Bosses from some of England’s most beloved grassroots music venues have spoken of their fear and frustration, with approximately £36million set to be lost as a result of the easing of coronavirus restrictions being delayed by four weeks.
Tonight (Monday, June 14), Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the date of June 21 – also known to some as “Freedom Day” – in which all coronavirus restrictions would be lifted in England will now be delayed until July 19.
The PM told a press conference that they had seen “more infection and more hospitalisation” of late, with the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreading faster than the third wave that was predicted when the roadmap was first drawn up back in February. Johnson said that there was a “real possibility that the virus would outrun the vaccine” and cause “thousands more deaths” unless the country waited longer to meet all four steps for the final stage of reopening.
Johnson said that the government would now be extending restrictions and delaying the end of the roadmap to July 19 to work towards key adult groups receiving both jabs of their vaccine, as well as accelerating the second jabs for the over 40s and bringing forward their targets for young people to “reduce the chance of transmission among the groups that mix the most”.
He added that the end of restrictions could come sooner if the risk diminishes in the meantime.
Last week the Music Venue Trust warned that grassroots venues would face “mass evictions” unless the delay was met with substantial financial support from the government, with night time industry bosses also fearful that the new ‘roadmap’ date would “decimate” the nightclub economy. Now, urgent action and clarity is being demanded by the sector to ensure it survives until July 19.
Chris Pritchard is booking manager at The Forum in Tunbridge Wells. Speaking to NME, he explained how a massive £36million was expected to be lost by the Independent venue circuit with 4,000 shows cancelled in the next four weeks, with many venues still not having received the money from the second round of the Cultural Recovery Fund.
“Based on turnover, I think we alone are going to lose somewhere between £100,000-£150,000 across the board as a result of not reopening – that’s with £50,000-£60,000 from ticket turnover,” Pritchard told NME. “So before you even consider the profit that the venue would have made, you can appreciate how much money has also been lost by the artists, the crew, the security and staff. This circulates around the entire music venue industry.
He continued: “We knew it wasn’t always certain that we’d reopen on June 21, but you can’t wait until June 14 to book an entire calendar of events in. We’ll be able to get some of the shows rescheduled, some will have to be cancelled, but we’re dealing with 15 months of bottlenecked shows trying to happen.”
Pritchard voiced frustration after recent pilot music events, including the successful Blossoms gig at Sefton Park where all attendees where tested, and noted how open venues were to the idea of complying with new rules so that shows could safely happen.
“We’d have had no problems in complying with what the government asked of us,” said Pritchard. “We’ve even gone further to set up new ventilation and infiltration systems, which have probably made us the safest place in our town. Every other shop and restaurant is open but we still can’t put a gig on.”
He added: “We feel like we’re hitting our head against a wall. There’s also a certain amount of numbness now. I wish I could tell you that I was sat here feeling hugely furious, but we’ve basically laid down and taken a kicking for 18 months. We’ve developed a callus to the constant letdowns and pushbacks that we’ve suffered.
“We’re a music venue and it’s only very recently that’s stopped being a dirty word. We’re just as valuable as every theatre, museum and gallery in the country in terms of what we offer to the arts. Only now are we starting to get any kind of respect for what we do.”
Stacey Thomas is manager at The Lexington in London, who also felt that the delay was sad but inevitable.
“Hopefully the vaccine rollout will increase now so we can open up at the end of July,” she said. “I would hate for this to get pushed back again. We’ve had so many of our scheduled gigs postponed already. We’ve just got to get through it really, but we don’t have a lot of choice, really.”
She continued: “It’s massively disheartening, but there’s not much we can do about it. We’re struggling along and not making any money. The bands aren’t making any money either and a lot of them don’t want to play socially-distanced shows. It is what it is.
Thomas said that her venue were among those still waiting for Arts Council Funding that was promised to them – despite it being much lower than what they needed – and that “the fact that we’re still operating seems crazy”.
“Some more government support would be nice, like doing something that would help the hospitality industry as a whole like putting the VAT down on drinks sold,” she said. “I can’t see them doing it. They’ve done it for tickets, but what’s the point in that if we can’t sell tickets? They’re all getting cancelled. Just something please that would we can either pass on to the customers or help to pay the rent.”
Greg Parmley, CEO of industry body LIVE, also called upon the government to urgent deploy the money to where it needed to be.
“Following more than a year of confusion, lost revenue and cancellations, we are devastated the government has not set out any clear path for the restart of the live music industry,” he said. “The government has been quick to talk up the success of the vaccine rollout, but other countries are now ahead of us in opening up full capacity events with simple COVID certification processes, including the Netherlands, Belgium and the US.”
He went on: “The government must also provide urgent emergency financial support to those impacted by today’s decision. There are hundreds of millions of pounds from the much-vaunted Culture Recovery Fund unallocated, despite being 15 months on from the start of the crisis. This money needs to get into the industry without any more delay.”
Speaking last week, Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd said that “without some certainty on exactly when grassroots music venues can start trading at full capacity again the majority of the sector, already barely surviving on life support, could flat line.”
He continued: “The government has the tools it needs to avert a disaster, whatever decisions it needs to make. It has allocated an additional £300million to support the cultural sector; the Prime Minister or the Culture Secretary can swiftly announce that this money will be immediately released to tackle the challenges caused by any delay to reopening. They can ensure confidence with a clear statement that they won’t let grassroots music venues go to the wall.”
Now, the MVT have called upon the government to release a fund of £300million which was previously described as the third round of the Cultural Recovery Fund.
“The government should immediately announce how that fund will be distributed, ensuring that it is done so swiftly and without the delays and bureaucracy that has beset previous rounds of this fund,” an MVT spokesperson said. “Many venue operators have still not received funding promised to them for the period April to June, a situation we must not repeat to tackle this new delay.”
They continued: “It remains the position of Music Venue Trust that the protection of public health is an over-arching issue which needs to be addressed and has primacy over other considerations. However, the decision today to continue to limit cultural activities as a specific and extraordinary measure which, it is stated, will contain the spread of the Delta variant stands in stark contrast to how the government is approaching restrictions and containment overall.
“Mass gatherings of people, both indoors and outdoors, are already taking place. Singing, dancing, close contact, mask free events took place right across England yesterday. The government’s position that such activities present a unique and special danger if a live band are playing is neither believable nor supported by the science. If the risk is behavioural, the government should explain how the same behaviours in different events can be either restricted or not restricted based on a government decision, and how such a decision is supported by the science.
“We note that live music events were a unique focus of the government funded and led Events Research Programme. The evidence from the test events that took place during it have not been released. The government should immediately release that data and demonstrate how these test events indicated that live music is a unique contributing factor to the spread of the virus which cannot be managed in any other way than to effectively ban it. If, as we believe, the data does not provide that causality link, the government must explain on what basis it is making decisions on restrictions of live music.”
They added: “The continued restrictions to culture are a serious blow to the grassroots music venue sector, with potential damage to hundreds of businesses, thousands of staff and tens of thousands of workers. The government should immediately recognise the risk of serious harm being done to people’s lives, business, jobs and livelihoods and respond with swift, decisive action. The clock is ticking. Don’t fail now.”
NME has contacted a government spokesperson for a response.