Saving our soul: Inside the campaign to save the UK's grassroots circuit

Saving our soul: Inside the campaign to save the UK's grassroots circuit

Punk-folk troubadour Frank Turner has made his living entertaining packed houses, rattling off 2,500 gigs the world over. But it was a show played to an empty room that tugged at his heartstrings like no other.

The performance in question came on June 25 this year, when the ex-Million Dead vocalist headlined Save The Grand at Clapham Grand, raising upwards of £22,000 for the 120-year-old building in the process.

“There was no audience, but the simple fact of being in a venue again nearly made me cry,” Turner tells Music Week. “It felt like coming home and it was incredibly moving just being on a stage, being in the place where I've made my living, my home and my name for the last 20 years – and I can’t wait to go back.”

The 13th edition of Turner’s laudable Independent Venue Love crowdfunding livestream series staged since the concert shutdown began in March, Save The Grand was the first to take place in an actual music venue.

“I did 16 livestream shows – mostly for independent venues – from my house during lockdown and we raised just shy of £200,000, which I feel pretty good about,” says Turner. “But at the end of the day, playing to the back of your phone over and over again is not a gig. I had my wonderful wife and cat in the room every time, but it’s not quite the same thing as playing in a venue.”

Turner is the public face of the Save Our Venues campaign, launched by the Music Venue Trust (MVT) in the spring to raise money and awareness for the hundreds of UK grassroots venues under immediate threat of closure. Artists have been encouraged to perform gigs in support of a crisis-hit venue.

“Frank was first out of the box in trying to raise money for individual venues he felt strongly about,” says MVT chief Mark Davyd. “We chatted with Frank and the team and we all said, ‘Maybe this model could be expanded?’”

Quickly surpassing its initial £1 million target, the initiative has revised its aim to £1.5m. And though James Bay became the latest high-profile act to take part earlier this month, support is not limited to established talent.

“Probably the most important thing is how grassroots the whole campaign has been,” points out Davyd. “Local artists have been putting on events and doing little things to raise £200 or £300. Well, 20 of those make a huge difference to how long a venue can continue without support from the government and that is what has got a lot of them through.”

The quandary facing central London’s 229 is indicative of the coronavirus-related pressures affecting the entire circuit.

“At the moment we are surviving thanks mainly to the government furlough scheme,” says manager Stuart Ellerker. “The entire full-time and casual team have been furloughed and so being able to cover salaries and wages has been crucial. We are lucky enough to own our building, but we still do have monthly outgoings, which can’t be paid indefinitely with no revenue coming in.

“We have lost around £1.3 million in sales since lockdown, which is hurting and so we need to be either up and running at close to full capacity by the end of October, or at least receive some additional funding or subsidy. We have already conducted a full review of our activities and there will likely be changes to streamline the business, but we want to avoid redundancies if at all possible.”

“It’s thrown into sharp focus just how much of a shoestring grassroots music venues in this country actually operate on,” reflects Stoke Sugarmill head promoter Danni Brownsill. “Most of us don’t have any cash reserves, we are cashflow businesses and without bars operating we don’t have enough money to cover our overheads.”

In a period of extreme uncertainty, the MVT has been a constant, unifying force. The charitable organisation has served as an increasingly influential voice for the embattled scene since forming in 2014, while its Venues Day gathering, which debuted the following year, is now an annual fixture.

“Within the sector there was a lot of knowledge that venues had been closing down and new ones were not opening,” explains Davyd, who co-owns Tunbridge Wells Forum. “The classic model was that venues would come and go, but that stopped around 2004/05, when we entered a long period in which they were just going. It would be very unusual to see a new venue open, but you would hear about iconic names disappearing.

“Everybody in the sector became quite worried, but we all assumed somebody would step in. You would look at the music industry and think, ‘You’re going to need the bands to come out of here and we’re going to see some of the leading agencies, managers, artists, etc, stepping forward’. But that didn’t happen, which is not to criticise them, it’s just to say that eventually the sector itself realised it had a problem that only it could stand in front of – and that’s when the Music Venue Trust as an idea was born.”

The then fledgling body held its first meeting in December 2014, where it was agreed to form a network of venues. “They didn’t want to be corporatised into some sort of collective group – their independence and passion for their local community is one of the most important things about them – but they recognised they had collective issues that could probably only be resolved by all standing together,” explains Davyd. “That is the point at which it was decided to create the Music Venues Alliance, our membership body, and to have Music Venue Trust as the representative organisation to try and take what was learned from the sector and convert it into a message that government and other people might understand.”

Emboldened by the MVT’s backing, a string of significant legislative changes and renewed interest from brands and sponsors, the business finally looked to have turned a corner in recent times – a shift in mood backed up by the number of grassroots music venues in the capital rebounding to 100 in 2019 following a decade of decline. Then came Covid-19...

“It wasn’t one specific thing that changed, it was a whole series of small alterations,” suggests Davyd. “People were coming out of music colleges thinking, ‘Maybe I could open a music venue and not lose my entire livelihood over it’.

“That managed to last for a whole five months before we faced the worst disaster. I had five months in which we were actually ahead!”

At the heart of the new Goods Way development in King's Cross is Lafayette, the latest addition to Venue Group boss Ben Lovett’s burgeoning live music empire. A sister venue to the Mumford & Sons star’s much-loved Omeara in London Bridge, the 600-capacity space opened to much fanfare (including a Music Week cover story) in the first week of March, but was forced to close just 10 days later amid the government’s social distancing clampdown.

“Ten days – 240 hours. We had a good run,” deadpans Lovett, speaking to Music Week from New York. “We had Dave play his only UK show, we had Blossoms, we had three nights of Robert Glasper... We had a great start and then it was shutdown time.

“Who knows whether Lafayette would have been successful? We set it up to be something quite special for London and I hope that it comes back and proves that to people. But what we definitely know is that Omeara had proven it was successful over the last few years and that is also really struggling right now.”

It is far from alone – the MVT warned the government in June that an immediate £50m cash injection in the grassroots scene was required to prevent mass closures over the summer. Hull’s The Polar Bear and The Welly have already fallen by the wayside after two companies run by operator VMS Live went into administration, while Manchester’s Gorilla and The Deaf Institute, previously owned by Mission Mars, were saved last week after being snapped up by Aaron Mellor’s Tokyo Industries.

“Let’s not mince words – 93% of this sector is under some sort of threat of closure,” asserts Davyd. “The remaining percentage are almost entirely owner-occupied. In other words, the operator is the owner of the building and can decide to simply let the venue sit there until the day it can reopen. But without that condition, frankly, every other venue is pretty much under some sort of threat because we do not know how long this will go on.

“I co-own the [Tunbridge Wells Forum] building, which is why I know that it will be saved because I personally will be prepared to save it, alongside my co-owner Jason Dormon. But we are an absolute minority. In fact, one of the things we need to learn from this crisis is that we need to change that. It isn’t really acceptable this many venues are under this much threat because we haven’t got the ownership of them right and Music Venue Trust is doing some work on that at the moment. We shouldn’t be in this much trouble from this crisis.”

Salvation appeared to arrive in early July when the government announced its £1.57 billion support package for the arts, days after the UK Music-backed Let The Music Play campaign highlighted the importance of the sector to the British economy. After three weeks of silence, Saturday’s news that the first £2.25m of the fund will be allocated to grassroots venues came as a source of relief.

The support package, administered by Arts Council England, will target music venues, including a number identified by the MVT as being at severe risk of insolvency. The funding will provide grants of up to £80,000 to help venues survive the next few months and will be used to cover essential on-going costs for venues including rent, utilities, maintenance contracts and other bills.

While welcoming the “desperately needed” intervention, Davyd suggests it represents a mere “short-term fix”.

“We will be working closely with grassroots music venues across the country to ensure that this money reaches those in need and has the largest impact,” he says. “This interim solution will provide a short-term fix for those venues identified as being in crisis but we urgently need information and guidance on when and how venues can access the larger fund, which is so vital to safeguarding their longer term futures.”

Funding is expected to be received by organisations within the next few weeks.

“We imagine Save Our Venues may have to continue for a little while just to keep the venues afloat to the point where they can get the support they need,” adds Davyd. “There is a little bit of confusion around this issue. Most of the venues fundraising through the Save Our Venues campaign arent just doing it because they’ve got to pay a landlord, they are also worried about their sound crew, their lighting crew, the people who work there. It’s quite a big community of people that have basically been left out of the reopening phases.”

Lovett echoes Davyd’s concerns regarding the wider supply chain.

“It is one thing to lose the phone company, it’s another to lose the expertise and the components that build the phones in the first place,” he says. “People are like, ‘Is Glastonbury going to happen next year?’ I want to be at Glastonbury as much as the next person and I hope, on a public health level, we can figure that out. But if there is no sound system then it doesn’t matter, there will just be a bunch of people standing in a field.

“It isn’t just about the artists, it isn’t even just about the venues – there is a tour manager of a major artist right now stacking shelves in Asda – these times are tough on everyone and people are having to find ways to make money. But it will only be months until that individual and thousands like them say, ‘I’m going to retrain and learn how to do something else because the events industry has left me for dead’. We need to prevent that from happening.”

He continues: “I don’t know anyone with a sane mind who would think in November or January, ‘I’m going to get into this industry’, so we need to look after the people that have proven for years they know how to run a business, they have the relationships and they know how it works. We can’t just have a whole bunch of new players in town trying to figure out the live music industry from scratch in 2021, it would be a disaster.”

North of the border, the Scottish government unveiled a £2.2m pot for the country’s grassroots venues earlier this month. “The main thing is to make sure the infrastructure – the actual network of grassroots music venues in Scotland – continues to exist,” says Nick Stewart, manager of the Music Week Award-winning Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh and Music Venue Alliance coordinator for Scotland. “And the best way for the Scottish government to do that is to continue to underwrite the fixed costs to make sure that we can race into doing shows properly once social distancing is over.”

In the meantime, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has given the green light for indoor live music performances to resume – with social distancing – from this weekend, a decision greeted with a collective shrug by many within the venues world.

“At a very practical level it doesn’t change very much at all because the capacity that grassroots music venues can open at, compared to the additional costs they will have to open, means it is completely economically unviable to do so,” stresses Davyd.

“Under the performing rights guidance, the average capacity a music venue can open at is 24% and you’ve got a 14% increase in your costs – relating to provision of queuing, provision of PPE equipment, spacing, management of artists and management of audiences. Effectively, you’ve got a 90% funding gap and it would be a rather strange venue that chose to open in those circumstances.

“That is not to say that people won’t try, because our sector is naturally a bunch of triers. Some will manage to put on a very limited programme of mostly local events and, if you’ve got something like
an album launch, it may be that an artist will decide to do a live event with a very limited crowd, potentially with online streaming. But at this point, we’re not bringing back live music as anything that looks like what it used to look like. The restrictions on what you are allowed to do are pretty severe.”

Even at 1m social distancing, our capacity is reduced to 30% and so the loss in ticket revenue and bar sales makes it a totally unviable financial model,” affirms 229’s Ellerker. The gigs will only work if
a promoter hiring the venue is happy to pay an enhanced fee, artists and/or agents reduce their fees and/or ticket prices increase dramatically, which we don’t want to see. That said, the question still remains, who wants to watch a gig in a venue only a third full?”

The Sugarmill’s Brownsill is at pains to point out the grassroots scene already operates on tight margins, noting that most venues are unable to make a profit via live music shows alone.

“For a lot of us, the capital cost of having to adapt the way we do business would be prohibitive because artists aren’t allowed to share microphones,” she says. “Most grassroots venues have one mic package so we would have to invest in another two if we were going to have a three-band bill and we’d be looking at spending £20,000 straight away.

“Considering 800 other grassroots music venues in the country are already in arrears, we’re not in a position to throw money at the problem. We need that government support to cover our overheads until we can operate at higher capacity. At the moment, the Music Venue Trust’s research on this subject has shown that, for a good 70% of us, it is actually cheaper to stay closed.

“On the other side of the coin, the audience survey showed that the vast majority aren’t interested in attending a live gig until at least October anyway. People are frightened – and understandably so.”

“There’s still no real end in sight,” laments Anton Lockwood, director of national promoter DHP Family, whose venue portfolio includes the 2,000-capacity Rock City in Nottingham.

“If it all works out we might do a few shows with 200 people in Rock City, but 200 people aren’t paying the bills, that’s for sure,” he says. “So while you’d get a few people working – sound engineers and people like that – it isn’t going to save the venue landscape.”

Turner, nonetheless, sees the move as a step in the right direction. “We can’t just launch straight back into how things were in early March, it’s going to be a long, drawn-out process and these shows are the first step on that road,” he insists. It’s a way of demonstrating both to audiences and to venues and indeed to the government that it is possible to do this in a way that is safe for everybody involved.

I have figured out I’ve spent the last 20 years making a living out of travelling and gathering people together in confined spaces – neither of which are encouraged at the moment – so obviously there is a great hunger for people to get back to live music. The entire industry is reeling from lockdown. The last four months have been catastrophic and people can’t exist running on fumes forever.”

Fellow musician Lovett warns: “We need to keep going and make sure we re-educate people because a lot of people will have seen those headlines [on the £1.57bn package] and moved on to focusing on other issues. It was quite sweet getting copied in by people writing to their local MPs in the midst of the Let The Music Play campaign and we are going to have to continue doing work like that to keep this as a priority issue until it is actually resolved.

I think we need to look at next spring as a realistic horizon to come back to a place that feels anything like the level of trade we were seeing in 2019. From now until March, things are going to be really difficult.”

For all its struggles, Brownsill is hopeful the circuit’s indefatigable spirit will help it overcome its most arduous challenge yet.

“The people in our sector are creative and dynamic and most of all we’re stubborn,” she says. “We’ve survived this long and have traditionally been woefully underfunded, so a lot of us are going to get through this out of sheer determination and bloody-mindedness.”

British music, especially live music, is among the best in the world,” declares Lovett. Not just the songs and the performances, but the people behind the scenes: the tour managers, the production managers, the audio technicians, the lighting... The people who hold up this industry are world-leading, we just need to make sure we are not leaving them behind.”

“Without venues and the people who work in them, there is no live music industry,” finishes Lockwood, with a parting shot. “So I call on artists, managers, agents and promoters to support the venue infrastructure as much as they can. No stage, no show.”

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