Stratford record label believes the music industry will rise again after coronavirus

Two bands represented by Damnably, Otoboke Beaver and Drinking Boys and Girls Choir, at London Scala

Two bands represented by Damnably, Otoboke Beaver and Drinking Boys and Girls Choir, at London Scala on Feb 23 2020. Picture: Jumpei Yamada - Credit: Archant

The entertainment industry relies on people being able to move around. With coronavirus putting a firm stop to this for now, Stratford record label Damnably has had to get creative.

George Gargan, Janice Lee and a number of their acts at the SXSW festival in 2019. Picture: George G

George Gargan, Janice Lee and a number of their acts at the SXSW festival in 2019. Picture: George Gargan - Credit: Archant

Run by 49-year-old George Gargan and his wife Janice Li, 35, Damnably has been profoundly affected by the virus.

Its bands can’t travel, either to tour or to perform at festivals. The label had six bands showcasing at the now-postponed South by South West festival, with another scheduled to do a European tour from May to July that has been cancelled.

Though the situation is dire, George and Janice saw it coming and were appropriately insured.

Because they have a number of Asian acts on their books, they were perhaps more aware than most about how serious the situation would become.

Hiperson are from the Chengdu region of China, Drinking Boys and Girls Choir are from Daegu in South Korea and Otoboke Beaver are from Kyoto, Japan.

George says the cancellations are actually something of a relief: “We didn’t want to have five or six bands in America, having to rely on US healthcare.”

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He does feel sorry for his acts, however, particularly Otoboke Beaver whose members quit their jobs in February in anticipation of touring.

George says the label are trying to bring the band back to the UK in August but admits “there is a lot of uncertainty”.

This is undeniably the most challenging time in the label’s 14-year history, despite George and Janice being well prepared.

As George points out, the industry has been struggling for some time. Though confident in his label’s ability to survive, he isn’t as certain live music venues or magazines will recover.

In describing all strands of the industry as “vital”, George wonders: “How much will be left after this?”

It is unclear when the impact of Covid-19 will begin to feel less destructive. What is clear – according to George – is that another issue will be ready to take its place.

Though currently very much on the backburner, Brexit is a “nightmare for the industry”.

George says it’s hard to fully anticipate how things will change, but that it will be particularly tough for an industry trying to recover from a pandemic.

The key issues are logistical; it will become harder for bands to bring stock and merchandise on European tours, and there will be increased costs in tax and shipping.

But George does accept that the consideration of these issues feels far away. For now, the total focus is on surviving coronavirus.

The label has been given a 30 per cent discount on the space it has rented at Here East since 2018.

George is grateful to Trampery on the Gantry for the reprieve, which he says is reflective of its ethos to provide low-cost studios for local creative enterprises.

George now only visits the office to pick up post, as he continues to work with Janice from home.

The artistic director laughs that there is never a dull moment with his partner of 15 years, who he married last year.

There is a sense that the struggle would feel more acute if Damnably wasn’t a labour of love managed by two people very much in love.

Though this does make things easier, there are lingering disappointments.

Firstly, George tells of the shift in attitude toward British-Asian Janice. He explains that as the coronavirus crisis took hold, people began to act differently toward his wife, assuming she had recently been to Asia. Both she and George founding this behaviour unsettling.

The second disappointment comes as a result of George being unable to avail himself of the government scheme to help the self-employed.

People in this position can apply to receive their average income, calculated over a three-year period.

However, George says that “because of how our business operates i.e. money comes in and goes straight back out”, the average income calculated would be much lower than what the label actually earns.

Without losing sight of how serious the current situation is, George remains optimistic for the future.

He knows that there will come a time when his bands can travel freely again, tour again, and light up festivals again.

After months of crisis, society will crave entertainment more than ever.