Opinion: After years of financial struggles, it will take more than vaccines to save the local live music scene

The Tyler Massey Trio performing at the Malvern Cube in 2019. Photo by Ron Milsom

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to many industries. The jeopardy that sectors such as retail and hospitality have faced has repeatedly come under the media spotlight, with the government responding to this with “bounce back” loans and employee furlough schemes. While these loans and schemes have not gone far enough to prevent the highest rate of unemployment in four years and a huge increase in working people all over the country having to turn to food banks, they have provided a meagre safety net for many workers.

One of the industries that has been hit the hardest by the pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions is the live music industry. The music industry as a whole contributed over £5 billion to the UK economy in 2018, with live music making up a fifth of this figure. While a fifth may not seem much, that is only the income that comes directly from live performance, and the vital importance of live music in keeping the whole industry going cannot be measured. Without a vibrant live scene made up of affordable gigs at small venues, there will be precious few musicians becoming successful enough to play the huge arena shows that bring so much revenue. Not to mention, the loss of livelihood of smaller musicians, and decline in affordable, local gigs for people who want to see live music without forking out £50 – £100 for a seat in a Virgin or O2 arena.

While the recorded music industry thrived throughout all of 2020 and continues to do so, income from sales of recorded music only makes a small fraction of most musicians’ income. For the vast majority of working musicians, the cut received from their music being played on streaming services like Spotify is so small as to be almost undetectable. With the main sources of musicians’ income being live performances and merchandise sales, lockdown restrictions have all but eviscerated countless music careers.

The answer to this is not to prematurely ease or remove lockdown restrictions, as this would surely only lead to us finding ourselves in the exact same position again a few weeks or months down the line—with at least a few thousand more deaths. The government’s initial hesitance to implement lockdown restrictions during the first few months of 2020—with local venue owners and self-employed musicians advised to stay at home yet offered no financial support to do so—has resulted in a level of social and economic devastation many times larger than if the government had acted quickly and decisively.

Despite sectors like retail and hospitality receiving (albeit limited) support from the government, the live music sector has been comparatively left in the dust. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak even made the suggestion back in October that musicians should “retrain” to a more profitable career during the pandemic. This is the same Rishi Sunak whose “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, aimed at getting the hospitality industry back on its feet, is believed by researchers to have significantly increased Covid cases and deaths last summer. 

The government’s dismissal of the live music sector—which, unlike many retail and hospitality businesses simply cannot viably run socially-distanced events without incurring huge financial losses—during the pandemic has, thankfully, not gone unnoticed. Groups such as the Music Venue Trust have been campaigning since the start of the pandemic, with the MVT compiling a list of venues facing permanent closure and launching the #saveourvenues campaign which managed to remove 207 venues from the “critical” list between April and the start of June 2020.

Speaking to Worcestershire Transformed in June 2020, Sue Harris from the MVT said:

In our sector, it’s the reality that the government support wasn’t enough to protect grassroots music venues through to 30 June, so Music Venue Trust and our partners stepped in with Save Our Venues to try and prevent the potential closures. At the same time as we were working with artists and audiences to prevent the immediate threat of closures, MVT has been privately working with the government to see what support they can offer from 1 July to specifically address the longer-term threats to the sector. 

WT: As lockdown eases and venues are allowed to open, how many grassroots music venues plan to open?

Only 13% of music venues have any practical chance of opening based on current government guidelines. The restrictions they would open under, and the economic impact of those restrictions, means that it is not economically viable for most of them to do so. About 7% of the venues that think they can open believe they can operate any type of event which is economically viable. 97% of the sector thinks that opening with 2 metre social distancing restrictions would present an immediate threat of permanently closing the venue for financial reasons. 

WT: What is the prognosis for grassroots music venues in 2020 (and beyond)?

If the government acts to protect this vital asset then our audience survey suggests it can recover very quickly. 20% of early respondents state that were venues to open in October they would choose to go more than ever before. Enthusiasm for live music in grassroots spaces hasn’t changed at all—in fact, the lockdown seems to have reminded people that they love these spaces and want to return, but they want to do that when it is safe and the venues can only do it when it is economically viable to make events happen. 

The government should act to ensure that our talent pipeline, famous around the world, is not lost to a short-term, manageable threat.  

It is not just the pandemic that has threatened live music—conditions for workers in the music industry have been becoming more difficult for many years now. With the night-time economy being consistently underfunded nationally, music corporations looking after a small handful of mega-selling artists rather than investing in the grassroots environments that foster new talent, and an increase in noise complaints from residential neighbours leaving small venues at risk of closure, music industry workers of all kinds struggling to get by is nothing new.

Speaking to Worcestershire Transformed in July 2020, local gig photographer and artist Social Media Manager Sarah John attributed the decline in local and national music venues to multiple factors:

Technology, streaming sites, the internet in general, have made people lazy. Big corporations such as Live Nation hiking up prices, local councils putting up rent prices & building/converting accommodation near established venues resulting in noise complaints, etc. 

The market for being ‘in a band’ is absolutely flooded at the moment, resulting in more bands than there are venues & evidence of an attempt for a new 350-cap venue last year to try & venture into Worcester was actually thwarted by some local bands because their main business was for Tributes.  I support both unsigned artists & Tributes. One brings the money into a venue & gives a platform for the local artists.

WT: What impact has COVID-19 had on the local music scene, and do you envisage there being more closures of music venues post-pandemic? 

Massive impact. Lockdown sessions on social media have proven consistently that artists and fans alike need the Arts more than ever for their mental well-being.

Artists have struggled with no income & have asked for donations but they’re proving to be a pittance for a fair few. 

Venues already just about keeping the wolf from the door were in danger of closing within the first few weeks and put out crowdfunding.

Again, there’s been a noticeable reluctance from the general public to donate, some assuming money will be forthcoming from the Government to help out.

Sadly, I do see more closures. My positive side says we must continue to fight for the Arts. Every small voice joining with another can make a loud noise.

The general public needs to be made more aware that support for the Arts starts locally at a grassroots level—not with large companies providing drive-in gigs. 

WT: What support do local music venues need from the Government, local authorities, and local communities to stay open?

Lower rents, advertising, promotion within Tourist info trade. 

Over the summer of 2020, lockdown measures were reduced, with workers returning to workplaces and pubs and clubs reopening (albeit with varying social distancing measures and altered procedures). Aside from the fact that we can now see the prematurity of this decision from a public health perspective, the economic boost that this offered was much more limited for live music than it was for other sectors, with reduced audience numbers permitted in venues making many gigs financially unviable. 

Although not as large as the nearby Birmingham scene, Worcester’s music scene has been vibrant for decades. Speaking to Worcestershire Transformed in October 2020 (shortly before the announcement of the second full national lockdown), Rachel Patrick, owner of independent venue and rehearsal space Paradiddles Music Cafe and Bar in Worcester, described the scene:

I think there’s been a great scene in Worcestershire for well over 20 years. From chatting to older relatives and friends it’s clear there’s always been a lot going on with plenty of venues holding events for many years. Over time many dedicated venues have disappeared but there are still plenty of pubs / bars putting on live music. 

I do think there’s a great scene in Worcester (pre-Covid—it’s not gone, hopefully, just hibernating) There’s a huge array of bands here bringing a variety of genres and passion with them. We used to put gigs on at least once a week, normally twice and there was never a shortage of brilliant bands. There are also still lots of great places in Worcester putting gigs on and local promoters organising the shows. The Worcester Music Festival is a fantastic event in the city, hundreds of bands play over the weekend. 

WT: What do you attribute as the main reason there has been a real decline in local music venues both locally and nationally?

I think young people not being able to access live music makes a big difference. Under 18s are often in bands and have lots of friends that want to see them play but can’t because of age restrictions. 

Another big issue is the ticket price. It would cost about £3.00 to watch a local band 20 years ago and for some reason ticket prices don’t seem to have changed in line with everything else. It’s difficult to charge much more than £3.00 and have people show up, which in turn makes it difficult to even break even when covering costs and paying everyone that needs paying. It’s understandable to see venues and promoters calling it a day when this happens.  To keep live music live, people need to show up to gigs and buy tickets, the bands and promoters can’t work for free and the venues can’t run for free. 

WT: What impact has COVID-19 had on the local music scene, and do you envisage there being more closures of music venues post-pandemic? 

Obviously the impact has been absolutely huge and pretty devastating on a national level.  In Worcestershire there have been closures and unfortunately, if things don’t get better soon I’m sure there will be more. Music Venues Alliance (operated by Music Venue Trust)  have worked with loads of venues to help them get government funding but there are loads, especially smaller establishments, that haven’t been able to access help. There are countless people and businesses involved in the music scene, it’s much much bigger than just venues. Lots of businesses involved in music are suffering and people are out of work.  

WT: What support do local music venues need from the Government, local authorities and local communities to stay open? 

Government support that’s actually accessible to smaller grassroots venues would be great. Support has been given but I don’t think it’s reached many of the smaller venues, or it’s not easily accessible for businesses with minimum staff and minimum free time to work on obtaining it. 

Local authorities; again, I think help has been given in some ways—business rate relief for example. However, advice and support would go a long way. I’m sure there’s help out there but it can often be a minefield and small independent businesses don’t often have the time to research everything when focusing on just staying on their feet. 

Community support is fantastic and we feel really lucky to have such a loyal customer base. It’s difficult right now as everyone has their own thoughts and feelings on coming out and being social. Where businesses can make sure people do feel safe then it’s just about visiting local establishments. 

As if a global pandemic and years of austerity weren’t enough for the UK music scene to contend with, Brexit also threw a spanner into the works of the industry. In January of this year, the government’s utter failure to negotiate the removal of red tape and costs associated with UK musicians touring in Europe (and vice-versa) dealt another blow to both the UK and European music industries. With local musicians now less able to tour Europe, and local venues less able to host European acts, a hugely useful and mutually-beneficial cultural and economic link has been severely weakened.

Of course, the announcement of the vaccines in November and the government’s introduction of a “roadmap” to recovery has offered hope of a return to “normal”. However, the government’s neglect of the live music scene over the course of the last year means that it may be too little and too late for venues and artists already forced to close up shop for good. On top of this, cuts to the arts over the last decade had been inflicting significant harm to the live music sector long before the pandemic, and these problems will not go away unless they are confronted and solved. 

Local musician Tyler Massey has been playing gigs in Worcestershire for well over a decade. As well as performing his own music, he has also introduced many other local artists to an audience through his hosting and curating of the weekly West Malvern Social Club nights (which, since the start of the pandemic, have taken the form of an online podcast). Speaking in March 2021—a year after the start of the first lockdown—he described how the last year has been merely the latest in a long series of blows to the live music industry.

WT: What is the state of the Worcestershire live music scene compared to 10, 15, 20 years ago?

When I first came to the UK in 2005, there were gigs all the time. It was the main reason I came. When I started playing with Vo Fletcher in 2008, we could have worked every weekend, especially if we’d had someone booking us.

WT: What do you attribute as the main reason there has been a real decline in local music venues both locally and nationally?

People blame a lot of things, but the real answer is the big pubcos. The smoking ban certainly started the numbers going down, but the corporate powers behind the scenes really started to gouge the pub owners. High rent, beer ties, and falling numbers all at once resulted in thousands of pub closures. People who stayed open had to start focusing on food. Tribute acts became the only sure bets, and a lot of the heart went out of it. 

WT: What support do local music venues need from Government, local authorities, and local communities to stay open?

You can’t compare what the UK has become in 2021 to any European country, obviously, but the Nordic countries and certainly Germany have a much healthier, nurturing relationship with their own cultural output. Copy them. Of course, that’s an impossibility under the current government who seem hell-bent on destroying everything that was ever beautiful about Britain, especially its music, which has always been world-renowned.

On a political level, the government needs to increase funding available to the owners of small businesses (including self-employed workers) in the live music industry, refuse to return to arts sector cuts after the end of the pandemic, and restart talks with the EU on “musicians’ passports”. Sue Harris states that “this problem is too big for the venues, the artists, or the audiences. It needs government intervention.” 

If the Tories’ track record is anything to go by, suggestions such as these will be met with cries of “but the economy is weak, who will pay for it?” For millions of music lovers, saving the sector seems worth the cost, especially when compared to the many billions’ worth of public money that the government is always happy to award to private contractors, even when it gleans no positive results. 

On a personal level, many of us can play roles in getting the local music scene back on its feet by supporting local businesses in the music industry. When it is safe to do so, this means choosing to go out and see local musicians play in venues near you—not only can you discover great music that was right under your nose, but you can also reignite social connections that lockdown may have extinguished.

Until then, tuning into artists’ online livestreams and podcasts, buying merchandise, and generally spreading the word about the huge amount of underappreciated talent we have in Worcestershire is essential.

Despite the huge setbacks faced by workers and fans involved in the music scene, Rachel Patrick remains optimistic that the importance of music in the local community makes it unlikely to disappear: “music is pretty powerful and it’s not going anywhere.” The ability of music, and other art forms, to soothe stress or even just to pass the time has been more apparent than ever over the last year. 

Although we may never get to hear some of the music that we have missed out on due to austerity and the pandemic, we can make an effort to foster a healthy and active music scene and demand that our government does the same. There really is no excuse for the nation that gave the world The Beatles and Britpop, Amy Winehouse and Adele, and Sex Pistols and Stormzy to neglect the next generation of musicians. Worcestershire is famous for being the birthplace of Edward Elgar, as well Harry Styles and half of Duran Duran—wouldn’t it be great if we could celebrate current musicians as much as we celebrate our musical history?

EDIT: Thanks to support from the Music Venue Trust, Arts Council England, and local music fans, Paradiddles has now received funding from the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund, and is planning an exciting return to business!

You can donate to Save Our Venues here.

If you are interested in learning more about the Worcestershire live music scene and how you can get involved, check out Slap Mag.

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