A summer without live music - Yorkshire venues and festivals fear for their sector

A summer largely devoid of live music lies ahead, with festivals and gigs cancelled and venues still closed. Laura Reid looks at the impact on the region’s normally thriving music scene.

Tuesday, 19th May 2020, 11:50 am
The Cribs perform at a previous Long Division festival in Wakefield.

With virtual performances likely the only way to enjoy any live music for the foreseeable future, a sector that at the last count contributed £1.1 billion a year to the UK economy is under catastrophic strain.

Surveying by the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) has suggested 92 per cent of its festival organisers are at risk of collapse, whilst the Music Venues Trust (MVT) warns that over 550 grassroots venues face imminent closure for good.

And if that picture was not already bleak enough, the UK Live Music Group - a collective voice of promoters, festivals, agents, venues and production services - fears the impact of the coronavirus could mean thousands of job losses, as an expected £900 million is wiped from the sector, which could take up to four years to recover to its 2019 level.

Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin says music has a healing role to play post-coronavirus.

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Yorkshire live music venues calling for more support to stop industry collapsing

Whilst the venue has accessed a business support grant from the Government, Chris says it’s not enough; Boom is missing out on around £10k per month. The venue has a crowdfunding page as part of the MVT’s #SaveOurVenues campaign to help cover costs.

Fans can also show support by purchasing merchandise or pledging donations through a subscription scheme, in return for online music content.

“We want to be around for a long time. We definitely don’t want to go under.” Sadly, it's something Chris is worried about. “We need additional Government support by the end of June at the latest.”

Over in Bradford, Andrew Kettle, a director of the Nightrain venue, is also hoping for more longer-term help. Without Government support the venue has been able to access, “we would potentially have closed already,” he says. “The Government support isn’t now really sustainable for us to go on much longer before we’d need some other funding.”

The venue, which also has a #SaveOurVenues crowdfunding page, only opened its doors for the first time last May. Andrew says in order to re-open with “a chance of sustainability”, it would need notice of a couple of months.

“On one hand, people are wanting to get out and try to get back to normal, get back to socialising, which for us would be great as it would mean full bars and venues,” he says.

“But then on the other side, there’s people’s cash flow. And also - are people going to feel safe even if the guidelines say they are? It’s a difficult one to call because it comes down to individual circumstances and approaches to going back out again.”

With much uncertainty moving forward, many are concerned about what the future of live music may look like. Harkirit Boparai, venue manager of The Crescent in York, questions how financially viable any limits on capacity would be and whether there could be such thing as a socially distanced gig.

The industry, Harkirit says, is also facing another delicate challenge. “A lot of our industry has to rely on confidence. If I book a band and make a deal with an agent, I’m saying I’m confident of selling X amount of tickets to pay towards the cost of putting the gig on and towards the band fee.

"We’re making assessments and offers based on our experience. Now, when we’re trying to book for the future, we have nothing to base that on. We don’t know how audiences are going to change their habits. We don’t know if a gig is going to have to be cancelled and moved again.”

As the chair of the UK Live Music Group Greg Parmley has pointed out, the effects of the pandemic will be wide-reaching for the live music sector, which, as well as venue owners, includes labels, publishers, composers, artists, agents, managers, technicians, suppliers and more.

“My biggest fear is that we open but then every gig that we put on goes terribly financially,” says Harkirit, who is also crowdfunding. “Because if it does, it means it’s terrible financially for the promoters, the artists and for the venues. When lockdown’s lifted, we may be past the epidemiological peak but I think the economic peak will still be to come. And the biggest fear is the recession.”

Warnings from the MVT are stark, with the trust claiming that without independent venues, the live music scene in the UK “will die”. Brian and Tracey Leach, who run the Studio 5 Live performance venue and Jam on Top rehearsal studios in Keighley, are well aware of the crucial role that venues like theirs play in the development of British music.

Concerned about whether their own businesses will be financially viable in the long-run post-Covid-19, Brian says: “These grassroots venues are so important for bands. It’s somewhere for them to go and it’s where they build their craft and their audience.”

Thomas Simpson, managing director of The Parish live music venue in Huddersfield, agrees. “I worry greatly for smaller venues like us as that’s where the great bands get their starts, it’s where the young bands get to play, where communities are built,” he says.

He’s worried too about potential closure and admits it is hard to look ahead. But he’s trying to remain positive for The Parish, which like many others, is crowdfunding for support. “When I have a positive day I see The Parish reopened with a packed venue and a packed beer garden, people dancing on tables and everyone having a wonderful time,” he says. “It feels very far away but one can dream.”

Nigel Booth is also determined to remain optimistic, despite dealing with an extra setback at The Underground in Bradford. The venue was broken into after it closed its doors for the lockdown. Whilst he believes no venue can out-rightly say they’re “going to be safe”, with crowdfunding and a support grant, he’s looking positively to the future.

“I think people are now desperate to see live music,” he says. “I think there’s going to be more community support for local bands when we can restart. That’s a quite exciting part about this whole situation.”

It could certainly be one positive of time away from seeing live music ‘in the flesh’ - if venues survive. But the picture from UK Music is bleak. The lobbying group is among those highlighting the need for sustained Government support and a taskforce to revive the industry, warning that many live music venues and festivals will not make it through this winter.

According to the AIF, the country could be facing an “independent festival wasteland” next year and beyond. It is predicted that at least 90 per cent of all UK festivals will not take place in 2020, the association says, with the sector facing potential refunds of up to £800m this summer.

In Yorkshire, Leeds Festival, Tramlines, in Sheffield, and Deer Shed in North Yorkshire are among those not going ahead this year, with Long Division, Wakefield currently postponed until November.

Oliver Jones, who runs Deer Shed with wife Kate, says the postponement of the festival to 2021 has “left a financial hole”, with many unrecoverable costs and an entire year of income wiped out.

“The biggest challenge is to try to predict sales going into next year with the uncertainty of social distancing guidelines in summer 2021,” Oliver says. He maintains the festival will “keep on rollin’” but says long-term, if fewer people want to come, “its budget will reflect that”.

For Dean Freeman, founder of Long Division, delayed ticket income is a key “headache” but audiences have been supporting the festival and there have been few requests for refunds, he says.

The biggest challenge is not being able to make concrete plans. “I fear too that festivals will lose some of the more passive audiences,” Dean explains. “That thing that has emerged in the last ten years where a festival is now someone’s annual holiday may disappear. But then again, I do think there will be a boom in British people taking holidays in Britain, so if festivals can latch onto that mindset, it could be a great year in 2021.”

Certainly, Tracy Brabin, a shadow minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, believes music has a vital role to play as the country adjusts to life after the coronavirus.

The MP for Batley and Spen wants the Government to produce a sector deal for the creative industries, claiming “we are going to need music more than ever”.

“Life after Covid-19 is going to be very hard, very tough, and very bleak,” she says. “We are going to be in the midst of a recession but it cannot just be bed and work. It cannot just be anxiety about paying the bills. There has to be opportunities for low cost access to music to bring people together, to build our communities and bring back hope.”

Several people The Yorkshire Post spoke to pointed out the wider impact of live music, with audiences who attend gigs and festival often providing a boost to the economy through spending on travel, food and drink, accommodation and in local shops.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in Parliament is holding an inquiry looking at the impact that Covid-19 is having on its sectors, including music, and is accepting submissions until June 19.

A DCMS spokesperson said the Government was “committed to supporting our world-class music industry, including much-loved independent festivals across Yorkshire and the UK, in these challenging times” with support including the job retention scheme and bounce back loans.

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