Koko London

Live music venues to reopen in UK: BPI, Music Venue Trust and UK Music speak out

Four hundred and eighty three days. Eleven thousand, five hundred and ninety two hours. Six hundred and ninety five thousand, five hundred and twenty minutes.

That’s how long it will have been between the start of Britain’s first lockdown on March 23, 2020 and July 19, 2021, the date when full-capacity, no-restrictions gigs will finally – subject to one last, definitive confirmation by the government – return to the UK circuit.

It’s been a long time coming – at times it’s felt like the only longer wait has been for England to make the final of a major football tournament – so no wonder it’s been greeted with joy across the music industry.

“It’s excellent news that music events can now go ahead in England from 19th July,” says BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor, “Bringing much needed clarity for venues and thousands of individuals who work in the live sector, as well as fans who have gone without live music for so long.”

“I’m delighted that the government has confirmed live music events can go ahead from July 19 without the need for social distancing – a welcome decision for millions of fans and for the hundreds of thousands of musicians and support crew whose jobs depend on live activity,” says UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin. “Our industry has worked incredibly hard to make venues and festival sites as safe as possible and reduce the transmission risk at live events. Huge credit is due to countless people across the sector for the brilliant work they have done towards this.”

But surely the trade body most pleased with the long-awaited move is the Music Venue Trust. Throughout the pandemic, CEO Mark Davyd and his team have campaigned relentlessly for its grassroots members, pointing out the hypocrisy of so many governmental decisions and saving dozens of venues with their demands for support and fund-raising.

Indeed, Davyd tells Audio Media International that, while modelling at the start of the crisis showed 83% of grassroots venues were at risk, the circuit will emerge from the pandemic having lost less than 1% of its venues. Compare that to the pubs sector or High Street retail and it looks little short of a miracle.

But while gigs can now return without restrictions and the government can bumble off to make a massive balls-up of something else, the work for the live sector is far from done. Davyd hails July 19 as “a massive moment” for the live business, but says his members – mindful of another surge in cases of the Delta variant – will make safety a priority.

Koko London
Koko London (Formerly Camden Palace) took the chance to refurbish in 2020 and 2021 for a 2022 reopening.

Unfortunately, the government’s abdication of responsibility when it comes to measures such as the wearing of masks means most venue owners will have to ask for audience’s cooperation, rather than being able to make such measures mandatory.

“Everybody’s having to think very hard about what can they ask people to do,” says Davyd. “Realistically, if you can get into the pub, the restaurant, the hotel, the wedding, the church and the sports ground without doing anything, it will feel very weird if you’re suddenly asked for a health certificate or a mask at the venue.”

Davyd expects many venue staff will still wear masks and that Perspex screens at bars will remain a feature. But, while there will be varying degrees of concern amongst the audience, venues will appeal to gig-goers to take personal responsibility.

“Everybody agrees that a message needs to go out to the audience that, if you’ve got Covid symptoms, don’t come to the gig,” says Davyd. “You wouldn’t bring a knife to a venue, so don’t bring an airborne pathogen either.”

All venues are experienced in the fine art of risk management but the circuit plays host to a huge variety of concert hall types, and each one will be tailoring an individual plan for vital aspects such as ventilation.

But one thing can’t be planned in advance. In the Sutherland household, joy at Boris Johnson’s announcement was swiftly tempered by the cancellation of a theatre visit due to a positive Covid test amongst the production staff.

You suspect there could be a lot of this in the coming weeks and Mark Davyd confirms that, at a recent MVT meeting, 64% of venues present had lost a member of staff to self-isolation and a quarter had seen more than half a dozen staffers having to quarantine. While the rules around isolation seem likely to be changed at some point, the youthful, less-vaccinated profile of many musicians and live music workers means many shows could be affected in some way.

That’s one reason why the industry, including the BPI and UK Music, is united in urging the government to get its festival insurance scheme up and running – this column revealed two weeks ago that that programme is finally on its way, although nothing has been confirmed yet. But Davyd – who has partnered with the National Lottery on the Revive Live tour to support the grassroots circuit with gigs from the likes of Tom Jones and Rag‘N’Bone Man – points out that other financial support such as extending the suspension of business rates and loan repayments, as well as prolonging the VAT cut on tickets, is just as vital for small businesses.

“Quite often the solution for our sector is not massive government intervention,” sighs Davyd. “If you just get out of the way of the people who run these venues, they can achieve a huge amount.”

There are other concerns for the sector, including whether the public will actually turn up for shows at a time when case numbers are still rising (although ticket sales are much higher than they normally would be for this time of year). And, of course, there is always the possibility that live events will again be disproportionately affected by any future clampdown.

But ultimately, Mark Davyd is hoping that the live circuit is back for good.

“I’d like to think that, once we’ve got the venues open, the government’s commitment to that being irreversible holds true and that whatever we do in the future to tackle the risk in venues is proportionate to what we’re doing elsewhere in society,” he says. “There isn’t any evidence that 200 people in a pub is safe, providing nobody plays the bass guitar. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Hopefully, some kind of music industry recognition for the MVT’s work will be forthcoming before too much longer. But, in the meantime, for the first time in a very long time, it’s time to celebrate.

“This weird little sector that a lot of people don’t understand has fought its way through with virtually no closures,” grins Davyd. “Once the band starts playing, get me my crowdsurfing shoes, I’m ready!”


Camden music venue KOKO set to reopen in spring 2022