The danger and after-effects of a pandemic on grass root music venues: is there light at the end of the tunnel?
We’re still deep into lockdown, we’re still in a pandemic so, what on earth does this mean for independent venues that are absolutely essential for the grass root music scene? All progress considered last year with reducing the spread rate of coronavirus a lot of people would say we’re pretty much back to square one – independent venues are at least.
Late last year when venues were briefly open for socially distant gigs, just as we thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel our wings were clipped and venues were ordered to close their doors once again – even though music fans had their mouths watering it still wasn’t easy to flog tickets never mind sell out a whole show. Not that selling out shows really meant much at reduced capacities.
Fans and venue owners want jam-packed line ups, sold-out shows, to be shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, and melting atmospheres in venues – not to be forced to your seat a stone’s throw away from fellow music manics.
A dire situation has arisen for not only hospitality in general but most likely your favourite independent venue, scary right? With Independent Venues Week recently taking place, some tried to raise funds admirably but due to restrictions, it felt pointless for some. Birmingham Promoters; the ties that bind the Midlands gig scene together, helped The Sunflower Lounge organise their online “0121 Fest” raising funds for the venue and well-known mental health charity MIND. When asked about the festival, Sam Daly from Birmingham Promoters said “With the whole country in a national lockdown there was no other option of in-person events. We could have looked into professionally filming them inside the venue, however with the uncertainty around the new strain and also the costs we chose not to”. I think it is important to mention that this venue which is at the centre of Birmingham’s grass-root gig scene received 33 thousand pounds to ensure its survival only until September last year.
“As music venue owners we’re used to crowd control, bouncers, fending off drug dealers, punch ups happen. We deal with the mayhem. We’re street fighters, not bureaucrats.” rings true for many struggling venue owners, particularly for Kit – owner of Hootananny located in Brixton and Inverness. Kit as an owner finds himself in a more peculiar situation with his business is split between Scotland and England, two different prime ministers results in a whole other level of complexity. He speaks with an impervious certainty but a level of concern; looming above him is a deep dark cloud of doubtfulness when it comes to this forthcoming summer.
Kit talks the ins and outs steadily, with confidence but when uttering “I’m terrified of this summer” his demeanour radiates dread, the following silence almost allowed you to hear the shiver up his spine. “With covid, the real killer is when we’re allowed to open, that’s when we lose money hand over fist because of all the restrictions. You know up here we were allowed to open but not serve alcohol, on top of having to socially distance. Social distancing this year will kill us.” Regardless of the situation, you’d find it surprising, Hootananny one of Scotland’s most unique independent venues is losing two thousand pounds a week, even more, when they’re open.
A one hundred thousand pound CBIL loan was taken out by Kit himself on his own terms to keep the Hootananny heart beating last year; that isn’t a grant from the government – more financial ball and chain – but he does credit the government a lot for the grants they’ve offered which describes as “capital investments” choosing not to bite the hand that is currently feeding him. Even more so he is eager to stress the work that the Music Venue Trust has put in, to keep the independent breed of venue open. Without them, many venues would be getting mopped up by chain venues or companies wanting to build more luxury apartments, plague-like capitalism.
The numbers are anxiety-inducing but this is the ill-reality; steamy shows that had such intense intimacy cease to exist for the first time in a generation.
The Windmill, Brixton – iconic is putting it lightly, have been putting on a range of brilliant acts for years now, the likes of the abstract Black Midi, Squid, Black Country, New Road, and big hitters Shame. The Windmill is more than just a venue to bands though; it’s a second home for some, with a massive aura of community it has become one of Brixton’s most loved venues. Luckily enough the venue managed to receive an emergency loan of 19 thousand pounds to remain open until October. Yet fundraising ventures have been well received, from the auction they held to multiple successful live streams thanks to massive support from artists and fans.
In charge of booking the bands, we have Tim Perry, championing blossoming musicians he gives a lot of freedom for bands to curate their own line up rather than telling them what to do when and who with; that type of liberalism is priceless for bands coming into their own still. Regarding this year Tim is more laid back and simply refers to it as “weird” and seems to be in limbo at this point. Last year still managed to exhaust him with its constant changing landscape, once the socially distanced shows had taken effect, subsequently, The Windmill was added to the Music Venue Trust’s red list being one of thirty most at-risk venues.
There’s a fondness of the socially distant gigs for Tim, capacity was slashed significantly to abide by government rules – adding to intimacy though – he recalls “I think sometimes people listen to bands more when at those shows because they’re not chatting to mates or going to the bar so much, for some people it worked really well. Even for someone really fucking noisy like Black Midi, I really enjoyed it.”
“We’ve got to look after artists, trying to help keep people’s careers on track is really important y’know.” This is why bands and solo artists love the place so much, they care so much and Tim’s words are heartfelt and genuine. Still, though threats come from all angles for The Windmill; the risk of rent being raised to extortionate prices and the idea of struggling to make enough money upon reopening. “Its capitalism running rife during the pandemic, the guys with big money will easily eat up those without.”
Without the help of Music Venue Trust core venues like these and countless others probably wouldn’t be here right now, the situation is severe and even a year on from now the financial fallout from Covid-19 is sly and not easily recognised but it’s allowing capitalism to strike the vulnerable and can quite easily tear down your favourite venue. So buy tickets to gigs even if you can’t use them right now, donate to venues in need; supporting your favourite local band is supporting the venues they play. Don’t let your love for your local scene die in what is hopefully, the final push.
For mental health resources, advice and, to even donate you can visit the Music Venue Trust website here.