Everything we do at Pretend can be traced back to a small music venue; whether it be interviews with emerging artists, finding new music for radio shows or even our own live events. Without grassroots venues the UK’s musical heritage wouldn’t exist.
With venues closed we have to look past the endless live streams and think about what comes next. What do grassroots music venues look like after the shocks they have faced?
If you’re reading this article then you are probably aware of the #saveourvenues campaign being run by the Music Venues Trust. If you have donated to any of the crowdfunding campaigns around the country then you’ve played a part in saving numerous venues from closure in the immediate future. Over 140 of the more than 500 venues under critical threat have now been saved from immediate closure as a result of the campaign so far but even as they reach these goals to stay open during lockdown the process of re-opening may just finish venues off.
Please consider helping out some of the venues and organisations that have not yet reached their crowdfunding targets. The Lousisana in Bristol has almost reached its target (link here) and Peckham Audio is in need of donations to stay afloat (link here). We’ll be putting out a full list of venues that haven’t yet made their crowdfunder goals in the next few days.
What comes after lockdown?
The best place to start thinking about a post-corona world is by looking at China as it has gone further than almost anywhere else that went into lockdown towards fully reopening its economy. The evidence doesn’t look good for the creative industries. People have not flooded back to restaurants, bars and music venues and those spaces are continuing to struggle for survival but are now finding that both state and public support are disappearing. Across the board, the Chinese economy is at roughly 90% of its pre-lockdown levels. On the surface this looks quite good but the cultural sector has lost more than almost any other in that 10% reduction in economic activity.
Perhaps more worrying is that the reductions in personal spending in Sweden, which has not gone into lockdown, are similar to the spending reductions in countries that have gone into lockdown. In other words, even if venues were open, there would be fewer people spending money in them. This shows that people really want to limit the spread of the virus even when not asked to, but the longer we’re in this state, the less likely people are to return to their previous ways of living. A YouGov poll conducted for The Economist at the end of April found that over a third of Americans thought it would be “several months” before it was safe to reopen business as normal. If the same is true in the UK people may stay away even when public spaces are opened.
A few things are clear. Social distancing will remain in place at some level until there is a vaccine. Until there is a vaccine some will be unwilling to attend gigs or go to bars at all, others may not enjoy a socially distant experience and stay away opting to go to a park instead. On top of this many people are going to have less money in the likely event of a recession.
Beyond these three effects not much is certain, there has been talk of limiting the number of drinks people can buy, landlords have asked for social distancing to be reduced to three feet to allow them to reopen and there have been moves towards reorganising some live shows this year but little information on what those shows will look like.
If you’re the sort of person who read the above and thought “Yeah but this doesn’t apply to me. I can’t wait to get back to gigs, as soon as it’s safe I’m going to be out there” then the chances are you were already an active gig goer. For young people for whom gigs were already a key part of their social life it’s unlikely that Coronavirus will significantly change their behaviour post lockdown. For more casual gig and pubs goers the habits and mental stigmas formed in lockdown could push them away from the live experience.
On top of all of that, the recent announcement from Rishi Sunak that all businesses would have to start contributing to the furlough pay of staff from August even when many of these businesses won’t be reopening will put further pressure on venues to reopen before they might be able to do so safely and sustainably.
What can be done?
The problem here is stark: if we don’t completely reassess how creative spaces work, then reopening post lockdown is likely to force many to close – theatres, music venues and art galleries alike. In finding the solutions to the problems facing live music venues after lockdown we could also look to try and take steps towards solving some of the endemic problems that they were facing before anyone had even heard the phrase “fancy jumping on a zoom call later?” We can use this crisis as a chance to reset.
The current situation underlines the need for a proper strategy for the creative economy around the country. While London and Manchester have night mayors and Music:Leeds does a fantastic job at representing that city, many other cities risk being left behind due to a lack of leadership in the creative sectors. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was given the hefty task of regulating the internet in the 1990s which has since gone on to dominate what that department does, limiting its ability to properly promote Britain’s cultural sector as it is supposed to. This is underlined by the lack of representation for live music in the “Cultural Renewal Taskforce” that was set up in the last few weeks. In the absence of national leadership we should be looking to cities like Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol and Birmingham to adopt similar structures to the night mayors in Manchester and London to properly represent their creative sectors.
Secondly, Arts Council funding for popular music and jazz should be addressed. In 2018 62% of all arts council grants for music went to Opera with just 8% going to pop music and 2% for jazz music. While there is a place for Opera it should not be getting this much public funding when compared to pop and jazz, which hold a real place within the day to day lives of millions of people in the UK. Opera may be expensive but if we’re going to fund events that are losing money why not support small venues to put on a gig with younger pop and jazz artists who could go on to become major forces entertaining millions if given the right opportunities.
Finally we need to reassess our relationship with alcohol in small venues. The amount people drink in the UK, in particular young people, has been falling for the last 20 years putting further financial strain on venues. While I love a drink I can’t deny that it would be better if I drank less. Music is about more than just getting drunk and if enjoying live music without drinking would force many venues to go under we need to think again about how to make these businesses sustainable. This could be through higher ticket prices, protected status for cultural and community spaces so that when they lose money they can be supported or perhaps lower business rates would go some way to helping.
If you want to act now then think of your local venue and find out what they’re doing to stay afloat right now. The Brudenell Social Club are doing T-Shirts, Hyde Park Book Club are doing deliveries and The Windmill Brixton has released an epic live compilation album. As mentioned before, many venues are doing crowd funders that you can support.
The fight for grassroots music venues is the fight to save all of Britain’s cultural spaces. Spaces that bind communities together and help us to overcome our differences. Music will survive and people will find places to gather together and dance when this is done. If and when venues do reopen, we must not stay away, else the damage will be greater than lockdown on its own.
By James Ward