It’s no secret that the live music venues of the UK - alongside the rest of our hospitality businesses - are suffering profoundly through the Covid pandemic. Closed since March with no sign of when they can properly re-open again, it’s a dark time.
Though the government may have allowed the cultural landscape to fall to its knees, crowdfunding and local initiatives are helping some of our indispensable grassroots venues to stay afloat: as ever, there is always hope.
As experts of their cities' nightlife, we spoke to Parklife/Warehouse Project boss and Manchester’s Night Time Economy Advisor Sacha Lord, and London’s Night Czar Amy Lamé to find out what’s happening in their offices, their reactions to the government policies and what they think will happen next in the world of live music.
This article is dedicated to Josh Wilson.
On independent venues.
Sacha Lord: They are our absolute bloodline. Being a Manc, when you go on holiday and people ask where you’re from, you're always immediately associated with music and football. That’s in our blood; in our DNA.
When people come to Parklife, they stand there looking at the headliners: well those headliners started off somewhere at the likes of Night and Day Café with a capacity of 120 people. Those small grassroots venues are to me probably more important than our larger scale venues. It’s where everybody's careers start off.
Amy Lamé: Live music venues, especially grassroots ones, are the absolute lifeblood of London. The situation that they find themselves in now is heartbreaking because there's so much the government could do to help support them, like having a proper test, trace and isolate system.
It’s really important to remember that grassroots live venues bring people together - they also provide a stage for artists and boost our nighttime economy. And we also can’t forget the jobs that these venues bring. Artists and promoters are the ones that people often think of first but you have to think about bar staff, security, sound engineers, cleaners...The ecosystem involved is massive and I think it’s important that if we’re talking about venues, we also talk about the people that make the venues.
On the reality of the situation.
Sacha Lord: I cannot sugarcoat this. I know we are going to see mass closures and huge redundancies. And there’s something bigger that people need to be talking about too. These people have been under financial pressure since March with no guidance; little support. They are under so much mental pressure that for many their mental health is now at tipping point. A promoter in Birmingham two weeks ago, Josh Wilson, took his own life. I fear there are going to be more deaths.
On the government's response.
Sacha Lord: Absolutely appalling. Furlough has saved many many jobs, but that’s phased out completely this weekend. They have introduced this new job support scheme, but when you’re talking about a live music venue or a nightclub, that forces you to play the redundancy hand.
Amy Lamé: I’m still really concerned that there are huge numbers of businesses who have not been given what they need.
The government, through Arts Council England, has helped some venues and that’s really welcomed but I think our night time economy is going to be huge part of our recovery. Not just economically but mentally. To enable people to connect with each other again, to enjoy culture again. Hopefully by spring we might have some better news.
On a new kind of mental health crisis.
Sacha Lord: We’ve got to live with this virus until there’s a vaccine. Some of these [closed] pubs in some of the most deprived areas of Manchester… a lot of the social activity of people in those areas has gone and that’s going to put more pressure on people. I think it’s doing more harm than good.
I was sent a picture last Thursday night of two old guys hugging each other in a pub with tears in their eyes. They’d lost their wives and that was their thing at night was to go to the pub and play dominos. That’s gone for them. This is playing peoples’ lives.
We are going to find a vaccine and we are going to come out of this, but we’re going to be left with people who are on their knees.
Amy Lamé: This pandemic has pushed so many people into situations they are not prepared for. How could you possibly prepare for it? Mentally, physically, financially...I think it’s important that we try and support the industry as best we can in every way we can.
We could go on to a whole other discussion on the lack of mental health services across the board. People’s mental heath might improve if they had some security for the future of their jobs. The root of this is that people are petrified of losing their livelihood, their homes, and not being able to feed their kids. It’s great that some venues have got some money but not all venues have received money. We need the government to do more.
On local efforts to help out.
Amy Lamé: The Mayor and I have a £2.3m emergency fund to help some of he most at-risk small businesses, so we’ve been able to provide support and guidance to 141 grassroots music venues.
We’ve also got our pay-it-forward scheme to help businesses. You can buy a ticket for a gig or a launch or a round of drinks and the Mayor match funds that up to a certain level.
Sacha Lord: A lot of the money from United We Stream broadcast went to grassroots venues. When Andy Burnham gave me this role, I created a 12-month blueprint - now, we have a recovery blueprint coming out next week.
On the 10pm curfew.
Amy Lamé: I think what the government has done with the 10pm curfew is absolutely inexcusable and it’s clear that it needs to be scrapped immediately. There is no evidence whatsoever to support a 10pm curfew. There is no scientific proof that the virus is stronger after 10pm or that those hospitality spaces are any more dangerous than anywhere else. As soon as we found out [about it] I was like 'you have to be joking me?' Have they talked to anyone from the industry? It’s kind of like how to run a venue 101.
Sacha Lord: It's stupid. When I want to license Parklife, every year I have to satisfy the safety group. One question every year is how are you going to get 80,000 people out all at once, and the answer is you have to do a staggered egress. By the government throwing hundreds of thousands of people out at 10'o'clock - what did they expect? We saw the pictures.
On some positives.
Sacha Lord: The big festivals that are on sale at the moment: their ticket sales are phenomenal. Every single tour that’s going up: incredible ticket sales, so there’s an appetite for people to return. I am adamant that in 2021 we will see the festivals back.
Amy Lamé: I went to The Electric Ballroom on the 4 July - the day when everything reopened and I was like ‘even if I can’t watch live music, I just need to be in a space’. I was actually their first customer and I felt really comfortable and confident going in there.
These are highly regulated places. Even in normal times they would have to be prepared for a random spot check so you have to keep your standards up, and that’s why I’m so proud of the hospitality industry. Places that have been able to reopen have taken it incredibly seriously.
Sacha Lord: We saw how the government tried to bully Manchester last week. Wasn’t it an amazing week for Manchester last week with Marcus Rashford too! This weekend, so many restaurants who are operating at a loss turned around and said ‘we’ll start making meals for kids this half term’. It’s amazing; that’s what Manchester is about.
Amy Lamé: Keep connecting with people and connecting with those friends that you’ve got that love music the same way you do. That’s been really important for me is not losing the connection of the people I’d usually go out to gigs or share music with. Not losing that passion. Just try and be kind to yourself.