Save Our Venues – Interview

On Thursday 2nd July, a coordinated campaign was launched whereby artists, fans and venues posted on social media photographs and films of their last gig or event with the hashtag #LetTheMusicPlay. On the same day a letter signed by artists, including Ed Sheeran, The Rolling Stones, the Gallagher brothers, Paul McCartney, Rita Ora, Coldplay, Annie Lennox and Sam Smith, warned that the UK could lose its prime spot on the world’s musical stage unless the government committed to supporting businesses and set out a timetable for reopening live music venues. The performers said venues are at risk of mass insolvencies and that hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost. All these artists started out by playing small, independent grassroots venues. They know the importance of them better than anyone.

The joint letter to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said: “Live music has been one of the UK’s biggest social, cultural, and economic successes of the past decade. But, with no end to social distancing in sight or financial support from government yet agreed, the future for concerts and festivals and the hundreds of thousands of people who work in them looks bleak. Until these businesses can operate again, which is likely to be 2021 at the earliest, government support will be crucial to prevent mass insolvencies and the end of this world-leading industry.”

Following Music Venue Trust’s warning of the loss of up to 90% of grassroots music venues if funding measures are not put in place, 560 of their member venues also signed an open letter to the UK Government highlighting the need for an immediate £50 million financial support package and a reduction of VAT on future ticket sales.

In this open letter the venues state that:

Last year there were more than 175,000 events in our venues that gave people the experiences they love and the artists the opportunities they need. Since 20 March there have been no events.

They argue that if the financial support package and VAT is introduced they would :

“…..prevent the closure of hundreds of Grassroots Music Venues. They are the right thing to do. We are a dynamic, innovative, and inventive sector. We do not need permanent government intervention to exist. We are not asking to become a permanently subsidised drain on the public purse. We do not need the government to step in and tell us how to run our venues. We need government to take two simple steps and leave us to work out how to do the rest. “

Once you add in further issues such as a quarter of professional musicians have not been eligible or able to access the self-employed income support scheme, and a recent and comprehensive survey conducted by MVT concluded that well below half of the British public felt confident and safe in going to live gigs at the moment. the situation can only be painted at bleak.

In the UK it is estimated that 210,000 jobs are at risk, and that venues, concerts, festivals and production companies added £4.5bn to the economy in 2019. COVID-19 and lockdown has had a huge and indeed often profound effect on all of us, but not as many,of any sector has been hit quite so hard as live entertainment and hospitality. As we view the future with our crystal balls, the outlook looks very shaky and uncertain, with predictions of a second wave and localised shutdowns a distinct possibility. But, in times of strife, resilience and creativity has a way of finding its feet, looking for ways to move forward and embrace the possibilities that exist in particular via the online world. Brightonsfinest asked some of those intimately involved with venues and promotions, to offer their perspective. All are at one in saying Government support is absolutely necessary for many venues to survive.

Lex Hollingworth, Managing Director, Komedia

Komedia has been at the forefront of comedy, music and theatre ever since it first opened its doors back in 1994 , at the site of what is now Latest Musicbar. Komedia programme hundreds of events every year, and has carved out a reputation as an artist-friendly operation, that is both a receiving house for outside promoters, and an in-house programmer. Lex Hollingworth has been with Komedia for 16 years, and along with Paul Musslewhite, run the venue as co-Managing Directors.

I’m not going to deny it, but it’s incredibly hard. We’re an independent, unfunded venue, which started off as a family, touring theatre company that has evolved into a multi-format arts space.

Since 17th March we’ve had to close our doors, and there is little chance in the near future of re-opening. Pretty much our entire team has been furloughed, and generally there is a big cloud of uncertainty, hanging over our venue, venues in general, our staff, and the performing arts generally.

We can’t open for any events with customers, so the first thing we did was try and access as much government funding as possible – the furlough scheme, rates relief, etc – which is massively appreciated, but that only goes so far. That was step one, get all that in place. We also managed to get some Arts Council funding to support our children’s programme – we’re currently running a live streamed version of our regular children’s club, Sunday Club. It’s monthly on Youtube and is completely free. That is one really nice thing that has come out of all this.

We’ve put a lot of effort into the streaming. We wanted to offer something to the community, and we needed to get out there and start doing that as best as we could. Our sister company, Komedia Ents, has been working to stream our in-house shows, mainly the comedy, which is easiest to convert, and one of the things we are best known for. We’ve managed to cobble together a bit of a programme, which has been hard work, but incredibly fulfilling.

And we’re trying to engage with all our local venues, colleagues, and the industry in general. There’s a lot of talk about proposed outdoor events, probably towards the end of the summer, a link up between local venues, suppliers and performers to try and potentially get something safe operating.. I think that would be such a great thing to be able to deliver for everyone. We’re used to producing, so we’ve kept in that mode the best we can, and keep ourselves above water.

For the small to medium sized venues, the future looks incredibly uncertain, and some form of additional support is desperately needed to get these venues through. Opening in any limited capacity with social distancing will be pretty much impossible. Venues need 60-70 percent ticket sales in order to break even a lot of time. The social distancing rules will reduce capacity to 10, or if we’re lucky, 20 percent. It’s just not feasible. The government will need to do something, and I am praying that they do something for the arts, something extra. At the moment it looks like we are facing a bit of cliff edge in October, which is really scary. Until we can open at least close to full capacity there’s little hope of running effectively.

Out of adversity, creativity flourishes. If we can get through this I’m sure we’ll have a wave of immense creativity coming through.

Chris Lowe General Manager, FORM

FORM is a new music and arts events collaboration between Rockfeedback, an independent promotions company, and Brighton based promoters and event producers One Inch Badge, who manage the bookings at Brighton’s newest venue, Chalk. They produce and stage in excess of 600 shows every year in the UK.

Initially One Inch Badge used to promote solely out of Brighton, and over time we have grown into other regions. We want to position ourselves as a national touring option for artists. Just before COVID happened, we were about eight or nine weeks into the project. Such a shame that things were starting to move, starting to click, and then we all had to stop, and shut the doors. But, it’s good, we’re still doing a lot of stuff behind the scenes.

Our last gig was Jon Hopkins at the Dome on 12th March, which was a special night to finish. From that point onwards we had a mass scramble for gigs in April and May to move to the end of this year. And now we are in the position where everything that was moved into that window is being moved to 2021. The expectation is that it’s very unlikely for any shows to happen this year, sadly. There doesn’t seem to be any clarification for our industry at all, when we are going to get back up and running.

We’re looking at various different options. You’ve got the situation next year where festivals are already booked up, and some artists have albums due next year, but no festival slots, so we might have a lot more touring going on next year. That’s one positive out of it.

It’s very tough on venues. We operate out of Chalk, a venue we look after and manage directly. All venues across the country are struggling and it’s really sad to see.

There’s so many great people behind the scenes. The Music Venues Trust has been great. Everyone knows the situation we are in, in this industry. We’re all calling for support. It’s not just the grassroots venues, it’s the big venues as well. . It’s really really difficult. There’s no support package in place. They can say we can open up theatres and venues, but it’s not possible for live performance, music, or any kind of noise. As somebody said, it’s like opening Clark’s without any shoes. And if the furlough scheme finishes, and there is no income being generated and there’s rent to pay, and all the rest of it, there’s just going to be no venues. And all the gigs that we want to happen, won’t have homes.

But, there’s so many campaigns, and so much pressure for the government to do at least something, I’m sure they will. The music industry is such a big part of everything here in the UK, and the amount of money it generates across the country is astronomical. So, fingers crossed they do.

For the moment Chalk is ok. Looking at the diary there is a lot of exciting stuff booked in for next year. It’s a new venue that we built in the city, with a lot of investment. We were looking forward to The Great Escape to showcase it to the industry. We’ve had some really good shows in there like Michael Kiwanuka and Snow Patrol, and it was really exciting. It was starting to tick over. All the feedback we got was that it was much needed in the city.

Personally, I’m OK. We have these weeks where you stay optimistic and positive. It’s a great industry to work in, and we’re all creative people and all excited for it. I’m personally not a fan of the drive-in thing that everyone seems to be doing at the moment. I don’t want to go to a gig in a car… I guess people are wanting to experiment, with all these ideas being thrown around, but it’s not one for me.

Anna Moulson, Director, Melting Vinyl

Anna has been promoting music in Brighton and beyond for over 20 years now. She’s worked with almost everyone you can think off, from The Great Escape to the Brighton Festival, and has been responsible for curating and programming many events and mini-festivals, as well as managing the music and events programme of St. George’s Church for over a decade.

I’m looking into streaming at the moment, looking for camera and sound crews, and programme myself a few locally profiled artists up at St. George’s Church.

I’m part of this Epic Group (The Brighton Event Producers Committee – a central hub for the Brighton events industry to share resources, best practice and plan for a better future., which includes everyone on the production and technical side), that includes the likes of Ooosh, Electric Star, and C3, and they are looking to get a license up at Black Rock, and programming the whole of August, with other partners including myself and Lout Promotions. We’ll see how that goes.

The Rosehill Pub are doing streams. They’ve got a little simple set up there, and I’ve got one or two things booked in there. One is a local band called Hanya, in September, which is hopefully going ahead. And there are other artists that fall between the gap of being touring artists, and artists that aren’t represented, but who are really interesting, creatively. Touring artists are looking to move to the spring of next year. They just want to return when everything is back to normal. But back to normal may not ever happen. Or it might be 2022. March of next year seems to be the month when agents and artists think everything will change. But they don’t want to adapt, which is really disappointing, because I think they should go online, stream, do a virtual tour. A band can, if they live together at the moment, and go into the venues. It’s legal to do that. Artists could go to a city, and perform, and people will have that attachment to their own city, and watch it. Especially the sold out ones where people already have tickets. But many venues aren’t set up for streaming, and they are fire fighting for their lives, and artists just haven’t got their heads around it. Maybe next year there will be that kind of formula.

People like Dice and See Tickets are developing platforms and aligning themselves with certain platforms, to have a platform for the promoter to tap into. The technology is there in regionalised streams,with unique codes.

I do think we need to start re-modelling the industry. We all have our own brands – the artists, the venues, the promoters – and we just need to keep out there. It’s like a memory muscle, isn’t it? People will get out of the habit of tapping into music. I worry about the Autumn, this vastness of nothingness. Some artists are doing too many streams, and then there are others who are doing nothing. They are all waiting for this miracle to happen, and we all come back to how things were.

Initially lockdown felt like an extended pyjama party, and I’ve got an allotment. I’m so used to building up to something, and making my own decisions, and I’ve had to put my cap out to people and say ‘I’m not going to be able to survive unless you give me money’, and I found that very difficult. But it went really well in the end, and we raised eight grand. We had to go through the history of Melting Vinyl, and remind people of the work we have done. It was a chance to reflect on that, and the body of work I have done, how much promoting and unique events we’ve been involved with, associations with The Great Escape, and the Brighton Festival, and the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne. I did think by now I should be retired!

Andrew Comden

For 12 years now, Andrew Comden has been Chief Executive of both Brighton Dome and Brighton Festival, organisations that deliver across the arts spectrum. Along with Brighton Fringe Festival, the month of May was especially tough.

May was really weird, because for 12 years now, from dawn to midnight basically, I’ve been in a theatre, or seeing a show outside, doing something like 70, 80, sometimes up to 100 shows across the three weeks. At the same time there’s nothing like having an organisation of 168 permanent staff, and several hundred causals to focus your mind when an existential crisis threatens. So, I’ve been very concentrated on how we steer through and protect as many people’s jobs as we can, and also protect the livelihoods of freelancers and other contractors we work with.

I have spent a lot of time looking at various people’s work online which has been great, because when we are in delivery mode we don’t have the time to do that always. But it has also been a reminder that there is only one way to experience the arts, and there isn’t much to beat sitting with a group of people and experiencing it together. I have really missed that, but at the same time it’s made me and others value that even more.

The Brighton Festival events in May went really well. We purposefully didn’t try and recreate the festival online. We wanted to try and engage with audiences but also play with the form and experiment. We wanted to see which things engaged people and how people could participate rather than just watch a streamed event, online. The Guest Director Lemn Sissay (who will be back next year to fulfil his role) did a live event, which had more people than would otherwise attended. There is no substitute for the festival itself, but I think it has taught us a lot about how some of our events can be more accessible in future.

We have started thinking much longer term, and try and think of the ways we can make a positive contribution in the meantime if we are not able to function as we have always done. I really hope we can get back to large scale performance as soon as possible. But, if we can’t, then there are lots of things we can do. Being a festival, as well as a venue, as well as having the Music Services under our umbrella, we have lots of different ways of engaging with people. So, we are currently teaching over 3000 people a week, children and young people, online. We think that can grow. There’s a virtual music centre running every Saturday, which is engaging not only the kids, but families, too. And as the lockdown eases we will be able to do more smaller scale live events. We feel the appetite for live performance isn’t going away, and our job is to find the ways in which we can deliver it, and not simply be tied to a model that relies on 1600-1800 people coming together in a room. We’re determind that the festival in 2021 goes ahead on whatever basis it can.

We are a 5G test bed. The Dome is equipped with 5G, and with Digital Catapult we are exploring that, bringing artists and technologists together, I’m convinced 5G has a huge amount to offer, particularly in music. One of the big problems with doing anything online in the live context, is the latency. It’s just too great for musicians to cope with. As soon as you get rid of that with 5G you can have real-time collaboration, and across continents if you want.

There are a huge number of us across the city, colleagues who are really hurting, and particularly for venues or organisations who have no regular funding, the cliff-edge is particularly steep and massive. I think it’s everyone’s duty, particularly those of us who are funded, and have a little bit of a safety net, to advocate for support right across the sector, and not just for ourselves. It is important that we see the whole city as an ecology, and we don’t just end up with a few funded organsiations and everyone else goes to the wall. But even funded organisations have a cliff edge, and its steep. 67-70 percent of our income is commercially generated through ticket sales and bar sales primarily. We really do need to rapidly develop a plan for what comes next. And those plans will need support in the context of the whole city’s recovery, I think. For me, it’s about what does this city do to recover when its whole economy functions on visitors, and events.

Corn Exchange is due to be finished next year. We know it will have a huge amount to offer for the city. It’s just a matter of timing, and how affected it will be by physical distancing. It will have 500 seated capacity and a larger standing capacity. The studio theatre will have almost 250 seats. Both of those places coming back on board is something we are excited about, but also the city has been craving for a while. We’ve been missing them. That project has been able to continue despite lockdown, and the contractors have made really good headway.

Toni Coe

Toni does the bookings for the Green Door Store and is actively involved in Save Our Venues, the campaigning arm of the Music Venues Trust

We’ve been closed since mid March. I’ve been doing a bit of campaigning, sharing content from the saveourvenues website, and try and tell everybody what we’ve doing. But, we’ve been closed, everyone has been furloughed.

The Government has said that everyone can be open from the 4th July with restrictions, but we can’t have any live performance which just completely rules us out because we were never a venue that was open when we didn’t have something on. We don’t have an audience that would be willing to come to us if we were just a bar. We very much agree with the Music Venues Trust that we should be looking at a relief package from the government to stay closed until October, and if we can safely implement social distancing, and we know more about sterilising equipment and how often we need to do that. At the moment we don’t really know anything, and there still isn’t any guidance from the government. It seems irresponsible to open not knowing how we can make it safe for the public. Our license depends upon keeping the public safe, and none of us can say we can do that yet.

I don’t think the Government are listening. They are focussed on getting the economy back open without there being any real plan in place at the risk of people’s health and at the risk of many people’s licenses. I don’t know if they will listen to us but I think it’s pretty outrageous they give so much money to Wetherspoons to protect their 750 pubs or whatever, when there are 850 plus venues that need less support than they have already handed over to Wetherspoons. I’m a bit dumbfounded by it all, I can’t understand the logic at all.

It’s not just performers and venues, it’s the community that use these spaces to socialise and to meet like-minded people. We fulfil a lot of social objectives and we are leaving all those people isolated at home, a lot of people who don’t have access to computers or the internet. We’ve been undervalued historically.

I’ve been working the last four months as Campaigns Co-ordinator for Save Our Venues, working with the Music Venues Trust. And we’ve just put on a massive Scottish festival with some huge artists, including Fran Healy, KT Tunstall, Fatherson, Wet Wet Wet, Hue & Cry, X-Certs. Honeyblood, loads of cool names, and we sold tickets for only £5. It was an experiment, and made around £10,000. But that money was supposed to be divided between 60 venues in Scotland. It was nothing. It was an interesting experiment to see what streaming fatigue was like at the moment, and to see whether people were willing to buy tickets. I don’t think there is a lot of money to be made in live music streaming. It was good to do, but it just proves to me that nothing can replicate the live experience.

I think live streaming is great. But, it’s not representative of what we do as venues. There is so much content online, I just don’t know how long we can expect people to stare at their laptops. We want to encourage people to get out and socialise.

Sally Oakenfold

Sally runs the Hope & Ruin, owned by the Laines Company, one of the most iconic of Brighton venues, with a long history of putting on gigs. It is where the likes of The Strokes and Adele were able to perform when relatively unknown.

Because the Hope & Ruin is a Laines pub, we aren’t the rental and rates payers, so we’re not responsible for any of that outlay. From the Laines perspective, the Hope & Ruin isn’t going to die. However, everything is postponed, rescheduled, cancelled, up in the air. The calendar for July and August is empty, and there’s a few shows pencilled in for the Autumn, but I don’t know if they will be able to happen until we get more clarity form the Government.

We’re involved in the Save Our Venues campaign, and we’re asking the Government now for three months of support so that we don’t have to open, but maybe in October if that is an option (if live music is allowed with a socially distanced audience) I’ve spoken to all the promoters in Brighton, and they don’t want to do shows, and bands don’t want to do shows, and touring artists won’t be able to do shows under those restrictions. It won’t be cost effective, and it will be just rubbish.

We did get an Arts Council grant, so that when we can re-open safely, we’ll be able to put some sort of local events to support the community of DIY promoters, and local bands.

We’ve got a few people who are putting on some streaming events on our behalf, but it’s too costly for us to set up. We’re about live music in the venue. I haven’t actually had many people want to perform in our venue to an audience at home. I don’t think they are comfortable with the safety angle yet. And we would have to unfurlough staff, which we don’t want to do. I don’t know if any of the engineers would be interested either. So, at the moment we’re not going down that route.

I think it’s a really positive thing to stay shut until we can actually do what we do, properly. And if we have the support to actually do that, I think that’s actually the best way to go, rather than risk safety, and doing things badly. A lot of people don’t want to go back to shows yet, not until it can be done in the way they enjoy seeing shows in small venues like us. If we can stay shut and then come back when it’s safe to do so then I think that’s without doubt the best way forward. I think that’s a positive way forward.

Before lockdown we had so many sold out shows, more than we’ve ever had, and some really good ones. There are so many Brighton bands that are right on the cusp, breaking into the big time, bands like Penelope Isles, Squid, Fur and Gender Roles, who I love. All of this just seems so sad. I was supposed to be going to the End of the Road festival, which I do every year. I miss putting on shows. I miss the excitement of making things happen, and having load of people coming and enjoying themselves in the venue. Not being able to do that, sucks

Jeff Hemmings