Concerned UK music venues hit out at government COVID support as “pointless” and “bonkers”

Venues tell NME about their fears for survival and when they think live music might be able to return

Music venues from across the UK have spoken to NME to voice their concerns over the government’s “pointless” and “bonkers” support package to aid them through the Omicron COVID crisis.

In the week since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new restrictions for England due to a rise in cases of the Omicron variant (in measures dubbed ‘Plan B’), losses came to over £2million. 86 per cent of grassroots music venues reported negative impacts, and 61 per cent were forced to cancel at least one event due to touring party members testing positive for COVID, functions being cancelled by organisers or poor ticket sales.

Overall, attendance at shows at grassroots venues has dropped by 23 per cent (but up to 40 per cent across live music in general) with over 140,000 ‘no shows’ from ticket holders resulting in a 27 per cent decline in gross income.

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Music venues and nightclubs said that they were “on the brink of collapse”, before chancellor Rishi Sunak brought forward a £1billion support package for businesses affected by the recent Coronavirus surge. The package included one-off grants of £6,000, the reintroduction of the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme and an additional £30million for the previously announced Cultural Recovery Fund. This was slammed as “woefully inadequate” by the Music Venue Trust, an “insult” by Night Time Economy Advisor Sacha Lord, and an effort that would “barely touch the sides” by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Stacey Thomas is manager of The Lexington in London, which has since closed due to a huge drop-off in customers and public confidence.

“At The Lexington, we basically had every band cancel,” she told NME this week. “Only one club night went ahead. We had all of our party and lunch bookings cancel. We lost around 70-75 per cent of our projected turnover – maybe more.

“I run another site too, where we lost 100 Sunday roast bookings in a day. We lost 90 per cent of our turnover on a Friday and Saturday night, so we lost a huge amount of cash flow across both sites but we still have to pay everyone’s wages and we still have to pay rent.”

She added: “It was a lockdown by stealth, really. That’s just what it was.”

Responding to the government’s latest support package, she said: “Well, it’s marginally better than the £1,000 they offered everyone last Christmas. It’s pointless.

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“To put that into perspective, £6,000 is two weeks [of] rent at The Lexington. That’s not including business rates, which are £5,000 per month. What the government is [giving is] barely touching the sides and is about as next to pointless as you can get. We’ll take anything we can get and it’s appreciated of course, but it’s not going to keep us open. It’s not going to keep us in business or prevent business closures.

Thomas went on: “It won’t even give us a week of breathing room. I’d rather they gave the money to the NHS, to be honest. It’s not going to help us survive.”

Asked about what further measures she’d like to see, Thomas called for a further VAT reduction for venues along with a rent freeze, business rates rebate and furlough reintroduced for all staff who can’t work. “I’d rather be locked down with subsidies than have Boris tell everyone to stay home but insist that we try to trade and pay our bills,” she admitted. “It’s a fast way to bankruptcy, to be honest.”

As for whether live music would be be able to make a return in January, Thomas said she had “no idea” about what the months ahead might look like.

“Everyone I speak to says we’re looking at a two-week circuit breaker lockdown and then probably the rule of six with only table service or outdoor service,” she said. “That kills nightlife and music venues. We can’t function in any kind of way. It doesn’t pay artists, freelancers, live crew, bar staff or the rent.

“If we go into that, then I’m not sure where our industry is headed, to be honest with you. Everyone’s in a lot of debt right now.”

Husky Loops performing live on stage at The Lexington in London. Credit: Roger Garfield/Alamy Live News
Husky Loops performing live on stage at The Lexington in London. Credit: Roger Garfield/Alamy Live News

Chris Pritchard, venue manager at the Tunbridge Wells Forum, told NME that they had sensed that a lockdown by stealth was looming on the horizon some weeks ago.

“From the middle of December, we started to get that gut feeling that things were going to get bad, and it’s been an almost a daily realisation that we were going to have to close the doors,” he said. “By government instruction or not, we decided after the weekend just gone that it was just too risky to stay open.

“Customers really didn’t have any confidence left to stay out after what they have been hearing in the press. This weekend we had a show that dropped by over 70 per cent of expected capacity. That simply isn’t viable for our business and the artists playing on our stage.”

He continued: “The worry for me moving forward is that customers are not buying tickets for the future shows in 2022. Aside from the confidence they have knowing that they would be refunded by the venue if a show got cancelled, they have no definition on the situation from our government on what the next weeks hold, for England especially.”

Echoing other venues’ concerns for what could be around the corner in January, Pritchard said: “The crazy thing is that we all actually know what is going to happen. We see the reports of intended plans for circuit breakers and social distancing. It’s spread through major publications over the last week and everyone knows what is coming but we have been held in that same waiting area we were kept in back in March 2020. It’s completely unfair and what we have come to expect from the people in charge. [We’re] forces to stay open while they discourage attendance. It’s unreal.”

While thanking the venue community and locals who have helped through donations, purchasing merch and joining their members club, Pritchard said that much more financial support would be required, and that the government’s new support package might not be as straightforward as some might think.

“OK, so it’s great that there is something and it is appreciated, but if the public knew just how long-winded and arduous a process it is for any music (which is also an art) venue to get hold of that money, they would be shocked,” Pritchard told NME. “Currently all venues in the UK are in the process of applying. Not to finalise what money is coming our way in the next few days but we are simply applying over what was going to be a Christmas break to get permission so they can formally apply at some point in the new year. Isn’t that bonkers?”

Pritchard argued that an agreed percentage of the money should be handed directly to Music Venues Trust immediately to be distributed fairly and quickly, or else many would simply not receive anything.

“The government has spun in the media to make the country assume they have taken care of hospitality and night culture,” he said. “We have made great steps this year in helping DCMS include music venues into their dialogue. And rightfully so. We are still working on breaking our way into being a key part of the conversation and rhetoric.

“How much do we need? It’s completely unknown at this stage but I can say that for the work we do to develop artists in the early stages of their career, we need a lot more, pandemic or not. That is another long-winded discussion for another day.”

Pritchard also said that he felt it would be March until the Forum and other venues would be able to open their doors again.

“It would have been sooner, we believe, had the government not delayed while they waited for the country to spend money over the festive period on gifts and travel and also had time to forget about their Christmas parties in 2021,” he added. “This is a reminder too that any ideas of reduced capacity for social distancing doesn’t work for us, the artist and most grassroots music venues, economically, and if we are all honest, what a dreary, soulless and miserable experience they all were, right?”

Angie Evans runs Fuel Rock Club in Cardiff. In Wales, it was announced this week that no more than six people will be allowed to meet in venues, pubs, cinemas and restaurants from December 26, with two-metre social distancing rules also returning to public spaces, and licensed premises only allowed to offer table service. Face masks will have to be worn and contact tracing details collected, with outdoor events limited to 50 people and 30 for indoor events, but no restrictions for smaller meetings in private homes.

“We’ve had a steady decline in business over the past couple of weeks, peaking at a 50 per cent downturn over the past weekend,” Evans told NME. “It’s disappointing because we were only just getting back to normal trading figures, and it’s worrying because we’ve made losses over the past couple of weeks when we’re already in a poor position financially.

“The decline has been due to a variety of factors: gig cancellations, customers worrying about catching COVID, and customers actually being COVID-positive and so unable to attend. We understand people’s uncertainty and worry, and we empathise.

The Welsh government said a total of £120million will be made available for nightclubs, retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism businesses, which Evans told NME she was “thankful” for but that it was “nowhere near enough”.

“I’m very worried that we’ll be forced to trade under social distancing restrictions as this means that we’ll continue to make a loss and won’t be offered financial assistance,” she said. “Having successfully battled through the last 18 months, it’s a demoralising and daunting prospect. I’m very worried about our ability to keep staff employed and to keep the business going.”

As for hopes for live music returning soon in 2022, she added: “Many touring bands have already postponed their tours to avoid January, as I think that many of us are doubting that gigs will be allowed to go ahead. As a grassroots venue, this is a real blow. We survive for, and because of, the music. Without it, we are just another regular pub competing with all the other regular pubs in the city centre. We lose our unique selling point.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport refused to comment on the concerns of music venues when approached by NME, while the Treasury said that they had nothing to add at this stage.

The Music Managers Forum (MMF) and the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) issued a joint statement saying they too were “massively concerned” that the new measures still have “nothing for artists and live industry professionals” who are being affected by the pandemic.

This comes at a time when UK music venues are already facing £90million of debt due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic.

Music fans can support their local music venue by purchasing official merchandise, while NME readers can also help and get £10 off packs of Fightback Lager.

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