Outside of a serial killer’s taxidermy collection, there’s nothing more unnatural than a Tory politician pretending to like ‘oik culture’. Theresa May trying to dance to ABBA without exposing her circuit boards. David Cameron forgetting if he supports Western Ham Wanderers or Aston Vintners. Jacob Rees-Mogg no doubt thinks that a ‘gig’ consists of a circle of maiden aunts enjoying a tuppence ha’penny chamber recital of ‘Jerusalem’ through ear trumpets.
These are the last people you’d want in charge of the survival of live music culture. It’s like making the Dalai Lama chairman of the UK Dogging Council.
Yet last week, the government – people, remember, who only ever set foot in music venues to approve their demolition to make way for investment flat schemes decided over cocktails and backhanders at the Cinnamon Club – set out their five-stage plan for their gradual re-opening.
Now, we all know that five-step government re-opening plans aren’t worth the Nando’s heat chart they’re scribbled on. Boris Johnson will happily leap from stage one to stage five before any of the stated requirements are met if it suits him, like pandemic hopscotch. All it takes is for Dominic Cummings to decide he wants to walk onto the Pyramid Stage and knock out the ‘Seven Nation Army’ riff on a ukulele and the entire festival season will be back on.
But for the record, here’s how it goes. At stage one and stage two, venues can open for rehearsals, training and recording performances for broadcast without an audience. That’s all been happening already – witness Frank Turner’s onstage benefit to help rescue the Clapham Grand from closure last week – so let’s combine both of those into what we’ll call Stage Duh.
Next, at an unspecified future date, outdoor shows will be allowed at stage three, plus ‘pilots’ for indoor gigs with a seated, limited and distanced audience; it’s uncertain yet whether that will involve a two-metre rule or a capacity limit at around 30 per cent. At stage four, limited, distanced indoor gigs can go ahead and at stage five they can increase audience capacity to – who knows – maybe something close to non-bankruptcy proportions.
As much as I’ve written previously about the rare luxuries of socially distanced gigs, for the venues themselves they’re the equivalent of calling Rammstein to help put out your house fire. Club venues with capacities in the hundreds, when mapping out the positioning of an audience according to a two-metre distancing rule, have found that they can get a maximum of about 25 punters in, and that’s only if they all agree to urinate into their own shoes. Allowing household groups to book tables might multiply that figure but with venues working on such narrow profit margins they’ll still fall well below break-even.
The Venue Music Trust have calculated that staying closed for a further three months will cost a combined £46 million, and 93 per cent won’t be able to reopen at all. Disaster. But opening with such restrictions would cost £85 million (or £52 million with a one-metre restriction) and even the best-funded establishments would risk permanent closure. Catastrophe.
It’s clear that, just like trying to tell a rammed Bournemouth beach to ‘stay alert’ post-Barnard Castle, the government’s idea of gigging in the age of coronavirus is an unworkable shambles. And no wonder. It’s an experience and an industry of which they have as much first-hand knowledge as a maggot does of mountain biking. A Sleaford Mods gig doesn’t work like the high-end ‘exotic dancing’ shows they frequent, so they have no comparable frame of reference, and even less interest. Have you seen a Conservative attempting to enjoy music? It’s like watching a drunk goose try to water-ski.
Luckily the Music Venues Trust, backed by 500 grassroots venues across the country, have come up with their own roadmap to reopening. It’s a far simpler affair, consisting essentially of just two steps. Step one, the Government provides a £50 million fund to ensure all venues can survive until October, the earliest many envision being able to put on viable gigs. Step two, they fuck off out of it.
As the MVT statement says, the UK live sector is “one of the most dynamic and innovative creative industries in the world”. So they’re going to do a far better job of working up a safe and sustainable reopening plan than any governmental bozos who only got into politics to make a killing from Brexit for their disaster capitalist backers and now find themselves having to give a shit about Perfume Genius tours when their only experience of live music was clapping arrhythmically along to Mumford & Sons at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in 2012.
£50 million is, relatively speaking, small change – it’s just two million more than the loan granted to famed corona staff-sackers Wetherspoons, making it all the more likely that your local rock club will be yet another characterless Brexpit by Christmas. In fact, if they simply cancelled the proposed Festival Of Britain they could save the entire British music scene twice over and still have a few million left to get Roger Daltrey to do the world’s most ironic version of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
For devoted music fans, the MVT’s plan is a bitter pill. I’ve been looking forward immensely to watching IDLES try to put together a candle-lit jazz club set from the comfort of a private table, and it being socially acceptable, at last, for me to piss in my shoes. But when that might well mean the virtual extinction of grassroots live music in Britain, the engine room of a £5 billion industry, I’m fully prepared to hold out another few months for indoor gigs.
After all, the implications for the UK music landscape if underground grime, rock and dance acts – and even club DJs – have nowhere to build fanbases and hone their skills don’t bear thinking about. So another slogan for you, Boris: fund it, fuck off. Drive a bulldozer through it if you have to.