Mark Davyd Michael Kill

Music Venue Trust and Night Time Industries Association on the latest lockdown of live music in the UK

There are now three certainties in life: death, taxes and the UK government letting down the live music sector.

After 15 long months of lockdown and a constant cycle of postponements and rescheduling, the live sector was finally poised to return on June 21, the date the government had said all coronavirus restrictions would end. Just two weeks ago, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was insisting there was “nothing in the data” to change that but, with tragic inevitability, a surge in cases of the Delta variant first detected in India ensured that the so-called Freedom Day was postponed again, this time until July 19.

Now, for those in the live music business, that was bad enough. But, as if to prove they’ve learned nothing over the last tumultuous year-and-a-bit, the government also failed to come up with any extra support for a sector that was first to shut down and will be last to come back – while allowing the likes of Wimbledon and football’s European Championship to go ahead with large crowds. No wonder many in the industry are at the end of their tether.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” sighs Michael Kill (pictured left), CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA). “The youngsters who are going to these venues are now getting frustrated and the public’s position is starting to change. They’re seeing different countries doing different things like America – a lot of our big artists are going there to perform because of the freedom to do so. And, after watching the football [at Wembley] last weekend, they’re questioning what the difference is between the environments that are being locked down and the environments that are in situ at the moment. Desperation is causing people to question a lot of things.”

Indeed, many will ponder the point of the government running an Events Research Programme that saw 58,000 people attend test events (including the BRIT Awards and a Blossoms gig in Liverpool) and resulted in just 15 positive cases, if it makes no difference to how the sector is treated.

“Nobody actually knows whether opening live music venues at full capacity will provoke a wave because that’s never happened,” points out Mark Davyd (pictured right), CEO of the Music Venue Trust (MVT), which has campaigned relentlessly for grassroots venues during the crisis. “Many things may have caused this spike [in cases], but none of them are live music. There have been three waves and we weren’t part of any of them.”

Nonetheless, the decision has now been made and, once again, the live sector has to try and live with it. UK Music CEO  described the lockdown extension as “a catastrophic blow” for the sector, while LIVE, the live sector trade body, warned that 5,000 events are now likely to be cancelled over the next month. The Association Of Independent Festivals said the delay would further hit the already-decimated 2021 festival season.

Four weeks might not sound that long after all the industry has been through, but after 15 months without any income, it could tip many live businesses over the edge, especially without further support. The government has now announced that eviction protections for commercial tenants will continue until March 2022 but the other five demands on the Music Venue Trust’s six-point plan to manage the impact of the extension remained unaddressed as this column went to press.

The Music Venue Trust’s suggestions include extending 100% rate relief until March next year; extending the Bounce Back Loans and CBIL interest/payment free period until September 30; exploring the Australian model of rent debt settlement; immediately releasing the £300m held for Culture Recovery Fund 3; and working with local authorities to release undistributed Restart Grant money to cultural premises.

Michael Kill is optimistic there will be progress on some of these fronts – and maybe even on the long-awaited Covid insurance scheme, the absence of which has blighted the independent festival scene – but warns that many people were so invested in the June 21 date that they are now on the brink.

“It’s a car crash for many businesses that had to prepare a lot earlier to get ready,” he says. “Now they’re financially committed and worried about what the future looks like, because they’ve spent those cash reserves preparing for opening on the 21st – and now they’ve got to survive an additional four weeks.”

Prior to the lockdown extension announcement, theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber had threatened to open his venues anyway. Funnily enough, the former Conservative peer’s new Cinderella musical has now been offered test event status, but few others in the live sector are as lucky.

“If everything is now a test event, I’ve got 4,000 test events they can run, it’s not a problem,” quips Mark Davyd. “But we’ve ended up in a situation where 40,000 people are going to Wembley Stadium on public transport to see the Euros finals, get their beers from enclosed spaces and dance, but I can’t tell one of my members who runs a 60-capacity folk club that it’s OK to put some folk on.”

It’s anomalies like that that Michael Kill says is making some people contemplate “direct action”.

“Confidence in the government is really ebbing from our sector,” he warns. “They’re frustrated and angry.”

Of course, the government has provided substantial – if often belated – support to the sector during the pandemic. But it now risks wasting large amounts of that public money if it doesn’t support the industry through the final push – or if its own incompetence in dealing with the Delta variant (largely caused by its refusal to put India on the red list as soon as it was aware of the more transmissible mutation) makes that July 19 date slip further.

“Let’s be clear,” says Davyd. “The Prime Minister has described July 19 as a terminus date. I’m not going to start arguing and fighting with them about that – I’m going to hold them to it.”

And, with the correct support, both the NTIA and the Music Venue Trust are confident that – when the hallowed day arrives when we can finally return to the moshpit/standing cynically by the bar with our arms folded – we will find an industry ready to come back more vibrant than ever.

“There will be a three-to-five-year period to get back to where we were,” says Michael Kill. “The desire is there, we just need to start rebuilding our sector, and get confidence in investment and landlords so we can start regenerating. Live music all starts from the ground up. Without a doubt we can do it, but there’s been a huge impact for us.”

“If the government can get on top of what they’ve done here, we are in a position to bounce back really strongly,” says Davyd. “There will be a lot of debt and it will take two-to-three years to clear it, but we have pent-up demand coming out of our ears. People have sat watching their phones and computers for long enough – now they want to go and live something real.”

Over to you Boris – don’t let us down this time…

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