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How does live come back? Frank Turner, Music Venue Trust and Concert Promoters Association speak out

In his latest Audio Media International column, music industry veteran Mark Sutherland hears from the likes of Frank Turner, Music Venue Trust and the Concert Promoters Association to find out how the live music sector can come back from COVID…

It’s been 11 long months since live music was dramatically shut down as the coronavirus pandemic took hold around the world.

That’s almost a year since the sector’s army of promoters, agents, venue operators, festivals, roadies, security workers and, of course, artists were last able to earn any significant money from doing what they do best: putting on live events.

Few industries have been hit so hard for so long. You can see it at the very top of the industry: promoter Live Nation’s revenues were down a seismic 98 per cent in Q2 2020. And you can also see it at the grassroots, where hundreds of small venues around the world remain under threat of closure.

Yet, somehow, this most resilient of sectors is still fighting. So, as the vaccine rollout offers some light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel, and we dare to contemplate the prospect of live music returning, has enough been done to protect a sector that is vital to music’s unique ecosystem and which, according to UK Music, contributed £1.3 billion to the UK economy in 2019?

“It’s like a very steep ‘U’ curve,” sighs Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of the Music Venue Trust, which represents over 250 grassroots venues. “When the support has been good, it’s been very good, probably amongst the best in the world. But when you don’t fit that category, frankly, it’s about the worst in the world. There are various types of businesses or that have not been picked up at all.”

So, let’s start with the good. The Culture Recovery Fund has provided a lifeline for many UK venues and companies, distributing over £1bn across the arts, with music beneficiaries ranging from the Servant Jazz Quarters to the Royal Albert Hall.

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The MVT saw 89 per cent of applicants qualify for a grant, a key factor in ensuring survival. Davyd says around 50-60 venues remain at “significant risk of closure” – but that’s a huge improvement on the 550 that were under threat back in April.

“I always bang on about the spirit and passion in the grassroots sector,” says Davyd. “But it’s astonishing how few venues have closed – and that is reflective of the kind of people who run them.”

Even that passion can only take you so far, however. The situation is grimmer in America, where Rev Moose, executive director of the National Independent Venue Association, says “hundreds” of venues and promotions companies have been lost during the pandemic. NIVA recently had a big win with the passing into law of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant that will, finally, provide financial support to stricken businesses (although not a single cent has yet been distributed).

And, whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, the general feeling is that much more could have been done.

“The grants given by the Arts Council to both venues and firms involved in the live industry have been substantial and should be acknowledged,” Frank Turner tells Audio Media International. “But there have been major gaps in the self-employment scheme which have hit a lot of industry freelancers hard. Some of the rollout of grants has been needlessly capricious, many people have fallen through the gaps. Most of all, there has been a constant mismatch between rhetoric and advice, on the one hand, and legal declarations on the other.”

No one in the live music business expects to be a priority during the crisis. But it’s still galling to watch one of the country’s few genuinely world-beating industries continually shunted to the back of the queue when it comes to support. And it’s a lack of foresight around the specific needs of the sector that is causing most of the problems.

So, while a business rates holiday and the reduction of VAT on tickets to five per cent looks helpful on paper, the reality is that no venues are open and very few people are prepared to risk buying a gig ticket. Campaigners want both measures extended into a period when they would have more impact.

And look at the festival sector. The postponement of Glastonbury for a second year sent shockwaves through the industry. But that festival has exceptionally long build times, and other events – particularly those slated for later in the summer – remain optimistic that they could go yet ahead – if only they could get Covid-related insurance.

“It is devastating that Glastonbury has been forced to cancel for another year,” says Phil Bowdery, chair of the Concert Promoters Association. “With some light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine rollout underway, we need time to prepare and we desperately need a Government-backed insurance scheme to unlock our future. We need this to be put in place or our globally successful festival industry could be damaged for years to come.”

Such insurance schemes exist in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands but, says Association Of Independent Festivals chief executive Paul Reed, months of discussions with UK government departments have yet to produce the same backing.

“It’s difficult not to ask the valid question about whether the government has intervened enough at this point,” says Reed. “It’s not that [Covid insurance] is prohibitively expensive, we’re told by the insurance market that it’s unlikely to exist until 2022. There’s a real market failure there.”

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Without such a safety net, few festivals will risk staging an expensive event; the AIF says the costs of staging a festival range from £500,000 for a 5,000-capacity event to £12.5m for a 70,000-cap site. Such uncertainty is further fuelled by the lack of a plan for when the general live sector might be able to reopen.

Previous lockdown exits have been accompanied by blanket last-minute announcements, yet even small shows requires a lengthy run-up of venue booking, staff hiring and ticket selling. With the government newly cautious about opening up too soon, many worry the live circuit will again be left in the dark.

“Certainty is highly valued in the live sector,” says Frank Turner. “Festivals and tours require a lot of start-up time, sunk costs and long-term planning. None of that is currently possible. No crew member currently working a temporary job can sack that in for a string of dates in the summer that might not happen. No bookings or deposits can be made, no tickets sold with any confidence.”

Paul Reed stresses government should be “getting to the point where they’re able to provide an indicative roadmap”. Boris Johnson is due to announce plans for easing lockdown in the week beginning February 22, but many doubt the live sector will be specifically included, while the US – with its mixture of federal, state and local regulations – faces even more confusion.

“Unfortunately, the whole music industry suffers from the law of unintended consequences, which means legislation and policy is very rarely written to take account of it,” says Davyd. “I don’t think we will get special treatment after this lockdown but the government on the whole has learned more about what is and isn’t effective. So we may see a slightly different approach.”

That could remove the controversial 10pm curfew, but it will take more than that to restore the global live circuit to its former glories.

“The truth is, independent venues and promoters were the first to close and we will be the last to open,” says Rev Moose.

“In our particular sector, we’re pretty resilient and we’re ready to get going when it’s possible to do so,” says Mark Davyd. “But there could be all kinds of problems. Equipment suppliers who’ve gone out of business but we haven’t heard about yet or, are there enough people still working in the security industry? I don’t think anybody knows.”

At a time of such uncertainty, the thing the live sector needs the most is clarity. Without that, fears of another shutdown for summer and beyond will grow, leaving an entire industry on the brink. And yet – as the recent post-Brexit touring debacle showed – clarity is not exactly a government specialty.

“Most of all we need to restore the confidence of our audience for coming back to shows,” says Turner. “Many people talk about exuberant summers of pent-up demand being released, but it’s equally possible that people will remain reticent about large gatherings, even if the government guidelines say they can proceed.”

Yet, there are still some positives. Mark Davyd believes that, if the vaccination programme continues at current rates, a return date could yet be brought forward. And Paul Reed says that, whenever and however the big live comeback happens, audiences will be waiting.

“I have no concerns about the audience appetite for these experiences once we can safely return,” says Reed. “The challenge is quite simply getting through this. So there’s still some hope for this year – but the clock is certainly ticking…”

After a year without the glorious sound of live music, we can only hope that, this time, the government is listening…

 

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