If you’re reading this then it’s probable that, like us, you’re desperately missing gigs. We love them too, of course we do. For many of us they’re the highlights of our weeks, months and years; the times where we get together to celebrate our love of music and share in that precious collective moment.
That’s really the point of it all, isn’t it? Live music is about the artist and audience coming together to create that feeling of unity that is seldom matched in any other sphere of life. But today, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, what was previously live music’s strength now threatens its future.
Hours, days, weeks and months: a third of the year seems simply to have evaporated, and with it immeasurable lost opportunities and income for our creative industries. Despite a nervy easing of lockdown conditions in England, and hints that Scotland will follow suit in the weeks to come, the wider effects of the pandemic and accompanying lockdown are still to be seen. With gigs predicted to be one of the last social events to settle into a sustainable ‘new normal’, it’s likely that the live music industry will be especially impacted. Around the country, venues of all shapes and sizes are facing a difficult route out of lockdown. Without help from the government and, crucially, artists and gig goers, they face uncertain futures.
Save Our Venues is a national initiative launched by the Music Venue Trust to bring artists, venues and the gig-going community together to rescue our tremendous cultural spaces. Each of the venues are being encouraged to set up a crowdfunder, with proceeds going directly to them. A portion of the funds raised will go directly to creative professionals in need of immediate assistance, with artists being matched to each venue. So far over one million pounds have been raised, with a target set of £1.5 million.
Almost every venue up and down the country, from treasured intimate spaces all the way up to the cavernous behemoth, is facing an uncertain future. Individual grassroots venues have launched crowdfunders to help them through this enforced period of hibernation, some more successfully than others, as music lovers and artists gather round their favourites to help see them through their enforced hibernation.
Nick Stewart is the venue manager and booker at well-known venue Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh. He’s also the Regional Co-ordinator in Scotland for the Music Venue Trust. Speaking to Nick, he’s firmly of the view that it’s not just your favourite haunt that’s important in this situation. Every venue around the country is part of an intricate network supporting bands, sound engineers, bar staff, roadies, local food and drinks suppliers, and punters of every stripe.
If one venue disappears, it’s not a given that another will be able to take up the slack and valuable opportunities for bands and fans may be lost forever. He explains, ‘Sneaky Pete’s is part of an ecosystem; we don’t do better when other venues do worse. It’s the totality of people going to see music that is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Musicians need wide networks to be able to tour, to be able to keep the ecosystem going. Whether or not those venues have managed individually to raise significant funds, or have a significant local pool of love behind them that is helping them get back on their feet financially, it’s still very important that all venues work together to make sure that the network survives.’
‘The one thing that venues want to re-open for is to provide performance opportunities for musicians, because right now they’re losing their income. Most grassroots music venues want to be making sure they are supporting musicians. Part of what we have to do is be able to open safely, to be able to provide that. Music Venue Trust operates as a kind of nexus to be able to put the two of them together,’ he tells me.
‘So when you go on to the website, if you’re just interested in giving to a venue, fantastic; if you want to find out what online shows are available, that’s there as well. But it’s also there for musicians to find out what venues they want to support with an online show. It’s a one stop shop for helping venues, but it’s also for enabling fundraising by artists.
There haven’t been too many shows yet; we’re all busy trying to pull together artists and some bigger names are going to be announced soon. I can reveal that KT Tunstall will be doing a big international fundraiser for a Scottish venue.’
It’s not just city venues that are under threat. Rural spaces are in much the same boat, and Nick explains that if these types of venues disappear, then the diversity of music we enjoy today is under threat: ‘All of the arguments we’ve had over the last few years about making sure there’s really good representation of women and BAME people, that you have to see it to want to be it, that applies across music for everyone,really. When you lose music in rural areas, then for those who live there the idea that you could be a professional musician is a great deal further away.
‘Obviously the bigger cities will always attract people who want to be musicians’, he says ‘But it’s really important, and it’s a Scottish Government priority to make sure that culture reaches into every part of the nation.’
‘As co-ordinator I’m speaking to all those venues, making sure they are getting access to whatever funding already exists, but also I’m speaking to the government to try and establish a dedicated fund that exists for grassroots music venues. There is one in London, and Creative Wales had already established a fund specifically for grassroots music, with funds up to £25,000 available in grant form. Scotland hasn’t had anything like that, and is far behind in establishing a dedicated fund that music venues can apply to. There is help from Creative Scotland for musicians, but the way it has been structured means it’s not appropriate for music venues to apply.
Although MSPs are engaging with the Music Venue Trust, no Scottish politicians who have the power to create a dedicated fund have committed to do so, though Nick believes that this will come.
Nick tells me that historically, grassroots music venues have had little relationship with government funding. Creative Scotland has seen very few applications from these venues and has granted fewer still, but he hopes this is going to change. He goes on to say that the time is now for Creative Scotland to understand that in grassroots venues they have an already existing network that does supply these very important paid performance opportunities for musicians.
Live music garnered an astonishing one billion pounds for the UK economy last year. Nick explains that for every £10 ticket sold at a grassroots music, the immediate local economy gains on average an additional £17 worth of spend. In other words, spending money at these venues really benefits everyone around them, and boosts the whole music ecosystem.
Grassroots music venues make hardly any money. One reason for this is because they pay it all out. They pay it out to local suppliers, local landlords, musicians. These types of venues are not that resilient, because they don’t bring in much cash. They almost operate as not-for-profits, even those that have a company structure that isn’t not-for-profit. Nick emphasises the importance of making sure that venues are able to keep giving back to the music industry and its communities.
But it’s not the case that nothing can be done. As the recent sudden growth in online gigs has illustrated, innovation is one of the hallmarks of the sector. It’s not a case of ‘sorry, you don’t get to have grassroots music venues any more’. Nick hopes that at the end of this crisis, if the right support is put in place, we can see this industry grow. ‘Let’s seize the opportunity to bring these venues properly into the cultural sector.’, he says. If Scotland wants to keep its unique and world-renowned music industry, now is the time for the government to demonstrate this desire.
Venues are wary of approaching their already very generous punters, cap in hand, but the reality is that for many they have no other choice – their very future depends on it.
Iain Coltman of MacArts in Galashiels says their venue is one of the lucky ones: they are a charity, and have low overheads for rent and staffing – many people working there are volunteers.
‘When the lockdown started, from that day on our income just stopped completely. We’re a community hub as much as a venue – there are lots of things [run from here] like Tai Chi for people with mental health problems, and coffee mornings for kinship carers – elderly people who look after young relatives, say if their mother or father is in prison or otherwise absent. It’s been terrible that the music has stopped and the theatre performances have stopped, but the community stuff has stopped as well. Which isn’t a pleasant situation to be in.’
Iain seems confident that the long term future of MacArts is secure. One concern, though, is that they may not be allowed indoor gatherings with lots of people until there is a vaccine.
‘It might be that we have to do other things. We’re getting geared up for stuff like streaming live gigs’ he says, ‘proper gigs, but just streaming them. We’re also looking at doing some outdoor stuff because it may be that the spread is far less risky outside. It may be that gatherings will be allowed outside before they are inside.’
Bloc in Glasgow’s city centre has over the years built a strong reputation for busy and eclectic free-entry gig nights, tied to their popular dirty fast food menu. They also operate a long standing pop-up venue in Finnieston, and pre-lockdown looked to be going from strength to strength.
With social distancing rules effectively bringing their business to an abrupt stop, like many small independent businesses, they were forced to adapt to the world as it is. They recently launched a food collection service, and they’re about to start delivering too. Speaking to venue manager Chris Cusack, it’s clear that though times are tough, they want to maintain a bit of a healthy perspective on it all. He says, ‘While it’s definitely inconvenient, in the circumstances we’re being pretty philosophical about it. We know that it’s necessary.’
Chris thinks that Bloc is an interesting yardstick in the scheme of things. He says ‘The last 5 or 6 years especially, Bloc has done really well. It’s been successful, it’s a good business model and it’s allowed us to build a bit of a buffer, a bit of a safety net financially. We’ve also got a lot of community support. We have really tried to strip it back and look at how long this can reasonably continue before it starts to jeopardize our ability to ever open again.
We’ve got an idea of different scenarios, but I think given how well we’ve done and given that we’ve performed much better than some other venues, venues that I really like, it makes me concerned for them. I mean I’m concerned for us as well, but I think we’ll certainly be ok into next year – it would get a little bit squeaky after that.’
Sadly, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. It’s unavoidable that we’re going to lose some venues, and that furlough will determine the future for many. If furlough is discontinued too quickly or without due care, many venues will have to make a horrendous decision: either bankrupt their business, meaning that no-one has anything to go back to, or to lay off people at a horrible time. As Chris says, ‘There’s no good option in that scenario.’
When lockdown is eased, Chris, in common with everyone I spoke to, doesn’t see it being a case of throwing open the doors and venues will be immediately at capacity. Yes, people will be desperate to get out and experience live bands, but at the same time they’ll naturally be wary of doing so. He suspects that a reduced capacity system will be put in place by the government, and this might prove to be financially untenable if not handled carefully: ‘You can’t really budget or have gigs and stuff if you’re working at a third of your potential sales. So I hope there’s some sort of system in place where the government reduces its own bill by maybe offering 50% of the furlough.’ This might allow venues to open the doors again, and if the government gradually reduces aid for businesses, would help them re-acclimatise.
We speak about social distancing in the context of pubs and clubs. For Chris, there is no way this is feasible. ‘You’re breathing the same air, you’re touching the same door handles, you’re using the same glassware.’ There are precedents from the rest of the world that we can learn from, he explains: ‘If they [the government] want to stick to limited capacities and use contact tracing, then that does seem like it would work – it’s worked in New Zealand, it’s worked in Taiwan, it’s worked in South Korea. They’ve organised it so that if someone is found to have the virus, then at least you’ve got far fewer people to track down. And so the contagion level is reduced.’
‘We’re lucky that we live in an age of technology, and we should embrace it. I know that people have concerns about privacy, but I think it’s about triage, it’s about what’s the important thing right now. There are definitely ways to do the tracing that are very data light and easy to monitor and unravel once things hopefully go back to some sort of normality.’
Bloc, and other small venues like it, are a great first step for bands finding their feet and for those who are starting to get a bit of attention. As well as local acts, they are able to attract unknown bands from outside the city or bands that are just starting to build a little bit of buzz. Bloc, for example, had Wolf Alice and Fontaines DC right at the very start of their careers.
That’s part of the beauty of it, I suppose, and it’s what Nick from Sneaky Pete’s was talking about when he offered that grassroots venues are the research and development arm of the music industry. Obviously for every Wolf Alice or Fontaines DC there are hundreds of bands that never break through, but that’s part of the charm of going to see bands in smaller venues – you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get.
From there we’re back to talking about community and all that means to small venues. Broad music policies and outward-looking cultural viewpoints lead to diverse crowds. Chris mentions that one of the most rewarding parts of his job is to hear accents from 50 countries in a room of just 200 people; it’s the antithesis of the homogenised culture that is commonplace in bigger venues and chains. Even beyond nationality, grassroots music venues are able to bring together diverse communities and work to their own values, in a way that perhaps other cultural venues with more government funding or more complex business structures cannot.
So, as we prepare to perhaps leave lockdown behind us, for the moment anyway, it’s clear that the world we re-enter will be changed from the one we left behind. In our temporary isolation many of us will have been thinking about how to make the most of this opportunity for renewal and regeneration, both of ourselves and our communities. I strongly believe that small independent venues have a key part to play in this process. With their commitment to supporting creativity, their many and diverse benefits to marginalised communities, and their straightforward value to local economies, I can think of few institutions better placed to become part of the catalyst for change.
We can only hope that the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland soon come to see them in a similar light, and act accordingly.
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