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Is It Live or Dead: The State of The Live Music Industry in The UK

Dave Webster, National Organiser for Live Performance, discusses the state of the industry in this blog – from the delay in restrictions lifting, through to Brexit, and the audiences desperate to get back to live listening.

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By Dave Webster Published: 17 June 2021 | 5:07 PM Updated: 17 June 2021 | 5:44 PM
Photograph of a small, empty stage, with drum set, microphone and amplifier set up to play.
“What does the four-week delay to full opening mean for live music in the UK? The statistics are sobering.” Photo credit: Shutterstock

Since March 2020, the cultural world has been at a virtual standstill. Overnight, everything we loved about going out and having a good time came to an abrupt halt. It will be over by Christmas, we all hoped – where have we heard that before?

Jump forward to June 2021 – 15 months later and just when we thought it was possible to get back to that full live experience, a further four-week delay for England is announced.

After all the work done to lobby the Government, contribute to reopening guidance and to the Events Research Programme, industry representatives are devastated. And musicians now face a further four weeks of cancelled engagements and in many cases no payment.

The whole music ecosystem was banking on the preparation and collaboration paying off

To say that the postponement of Stage 4 of the Government’s Roadmap is a massive setback for live music in the UK is perhaps an understatement.

Musicians, who have been really struggling during the pandemic, will remain unable to earn for another four weeks. Over 30% of them have received no Government support since last March. Grassroots music venues face the possibility of having to repay loans but without any income coming in. Theatre tours will be further delayed, the majority of summer festivals are cancelling, and many businesses will inevitably collapse.

Many were facing eviction notices, but the Government extended the ban on commercial evictions until March 2022 which was a welcome relief and provides a window to rebuild.

The Government has withheld crucial data needed by the industry regarding the Events Research Programme that saw the success of The Brits and many other large-scale events. 58,000 attended pilot events in total with mass testing, no social distancing, and there were only a handful of reported Covid cases.

This should have provided the Government with the confidence to move to Stage 4. The whole music ecosystem was banking on the preparation and collaboration paying off. Of course, safety of our members and audiences are of paramount importance, but we had worked hard to ensure that would be the case.

What could the four-week delay mean

The mood music from the industry is sombre, a requiem for our sector. Is it really that bad? What does the four-week delay to full opening mean for live music in the UK? The statistics are sobering:

The live music and theatre industries have been saying for months that it’s not economically viable to open venues with socially distanced audiences. The sums simply don’t add up.

Calling for a Government backed insurance scheme

So what next? The industry is calling for a Government backed insurance scheme that allows venues and theatres to fully reopen with confidence and provide paid work for musicians. We have been asking for this for the best part of a year and have even taken a fleshed-out proposal to the Government but still no scheme has materialised. TV and film had one in place in 2020.

We also urgently need more support for individual freelancers. In England, the Cultural Recovery Fund provided support for businesses and maintained buildings, but very little money filtered down to our members.

Secretary of State Oliver Dowden has said CRF round 3 is on its way and we are working to ensure that some of it is made available for individuals in England. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had devolved responsibility for distributing funds and they did allow freelancers to apply.

We can’t live without culture, entertainment and live music

The other message that came across loud and clear from the PM and his advisors on Monday was that Covid-19 is here to stay – we have to learn to live with it. However, we can’t live without culture, entertainment and without live music.

So, if we are being told we have to live with it then surely it’s the responsibility of the Government to support an industry on which the entire country relies economically, culturally, and for its own health – physically (who doesn’t like a boogie?) and mentally.

In our most recent impact survey, our members told us:

As a result, 88% of musicians do not think that the Government has done enough to support them during the pandemic.

The next four weeks will be watched closely

Oh, and if Covid wasn’t challenging enough for musicians and the live sector, then there is Brexit. Is it any surprise that musicians are forced to seek employment in other industries? There is a predicted talent drain from the UK as 42% of musicians tell us they are considering leaving the UK and 21% tell us they are looking to change career.

Barriers to live performance seem to be surrounding us on all sides. We meet regularly with government departments and industry colleagues to find a clear way through the mess for the live industry that is Brexit, it’s not going to be a quick fix sadly. Getting a visa waiver agreement is not without its challenges nor are the trucking rules that now affect our industry.

I didn’t know the word cabotage existed until this year. We continue to press government for clarity surrounding instruments and their equipment. This list goes on. Brexit has hit us hard; the reality will be clearer when musicians can start touring again. Hopefully, our flowchart provides some clear information, which is often being updated.

There is hope. Audiences are desperate to get back to live. Although they now must wait a bit longer – only time will tell if those live experiences they bought tickets for will go ahead. For some, for example those planning to go to the Black Deer Festival this year, unlikely.

Musicians, (to quote the Bard) “stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start.” If only the game were ‘afoot’ we could start the charge. The next four weeks will be watched closely. Is live music dead? Not yet, but it’s really not at all well.

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