The music business has been badly hit by Covid-19 restrictions. And following recent government interventions, things may be taking a turn for the worse.
“The challenge the industry is facing now is essentially survival,” according to Ian Huffam, a director of X-Ray Touring, whose clients include Coldplay and Robbie Williams. “It’s not just the survival of artists, venues and promoters, it’s the whole live ecosystem. The prospects for next year are grim.
“I’ve written off the first six months, and remain unconvinced that summer festivals have more than a 50-50 chance of going ahead. Live music is entering a deeply concerning phase. It’s a rocky road, and there will be casualties.”
The mood within the business seems to be turning extremely dark. “Fatigue is setting in. It’s gone on much longer and deeper than we probably imagined,” says Mark Davyd, head of lobbying body Music Venues Trust. “If everybody wasn’t exhausted enough already, we are certainly exhausted by the process of constantly changing messages from the Government.”
Anger and confusion greeted Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s comments about “non-viable” businesses being ineligible for his job support scheme. “The V-word – viable – knocks out a whole load of music people,” says Kwame Kwaten, head of Ferocious Talent and vice-chair of the Music Manager’s Forum.
“Live music brought in £4.5 billion in 2019, and supports 210,000 jobs, nearly a quarter of a million skilled people. The ripple effect for us is tour managers, roadies, engineers, lighting techs, transportation, front of house, keyboard techs, drum techs, stagehands, live agents, promoters, ticketing companies, merchandise, security, catering all becoming ‘unviable’.
“There’s the hole, right there. Because unless your business is earning right now, you can’t say, ‘I’m going to cover this amount of wages and the government can cover the rest.’ You cannot say that an industry that brings £4.5 billion a year to the UK is suddenly not viable. We are b—-y viable!”
“I can’t work out what ‘viable’ means,” admits Neil O’Brien, an agent and promoter who represents artists from UB40 to Dionne Warwick. He has a central London office which he plans to vacate when his lease comes to an end next month, and he employs six staff, two of whom are on furlough. “I’m a viable business at the moment, but that could change very quickly.
“Two weeks ago, venues were getting ready to start reopening in socially distanced ways, everybody embraced and responded to the challenge – there was a sense that we were back in business. Then they hit us with a 10pm curfew and ‘six months’ warning, and all of our planning starts to unravel. I can’t get insurance for gigs that might not take place, and without insurance we can’t issue contracts. It’s two steps forward, three steps back. It’s quite demoralising.”
The 10pm curfew has come in for particular criticism. “There is no evidence at all that the virus suddenly becomes more contagious at 10.01pm,” notes Davyd. “These high-level public-facing measures might sound good on TV, but don’t actually have any impact on containing the virus.
“We have read the government evidence. Less than 5 per cent of new Covid cases are being reported from all hospitality outlets – that’s bars, restaurants, hotels, golf courses, sports venues, everything. Meanwhile we’ve got 45 per cent in care homes, 27 per cent in schools, with no new measures whatsoever. There has to be a better way to do this. I honestly do not believe the 10pm curfew will reduce the R-rate one iota. It’s not logical and it’s not reasonable.”
Prior to these announcements, around 55 per cent of small venues were planning socially-distanced events between now and Christmas, but Davyd is concerned that audiences may stay away. “Frankly, most venues are going to lose money putting gigs on, but they are doing it to get their communities back up and running, to make sure artists and crew have something to do. They feel it’s important. But if you make the focus of your public campaign how dangerous it is to be out enjoying yourself, how are we going to sell tickets?”
While live music is the area most directly affected by social-distancing restrictions, the ripple effect is being felt throughout the music business. “Some artists are 80 per cent reliant on live income and everything that goes with it,” says Nick Stewart, a veteran music business consultant and manager. Although streaming and social media are big-earning platforms for a select elite of artists, many established musicians have seen incomes drying up, while new artists are unable to even get started. “Why would you launch a talented young artist at this moment in time? It would be like sending a surfer out with his board on a flat ocean in the hope that they might catch a wave.”
Not everyone sees it the same way. “I’m pretty pessimistic about the live side,” admits Stephen King, chief executive of music business consultancy RR11A. “But I’m sort of optimistic on the recorded side, because in some ways it has created opportunities. Young artists are pretty good at using social media and video to drive their careers, so it has levelled the playing field a bit. They have been using the time to develop, record, create content.
“When you look at the big rock acts, it seems to me they’ve just sat around waiting for this to finish. That’s probably not a very good business ploy.”
King, however, laments the lack of support for the live sector. “People have pretty much given up hope of starting again. Many highly qualified tour managers are now working for delivery and logistic companies, using their expertise elsewhere. Crew guys and sound engineers are looking for alternatives that aren’t dependent on touring. So when we do get up and running, we’re going to have a loss of some serious expertise.”
“We are talking about irreparable damage,” says Kwaten. “Infrastructures and livelihoods that support live events being decimated. And that is going to damage the cultural significance of how the UK is perceived, because music is one of our number one exports.
“So what I would say is: OK, Rishi, my friend, mate, compadre – here is the situation. If you are going for ‘viable’ jobs, what we’re after is targeted support to keep us viable. A targeted look at our business. There are bits of information that are micro, that need to be fed in at the Chancellor’s level. The creative industries as a whole contributed £32 billion to the British economy in 2018. That’s a lot of tax to the Exchequer.
“So stop for a second, get the right advice – and take action.”