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A year without music venues

For 12 months, almost no venue has been able to host gigs. Will live music ever return to its former heights?

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On 28 February 2020 the rapper Dave, fresh from winning Best British Album at the Brits the previous week, christened the stage at the brand new 600-capacity London venue Lafayette. “It was a bit of a miracle that we’d got open on time, let’s put it like that,” said Ben Lovett, the venue’s owner, who is also the keyboardist in the folk-rock group Mumford & Sons. “I was feeling, at that point, completely drained. But then you get replenishment and nourishment from having a really exciting launch.” 

And then, less than two weeks after Lafayette had opened its doors following months of construction work and planning, it closed them. “We didn’t have a scenario that would involve the country shutting down due to a virus,” Lovett said. “We will do next time.”

The UK went into its first lockdown on 23 March 2020, but many event spaces had chosen to close the previous week, aware that their densely populated venues could spread Covid-19. For a whole year these spaces have stood more or less empty. Some have experimented with live-streamed performances or socially distanced concerts, altering their programmes as new government regulations have come into effect, sometimes with just a few days’ notice. But for 12 months now, no venue has been able to do quite what it was designed to do: buzz with the excitement of hundreds or thousands of expectant music fans making their way through the doors, night after night. 

Liam Naughton, managing director at the Kazimier, which runs Invisible Wind Factory, a 1,500-capacity hall and mixed arts space in Liverpool, first began to notice the effects of the pandemic when the tour schedules of DJs due to play his venue were disrupted in Shanghai, and then in Italy, as Covid-19 spread around the globe. Having to close Invisible Wind Factory, he said, was “terrifying” for an independent, revenue-led business that doesn’t keep cash reserves. Worst of all was not knowing what to expect from the coming months. “We assumed there was no help. We could have been a lot more productive if someone had said, early doors: ‘Look, there will be lockdowns, there’ll be moving targets, but there will be cash available.’ We could have started thinking a bit more progressively, rather than being in panic mode. At that point, there was no guidance.”

When financial help did come, Invisible Wind Factory clung to it: it furloughed all staff on payroll and so avoided making any of its employees redundant. It received a grant from Arts Council England and also benefited from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) last year – though even that process felt risky. “We went for the minimum possible [amount of funding] just to make sure we’d get it,” Naughton said. 

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Others were not so fortunate. The Lexington in Islington, north London, was once a busy pub and music venue, popular midweek with the after-work crowd and a late-night destination for live music after its neighbouring pubs shut. Since closing its doors last March it has made a third of its staff redundant. Owner Stacey Thomas told me the venue received a welcome £25,000 from the Islington Council discretionary grant, but when it came to the CRF they received just 40 per cent of the amount they had applied for. 

Some hospitality and entertainment venues were able to open under new guidelines last summer, but with no outdoor area at the Lexington – and bearing in mind the £2,000 a month it costs just to switch on the fridges, air conditioning units and other electrical items – Thomas chose to keep the venue shut. “We figured, look, with social distancing, it’s not worth us opening. We looked to re-open in November and then the curfew came, so we thought: ‘Well, we can’t use our late licence.’” 

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At first Thomas continued paying her staff, and once the job retention scheme was announced, chose to top up furlough pay so that employees were receiving their full wages throughout most of last year. Furlough and a series of successful crowd-funders – the first of which, launched in April last year, raised an “overwhelming” £36,000 in 24 hours – enabled the Lexington to support its staff. But with no income from events the venue couldn’t continue to contribute to employees’ top-ups, as well as National Insurance costs, pensions and payroll taxes. At the end of October “we ended up mothballing”, Thomas said. “We let a lot of the casual staff go; we let one of our senior managers go. We’ve ended up now with myself and four or five others. It’s heartbreaking.” The second round of CRF funding is due to be distributed next week, and Thomas hopes the Lexington will be more fortunate this time. But major damage has already been done. “I’m very worried about the future,” she said.

Financial difficulties also led to Lovett making some of his employees at Lafayette redundant, including front-of-house and technical staff for whom “there just wasn’t enough work”. The past year, he said, “has had some of the darkest of moments”, and will have cost his business millions of pounds, even with support from the furlough scheme and the CRF. 

But Lafayette, now just a year old, has not stood totally empty since last March. The venue was designed to be “fully integrated”, said Lovett, who before the pandemic invested hundreds of thousands of pounds into remote-controlled moving cameras and an on-site video editing suite, which allows for sophisticated video shoots and live-streamed performances. When folk trio the Staves played a live-streamed show in February, the band was filmed singing not only on Lafayette’s stage, but also in the bar area and foyer space, a camera following them around as they moved between the sites, warming up their voices in between each set. This type of innovative, surprisingly intimate production is something that would not have been possible with a live audience. What’s more, it allows fans who don’t live in big cities an opportunity to experience the joy of a live show. “I like the idea that you can be living in Ipswich or Inverness and still be a part of the capital’s cultural moment,” Lovett said.

Live-streaming has given a lifeline to the Met too, a music and theatre venue in Bury, Greater Manchester, that otherwise would have been shut for much of the past year. The centre has two concert spaces – with capacities of 400 and 100 – and in usual times also holds weekly workshops and music lessons, including for adults and children with disabilities. “We were lucky,” the Met’s CEO, Victoria Robinson, said. “Just as lockdown was happening and we were shutting down the building and pulling events, we were approached by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority [GMCA] to help them set up United We Stream.” The initiative, which started as a fundraising effort for Berlin nightlife and streams events to raise money for the cultural sector, found a UK base at the Met, which has an in-house recording studio. From April to December last year, the GMCA paid the venue for the use of its space and staff. Its technicians were brought off furlough to work on the streams, and its administrative staff followed. 

United We Stream finished with a virtual New Year’s Eve party, but since then the Met has used the experience to create in-house digital programming, which was, Robinson said, “always one of our objectives. But because we’re a very busy venue with a very small team – there are only 15 of us – we never had the opportunity or the capacity to do that. Oddly enough, the pandemic has given us the space and time to develop a completely new strand of our organisation.”

The pandemic has also given the Met an opportunity to work more closely with its local community. The venue’s small workshop space – currently unable to be used for its usual purpose – is now home to a food bank, after demand for the service spiked due to an increase in unemployment and it outgrew the garage it was once held in. The community cafe upstairs at Invisible Wind Factory – now without customers – has been used to pack and organise deliveries of vegetable boxes, and when mass coronavirus testing was trialled in Liverpool last autumn, the vast venue space was used as a testing centre. “We pivoted everywhere we could,” said Naughton, who also noted that the gig space was used for roller-skating sessions last summer, when club nights were not permitted but socially distanced exercise was. This too has taught Naughton and his team a long-term lesson: “We want to bring more health and fitness into our programme, and it not just be about debauched drinking and what not.

“We have thought a lot about what the future of dance music is,” he added. “We know the students are well up for it: tickets [for later in the year] are flying off the shelves. The ones who feel like they’ve had the best years of their lives stolen from them, I think, are keen to make up for lost time. But the ones who are just coming into the legal age to do all that might be a bit more affected. It’s hard to know how they’re going to interact with that many people in a room. And then the plus-thirties – the ones who have maybe got a young family, they’ve done their raving but they do still like to go out – I think there’s gonna be a bit of hesitation before they jump in. Overall, I think there’s gonna be a bigger demand for transparency over how you run your space, and health and safety. I expect people will be more vigilant about that.”

At the Lexington in Islington, Thomas is “apprehensive” about the coming months, particularly the possibility of full capacity re-opening come 21 June, as set out by the government’s “roadmap” plan. “I can’t see it,” she said. “Not only from a safety perspective – I just can’t see that many people wanting to be out.” She also acknowledged the lack of government guidance regarding re-opening: “There’s no protocol that’s been laid out by the government yet, and it’s only a couple of months away. They really should be saying [that] to re-open fully, this is what you need to have in place. But they’re not telling us that.”

This year has, however, shown Thomas how important her venue is to the gig-going community. The support the Lexington has received from fans has, she said, “taught us that we’re an important part of the landscape. People view us as being important enough to want to have around, so we’re going to try and stick around.”

Ben Lovett at Lafayette agrees: “This year has proven that venues are not going anywhere.”