In October, Bido Lito! and University of Liverpool concluded the first phase of its Playing In research project by following up the musicians’ survey with a digital, sector-wide public consultation. The event took place at the height of Liverpool’s Tier 3 status, with attitudes and optimism coming to reflect much of the situation we have since returned to in early 2021. Looking back at the points of discussion, Will Whitby highlights the dominant themes of funding and the plight of Liverpool’s venues trying to operate in testing times.
The Playing In study started June last year when the first lockdown was only 10 weeks in and the music industry was full of confusion and dread. Equally, there was also a strong sense of optimism regarding future plans, yet hindsight would now view this as naive. Over 11 months have passed since the first lockdown and the numb sense of disparity, loss and déjà vu is hard to ignore as life traverses seemingly between one lockdown to another. The return of the live music we love still feels so far away.
There had been some levels of optimism that late summer of 2020 would mark a partial return for live music, but in Liverpool especially these ideas were quickly wiped out as the pandemic reared its head for the second time in September, leading to Tier 3 and eventual lockdown.
In late October we continued our research by holding a music industry consultation event over Zoom to help collect more data and let musicians, industry figures and audience members express their individual emotions and thoughts on the past year and the future. We discussed a number of topics as we tried to best understand the fate and feeling among Liverpool City Region music communities.
Although the consultation happened some months ago in October, when Liverpool was first thrust into Tier 3, the situation surrounding live music in the City Region has returned to that level of stasis following a partial release in December. Stages are once again silent and industry professionals are still not working, with greater apprehension towards the possibilities 2021 will offer.
During the event, conversations centred on venues and their inability to meet their usual offer and experience due to ongoing social distancing measures. For a number of weeks during the summer, spaces like 24 Kitchen Street were allowed to welcome people in. However, strict rules grew tighter as the city moved towards Tier 3. Ensuring attendees adhered to the rules led to staff frustration when marshalling events, even leading to feelings of assuming new roles as the “fun police”. Just by this one example, we can see that the strict, yet necessary rules expected of hospitality spaces to ensure they are Covid-safe massively diminished the experience of ‘going out’.
The expectation on venues to stay clean, limit capacity, enforce social distancing, keep up on track and trace, keep noise at cafe levels of volume and the questionable 10pm curfew crippled hospitality and events. The more restrictions that are set upon the industry the more it eliminates the unique audience escapism that live music can offer. “[Events] are meant to be escapism,” said one participant. “The more parameters you put on that experience, the more deterrents you put on people, the less likely it’s going to reflect that experience of what it was before.”
When allowed to open, every venue is striving to create the most Covid-safe environment possible. However, we heard that it’s near impossible to control everyone in the building. The lack of control over the individual and fear of catching Covid-19 deterred vast swathes of potential customers from attending these spaces. To illustrate the worry and uncertainty, we heard the story of an event in March 2020 which sold 360 tickets in advance only to have 16 people turn up due to the fear of the virus. Even prior to the onset of lockdown, the public mood suggested large sections of audiences didn’t feel safe, highlighting the added hurdle for venues and promoters to attract these people back.
The constant uncertainty from month to month has crippled any ability for a venue to plan ahead effectively. The Independent Venue Week shows that Future Yard in Birkenhead announced for the end of January were quickly swept away as lockdown three emerged in the new year. Months of planning to get live music back safely to a new venue was again ruled out. In addition, there remains no concrete knowledge of when further shows or rescheduled shows can take place.
Looking back at 2020, as picked up from the responses at the consultation, we saw the positivity ebb and flow as we exited summer with some optimism. The constant rearranging of tour dates has seen some shows booked for last spring pushed back unsuccessfully into autumn, then to 2021, with others now pencilled in for 2022. These continued cancellations have eroded the confidence of audiences to buy tickets and many promoters and venues have seen ticket sales flatline to zero. One promoter added: “[There’s] a complete lack of confidence in when things are going to go back to normal. Things have changed so much over the last six months that if shows have been rescheduled, people might not believe that the new date is going to stick.”
This is devastating for promoters, venues and artists as ticket sales are a key revenue stream to keep the doors open and the staff paid. We heard in the consultation that one venue didn’t take any payment for themselves for a socially distanced show in October, just to support the artist. This is very charitable, but completely unsustainable.
The consultation touched on proprietors’ – particularly venue owners and promoters – relationships with how they are finding the funding and money to stay afloat. We heard many promoters, freelancers and musicians in the city outline how they didn’t reach the requirements to get furlough, so spent the months without any reliable income. In addition to this, we heard an attendee express an informed perception that the nearly all dance and club orientated music promoters in the city received nothing in the way of funding.
A variety of music organisations and charities like Help Musicians, PRS, Music Venue Trust and more set up funds and pots of money to help support musicians, businesses and venues that needed it during the lockdown. The largest organisation to do so was Arts Council England who allowed people to apply from £25,000 to £3million in support funding.
For some present at the consultation, including Bido Lito!, the first round of Cultural Recovery Funding from ACE was secured in October last year to help fund activity up until March 2021. The second round of funding applications closed at the end of January 2021, with organisations invited to bid for grants to cover shortfall between the period of April to June.
According to some attendees, the application process for CRF was not straightforward. This has led to many arts organisations, including the LCR Music Board, offer support to people who are filing bids for the first time so that anyone who needs to apply for funding isn’t restricted due to bureaucratic confusion.
For the first round of funding grants, applicants had to justify what the money was going towards. For many, the aims for the funding were as simple as paying the wages of the staff, but few could offer a tangible and successful programme of events that the money could go towards. The notion of something having to be commercially viable to attain funding hit a nerve with many at the consultation, deeming it unfair to not support the parts of the arts sector due to the commercial aspects of their model.
For those who didn’t get funding, there was a hope for a trickle-down effect as money set for socially distanced shows that didn’t take place should be used to support promoters and the supply chain. This approach will have helped those unable to receive income support like furlough. However, it relies on ringfenced pots of money to be handed out by the recipients. A tour manager at the consultation lamented: “All my mates are devastated. They just don’t have any work. No crew, no tours, no support, nothing. They’re just sitting there watching.”
As we enter the next funding cycle it must be said that, if the doors stay closed on music venues for an extended period of time, venues should be allowed to simply use this round of funding as a buoyancy aid to stay afloat in these trying times. Yet another stark admission was that the longer the lack of normal live activity continues, the less effective funding is at plugging the gaps.
Lockdown was something of a revelation for art spaces, as some found out for the first time the extent of funding pots available, with many now considering using these as an avenue of revenue for future financial plans. However, to reflect on the data from our first survey, many creatives in the city didn’t think the funds were for them, didn’t have the knowledge to fill out the complex forms or were unaware of the support available.
This again is reflected in the funding distribution across the City Region, as from the first round of granted culture recovery funds classical music venues like the Philharmonic received considerably more money than most Liverpool City Region music led venues. It can be inferred that The Philharmonic has the largest infrastructure and a more logistically complex programme than any other contemporary music venue in the city, and therefore justifiably requires a high amount of support funding.
The largest amount granted to a creative business in the Liverpool City Region was the M&S Bank Arena and ACC Group, which received £2.97 million in the way of support. This was the second highest amount of money given to a creative entity nationwide, only bested by the Birmingham Hippodrome which received the maximum £3million. The arena is somewhat of an anomaly in these considerations as the massive space has sizeable operation costs and reaches beyond music in their programming with large sporting and business events, as well as multiple conventions every year. It has also been a key venue in the virus testing and vaccination process in the city. However, this still produces somewhat of a paradox, as those with the history of receiving more funding did indeed get more funding. It’s an outcome that again highlights the disparity between professional and recreational organisations.
So, what are the solutions? Looking ahead to the summer of 2021, the number one priority is rolling out the vaccines to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But as we’ve seen with Glastonbury cancelling their 2021 festival, it’s likely too late to save another full British festival summer schedule. Yet some hope remains for smaller scale events.
As the vaccination programme moves from vulnerable groups to the lower age bracket, younger people in the country are going to be the last to receive vaccines. It is estimated that people under 35 might not get the vaccine until autumn 2021, or even 2022 if the roll out fails to meet targets. For a festival to host thousands of younger people this summer, without restrictions and regulations on mixing, then limiting the spread of the new virus strains looks unfeasible.
While a lot of consultation discourse reflected the unprecedented challenges of the past 11 months, there remained a desire to adapt and meet the demands of continuing limitations. Ideas to support Liverpool’s music sector were discussed, with the main focus highlighting changes to the culture of how we value music, musicians, industry professionals and the industry itself.
When we eventually move beyond restrictions, it was said that audiences need to support venues and artists better than we did before, pre-Covid-19. The abundance of “guest list culture” needs to cease if we are to properly benefit our artists and venues. By way of comparison, you wouldn’t go to a restaurant and ask for a free meal or go to a pub for a free pint, so why does there remain expectation to get into a gig for free on the guestlist? Artists play live shows as their job. Promoters and venue owners put on shows because it is their job.
All parties deserve to be fairly paid. The notion that live music is a hobby is damaging. In viewing it through this prism some people don’t see and recognise the true value of the service and experience they’re receiving. We as an audience need to acknowledge this better. For a music scene and city to grow we need to invest in it.
Also highlighted within the consultation was the idea of venues offering a membership scheme. Through this, audience members would subscribe to and support the venue with monthly or periodic fees which offer them benefits such a presale access to tickets. It would also underpin the knowledge that their support is contributing to the health of the venue. Schemes like this have the potential to make audiences value venues in a greater sense and make them appreciate the hard work that goes into facilitating their night out.
This is an idea already being backed by South Liverpool Arts Collective Wavertree Worldwide. For £5 a month audience members help fund events, pay artists and support their venue, Smithdown Social Club. In their own optimistic words: “As the memberships grow, the parties can, too.”
Liverpool is a city recognised internationally for its musical communities. For the most part they have all been forced to fall silent for 11 months. The consultation revealed that, although venue doors might be shut and the stages quiet, the drive and desire to get back out there is still as prevalent as ever. For now, though, the only certainty is uncertainty. As 2021 continues, we must learn from a year of great disruption and be willing to adapt. Hang in there.
Lead researchers and data analysis: Dr Mathew Flynn & Richard Anderson, University of Liverpool
Due to ethical considerations for the research, all participants’ responses from the consultation event have been anonymised.
The recipients of the latest round of CRF funding is due to be announced in early March.
View other features part of the Playing In research here.
** Correction: The printed version of this piece states that 97 per cent of dance music promoters have received no funding or financial support since March 2020. This statistic has not been validated and is therefore not correct. The sentence should have read “We heard an attendee express an informed perception that the nearly all dance and club orientated music promoters in the city received nothing in the way of funding.” Apologies if this provides a false picture of the levels of funding distributed through Liverpool’s music sector.