Entertaining the idea of bringing back gigs – ‘Let the Music Play’ campaign unites an industry

There aren’t many people who don’t enjoy a good singalong. The power of a song to transport you back in time is legendary. Only the other week, a medley of songs from the year 2000 took me back to being 15, getting my nose pierced “for the Millennium” (as if my mum wouldn’t have noticed) and the rather disappointing “river of fire” on the Thames that failed to be seen from the banks, let alone from space.

We all need music – and entertainment. Few people have worked as hard – for free – as entertainers during lockdown. Facebook Lives and free online gigs have been the mainstay of this enforced isolation for those of us who rely on the power of a good bass line or a catchy riff to stay afloat through the tough times.

In 2018, according to the Music By Numbers report, the music industry contributed £5.2bn of the UK’s revenue. A record high for the industry, employment was at almost 191,000 jobs, 7% higher than in 2017. 

Even back then, in 2018, Michael Dugher, CEO of the campaigning and lobbying group, UK Music, who commissioned the report, said; “We need to do more to protect grassroots venues by helping them combat soaring business rates. We need to nurture the talent pipeline, including by reversing the decline of music in education, so that children from every background have access to music.”

The value of the grassroots venue

With these words ringing in my ears, I decided to talk to my old friend, Simon Baker, who runs a music promotion business. Green Mind is based in my old stomping ground of Cambridge and through it, Simon sold in the region of 20,000 tickets last year. He’s been running his successful company for almost 20 years now and I first met him through an online forum. I have fond memories of “doing the door “for him for some of his pub gigs at awesome local venue, The Portland Arms. Though it’s been 12 years since I last lived in Cambridge, I was heartened to hear it was still run by landlord couple, Steve and Hayley.

Green Mind: Independent gigs since 2001
Green Mind: Independent gigs since 2001

Simon’s put on some memorable acts too – Regina Spektor (now best known as the artist behind the title music for Netflix hit Orange Is The New Black)  at the Cambridge Junction in 2006 was just one of my first amazing, live music experiences as a young student. Having seen the rise of artists like the Arctic Monkeys to Paolo Nutini, Simon says that grassroots venues are really the “research and development arm of the live music industry”.

The first sign that things were going awry were further back than I expected: Simon first noticed a change in January. He told me that people were starting to become “antsy” about attending gigs and ticket sales started dropping. His VAT returns told the full story – the first quarter of 2020 was 90% down, in comparison with previous returns. However, he explained, it wasn’t until the beginning of March that he and his industry really had a full appreciation of what Coronavirus was going to do.

“Some promoters had to move 100s of gigs in just a matter of weeks”, he explained. “It was a rolling process and still is, really”. Simon realises how lucky he is though, given that he runs gigs for relatively small venues. He says that those running the more expensive concerts and events have experienced far more claims for refunds. The people who attend his gigs tend to be hard-core, dedicated music fans – people who love live music and are ‘early adopters’ of new talent.

Simon Baker: Green Mind, troubled times

The biggest problem at the earliest stages of the pandemic, he points out, was when the government did not forcibly close venues; just told punters they shouldn’t attend. Many promoters were therefore in a sticky situation – those venues and events that did have any insurance for a pandemic couldn’t use it until the government forced closure. Worse, however, he revealed, was the reaction of some of the public towards venues and events promoters.

“Some in my industry got a lot of abuse for still running their events. Punters wanted to know why they weren’t getting a refund when they’d been explicitly told that they shouldn’t attend live music events in pubs. The problem was, legally they weren’t entitled to their money back until the government mandated closure. If a promoter cancels a gig, for any reason except forced closure, they still have to pay the band. Our ‘no show’ rate around then was 52%”.

Simon again recounts how fortunate he’s been so far when it comes to abuse and refunds. Putting it down to the cost of his tickets, which start from around £8, he says he’s really only refunded about 10% of customers. The rest were happy with rescheduling. “If it goes on much longer though”, he said, his face turning more sombre, “I can see that changing. People’s patience might run out.”

#LetTheMusicPlay campaign hits the headlines

Twitter and Facebook have been awash the last few days with the hashtag #LetTheMusicPlay, a “day of action to raise awareness of the plight of the live music industry in the UK”.

Oliver Dowden
Oliver Dowden, Member of Parliament for Hertsmere & Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

In a letter sent to Oliver Dowden, Culture Secretary, some of the biggest names in music like Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Eric Clapton, Liam Gallagher, Sir Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones added their voices to the thousands of music managers, promoters, agents and venues of all sizes. From huge concert halls to the smallest pubs with a live music license, the depth of feeling in the letter is clear to see.

The letter asks for a clear timeline for reopening venues without distancing, a business and employment support package and other measures to cushion the industry from crisis, like VAT exemptions.

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Though the UK is small, compared with its larger European cousins, the impact the UK music scene has on the world is vast. Glastonbury is the world’s biggest and most famous greenfield festival and London’s O2 venue is the world’s most successful ticketed venue.  In 2019, the live music industry (and associated spend on food and drink) generated £4.25bn of the UK’s income

The campaign is asking for £50m to save the 90% of small grassroots venues facing closure. The amount should cover at least the next three months – what Simon calls “a mere drop in the ocean” for the Treasury.

The campaign “went viral” on Twitter

“Why can’t the likes of Ed Sheeran, Mick Jagger and Chris Martin open their wallets?”

So, what does Simon make of accusations that there are more worthy causes for the UK government to focus on, in times where almost every industry is under threat? How valid does he think that calls for wealthy UK musicians to bail the industry out are?

“Yeah, maybe there is merit to the suggestion that the big names of the UK music scene could chuck some money at the situation, but the reality is that what the entire music industry generate in tax revenue for the treasury is far more than we’re campaigning for the government to put in. A big venue, with a turnover of maybe £4m will pay £600,000 in VAT. Then there’s the national insurance and income tax on top, of course. There’s also corporation tax and business rates too. We’re not actually asking for a huge amount, it just sounds a lot. Yes, this is an unprecedented situation. I think restaurants and pubs need bailing out as well – gigs of course generate income for those establishments, too.”

He doesn’t hold back on comparing the contribution of the industry to the economy with other entertainment either: “more people go to concerts every year than they go to football matches. The world – without comedy, theatre and live music – well that would be a very, very grey place indeed.”

Singing to a different beat

Lara-Jayne Jones, from Cornwall singing
Lara-Jayne in action

Simon’s far from alone in his concerns for his industry. Social media highlights that. I was also lucky enough to talk to Lara-Jayne Jones, a vocal artist who hails from Cornwall. In her varied career, which started in 2006, she’s had a really rounded view of all aspects of entertainment. Whilst working in a supermarket, a regular customer encouraged her to audition for Butlin’s Redcoats in Minehead. Her career has taken her from cruise ships to night clubs, via musicals and holiday parks, which is where her last paid gig happened.

Living in Bodmin, Cornwall, Lara-Jayne, proud mum to a 17 month old, told me her last night as a singer was 22nd March, the same night that lockdown was announced. She had to travel to the venue not knowing whether the gig would take place or not. With some trepidation, especially as her own mother is high-risk for serious complications from Coronavirus, she decided to work that one last time.

“The tables were all spaced out”, she says, with the diction of a woman who clearly knows how to project her voice. “The entertainers weren’t allowed to go into the audience as they usually would. The staff were washing their hands every 20 minutes, even if they didn’t need to. Everything was wiped down over and over. It felt really safe.”

She says she thinks it would be more than feasible – if the government wanted to – to let live entertainment return, with appropriate safety measures. Explaining that some of her peers and colleagues were ‘technically breaking the rules’ by playing to care home residents from their gardens, she says she feels it is safe to do so, but wouldn’t do it herself. “I’m a stickler for the rules”, she laughed, “but the rules feel really inconsistent about what can open and what can’t. I don’t see what logic is behind a lot of these rules. “Drive through cinemas seem to be ok – why can’t we bring back live music like that, maybe?”

Money’s too tight to mention

Lara-Jayne feels lucky in so many ways, though. Despite earning very little – she has taken to low-paid ‘gig economy’ website Fiverr for voiceover work – she recognises that some people have “lost everything”, including their loved ones.

With pubs and hairdressers opening today, 4th July, it seems like the businesses that can return to work are perhaps the ones that have shouted the loudest. Perhaps even the ones with the most practiced and powerful lobbyists behind them and the most value in tax returns. When you can have your fringe cut but not your toenails painted; have a pint in Wetherspoons but not attend an open air concert in your car, it makes little sense to the creatives left voiceless and destitute by the ravages of lockdown.

An announcement from Chancellor Rishi Sunak is rumoured amongst music industry sources to be due some time next week – let’s hope it’s music to everyone’s ears and we can save the UK’s previously thriving music industry from collapse. The Show MUST go on.

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