recovery’ meetings and felt the need to stand up for those who are passionate about the arts but have never got to experience it over those who miss what once was. It is my opinion that we should prioritise those who have missed out on the formative experiences of the arts – not just Brighton’s own but the students who have been deprived of that (2nd) most important factor of the University experience – finding yourself.

My biggest concern is a potential tsunami of disclosures once face-to-face work resumes. We’ve done our best but the ‘hard to reach’ are exactly that – and the digital format we’ve been working in could be described as a big floodgate which is about to be opened. Whilst the easing of restrictions gives us a lot to be positive about, I feel that we all need to be prepared for lots of young people talking candidly about their year and the impact it’s had – there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Author: Tom Hines

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Image © Bip Mistry