Monday 5th October was supposed to be the day when the Government announced the first recipients of its £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund. Unfortunately, this desperately needed lifeline was delayed. Announcements are now due to be made tomorrow (Monday 12th October), but with this Government, who really knows? And so, the fate of 650+ small music venues continues to hang precariously in the balance. By the time you’ve read this another small venue will probably have closed. Forever.
Grass roots music venues are under threat as never before. I have been both a professional musician and a live music promoter so I’ve seen things from both sides of the fence and believe me, it’s a brutal world. The day to day reality is that most small venues are usually just one bad month away from going out of business. But the UK Music Industry contributed £5.2 billion to the economy in 2018. So money is being made here, it’s just not filtering back through to the soil from where it started to grow. And now each of these venues are having to prove their viability in order to draw from a fund that doesn’t really value them. Why fund a struggling live music venue in Leicester when there’s the elitism of opera to be saved?
It sickens me to the core that everything has been boiled down to financial worth. Viability cannot be measured in the here and now of a global Pandemic. This is to disregard the fact that popular British music has been a vital and accessible part of British cultural identity for over sixty years. And it’s still looking good. As a nation, we’ve continually punched above our weight and attracted envy (and visitors) from all over the world. Pop music has bought wealth into our country but now we’re supposed to go along with its decimation simply because the government has no interest in understanding the contribution of grass roots venues across the UK. So goodbye future music, goodbye freedom to create. Excuse me, but I need to vent. Let’s have a bit of context here.
Going out to see new bands in small venues has been a rite of passage since Skiffle invaded unsuspecting coffee bars in the 1950’s.
For subsequent legions, live music quickly became that thing you did to upset your parents. And this helped musicians sell millions of records all over the world. When prog rockers insisted we watch them whizzing around an ice rink decked out in capes and crowns, music simply reinvented itself yet again. The shock waves of punk became so big they could be seen on iridescent mohawks via London postcards which overseas visitors bought in their thousands. Punk’s back to basics legacy bled into the do-it-yourself ethos of 1980’s indie which eventually culminated in our Prime Minister grabbing photo opps with Britpop bands in order to turn 90’s ‘Cool Britannia’ into much-needed votes. As recently as 2017, the British music economy has been re-hitting the heady heights of 1995’s Britpop heyday. If the U.K.’s music industry isn’t a poster child for continued viability then nothing is.
And it’s no co-incidence that the UK has always been a trail blazer in music. We have constantly invented new music genres to upset the status quo. In turn, the establishment gets worried and we remind those in power that the people will always find a way to be heard. Things get done on non-existent budgets in dark, sticky-floored breeding grounds because it’s absolutely essential. It’s also in our blood. Generations have grown up knowing the thrill of that illicit under-age night out where minds get blown by what’s up there on the stage or on the decks. And that’s something the establishment has never been able to stop. But now it feels as if they’ve finally found a way to bring down the hammer and if we don’t act quickly then we stand to lose everything.
Without grass roots music venues there can be no subculture. No new bands means no youth movement. And musicians cannot simply start at that semi-mythical next level. This would be like entering athletes into the Olympics without years of prior training. It simply couldn’t happen. We need the same building blocks in music and grass roots is that beginning. Small venues allow aspiring musicians to be useless and magnificent in equal measure. It’s also where creative people go to meet. So say goodbye to fashionistas, artists, designers, managers, producers, directors, budding cameramen, choreographers, provocateurs and sound engineers if live grass roots music dies. And what about society’s outcasts and weirdos? Where would they go without the sanctuary of music? We do not know exactly how many creative people are currently out of work, but there are around 52k employed professional musicians in the U.K, so I’m guessing we’re going up into the hundreds of thousands here. The stunningly flippant Rishi Sunak is sorely mistaken if he really believes everyone will simply go away and retrain, like we’ve all just been messing around before getting a real job. This latest Tory mouthpiece is just another ex hedge fund banker who wouldn’t know grass roots creativity if it smacked him in the face.
As far back as you dare look, the Government has continuously failed to understand the culture of new music. It has never been even remotely aware of what is needed to nurture this ephemeral thing, yet it was happy to sit there and make countless billions simply by doing nothing at all. And now we need our Government to stand up and give something back. In fact, the £1.57 billion on offer to ‘viable’ businesses is nothing short of a slap in the face, especially when you consider that this sum will be shared with heritage projects as diverse and money guzzling as cathedrals, royal palaces – and even Harry Potter film sets!? Let’s compare the £1.57bn recovery fund with conservative (ha!) estimates for the HS2 railway project which currently stand at around 100 billion in 2020 money. 30 million people went to a live music event in 2018, which I suspect is a damned sight more than the number of people who need to shave 15 minutes off a journey between London and Birmingham, right?
Let’s also compare the British government’s support for popular music with South Korea’s – not a sentence I ever saw myself writing, but in this case, relevant! When K-pop showed potential to become a global export, the South Korean government responded by investing in its growth and development. K-pop now brings a massive $5 billion dollars a year which has had a mighty impact on the relatively small South Korean economy.
Rather than quibbling over viability in order to grant a few thousand quid, why don’t we make it easy for our Government and just give all the grass roots venues a helping hand? There aren’t that many of them left – survival of the fittest happened long ago! Surely you can’t be biased towards certain areas of the country…talent knows no borders. The next potential big money spinner may live in Hull. Or maybe they’re in Plymouth. But each is important in its own way. Choosing the most worthy small venue is like asking you which one of your children you would save from a burning building.
When the Government bailed out the banking crisis back in 2008, £500 billion was set aside to deal with the collapse. So Covid or no Covid, I suspect there are the funds available to save our small venues. But I fear that popular music is an alien being which members of this government rarely if ever enjoy and will never understand or truly value. If we are not careful here, the only thing left will be those overpriced, sanitised Corporate-sponsored Festivals which happen in greater quantities every virus-free summer. And this, I suspect is something that the Corporate powers would happily agree to. Pubs and venues could then be sold off as prime real estate so that Boris can Build, Build, Build and those ailing town centres will become even more of a ghost world than they already are. And one more thing worth thinking about, Mental Health has become a big issue during Covid, with Government departments now being instructed to ask us how we feel whenever we need to engage with them. So tell me faceless telephone (non)entity, how do you think I am going to feel if live music is taken away and all the small venues shut down?
Over the last week I have spoken with my friends Jason Dormon from The Forum, Tunbridge Wells and Will Moore from The Prince Albert, Brighton. They are both music fanatics who manage two of my favourite grass roots venues. And up until March 2020 both were putting on live bands most nights of the week. But since Covid, both venues are experiencing different fall-out symptoms from the government’s inability to come up with an effective survival plan.
Since lockdown, The Prince Albert (a true music pub which has hosted legendary nights for everyone from Neneh Cherry to Peter and the Test Tube Babies) has transformed it’s upstairs music venue into an extended area of the pub. The Albert is keeping its head above water only due to its flexibility and ingenuity, but this has come at a high price because the management has been advised that The Albert would be highly unlikely to secure funding for its live venue given that the bar is taking money. OK, so you could argue that The Albert has made it through the last few months and is perhaps luckier than some, but factor in the Government’s new 10pm curfew which has already played havoc with bar takings (largely because last orders are being called at the ungodly hour of 9.15pm) and it might soon be a different story. Pubs are currently not allowed to open long enough to make a profit. And what about the music? The Albert without live music is not the Albert. It’s just a pub. And this is not just a loss for Brighton, it’s a loss to visitors, tourists and the music industry as a whole. More worryingly, it has poleaxed the legions of bands, sound engineers and bar staff now dumped onto Universal Credit (if they’re lucky) with little or no reassurances that anything will return to ‘normal’ when the Pandemic is over.
Although The Forum in Tunbridge Wells has applied for crisis funding, it’s owners were immediately confronted by a complex legal process of having to pitch for a share of the money by proving viability beyond a shadow of a doubt. But which ‘expert’ decides what viability means and is anyone considering the bigger picture here? What is the cost to the UK economy if its’ music industry collapses? The UK record business pumped over £5 billion into the UK economy last year alone, so surely we can take a punt and throw a few crumbs to those grass root venues, right? Wrong! Every small venue owner has had to get busy writing bids for funding even though most have limited (or no) bid writing skills and are only looking for a fraction of what corporate venues are seeking. You see, this is yet another area in which grass roots venues are all at a severe disadvantage because, like The Forum in Tunbridge Wells (which operates as a not for profit organisation), so many rely on donations and volunteers to keep them functioning. These smaller venues officially employ very few people and those who are paid work for the love and not for the money. Small venue owners have found the government guideline capping individual salaries at £150k completely laughable. But it’s also a glaring indication of just how little our government truly understands the reality of what it takes to run a grass roots venue. Many venues would be lucky to take this amount in a year.
To make a bad situation even worse insiders fear that crisis funding will only be allocated to those organisations employing a large number of people, even though a number of these entities have reserve funds and rich patrons to turn to. In fact, it has even been whispered that some of the bigger theatres and venues are merely applying to top up reserve funds which have been hit during Covid. I mean, come on guys, play fair. If now isn’t the time to be dipping into that rainy day slush fund then when the hell is?!
Although it cannot actively put on live music right now, The Forum has managed to survive by selling branded merchandise to its loyal customers. Supporters have stepped up and opened their wallets but there’s a limit to how much merch a venue can sell (and how many donations local well-wishers can make). Co-owner Jason Dormon is concerned that should the Forum not receive Government funding, it will simply run out of benefactors. On top of this, as the funding is to be distributed geographically, the Forum inadvertently finds itself pitted against the likes of local theatres and other (larger) council run venues and arts centres. It’s future is in no way guaranteed. And this is a crying shame. Need I remind you that this is a venue which has won countless awards and gave an early break to bands including Oasis and local boys Slaves who have gone on to become one of the UK’s biggest selling indie bands in recent times. I suspect that like hand claps for the NHS, awards and kind words are very welcome but Jason would rather have money to keep The Forum open for business.
In an impressive show of solidarity, smaller venues have come together under the Music Venue Trust banner, and it is said that those of the 650+ venues who are eventually successful with their bids for funding, many will put some of their money into a communal pot for other struggling small grass roots venues to access. This then, is probably the best hope for the near future of our gigging landscape.
I believe that it would be a crime to lose even a single grass roots music venue. They are all as important as each other and provide a service in towns big and small which is impossible to measure in monetary terms. So please do everything you can to support your local venue because if you don’t, when this Pandemic is over we will all be guilty of looking back at this moment and realising that we lost something totally irreplaceable. We simply cannot rely on this Government, so matters have to be taken into our own hands.
So if you aren’t ready to say goodbye to all those unforgettable nights out and bands whose greatness is yet to be realised, now is the time to pledge allegiance to keeping it Grass Roots… contribute to the Save Our Venues Crowdfunder and/or the GMV Crisis Fund and keep supporting funding initiatives at your local venue because they’ve never needed you more!
Authors note: I am a musician not a politician. I write songs, not posts about economic viability! I am not affiliated with any of the organisations I have written about and the only political activities I am involved in is voting once every 4 years. I wrote this blog from the heart and for no other reason than that I care.