As a new government taskforce meets to suggest ways to rescue the UK’s cultural scene following the impact of the coronavirus lockdown, a number of figures from the live music industry have spoken out to demand more clarity and support in order to survive.
Earlier this month, the government announced a new Culture Commissioner and recovery taskforce to investigate ways for the UK’s entertainment industries to survive and bounce back from the COVID crisis. A subgroup was then set up to focus on recreation and leisure, featuring members of bodies including the Music Venue Trust (MVT) and the Association Of Independent Festivals (AIF).
AIF CEO Paul Reed told NME that with 92 per cent of festival businesses at risk of collapse under refund requests and redundancies of 59 per cent redundancies expected across the sector between September and February, information on how the easing of lockdown was likely to play out was needed urgently.
“It’s incredibly difficult for festival organisers to do any planning without high level guidance from the government,” he said. “We need some parameters and some timelines. It’s difficult to not look around Europe and draw comparisons in France, Germany and parts of Scandinavia where they’ve said there will be no festivals or large gatherings until the end of August or September.
“The UK seems to have more of a nudging strategy where we only know what’s happening for the next two to three weeks. If you’re making large-scale decisions, you can’t do that in a few weeks. It’s not viable on a financial or logistical level. That’s why festivals as late as September and October are cancelling, because there’s so much uncertainty.”
He continued: “The industry can work with the government to come up with some solutions, but we need to know what parameters we’re working in so we can plan for a safe and viable 2021.”
As well as discussions around the safe return of festivals, the industry is also calling for tailor-made financial help due to festivals being a seasonal business. Without measures including extending the furlough scheme, rolling over premises licence fees and allowing for VAT exemptions on ticket sees, Reed echoed the warning that the festival scene could become “a wasteland” and “completely collapse” in 2021.
“What the government has done so far has been very broad-brushed, and I think that festivals have fallen through the cracks with grants and loans,” he said. “Thus far, the sector has not really benefited from any of the measures that the government has been able to introduce, outside of the job retention scheme.”
Confident that there will be a hunger for live events once they’re safely allowed to return, Reed added that he was confident that festivals would find forward-thinking ways to exist alongside COVID – but there were financial hurdles to overcome first.
“Fundamental to what festivals do is the mitigation of risk. This will just mean a new world of risk to mitigate,” said Reed. “Festivals are also pretty innovative. Those two things will hopefully place us quite well in terms of longer-term survival. The immediate challenge is just getting to 2021 and the point where we will have a season that hasn’t been completely decimated.”
Rebecca Walker, general manager of The Leadmill in Sheffield, said that venues also need financial backing and guidance to plan ahead if they are to survive.
“The government extended the furlough scheme which is brilliant and means we’re able to continue keeping our staff, however there’s still no roadmap at when we’ll be able to open even at a reduced capacity,” she told NME. “What will happen to us after October if we need to stay closed but there’s no furlough scheme for our staff? By that point, all of the grants and government help that we’ve had will have been wiped out by the rent and rates that we still continue to pay.”
She continued: “Gigs are usually announced four to six months in advance. There will be a gap between when we can open and when the first gig will be. We’re currently moving all autumn/winter gigs into Spring 2021, and they were already moved from Spring 2020. It all just feels like a gamble at the moment.”
Repeating industry pleas for a rent-freeze for venues, Walker said that The Leadmill would be “taking each week as it comes” until a clearer route out of lockdown was mapped out.
“It looks like we’ll be safe for now, but that’s only with the expectation of opening before the end of 2020,” she added. “If it looks like we’ll be closed until next Spring, then it looks like we’ll have to make some difficult decisions. No one is safe.”
Former Labour Deputy Leader and Shadow Culture Secretary Watson, who became the new Chair of the body UK Music back in March, said that a rent-freeze for venues while prohibited from opening at full capacity was “imminent and obvious”.
“The live sector is the thing that’s been hit the hardest in the music industry,” he told NME. “That’s a billion pounds a year, and they estimate that they’re going to lose £900million already. It’s the small music venues that are really hit. They’re the first step on the ladder. That’s start of the talent pipeline, so without those small venues our ecosystem collapses.”
Watson said that without providing the financial assistance and regulations to allow venues and festivals to plan ahead, the UK government would risk losing the £4.5million they generate every year in music tourism.
“It’s going to be very difficult for the sector to get back on its feet in one season, having taken such a hit this year,” Watson continued. “Our job at UK Music is to amplify their concerns and say to the government, ‘This is such a big part of the economy and our festivals and gigs attract people from throughout the world, so help the live sector to help itself’.”
He added: “We don’t want the government to forget us. We want them to understand that we’re doing everything we can to mitigate risk.”
In response to the action suggested to rescue the live music industry, a DCMS spokesperson told NME: “We are committed to supporting the UK’s world-class music industry, from local venues to internationally renowned festivals, in these challenging times through substantial financial measures such as the Coronavirus Job Retention and Bounce Back loan scheme.
“Last week, the Culture Secretary announced the new Cultural Renewal taskforce to sit alongside an Entertainment and Events Working Group with several representatives from the music sector. The groups will be developing detailed plans to help our brilliant creative industries get up and running again as soon as possible.”
Recent months have seen UK festival organisers cast doubt over the prospect of running mass gatherings with restrictions, with a number of UK venues sharing their concerns and requirements if socially-distanced indoor gigs were to be allowed.
Meanwhile, the MVT’s #SaveOurVenues campaign has successfully saved 140 venues from “critical” danger – but still needs “support and government action” to prevent “damage that would undermine the UK music industry for 20-30 years.”