Live music is in crisis. With no gigs since lockdown began on 23 March, most venues have seen their income drop to almost zero. The live music industry added £4.5bn to the UK economy last year, and provides 210,000 jobs, but with stages silent, up to 50% of the workforce are facing unemployment, a loss of skills the Music Venue Trust (MVT) describes as “catastrophic”.
In June, 1,500 stars ranging from Sir Paul McCartney to Dua Lipa launched the #LetTheMusicPlay campaign, calling for the government to rescue live music. Finally, on 5 July, the government announced a £1.57bn rescue package for the entire arts sector. An initial £2.25m was later distributed to 150 grassroots venues at imminent risk (MVT had asked for a £50m fund) and yesterday, Arts Council England announced a grants programme to distribute further funds from the overall pot, including for music venues. From Saturday – subject to pilot schemes taking place this week – indoor gigs can resume, with strict social distancing.
But will these measures save the sector? I asked a variety of venues how they’ve been coping, and what they need to bring the music back.
Royal Albert Hall, London: ‘We’re months away from going bust’
Opened by Queen Victoria, this iconic centrepiece of British culture hosts the the Baftas and the Proms, while past performers have ranged from David Bowie to Albert Einstein. It has never faced an extended closure such as this in its 150-year history.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says CEO Craig Hassall. “The doors are locked. It doesn’t even smell the same.” The Australian’s “dream job” has turned into crisis management, with a £14m loss of income and 80% of staff – 400 people – furloughed. The government’s job retention scheme has been a lifeline, but it expires in October. The RAH has taken out two £5m loans, but Hassall admits that without further financial aid, this live music jewel is “just months away from going bust”.
Has the rescue package come at the right time? “It hasn’t changed a lot for us, unfortunately. We still don’t know how to apply or what the details are. The friendly Aussie – “generally a glass-half-full person” – suggests that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pilot at the Palladium (based on a South Korean model) shows that socially distanced gigs can technically work, but that they’re financially unviable.
“We’re mostly a hall for hire, whether by Cirque du Soleil or Eric Clapton,” he explains, “but they need to sell 80% of tickets to break even. Social distancing would reduce our 6,000 capacity so that we’d be much worse off than not reopening at all.” While the RAH may promote some small-scale events itself this autumn, Hassall says it won’t be independently sustainable until the house is packed again. “It doesn’t just affect us, but all the lighting, freight and sound companies that supply us, who are all in serious trouble. The rescue package is the start, but it’s not the answer.”
The Joiners, Southampton: ‘A deathcore frontman is now selling ice-cream’
This south coast institution has been a pub since 1810 and a music venue since the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix reputedly jammed here, while more recently, rising stars have included Oasis, Suede, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran. The 200-capacity room also hosts band rehearsals and music classes and is typical of the hundreds of grassroots venues that nurture tomorrow’s stars, but now face extinction.
“Everything’s covered in cobwebs and dust,” sighs booker Ricky Bates, who has seen his normally packed gig schedule shrink to zilch. “It’s like a scene from Back to the Future.” Frank Turner raised £10,000, but staff can’t be furloughed because most also work for bands – whose own tours have collapsed, too. As yet, there’s no indication of financial help for thousands of such freelance crew members, the bedrock of live music. “My assistant is now working in Sainsbury’s in the bread aisle and my engineers are working in factories taking motherboards apart. One of my mates is a renowned deathcore frontman, but he’s taken a job selling ice cream.”
The council have already chipped in £25,000, while the passionate promoter has tried to help the venue by selling merch, from T-shirts to face masks. He’s not sure if the rescue package will be enough. “The £1.57bn feels like a panic measure to shut the sector up,” he argues. “It’s a lot of money, but Germany put in £3bn and Japan are already allowing 5,000-capacity gigs again.” Bates has “optimistically” booked three sold out, non-socially distanced gigs by local heroes Creeper at Christmas, but admits that “after November, I just don’t know if we’ll still be here, but if we lose the grassroots venues all we’re going to get is manufactured crap”.
The Black Box, Belfast: ‘Everyone’s feeling the impact on their mental health’
With a 250-capacity main room and 50-capacity cafe, this grassroots venue is crucial to Northern Ireland’s thriving music scene and arts community. Acts appearing here include Angel Olsen and Young Fathers, while the 700 events a year range from jazz and comedy to a “queer youth takeover”. The venue stands against racism, homophobia and misogyny, runs discos for people with learning disabilities and provides a space for artists to experiment or hone their skills.
“Everyone here is passionate,” says director Rachael Campbell-Palmer. “We feel like we’re doing good, righteous work.” However, she’s still reeling from the March Black Friday when “every show we had for the next three months was cancelled in one day. I sat at my desk just going: ‘Fuck.’” With 15 of the venue’s 18 staff furloughed and a “cashflow cliff-edge” when they’re beyond their £20,000 overdraft facility looming by September, Campbell-Palmer is still waiting to hear what help she can get from the rescue package and trying to save the venue has become her full-time job. “We’re looking for grants, setting up crowdfunding and looking after the staff and communities we serve. Everyone’s feeling the impact on their mental health. It can be quite isolating and there’s no pay-off in terms of a gig at the end of it,” she admits. “When I find myself spiralling I think: ‘What can I do today?’” Currently, the Black Box are “trying to find a way of working with the new normal” – so possibly reopening in autumn with a capacity of 68, all-seated. “We don’t know if that will be viable, but music venues have such an impact on people’s well-being, livelihoods and the identity of cities. Losing them just doesn’t bear thinking about.”
Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham: ‘Have you ever seen a socially distanced moshpit?’
There’s nothing like an arena show for a bells-and-whistles, crowd-cheering, visual spectacular. This independent, council-owned Midlands staple has hosted stars from Beyoncé to Ed Sheeran, and chief executive Martin Ingham says that, normally, the reward for gruelling unsociable hours is a job that involves “spreading joy”. He first experienced that feeling 18 years ago when the venue hosted his childhood hero, Bryan Adams. “I played Reckless on cassette until the tape broke, so to see him in our venue made the hairs on my neck stand on end.” Lately though, Ingham’s job has turned into “untangling spaghetti”. Some 140 staff have been furloughed and 55 made redundant. “My event manager – who took five years to train – is now driving for Tesco.”
Because arena shows take months of marketing and production, there’s no way an arena could reopen by August and again, the social distancing proposals make the prospect impossible. “We accept that we need to be safe and do things differently,” Ingham argues, “but where cinemas can break even at 20% occupancy, we need 90%. We’ve 10,300 people in for Metallica, with a standing floor, but have you ever seen a socially distanced moshpit?” He points out that if regional venues fall, culture will further centralise to London. He isn’t begging for handouts – “it can be loans”. However, the venue does need help to “limp through winter” and some idea – however tentative – of when normal trading can resume. “We’re worth £40m a year to Nottingham’s economy and the treasury will get it back in spades,” says Ingham. “The rescue package is a significant sum of money, but until it’s distributed it’s of no help whatsoever. It’s like a carrot is being dangled, but as yet there’s no opportunity to grab it.”
The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge: ‘Posters for cancelled shows haunt me’
This much-loved 200-capacity venue – built by trade unions in 1924 – is somewhere magic happens. Booker Mal Campbell once drew up a “fantasy wishlist” of acts he’d love to play here, and his dream for Patti Smith actually came true. “It turned out she was a big fan of the Brontës [from nearby Haworth] and Sylvia Plath, who is buried on the hill here,” he explains. Smith donated her fee for the 2012 performance to the flooded town, while other big names who have performed at the socialist members club include Mark Lanegan and Laura Marling. “For decades people have banged tables and sung,” sighs Campbell. “The posters for cancelled shows haunt me.”
With staff furloughed, volunteers have helped maintain the building and Campbell has been heartened by the way the community has rallied round. “We’ve had to give less than 10 refunds for postponed shows. People say ‘Keep the money. We want to support the club’.” For Campbell, social distancing would turn a boisterous venue into a “dystopian theme park”. Meanwhile, although the local Labour party is a more sympathetic landlord than most, the Trades Club faces “the most precarious situation in its 100-year history”, and time is running out. “Everyone flung their hats in the air about the £1.57bn but since then there’s been this creeping feeling about how long it’s going to take,” admits Campbell. He’s “hopefully” booking shows starting in December – but argues that when the crisis is over, the music industry needs to do things differently than before. “With increased cooperation. There needs to be a bright side to this.”
Mono, Glasgow: ‘Everything I’m involved in is all over’
This much-loved Glaswegian arts hub is more than a venue. A large vegan cafe and record shop transforms into a 300-capacity live room that has hosted artists from Joanna Gruesome to Edwyn Collins. However, bar manager/gig promoter Ian Crawford remembers how in March “everything was falling through. We pulled a gig on Saturday and the official closure came on Monday. Initially we postponed reshuffled shows to July, then late September, then that became new year.” Mono recently hosted an online festival and the record shop is reopening with plastic shields and a “one-in one-out” policy, but social distancing would slash the venue capacity. “There’s no way a band will get on a tour bus to play to 30 people. You just can’t do it, but we’ll only reopen when it’s safe.” The Scotsman manages bands and runs another venue, the Flying Duck, so for him “Everything I’m involved in was suddenly all over. You don’t think about these things until they’re gone, but you get into it because you’re passionate about music. Looking at the faces of people at a gig you organised is an incredible feeling and I really miss that connection between the band and audience.”
Crawford hopes that the rescue package will provide a lifeline until the music can return, pointing out that “live music’s effects on people’s mental health and well-being are huge. Without it I think we’re going to start seeing other problems”. As to when Mono might reopen, “I’ve just booked a Bowie tribute for January, but as soon as you start making plans you can be tearing them up again.”
The Sage, Gateshead: ‘It’s going to be electric when we reopen’
This strikingly-designed building on the south bank of the River Tyne opened in 2004 as a state-of-the-art venue for genres from classical to pop, folk and jazz, and as a centre for musical education. “In the week before lockdown we had the Royal Northern Sinfonia, a Gabriela Montero piano recital, electro-pop from Lightning Seeds and six schools from Gateshead performing work they’d done through the spring term to their parents and families,” explains managing director Abigail Pogson. “The Sage is about a great night out, making memories and the community.” The educational projects have moved online, but otherwise it’s been a depressingly familiar story. “It’s felt like the end of the empire. It’s a long time to go without live music.”
With 95% of 500 staff furloughed – and even Pogson combining rescuing the Sage with home schooling – the venue is facing a £7m loss in income. Pogson has launched a three-year Crisis, Recovery and Renaissance campaign, but she admits that, while 20% of the Sage’s income already comes from public funding, the new £1.57bn rescue package has changed little.
“Our big 1,700-seater venue has to be reduced to 300, so we need to assess the viability of what we can do,” she says. “We’re not reopening in August, but we’re hoping to do a modest autumn programme.” For all these venues – and the bands and people that go to them – a return to full-capacity gigs cannot come soon enough.
“Government help will be critical, but, we’re determined to come out of this,” says Pogson. “People are missing live music. We want people to be safe but the appetite is there – and it’s going to be electric when it happens.”