The world of live music has been turned upside down in the last year, with coronavirus restrictions causing venues across the UK to close. And, although there was some semblance of normality for these venues when cases were lower, it was unfortunately short-lived.
We wanted to find out just how challenging this period has been for those at the heart of the UK’s live music scene and how they’ve had to adapt.
Sally Oakenfold is the Creative Director for The Hope & Ruin, a live music venue in Brighton where The Strokes played their debut UK headline show and where the likes of Adele, Dua Lipa, and The Kooks have performed.
We sat down with Sally to get her inside perspective of the last year and what she thinks the future holds for live music. In Sally’s words: it’s so important that we protect the culture that live music venues have created.
How difficult has the last year been for you?
It’s been very difficult. When the pandemic first started, we didn’t think it would last as long as it has.
We’ve been in a constant state of flux with having to cancel and reschedule shows again and again. We’re rescheduling some gigs for the fourth time now, which gives you an indication of how challenging things have been. Someone emailed me the other day asking if a gig was still going ahead because they’d not seen any information about it being cancelled – I was thinking, what rock have you been living under?
European and American tours have gone away – they’re not going to happen now. So many bands that were about to launch their new albums and get their name out there are not going to have an opportunity to perform, and we’ve not had the opportunity to host them, which is how we make our money.
We had the best calendar we’ve ever had in the last 12 months, and we’ve had to say goodbye to all of that. It’s heart-breaking.
However, we’ve been able to raise nearly £10,000 through a crowdfunding campaign which the Music Venue Trust has supported. Our target is £12,000, but we’re happy to be at nearly £10,000. We’ve also received some funding from Arts Council England and our local authority.
We’re operating with skeleton staff. Some people have left to go and do other jobs – one of our technicians supports children with autism; another is driving a delivery van. Whilst it’s great that these people have found other things to do, it’s a concern for us that when we do reopen, the skillsets we need may not still exist.
Do you think there’s a real danger of losing talent within the music industry after this period?
Definitely – loads of musicians have been affected by everything that’s happened. There’s a local band called Squid who have been doing really well and who I’ve seen blossom from playing at small venues to getting much bigger gigs.
Because of the restrictions, they’ve not been able to play those shows that launch your career and not been able to tour Europe as they were planning to before the pandemic.
They’re still doing well and getting loads of radio play, but they’re not able to build a fanbase in different cities throughout the country. For so many bands like them, this whole year of missing out on that will be a problem.
Have you been able to put on any live gigs in the last year?
We hosted three gigs just before Christmas, which went really well. We’d been reluctant to do anything until that point because we didn’t feel that hosting a gig would be of any use to us with all the restrictions we would need to implement.
Thankfully, the Music Venue Trust had sent us a letter with a detailed breakdown of how to host a live gig with the relevant safety procedures in place. We were also able to put on these shows as the legislation back then meant we didn’t have to provide a substantial meal.
Once we got the all-clear from the police and local licensing authority, we decided to trial it and see how it went.
We picked six local bands made up of people we know and had two bands on each night. We had 30 seats available, screens, and table service.
It was challenging. I had to make sure the tables were properly clean at all times, the chairs were the right distance apart, and the screens were in the right place.
We had to keep the bands separate – one band would be in the green room, we’d go in and clean it, then the next band would go into the green room while the other band sat in the venue. Everybody had to sit down, and there were arrows directing people to the toilets and smoking area outside.
But, despite the logistical challenges, the gigs were brilliant. The shows all sold out, people were well behaved, and we enjoyed the whole experience. It was amazing to see some live music at The Hope & Ruin again – we hadn’t put on a show in nine months.
It was so emotional – it just felt like we were back doing what we love.
When things start returning to normal, and people can attend more live gigs, will you adopt a similar approach to these trial gigs?
Yes, in the short-term, that’s certainly how we’ll do it – the gigs were a very useful exercise for us.
It’ll be like starting again, like starting a venue from scratch, because it’s not going to go back to normal straight away. We’re going to have build back up to where we were, and that’s going to require working with local bands, supporting the local scene, and working with other venues. Only by doing all of that will we get back to where we want to be.
That’s why we’ve applied for the second round of cultural recovery funding from Arts Council England to support us through this transitionary period. The fund is hugely oversubscribed, so we don’t know if we’ll get any of it, but we’ll see what happens.
Putting on a sit-down show which is attended by 35 people – when we’re used to having 150 people – doesn’t cover our costs, or even touch the sides. So, if we’re going to recover, we’re going to financial assistance from third parties.
The Hope & Ruin has been graced by the likes of The Strokes, Adele, and George Ezra. What does it represent as a live music venue?
The best gig is the one that happened last night – every gig matters to us. We’ve had the success stories like Dua Lipa and Michael Kiwanuka which are great, but we’re also here to support the whole ecosystem of people forming bands and performing live. Some of these bands may never go beyond the grassroots live circuit, but that’s still important because they can be loved by people up and down the country.
For us, it’s about supporting new music, the talent pipeline, and local shows – and doing all of this to the best of our ability. Ultimately, it’s about making sure everyone who sets foot in our venue has a great time.
One of the things we’ve worked with the Music Venue Trust over the last five years is ridding people of ‘the toilet circuit’. Coming to a grassroots music venue is not about that anymore – it’s about having a nice time. Other venues are a bit ‘scruffy’ and take a beating because they’re full seven nights a week, and people enjoy themselves. Things get broken, walls get scuffed.
But we keep the place as clean as possible and make sure that people have the best beers we can offer them and everything is as good as it can be. All of that is very important to us.
A lot of people spend their life going to small music venues all over the country and the world. Therefore, it’s vital that we’re considered as culturally significant as art, the theatre, and the opera, because that’s how we want to be seen.
You’ve mentioned the Music Venue Trust and Arts Council England several times. What do you think of the work these bodies are doing to support small music venues?
It’s been brilliant. The Music Venue Trust has been working with Arts Council England for many years now, and the wheels were set in motion before the pandemic took hold.
There was a proper support network in place, which meant that we had the recognition we needed to survive. There was a ringfenced Arts Council England fund that was specifically aimed at music venues because they realised that the grant application process was hindering these types of businesses.
The model Arts Council England had in place for grant applications didn’t work for the type of services we provide, and they changed it so that music venues can be part of the cultural landscape. This recognition has been fantastic for us, and the money we’ve got has helped us stay open.
Some venues have been mothballed because they’re solely clubs or live music venues, and there’s nothing they can do to open. But, the support of the Music Venue Trust and Arts Council England has helped preserve these institutions and will hopefully help bring them back to life.
How much support do you feel small music venues received from government and local authorities?
The government’s provision of furlough has been brilliant for people who are unable to work, but I still think there’s a lack of understanding of how our industry operates.
When the pandemic first started, Boris Johnson instructed people not to go to the pub but didn’t ask pubs to shut. So, we were open for a whole week when we didn’t want to be and still had to pay all of our overheads despite the venue being dead. It was ridiculous. The legislation around having to have a substantial meal also made no difference to how people behaved.
Speaking as someone who works in the creative industry, the comments made by Rishi Sunak suggesting musicians should retrain and enter a different sector demeaned not only our industry and the value it brings to the economy but also the jobs that they expected us to retrain for. You can’t just decide you want to be a care worker tomorrow.
The government needs to understand how hospitality works because I don’t think it does. If it did, the decisions it’s made over the last year would not have been taken.
A lot of local authorities also didn’t understand the legislation around being able to put on live shows without needing to prove a substantial meal. This misunderstanding meant that staff at small venues across the UK had organised live shows and done all the necessary due diligence only for local authority representatives to turn up and say: ‘You’re not allowed to do this.’ They then had to explain why they were.
Whilst we didn’t face this problem, in more remote areas of the country where there are fewer small music venues, it seems the message hadn’t filtered through.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt during this period?
I’ve realised just how much people in this country really value culture. There’s been so much press coverage about how big a role culture has played in our everyday lives, whether it’s watching telly, reading books, or painting. These activities have kept people entertained and, in a lot of cases, kept them going.
It’s so important that we save the culture created by live music venues. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the nation’s young people to be deprived of something that we all took for granted.
It was quite surreal when we were setting up for the live shows just before Christmas. You see the scuffed walls and chewing gum stuck everywhere, and you wonder: ‘Are people going to want to come here for a sit-down gig?’. But as soon as the house lights go off and stage lights come down, the space is transformed, and you think: ‘This is really cool’.
Because we offered table service, there was a 50% increase in what people were spending on food and drinks. People were really going for it. A live gig at The Hope & Ruin is normally £10 per head spend, but for these shows, it went up to £15. That was helpful for us in the short-term and showed us how much people value culture and are willing to support their local live music venue, which was so pleasing to see.
Obviously, we’d much rather go back to 150 people bouncing around our venue spilling beer on the floor, but we can’t go back to that yet. Hopefully, when the time is right, that will come back.
As someone who works for a small music venue, what measures are you hoping to see unveiled in the upcoming Budget?
We would like to see the continuation of the Job Retention Scheme. This would allow us to get through the months when we will be open but are operating on limited capacity and need flexibility with staffing levels.
It would be very helpful if the VAT were to stay at 5% of ticket and soft drink sales. In fact, a reduction on all drinks sales would be great! A reduction in beer duty would be really helpful for us, but won’t happen.
How will live music change once venues reopen after everything that’s gone on?
I hope it can come back as we remember it, and I think it eventually will because people are so passionate about it.
I think small music venues will be a big part of this resurgence. They’ll be able to work with local artists and put on shows at a very small scale to bring back that love and need for live music. Everyone who works in a grassroots music venue is committed to making this happen.
It’s going to be much harder for arena gigs, festivals, and stadium tours to recommence, but I think that will all come back. It’ll take a bit of time, but there are enough dedicated and hard-working people out there to make sure live music doesn’t disappear.
Thank you to Sally for her insights. You can support The Hope & Ruin’s crowdfunding campaign here.
Specialist music insurance from Insure4Music
If you’re a musician, we’re here to keep you playing. You can protect your instrument against theft, loss, or damage with our specialist music insurance.
We let you build your own policy, so you only pay for the cover you need. Find out more about our cover by clicking the link above or get a quote within minutes here.