Viewpoint: Alexandra Palace CEO Louise Stewart on the struggles of independent venues

Viewpoint: Alexandra Palace CEO Louise Stewart on the struggles of independent venues

The pandemic has left hundreds of music venues in the UK fighting for their very existence. Here, Louise Stewart, CEO of London’s historic Alexandra Palace, one of the country’s largest independent venues, outlines the key issues facing the sector – and what needs to be done to ensure its survival...

Independent venues, and those whose livelihoods rely on them, are facing the most significant challenge in our history.

Since venues closed their doors back in March, it’s been amazing to see the response. Just what you’d expect from a sector filled with creators, artists, enthusiasts and innovators. From livestreams, to virtual festivals and pop-up entertainment, independent venues have shown their ability to adapt, find new ways of working, whilst continuing to play an essential role in the communities that we are a part of.

However, reality now is a rollercoaster ride and every week that goes by is filled with highs and lows.  

The relaxation of lockdown protocols is now slowly presenting more opportunities for venues to reopen and offer activities in limited form. It’s been great to go out for a simple drink with friends, for example, and venues likes ourselves that can take advantage of this are enjoying welcoming people back for the first time in over four months.

We welcome the recent government announcement that outdoor events and festivals can return, as long as audiences are appropriately spaced, and await the proposed return of conferences, outdoor sports and indoor test events with massive interest. With each development, we find ourselves asking ‘what does this mean for us, can we now put our plans into action and how do we need to adapt?’

The news of £1.57 billion in government funding for the arts was extremely important, and massive credit to everyone who has campaigned on behalf of the industry. Alexandra Palace, like everyone else, is waiting to understand more about how the funding will work, and how deep and wide it will reach. Unfortunately, for too many of us, the money will not come in time to prevent difficult decisions being taken that will have serious and lasting impacts for our organisations.

It was disappointing that the chancellor did not extend the Job Retention Scheme beyond October, seemingly not recognising that the events, tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors, that we operate in, have been amongst the hardest hit. Whilst the additional measures such as the Job Retention Bonus, sector VAT reduction and the Eat Out To Help Out scheme are positive, I don’t believe they will be enough. We need to be open at capacity to truly benefit. Alexandra Palace, for example, is a charity and relies on our events and related income to fund our work. Our financial model is based on a high percentage of the house being sold and secondary spend. With distancing restrictions in place, or a lack of detail around the relaxation of some measures, meeting minimum revenue requirements (to even cover costs) is almost impossible for both the promoter and venue. 

Lockdown has also had a significant impact on the wider ecosystem that independent venues both support and rely upon. Our supply chains including cleaners, security, bar staff, production, promoters, food and bar concessions are all massively impacted and face an extremely worrying future.

The industry contributes invaluably to the nation’s economy, identity and culture. Whilst we recognise the responsibility that we have to keep our customers, staff and volunteers safe, we shouldn’t under estimate the mental health benefits of what we deliver too. After four months of coping with restricted lifestyles people need us to be delivering great but safe experiences for their overall wellbeing.

We of course want to remain positive and help to get our industry moving again. No one is sitting around, it’s not in our DNA, but we know that we will need further support, in different forms, to get through this situation.  

At Ally Pally we appreciate all those that have continued to support us and other independent venues. I look forward to our whole industry being able to work together so we that we can do what we do best; providing amazing entertainment experiences, that make people’s lives richer.

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