Venues have spoken of their concerns and requirements if live gigs were to be allowed in the UK again under the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions – and what it could mean if social distancing was enforced at shows.
The immediate future of live music in the UK remains uncertain. With the majority of the summer’s shows and festivals cancelled or postponed, it was said last week that social restrictions could be kept in place in the UK for the rest of the year. Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Government, told the public it was “wholly unrealistic” to expect life to return to normal soon.
In the US, the mayors of L.A. and New York suggested that public concerts won’t be able to return until 2021, with a poll finding that most gig-goers would rather wait until a vaccine is found until attending shows again. Many countries in Europe and Scandinavia have also banned mass gatherings until September, although Sweden had controversially allowed for gigs with up to a capacity of 40 people to take place with appropriate social distancing measures in place.
Today (April 30) also saw the announcement that Spain is looking to phase in live music events from May in a number of stages with gradually increasing capacities.
But what if similar measures to Spain were introduced in the UK, with the lockdown eased and venues allowed to reopen with social distancing enforced? Rebecca Walker, general manager of The Leadmill in Sheffield, argued that this could potentially lead to more financial problems.
“The whole business model of a live music venue and nightclub is to do the complete opposite of social distancing,” she told NME. “Explaining social distancing to someone who’s had five cans of Red Stripe going for it to their favourite song just won’t be possible – especially after all this time in lockdown.
“Promoters and venues run on quite minimal margins anyway. It’s no surprise that we rely on bar sales to be profitable. Promoters are in it for the love of music, not the love of money – but to have a half-full venue every night is just not financially worth it.”
Stacey Thomas, manager of The Lexington in London, also had doubts about what future financial viability there would be if socially distanced gigs were encouraged.
“One of the worst things that the government can do is say, ‘OK you can re-open, but keep your distance please’,” Thomas told NME. “That’s going to harm a lot of businesses – not just us but cinemas, theatres, restaurants and pubs. If the government do that and turn off the furlough tap, then we’d start paying full wages, lose our argument about paying rent, we won’t be able to pay the bands, and the bands won’t want to play in a venue with no atmosphere.
“The message when we open needs to be that we’re safe. We can’t operate with social distancing. I don’t see how it’s going to work.”
CEO of the Music Venue Trust Mark Davyd, who this week launched the Save Our Venues Campaign to raise money for UK grassroots music spaces facing immediate threat of closing permanently due to lockdown, said that ongoing conversations were happening behind the scenes to ensure that any returning shows would be as safe and financially viable as possible.
“The most important thing is that the government restrictions must be explained,” Davyd told NME. “If not, we don’t want the government telling us how to run our businesses. What we need is for them to say ‘this is what needs to be done in terms of the virus’ and we can then go back to them and tell them how to do it, how much it will cost and who can and can’t do it. A blanket announcement like the one they’ve made in Spain really won’t work. I don’t know anybody here who thinks that 30% capacity at shows is viable in any form.”
He continued: “We’re working on something with an American organisation called Music Cities Together on a programme called ‘Reopen Everything Safely’. It’s a programme that will deal with what information the government needs to provide, and standards would need to be followed – whether that’s through limited capacity, testing, tracking or whatever.”
Davyd suggested the idea that some venues might want to introduce a combination of “physical and digital tickets” so that fans who can’t attend the show can pay to watch online. The margins of live music are tight, with around 65% of revenue brought in by sales from the bar and catering, and only 35% from ticketing. Davyd said that a number of ideas were under discussion under what form live show might take.
“Each venue might also wish to limit the types of gigs they can put on, or the amount of beers they can serve, or to ensure that everyone is under a certain age in the name of safety,” he told NME. “They may insist on tracking apps or temperature checks. The viability of all that will cost money and the cost will have to be built into the show.
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“We seem to be focused on the idea of 800 people in a room going mad, but what about 40 people in a room who want to watch an acoustic gig? I think what we might see is different genres and styles of music coming back at different times, as well as artists looking at different ways of doing stuff.”
Echoing that safety is priority and any new live music rules would need to be drawn up in collaboration with the government, Davyd was confident that “there are a lot of solutions” while retaining physical distancing.
“Any decision from the government needs to be intrinsically linked to the financial outcome of that,” he said. “It’s not the venues making that decision, it’s the government.
“Basically, artists want to play and we’ll have to be inventive while there are restrictions. It’s not great news, but it’s better news than being completely shut. There’s leeway and it involves everyone in the industry, from the artist to the person on the door, to carefully think through what their role is in this and how it’s viable.”
Today saw London Mayor Sadiq Khan pledge £450,000 to the Music Venue Trust to help secure the future of live music spaces in the capital, while the national campaign is proving a great success but is still in need of “essential” support.