Live Music After Lockdown: The Music Venue Trust on Saving Venues and Supporting the DIY Scene

As a promotion company dedicated to delivering showcases of the best heavy music the UK (and beyond) has to offer, the recently announced #SaveOurVenues Fund launched by Music Venue Trust addresses an issue that’s close to the hearts of those at our live music promotions wing, Astral Noize Events.

In these unprecedentedly trying times, the already vulnerable live music industry is one of many facing economic struggles, with hundreds of smaller music venues struggling to survive even in the best of times, let alone turn a profit. With this in mind, and with this being a potentially urgent issue right now, not to mention one that could play a vital role in ensuring the DIY music scene’s continued strength, we recently decided to run the first Astral Noize charity compilation in support of #SaveOurVenues, to help protect the venues most at risk.

But to find out more about this campaign, the future of the UK live music scene and the inner workings of the Music Venue Trust (MVT), we spoke to MVT’s Toni Coe-Brooker to get the lowdown.

 

So this campaign that you’ve been working on – #SaveOurVenues. I hear this recently hit over £1m funding, following major donations not just from the public but from record labels, private donors and so on. What is the fund going to provide to the venues?

It’s tricky to say exactly. The campaign is operated by the Music Venue Trust, whose objective is to support venues and prevent them from closure, and there are 556 members in their Music Venues Alliance (MVA). MVT has been collating evidence through consultation and surveys for the past five years, but the crisis has meant they’ve had to find more data. By delivering research studying between the ninth and 26th of March this year, using six national datasets, they’ll be able to inform governments about the strategies we’ll need to take to avoid financial closure. However, the venues’ needs are very diverse. For some, it’ll be rent and utility bills; for others, it’s structural issues with the venue itself. Most venues run purely on alcohol sales, which isn’t great.

 

But that’s the way the market is…

Yeah, and for a lot of our venues, 90% of programming is built on promoter hires. In the first two weeks of lockdown, most of us lost six months of bookings – that’s what happened at [Brighton’s] The Green Door Store (GDS) where I work. We’re not charging for cancellations because the venues and promoters are in this together, and overall it’s been really good, promoters have been trying to honour shows and reschedule the dates. That’s co-operation from artists, promoters, agents, managers and venues which is great. But there’s no way to recoup the money on drink sales, and that’s especially bad for festivals who only run for one weekend a year.

 

So the picture’s already looking a bit stark. What are your predictions for the independent music scene post-lockdown?

It’s very hard to predict right now because the government isn’t giving us any advice on timeline. I know that MVT are guiding the government on the sector’s needs, and our hope is that we’ll be able to open in some capacity this year. That might mean operating at 25% of our normal capacity, so for GDS that’d be like 50 people, and in that case we might reach our break-even point on drink sales, but it won’t be profit-making. So my prediction is that we’ll operate at some capacity, but venues are going to continue to need financial support from the government.

My feeling is that the moment lockdown softens and we’re able to put on shows, people are going to be dying to go out – and I don’t think they’re going to be worried about getting sick either, they’ll just be desperate to go to a show.

 

It’s like a ritual behaviour to me, going to shows is an integral part of engaging with independent musical culture.

These events don’t just support creative development – which is something we’re talking about a lot with the talent pipeline and so on – people feel lost while they’re unable to express themselves, and that’s in social terms too, being able to interact with like-minded people in a space that they feel safe. We know that many in our community are isolated at home, and we’re really keen to find ways to reach out to them. But that’s difficult when the whole team is furloughed, and we’re not the tech-savviest team in the world either. And I’m starting to get sick of watching gigs through livestream.

 

It’s not as real an experience, the sense of community isn’t present in the same way.

I really feel that primal need to just stomp around in a room and listen to loud music, it’s almost caveman.

 

For me it feels like metal and punk aren’t reaching back into a pre-modern era, they’re natural responses to very hostile socio-economic conditions.

It’s a tribal thing for me – you hear the rhythm or the beat and you just need to throw your body around.

 

And right now the world feels like it’s been been suspended, put on hold. Going to a show is how lots of us get some sense of release.

It’s a healthy release, I know what you mean. But I don’t see the world as put on pause. If anything, the world is going through a process of healing – I’m going to sound like a right hippie here. But I was working ridiculous hours and doing a three-hour commute everyday, and this break has given us a chance to reflect on the fact that we’re working 100 miles an hour all the time, we’re wasteful and we’re not able to be present, in the moment. 

I think a lot of people are going to come out of this wanting a different kind of lifestyle, and it’s been really interesting to see how people have been able to pivot their businesses and work from home, even with programming – I can easily plan a programme from home, spend more time with my family, walk the dog, cook more, work on my own musical and artistic projects. So I think it’s negative to view this as life on pause, and I hope people come out of this having found a new lease on life. I can’t imagine any of us getting old and saying “I’m glad I was in the office until 10pm”.

 

That moves us on nicely – I agree that the lockdown has allowed us to take stock and realise that working patterns under our current system are just awful, but there are ways forward. How can we help to promote co-ops, community interest companies and so on? Is the Trust able to allocate funding to start new projects in this vein? Do you feel that venues ought to work more with their communities to create them?

I’ll talk about this from GDS’ perspective. So I think it’s more punk vibes to be an independent venue, rather than a co-op, because it’s allowed us as a venue to do whatever the fuck we want without having to ask anyone’s permission. We’re able to be controversial and run lots of 18+ content, we’re able to shout about diversity without worrying about upsetting anyone. The more people you include, the more people you have to ask permission from. It’s very hard to get a lot of people on the same page, and I think I’ve preferred working with independent companies because you have smaller teams. With too many people the message can get lost. 

That said, I think it’s really important to work with our communities, but I think the venues already do that under independent ownership. It’s the ones that aren’t independently owned that lose touch with their communities, like the ones that are owned by breweries for instance. One venue in Brighton, owned by a brewery, has been told they can’t join the #SaveOurVenues campaign because it’d look bad for the brewery, but they absolutely need to be on the campaign because the venue plays an important role.

I do know of a few venues that are co-operatives, and they think it’s the most amazing thing. I think it depends a lot on the area you’re working in, and how much you need that input from the community. But I love being independent, working in a small team, and I don’t think the way we’re structured affects how we work with the community.

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Can we talk about the influence of major labels on an organisation intended to focus on independent venues? There’s been some donations from major record labels (including Sony Music), so I wanted to discuss the possibility of “big money” influencing the charity.

Sure, the biggest donation has come from the Beggars Group, who are a collection of independently-owned record stores in the UK, with an investment of £100,000, so I hope that removes any suspicious feeling because they’re brilliant. We have had investment from Sony, £50,000, but that’s not that much money from a major. It’s important that majors invest in small venues because we provide talent, but we’re losing money on shows so they can make loads of money on artists later with album deals and big festivals and all that.

 

Indeed; my cynical reading is that the donation is like a sustenance wage, something to keep the venues alive whilst maintaining a structure that benefits the big labels – and making them look good from a PR point of view. 

We’re in a desperate situation right now, and we have to take what we can at this point. We’re talking about 556 venues closing, and that’s just the ones that are members. Now, we’ve had more and more venues approaching us who’ve tried to strike out on their own, and you do have to invest quite a lot by being a member, providing documentation and answer lots of surveys – you have to engage with the charity because there’s no membership fee. So if someone like Sony comes along and signs for 50 grand, we have to go for it. There’s a much bigger conversation to be had about how bigger companies feed back into the talent ecosystem, but I don’t think that can be addressed when we’re in such desperate need. 

 

That’s a very fair point. Looking to the future, once quarantine is done and we attempt to return to normalcy, we’ll be left with a Conservative government in power. Dominic Cummings is one of BoJo’s top advisers, and he’s got a long and storied record of attacking arts and humanities funding. Does the Trust have a longer-form plan to protect and support the independent arts scene, and does its reach extend into Westminster?

It’s difficult because of the supposed high-art/low-art divide. We were in a position five years ago where venues were in a really bad place, closing all the time, and only two years ago the scene had started to stabilise a bit and venues were opening, and at that point MVT had really good links with Arts Council England. They were able to launch the Grassroots Venues Fund, which was released last year and offered venues up to £40,000 for programming or infrastructure – GDS were going to apply so we could buy our own sound equipment. 

But as Covid-19 hit, they slashed the whole thing, even though we’d spent months on a really difficult application. They basically said “this doesn’t exist anymore”, renamed it a crisis fund and re-allocated it to heritage venues that are already receiving annual funding. The Tories have been criticised for years for not caring at all about alternative culture, working-man’s culture or whatever you want to call it, and at the point where they finally came to their senses and realised how many people we’re serving, they took the whole fund away. The problems are that we’re still tackling a conversation over what is high or low art, and there’s a lack of support for grassroots venues in general. 

MVT does have influence in government – we are guiding them on our need, but I don’t know how that is going to play out with Mr Cummings. He’s a very evil man.

 

Agreed. I’ll try and bring things round for this last question. What could our readers do to help their local venues right now, aside from donating to the campaign or to their local venue?

You can engage in the national campaign, the crisis fund, which aims to protect those at most risk of closure, and MVT will allocate the money accordingly. I’m more in favour of people donating to the individual venue that’s close to their hearts. But if you don’t have money, I think the best thing to do is shout about the campaign. If you’re someone that just feels like they have something to share, organise a livestream, talk about your favourite bands, signpost people to new music. That’s really going to help the campaign, we want to offer content to people at home to ease some of that isolation, and it gets people that can donate to the right place.

 

Click here to support the #SaveOurVenues Fund with the Astral Noize Events compilation.

Interview: David Burke