Against a tone-deaf Government, the battle to save live music is just beginning

Rishi and the gang may have pledged £1.57 billion to help the arts, but it's unclear if any of the dough will go where it's needed the most

2020: the year that just keeps on taking. It wafts the promise of imminent Christopher Nolan films under our noses, then snatches them away like an evil nibbles waitress. It hints that we might be spared the hideousness of Kanye West spewing anti-abortion rants all over the Presidential campaign trail, then signs him up at the Federal Elections Committee, presumably after heated discussions over whether submissions in block capitals over 38 additional pages are still valid.

And it keeps on promising us gigs, despite them being all-but incapable of coming through. This is, of course, entirely down to the incompetence, ineptitude and chronic unhipness of our headless chicken Government. These are people for whom the word ‘gig’ is just the prefix for ‘-illionaire’ they use to reflect how much money their donors have stashed away in Vanuatu; they’ve only ever been to ‘concerts’, unfailingly featuring Rod Stewart. They’ve never watched their last grains of ketamine roll down a 45-degree plywood cistern into a clogged metallic toilet with a piss-drenched plastic horseshoe for a seat. They don’t know what they’re dealing with here.

‘You can have drive-in gigs!’, they told us, ignoring the fact that they’d only be able to happen amid local lockdowns if the entire country adopted the ‘If in doubt, drive to Durham’ approach to corona containment. ‘Socially distanced indoor gigs for all!’, they trumpet, ignorant of the fact that such events would only come close to being financially viable if they were populated entirely by people such as myself – happy to stand on my own at the back and drink for three.

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It’s exactly the short-sighted and feckless attitude you’d expect from the people who thought we’d all rush out to risk our lives in return for the sort of Pizza Hut 2-4-1 discount that Wowcher lobs at our spam folder most Mondays. A few weeks ago, probably the minute they got wind that their box at the Proms might be at risk, the Government finally stumped up £1.57 billion to keep the country’s venues alive, but this, it turned out, was just the start of the battle.

Within days, The Polar Bear and The Welly in Hull announced imminent closures, and private buyers stepped into the breach to try to save Manchester’s Gorilla and Deaf Institute. The bailout had come too late for them, highlighting another risk to the music scene in a country run by disaster capitalists with overflowing brains of straw.

Nothing, you see, gets a Tory hornier than the thought of a gleaming block of empty investment flats where a bothersome long-standing cultural diamond used to be. And Johnson’s recently-announced £250 billion ‘Project Speed’, designed to shred current planning restrictions in order to rush through a home-building tsunami that will swallow up “redundant commercial buildings” (like, say, your struggling local gristle rock club), is ringing alarm bells over at Music Venues Trust. They recall similar issues around the Tories’ Permitted Development scheme, which closed hundreds of venues before protections were put in place.

“There needs to be a law that stops venues from being turned into anything else until this pandemic is over,” renowned poet and scholar Guy Garvey noted last week, “otherwise we’re going to lose some serious building blocks of not just music, but culture in the future.” At time of writing, remember, the number of major bands who built their fanbase and rose to prominence out of a Foxtons show flat remains zero.

If – a big if – the Tories are honest and dedicated enough to get the funds to the venues that need it before it’s too late, they shouldn’t be expected to reopen under the Government’s financially ruinous outlines for socially distanced gigs, the equivalent of welfare services sending your Universal Credit straight to Foxy Bingo. And, crucially, they’ll still need decent bands around to play.

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Snow Patrol’s Jonny Quinn expressed concern last week that none of that £1.57 billion is likely to reach rising bands who rely almost entirely on touring income to stay afloat, and that promising careers could well be derailed. Various industry support schemes might provide destitute musicians with the odd Cup-A-Soup, but as Quinn says, “there’s been nothing I can see for anybody in music who is self-employed.”

Nonetheless rock is trying, against the odds, to heal itself. Signs are good that the Virgin Money Unity Arena at Newcastle Racecourse has cracked the two-metre rule with the introduction of individual viewing platforms, in time for gigs by the likes of The Libertines, Supergrass and Two Door Cinema Club next month (and if that venue runs into cashflow problems Richard Branson could always sue the NHS again).

Most sensible bands and promoters are holding off shows until 2021 at the earliest – Lollapalooza’s Marc Geiger believes the major leaguers won’t be back in action until 2022 – but Johnson’s lifting of gig restrictions has already seen Miles Kane announce a show for this coming Saturday in Camden Market, Will And The People arrange their own drive-in gig in Swindon for Sunday and regional pub car parks fill with covers acts and virus-defying local bands. Which raises the rather terrifying proposition that this year’s Christmas Number One might well be “We Told You It Was A Hoax” by The Anti-Vaxxers. Or what’s left of them.

The music industry is big and hard-bitten enough to weather this storm, but against a Government without its best interests at heart it’ll take vigilance and mutual support across the board, from all corners, to ensure it emerges into the ‘new normal’ with its hull intact. In the year that keeps on taking, let’s not forget to give back to the grassroots.

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