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SUPPORT THE ARTS: a commentary on the arts industry during the global pandemic

Written by Alexander Wright

It is a source of so-called British exceptionalism that our tiny island punches above its weight on the world stage. Although an arguable claim, it is nonetheless true in the realm of music. The UK is the country that brought the world The Beatles, Elton John, Queen, (most of) Fleetwood Mac, Oasis, Ed Sheeran, Adele… the list goes on. Our position in the leading role on the global stage of musical innovation has been unquestioned since the birth of pop music, redefining its very meaning through pioneers from skiffle to heavy metal, and punk rock to grime; a feat rivalled only by our American cousins, and, even then, through continuous call-and-response and mutual inspiration between our nations.

From the foundlings of the original British Invasion and Merseybeat, through Madchester to the third British Invasion of the 2010s, there is a single humble thread woven through, the same bedrock on which these pillars of artistry were built: the grassroots music scene. After all, one cannot tell The Beatles story without mentioning the Cavern Club. Or Oasis without the Boardwalk. Ed Sheeran famously learnt his craft playing gigs in small venues across London. Punk rock owes its history to grassroots music venues, and grime was birthed in the UK underground music scene.

But these venues aren’t just important to the artists who go on to change the face of music, they’re important to us, the fans, the gig-goers, the devourers of live music. We're not talking stadiums or concert halls or festivals here. We're talking back room of a pub with a dodgy PA system and even dodgier toilets. Going to support your friend's new band who sound suspiciously like your primary school music lessons. Grumpy sounds guys and open mic nights with infinite fresh-faced, budding singer-songwriters and their ever out of tune guitars. Unlikely hosts of student band nights. And those beautiful venues, steeped in musical history, past performers plastered on the walls and occasionally those rare gems of a local band who go on to achieve musical greatness.

The Covid pandemic has cast a light on many things we take for granted, but one of the most painful (particularly for many readers of this magazine) is surely live music and gigs, and the venues that host them. These are the places where history is made. Where musicians graft for their art, fail spectacularly and learn their style. Yet these businesses have suffered grossly under the drunk-driving, swerves, crashes and detours of Covid restrictions. The government proclaim to put their arms around business, to build back better, to support those in need! So, what help have they given to music venues across the country?

Let’s talk numbers. In 2018 (the most recent available data), the UK creative sector as a whole contributed a whopping £112 billion to the UK economy, and were responsible for the employment of over 2 million people. For the arts specifically, those numbers are £17 billion and over 360,000 people. Following the March 2020 national lockdown, the government announced the job retention scheme in April, offering to pay 80% of staff wages. But artists and musicians, many of whom are freelancers or self-employed, fell between the cracks, with no support available to them. Music and arts venues struggled too, with their income source stripped away. In April 2020, NME reported that of the 550 independent music venues across the UK, 80% were expected to close forever without support. An estimated 400,000 jobs were at stake. A petition asking for more support for the arts garnered almost 180,000 signatures in May.

But it was not until July (following a parliamentary debate on the petition, and heel-dragging by the government), that a support package was announced – a full four months after the start of the national lockdown. Four months. It is reassuring to know that when an entire industry – so vital to the heart and soul of our country – is on its knees, the government will dither and dawdle and delay until pushed into a decision (sound familiar?).

The support package? A tidy £1.57 billion grant, available to arts and cultural organisations: museums, galleries, theatres, independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues. (Similar grants have been announced in the devolved nations also.) At the time, this package was hugely welcomed, and it has undoubtedly saved many venues from collapse. But the list of organisations receiving support wasn’t announced until October – another 3 months later.

1385 smaller organisations received support valuing under £1 million each, totalling £257 million. Specifically, around 150 grassroots music venues received support, although this was from a smllaer sum of £2.25 million. (I was very pleased to see Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club on this list, alongside Liverpool’s Cavern Club). Larger, “iconic” organisations shared a pot of £75 million, for grants between £1 and £3 million.

But this package stemmed from July, when the general mood was that the Covid situation was improving, and things would soon return to normal. Since then, we have been through two further national lockdowns, and music venues have been unable to reopen. It is still unclear when they will be able to finally reopen, with the governments latest cautious, yet optimistic roadmap setting a date of 17th May at the earliest. For many venues, that equates 14 months of no revenue. A few thousand pounds per music venue from the support package will not have gone very far in the grand scheme of the pandemic. And that is before we even get into jobs. Although the support package has been more than welcome, will it be enough?

Grassroots music venues are the capillaries feeding the circulatory system of our musical culture and heritage. Small, yes, but essential, providing oxygen for talent to grow, and to foster innovation and inspiration. I am sure we are all looking forward to our first live gig once venues are able to reopen. But let’s hope your favourite venue is still there…

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