‘We won’t make enough money to exist’: live music sector still highly uncertain

The government’s roadmap suggests that a return to live music is on the horizon but, thanks to a combination of a huge backlog of gigs, continuing global Covid infections, and unclear conditions for reopening, musicians, bookers, promoters, and club owners say it is far from certain.

On Tuesday, Nicola Sturgeon announced that indoor and outdoor events could return in Scotland from 17 May, subject to capacity restraints. In England, performances are scheduled to return from the same date, with limited capacities, and nightclubs will reopen no earlier than 21 June. Anton Lockwood, a director at leading live music promoter DHP, says: “That’s all very well, but we’re really waiting to hear what the conditions of opening will be. The worry is that we’ll get lumbered with something that is unworkable.”

For Lockwood, “unworkable” includes rumoured lateral flow testing for audiences (“it costs quite a bit of money, and where would we do it? In the street?”) and reduced, or socially distanced, capacities for concerts. “If I’m making an offer on a show at Nottingham’s Rock City, it’s based on selling 1,900 tickets. If I can only sell 400, it doesn’t add up. We wouldn’t be making anything like enough money to exist.”

The same applies to some of the UK’s largest venues. James Harrison of ASM Global, which manages the AO Arena (formerly Manchester Arena), confirms that with significantly reduced capacity, “we would need to host 400% more events to bring us anywhere close to where our business needs to be.”

Emma Bownes is vice president in venue programming at AEG Europe, and manages the booking diary at the O2 Arena, the UK’s second-largest indoor venue after the AO Arena. She says that with social distancing implemented, the O2’s capacity drops from 17,500 to 4,700. “It’s not viable. You can’t pay a US artist to come over for that.”

Moreover, for venues of this size, it’s not just about the UK being open for business. “If you’re looking on our website as a fan, and you’ve got a ticket for a gig in October, you’d probably think: surely I can go to that,” Bownes says. “But that artist is probably due to play arenas across the US in the summer, and then go across Europe. If a few of those dates become unviable, then the tour loses money and they’ll reschedule. The margins are just so small.”

Rescheduling a big tour is difficult for the artist and venue alike. Bownes’s team has rebooked more than 80 arena shows at least twice, as lockdown rules continue to change. This cascade of changing dates is causing a knock-on effect: the O2 already has as many bookings for 2022 as it would do halfway through a normal year. “We’ve never been this busy, and our venue has never been so empty,” Bownes says.

This concert pile-up makes it difficult for venues to juggle artists’ and audiences’ requirements, for instance in matching new dates with the same days of the week. “People with weekend tickets might be coming in from out of town, and we don’t want to make it so they can’t come,” she explains. But it is also causing artists themselves a great deal of concern.

J Willgoose of UK electronic music group Public Service Broadcasting says they booked their late-2021 tour well over a year ago, and even then they noticed an unusual level of competition. “The whole industry is competing for the same limited resources: venues, dates, crowds, crew.”

Rou Reynolds, frontman of rock band Enter Shikari, who reached No 2 in the album chart last year, agrees. “It’s hard enough at the best of times, stringing dates together that route well. But now we’ve got every artist wanting – or perhaps needing, by way of financial or psychological necessity – to play shows as soon as possible.”

At a grassroots level, the problems of reopening are even more complex. Nick Stewart, of small yet influential Edinburgh club Sneaky Pete’s, says that non-professional musicians with day jobs have “even more to negotiate. It just might not be possible for them to reschedule a tour for the third, fourth, fifth time.”

This is precisely the case for Sarra Wild, a DIY promoter and DJ in Glasgow. “The first half of the pandemic was just: how am I going to pay rent? I can’t afford to put on an event and move it or cancel it, not even once.” Her itinerant club night OH141 hosts marginalised, innovative artists, and is designed to be as accessible as possible: “The most I would ever charge on the door is £12. It’s never been a venture to make money.” At Sneaky Pete’s, busy club nights help pay for gigs, which often run at a loss. As Stewart explains, the whole point at this level is to lead in “talent development” – Lewis Capaldi played his first gigs there.

Several factors are essential to getting musicians back on stage in line with the roadmap. The UK’s live music industry, valued by UK Music at £1.1bn in 2018, needs a “comprehensive government-backed insurance and indemnity scheme”, says ASM Global’s Harrison. This would help thousands of freelancers return to the industry and reassure promoters, venues and musicians alike. “A band like us looks at an upfront investment of £25,000 to £50,000 in terms of deposits, equipment, booking rehearsals, hiring crew,” says Willgoose. “If you’re not insured, that’s not a good proposition.”

In Scotland, the Grassroots Music Venues Stabilisation Fund has prevented venues from going out of business because of continued overheads, but there are calls for essential support like this and the furlough scheme to continue long after venues can, technically, open. As Rou Reynolds summarises: “I’ll be able to deal with [more cancellations]. The industry and so many of its employees on the other hand, I’m not so sure.”