A year after lights out, just how bright is the future of live music?

‘I no longer hear the music’ – community spirit and creativity has kept the ship afloat.

Words by Laura Pegler

Cast your minds back to Friday 20th March 2020. At the fledgling stages of a catastrophic worldwide pandemic, this date saw the UK’s entire live music sector ordered to down tools and close their doors until further notice. Now, with the glimmer of an end in sight, we take a look at the comings and goings of the past 12 months to find out just how well the industry is coping?

The first victims to take an immediate financial hit were our beloved live music venues. Facilitating many a career beyond their four walls, the aftermath of gig cancellations and ticket refunds has fallen heavy on the shoulders of artists, managers, venue owners, promoters, booking agencies, sound engineers, lighting technicians, festival curators and bar staff alike. Undoubtedly, the list goes on.

It’s hard to quantify just how much or how little the government has helped to keep these venues and related personal afloat, as individual experience and outgoings are so varied. With many employees eligible for the nationwide furlough scheme or Self-Employment Income Support grants, you could argue that – for the near future at least – this has gone a long way to solving the problem. It’s also key to note that according to gov.uk, a £1.57 billion emergency Culture Recovery Fund ensured the future of 135 grassroots music venues at imminent risk of closure.

That said, and perhaps unavoidably, there has been a substantial number of live music venues which have fallen through the cracks. Those hit hardest include Manchester’s historic Deaf Institute and fellow venue Gorilla, Hull’s The Welly and The Polar Bear, all of which went into administration in July 2020. In the wake of this information, the Music Venue Trust – who were responsible for the nationwide #saveourvenues campaign – issued a ‘code red’ status to 30 venues across the country, all facing imminent threat of closure. With the aid of music lovers, community spirit and crucial fundraising initiatives, this list has thankfully now fallen to 20. Whilst a definite milestone, we are far from a cause for celebration. With 9 of the venues remaining on the list based in London, including the widely revered Brixton Windmill, The Lexington and The Waiting Room, it’s certainly a cultural concern for the capital. 

Steve Dix, owner of the retro grassroots venue Paper Dress Vintage in Hackney, shared his experience: “We began 2020 anticipating our greatest year ever with a refurb and a new PA ready to roll but 6 weeks later, we were shuttering up and staring down the very real threat of bankruptcy. The support and generosity of our community was a ray of light in those dark weeks and gave us hope for the future and the energy to push forward.”

He continues, “We’ve managed to adapt our business and build a new outdoor space, Paper Dress Yard and kept the music playing. After a Summer of al fresco drinking and ad hoc live streams, a life-saving grant from the Cultural Recovery Fund appeared and we knew we would make it out of this. We pushed forward with a program of socially distanced gigs under the banner ‘Revive Live Music’ and we’re looking forward to resuming that in May, before the tantalising prospect of full cap shows in June.”

It would seem that, in this case at least, through a generous mix of community support, government funding and an innovative approach to staging live music safely, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Dix concludes: “I hope that when we re-open, the public will have a re-energised appreciation for live music – you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!”

With increasing pressure on artists to generate profit from significantly underpaid Spotify streams, the pausing of the live music sector has left yet another hefty dent in the pockets of professional musicians. With streaming giants such as Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube paying around £0.0005 – £0.006 per stream, it’s no surprise that the maths = one lowly side job + living at home in your twenties.

A step in the right direction came in November of last year when an investigation was launched by UK MP’s into whether streaming services are paying artists fairly. Whilst streaming is now the biggest source of income for the record industry, generating over £1 billion in 2019, artists only see on average a 13% share of their already measly profit. Taking this into account, it’s pretty clear that the numbers don’t add up. Set to consult with industry experts, record labels, artists and the streaming platforms themselves, hopefully the outcome will see artists finally being able to earn their crust from the sale of their music, and become less reliant on external factors such as touring and merchandise.

Having amassed over 3.4 million likes on TikTok over the course of the pandemic frontman Mitchell Spencer, of burgeoning indie band The Rills, explains the realities they face working as professional musicians in today’s climate. “From our position in the industry at the moment, it’s a real tight squeeze. Stream numbers have been fantastic recently, but everyone knows it’s near impossible to make streaming services pay – we’ve had to dive headfirst into the worlds of merch and self-promotion. I think self-promotion in the digital world comes as a shock to most artists – we’re all probably at our happiest when focusing on the music, but times are pretty tough and putting yourself out there is a great way to find new fans and sell merch, ultimately keeping the cogs turning.”

He divulges: “The merch has turned out to be the easy bit for us in recent times – while life may not be going to plan, lots of people have managed to stay in work, and those that have aren’t spending nearly the amount of money they were before lockdown. People seem to be really interested in merch at the minute so it’s a good opportunity to keep afloat.”

Whilst it’s a positive sign that artists have managed to develop other streams of income, there has been a definite shift in the artist as the ‘creative’ to the artist as the ‘entrepreneur’. At what cost this will have on the quality of music being produced, will no doubt be seen post-pandemic. With VAT on tickets set to revert back to 20% from a temporary reduced period of 5% and touring visas now compulsory for British musicians hoping to travel Europe, it would seem that the pain caused by the pandemic may have only just begun to scratch the surface.

The question of ‘is enough being done to support live music’s survival’ is an impossible one to answer. With every sector going asking a similar question of their own vocation, ensuring the future of any industry at present is a thankless task to say the least. It could therefore be more productive to question, ‘how can I ensure the survival of the future of live music’.

If you are in a financial position to do so, then donating to venue serving charities such as the Music Venue Trust or independent crowd funding campaigns is one immediate port of call. However, with many music lovers themselves suffering financial hardship – there are other ways!

The #wemakeevents campaign are currently lobbying supporters to write to their local MP’s, expressing individual concerns and highlighting that the live event support chain is both a crucial and nationwide network. To any musicians out there, you could take a leaf out of Sorry’s book, who released a live album titled A Night at The Windmill to raise funds for the South London venue. Or you could take inspiration from photographer Holly Whitaker, who created a print shop donating a portion of her profits similarly to Brixton’s sacred hang out.

However much or little you choose to participate, to grassroots venues like Paper Dress Vintage and upcoming artists like The Rills, any support matters! With the help of active engagement and a little bit of luck – all fingers crossed and touching every wooden surface in sight – we’ll be back to the live music by summertime.