Why the live music scene will not return anytime soon
Despite several vaccines on the horizon, is it still apocalypse right now for the UK live music industry?
Andy Farrow, managing director of Northern Music Company. Image: Therés Stephansdotter Björk
The music industry is in crisis. This has been a constant refrain in recent months, via online campaigns such as #wemakeevents, or even scattered in-person protests, which invariably have little impact due to restrictions on public gatherings. But does anyone outside of the industry really understand how grave the future is? Or will help only be forthcoming when it’s too late, and thousands of venues have long since ceased to exist?
Perhaps understandably, the plight experienced by the industry focuses almost exclusively on its creative incumbents: the artists and bands. However, without producers, lighting engineers, sound engineers, roadies, caterers and the hundreds of other important cogs in the wheel, live music would be unheard and gigs and festivals rarely experienced.
The support from the UK government has been mixed and sometimes controversial. And while some may argue that unprofitable businesses should not be propped up by subsidies, this is an industry that has had closure forced upon it. It has been rendered unprofitable because the gates have been locked by others, and even those who invested in adapting their premises and working practices in order to continue trading still find themselves subject to closure when new local and national lockdown directives are issued.
Andy Farrow is the managing director of Northern Music Company (NMC), a successful UK firm which manages and promotes the likes of Devin Townsend and Opeth. For Andy, and many others in the industry, the announcement of nationwide lockdowns were something of a ‘JFK’ moment.
“Ironically, I was actually attending the ILMC [International Live Music Conference] in London” he chuckles. “I got back from there and I kept getting phone calls from the ILMC – someone I had met, a Greek promoter, had got COVID and she was three weeks in hospital. That was March and I had to go into isolation, and then all the rest of the office went a week later.”
The pandemic was uncharted territory for every business, but for those which rely upon mass gatherings to operate it presented an almost insurmountable set of challenges. Additionally, as NMC regularly books tours two years in advance – acting as both a management company and booking agent – its immediate response had to cater for the needs of bands and promoters.
“In the beginning of lockdown, the first thing I did with all my staff was to look after the bands,” says Andy. “We approached all the bands with different things they could do to make money. We talked about live streaming, merchandise, reissuing catalogues on album anniversaries et cetera.”
Many bands at the time were failing to get to grips with the long-term consequences and the need to act decisively to ensure their existence.
“Some bands put their head in the sand,” admits Andy, “but we explained that it’s all about content and engaging with your audience, because everybody’s kind of frightened. So, I spent the first two months of lockdown just focusing on bands. We went through every single band we’ve got and did cash-flow forecasts to see whether they would survive. Our bands are set up with companies so some of them have benefitted from a self-employed grant or a furlough, but some of them didn’t.”
With a plethora of client responsibilities, it was quite some time before his own business could be analysed and potentially restructured. “It wasn’t really until August that I really started looking at my own companies,” says Andy. “One company that did really well was the merch company, because straightaway we were on the masks and everything. Some people were critical, but we sold about 5,000 and the merch company has tripled its turnover. But going forward, with unemployment looming, there’s going to be less money. That’s why I said to bands there’s a lot of competition and people won’t have the money.”
Many in the industry shared Andy’s view, and in the absence of live shows looked for ways of engaging with their fans. Some began streaming live performances – very often acoustic-based – and some even offered music-themed cooking lessons. No stone was left unturned. But for fan engagement there’s no substitute for live performance and the merch stall is a vital income-generator for every band.
The focus quickly turned to socially distanced gigs. “Early on, Live Nation approached me about one of these ‘drive-in’ gigs,” Andy recalls, “but they cancelled those due to local lockdowns. The big problem with doing these socially distanced gigs is that you could set it up, spend money, get stuff organised, and then it can just be cancelled within 24 hours. It’s very risky and there’s no insurance.”
Some European countries looked for subsidised solutions to the capacity problem. “In Norway, their government was talking to promoters about bands playing 2,000 capacity venues with 200 people in. That’s about getting the industry together – they will invest so people can get back to work and they will make up the difference in the fee. I think from the perspective of a fan, to be one of 200 people in a 2,000 capacity venue would be great. But on the other hand, would you go to a gig? Because most of my bands are pretty heavy! I asked all my staff this on a Zoom call, and they answered ‘no’, but then that’s the old kind of gig with mosh pits et cetera!”
With no suggestions that large public gatherings are likely to be sanctioned in the UK any time soon, even the most optimistic in the industry struggle to envisage anything other than a bleak future. Bands who immediately predicted the worst when the first lockdowns were announced sensibly postponed upcoming tours for 12 months. But now even that appears optimistic.
Indeed, my own band, Godsticks, confidently rescheduled our April 2020 shows to December, but recently had to admit defeat and postpone until October 2021. “When this hit, we shifted all the tours that were due to start this year to January 2021,” says Andy. “But the way people are thinking now there might not be any gigs until autumn 2021, and there might not be any festivals.”
“Postponing instead of cancelling is a big issue – if people keep the tickets it means the venues and promoters can try and survive. They can always get their money back, but it’s about moving it and moving it, otherwise there’ll be no industry. What we’ve done with bigger bands is we will have the original period, and then we have backup periods. But what is happening is, in autumn 2021, everybody is going to be on tour. There’s no availability.
“Additionally, there might be a thirst for live gigs, but there’s only going to be so much money about. Somebody said it’s like shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic! You just need to keep moving along, but the reality is you could just say 2021 is not going to happen, and some of our tours we pushed back to 2022.”
While various sectors have seen government-backed incentivising policies introduced to ensure business continuity during the pandemic, the music industry feels somewhat neglected. “The music industry is worth £5 billion annually” says Andy, “We produce and export some brilliant bands and I just don’t think it’s on the government’s radar what a big business it is. As a body, we maybe haven’t shouted loud enough. There was a select committee with Andrew Lloyd Webber and others, but the problem is musicians are put into that bracket.
“When you applied for a grant, they gave it to the arts council to distribute and it was very complicated. You had to fulfil certain things the arts council liked. The music industry makes a profit, pays loads of tax, and we got lumped in. Firstly, it shouldn’t have been the arts council distributing that money as I know in other countries the actual music industry in the form of a committee are involved in how the arts council spend the money, but the recent payout in the UK will have saved many for at least until March. A lot of people would be put off by the form because it doesn’t suit what they’re doing, as it’s more about theatres and non-profit-making cultural ventures.
“The measures they put in place were kind of socialist for a Conservative government, they put a lot of money out – but there were huge parts that were missing. A lot of self-employed people in the music industry, TV, production and film… they were kind of missed out. I don’t think they recognise just how much the music industry makes. I’m sat here looking at ways to bring in money, but long-term with Brexit and all that, it’s very, very concerning. I’m not angry yet but if you’ve seen the news, it’s like, ‘When will this end?’ Maybe this is the end of the world!”
There is also an entire infrastructure around gigs and festivals that often goes unappreciated. “A festival in a town can generate huge amounts of money for that town,” says Andy, “so if the whole live scene goes, what are we going to have? People on Simon Cowell’s shows? They’re not going to have anywhere to develop, and that’s a worrying factor.
“Germany, for example, is spending loads of money. It’s the biggest one in Europe for album sales, but they don’t produce the kind of bands we do. From a cultural side, are we going to be able to produce acts? But who knows, people might just start at home, do streams, and build online. At least these days with the internet, you can reach a fanbase. A lot of people are going to struggle, especially with mental health issues, and music does uplift people”.
Have we reached a tipping point? Are we at the point of no return with regard to the demise of music venues, the loss of jobs, and many people leaving the music industry for good? Andy is adamant. “It’ll be a tipping point at the end of the year,” he says. “Many agencies, they’ve let loads of people go; Live Nation has let people go; I know promoters that are struggling. Maybe all the independent promoters will go, which is sad.
“You don’t want just the powerful ones, the massive corporations to be there. I think what will happen is that loads of bands will just give up, lose their jobs. But what’s been happening during this period is record companies have been doing brilliantly. They’ve not said, ‘Let’s help the business.’ They’re making a lot of money and there’s been no talk. With my bands, September is royalty time and I said to all the labels, ‘Make sure you pay us quickly,’ and some of them still haven’t paid. There’s no excuse; I will put a black mark against those labels.”
Though the immediate future is bleak, does a vaccine provide a way forward? “What some of the bigger festival promoters are saying is, if people have been vaccinated they can carry a card and they should be allowed to get into gigs. But they will not be able to vaccinate the whole world very quickly. At a grassroots level, crowd-funding is an important thing. Another thing is to appeal to the bigger acts. A multi-millionaire musician could help something survive, venues that helped their career.
“I don’t have any answers. It’ll be either developing herd immunity, or there’ll be no gigs and everything’s gonna go bust. Pubs are open, schools and universities are back, I don’t see why you can’t have gigs. I love going to the pub but it doesn’t make sense – you can’t do all these other things and yet you can go to a pub! I’m hoping music will come back with acoustic stuff first.”
And in the meantime? “The biggest thing that bands and companies need to do is adapt. For so long now, it’s all been about playing live, but one of my current mantras is, ‘It’s all about the merch.’ Merchandise is a badge for the fans that want to support you, and the longer stuff gets left, the fans will have less money. It’s so important to engage with your fans. The live scene is not coming back quickly.”
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