At the Back of the Crowd. How Lockdown Endangered the Music Events Industry – Opinion
The music events industry has been battered by the pandemic. A report published in October 2021 by UK Music suggested that a third of jobs have been lost. What this means long-term for professionals, artists and our culture remains to be seen. But there’s no denying this is a big dent.
Along with travel and hospitality, music events remain in the firing line of restrictions and have had the rough end of the government’s COVID policy. From closures to missed financial support, arbitrary measures continually put pressure on venues, artists and audiences. Without a shift in appreciation for our live music culture, its future grows more uncertain.
When the government announced its ‘restriction-freeing roadmap’ last spring, music venues and nightclubs found themselves at the back of the cloakroom queue of cultural spaces waiting to leave lockdown. Whilst cinemas and sports grounds returned in May, gig venues had to limit capacities and enforce social distancing. It wasn’t until July that they could operate normally or that nightclubs opened their doors. Frustratingly, the sectored approach to leaving lockdown, wasn’t balanced by sector-specific economic support as was urged for.
As the last out of lockdown, the music events industry came up for breath in sparse increments between March 2020 and July 2021, yet regional Tiers and 10pm curfews meant it never felt fully recovered.
The instinct to shut venues came from a fear of transmissibility. Concerns that poor ventilation and close distances would allow COVID to spread quicker has been the key reason for venue closure. Quite rightly, attempts were made to assess their risk using data. Liverpool saw a thousands-strong rave and outdoor festival take place last May to examine the effect of testing for large events. It seemed to provide the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card once the results of this rave reported very few people emerged infected. But despite showing the science against shutting down the industry, it was still last out of lockdown and will likely be first back into it.
Evidently, the landmark events in Liverpool and the positive data they produced to protect the industry, have been simply forgotten. Let’s hope those who attended have some memories to cherish, to make the whole thing worth it.
Sufficient financial support has also evaded live music. Delays to distribution of the Culture Recovery Fund by Arts Council England put many at risk in 2020. Insurance issues led to most festivals cancelling in June and July last year, and consecutive summers without a full festival season. Though the Grassroots Venue Fund saved many in 2021, the pseudo-lockdown of the past few months has caused cancellations and left small venues again in need of intervention. The government’s response has been widely condemned as disappointing. Since lockdown started, the music events industry has been battling to get on the financial ventilator it needs, yet has spent most of its time in a waiting room.
Approaching lockdown ‘sector by sector’ has meant industries now have to make a case for why they should be prioritised for support. 81% of nurses felt clubs and venues should have closed over Christmas, to stop hospitals in England being overwhelmed. Going by the reaction to Omicron by the devolved governments, who did close clubs and cap venues, policy makers agree that music events should be first on the hit list for lockdown restrictions.
And new variants and winter peaks are likely to force this choice again. If we want to protect the NHS, perhaps the government should start by reevaluating how the health service is organised, addressing staffing shortages, paying fairer wages and providing mental and physical support for staff, so the service isn’t constantly on the brink of collapse.
Closing nightclubs cannot be the only response.
Reflecting on the pandemic, there are plenty of questions that can be asked about lockdown policy towards music events: “Why are club nights considered riskier than gigs?”; “Does keeping capacity at 100 people, rather than 150, make a difference?”; and “Is there any science to justify these measures?”
Oh but of course, there is some science on this – it was captured at a rave in Liverpool last May. How could we forget?
The most pressing though is surely: why is this industry so neglected?
The answer may be a combination of economics and appreciation. Despite bringing over £5bn to the economy in 2019, live music is dwarfed by others – financial services alone provides £160+ bn. Put simply, culture loses out to GDP. And the music events industry, dominated by generally young left-leaners and historically at odds with the authorities (see ‘punk’, ‘rave’ or ‘drill’ music), it is unlikely to be first in line for hugs from the government. Especially from Culture Minister and known rave-hater, Nadine Dorries.
Changing this perspective will be a challenge. But not doing so puts the industry in jeopardy.
In the absence of gigging, artists rely even more on digitally marketing their music and living off the crumbs that streaming service giants offer. Travel rules and severed EU ties are already cutting tours for artists abroad. Faced with more uncertainty and more impact from restrictions than other industries, professionals in events may retrain and turn elsewhere.
Alongside losing a third of jobs already, it also risks the well-being benefits that a vibrant music scene provides. The identity it gives to communities, the communities it forms and the historical moments and memories it creates which can define us as individuals and as a nation.
To prevent an exodus of talent and mass closure of spaces, there needs to be a shift in the way music events are viewed, both in the context of COVID and beyond it.
The views within the article reflect that of the author and not necessarily the TSOTA’s as a whole.