Live music: from crisis to pandemic

Published 18/06/2021   |   Last Updated 18/06/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

In 2020, the live music industry was in crisis, then the pandemic hit. UK Music told a Fifth Senedd committee inquiry into live music in 2019 that 35% of grassroots music venues (GMVs) across the UK had closed in the previous decade.

In May 2021, after being banned for over a year, the Welsh Government announced that indoor live music could resume for the first time since the pandemic began. Venue operators have warned that social distancing measures prevent profitable performances, meaning government support needs to be maintained for some time if venue closures are to be avoided.

Venues closed when performers need them most

Recent years have seen high-profile closures of music venues in Wales, such as Cardiff’s Point and Gwdihŵ, Carmarthen’s Parrot and TJ’s in Newport. Although industry-body UK Music said that 35% of grassroots music venues (GMVs) have closed in the last decade, there are no specific figures for Wales. UK Music blamed these closures on increasing overhead costs, such as bills, rent and business rates, and noise-related planning disputes.

These closures come when the collapse of physical sales and move to streaming services have seen musicians become more reliant on the income provided by live performance. Sain Records recounted a time when 2,000 CD sales provided a “sensible income” for artists and labels. By contrast, 50,000 streams nets an income of about £150.

Support for live music was “piecemeal and ad hoc”

When the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee (CWLC) began its inquiry in summer 2019 it found support for the sector from bodies including the Arts Council, Welsh Government and local authorities. The Musicians’ Union felt there was a “a gap” in how this work is coordinated, and other witnesses called the support “piecemeal and ad hoc”.

In January 2020 the Welsh Government launched Creative Wales, a new team within the Welsh Government to support the creative industries. One of its first actions was to launch a £120,000 fund for GMV operators, who could apply for up to £5,000 for capital improvements to their venues.

In December 2020 CWLC recommended that the Welsh Government should collaboratively develop a music strategy. The Welsh Government accepted, saying that “Creative Wales will be developing a pan-Wales ‘Action plan’ […] for the Commercial Music Industry”.

From crisis to pandemic

In March 2020 live music venues, along with other cultural venues, were ordered to close across the UK. The lockdown rules were initially implemented UK-wide but, as health is devolved, the constituent nations since changed these restrictions in different ways.

To understand the impact of the pandemic on the music industry, Senedd Research commissioned Professor Paul Carr to write a report on the initial impact, and how the Welsh Government’s response compared to other nations.

Just months after it was established, Creative Wales found itself dealing with a sector on life-support. It quickly launched a £400,000 Grassroots Music Relief Fund, building on the funding it started providing to GMVs just before the pandemic.

“Hats off to them”, industry expert John Rostron told CWLC, summing up the views of other witnesses, praising “how quick they were to […] support those venues at a point that was the best in the UK”.

This was followed in summer 2020 by a £53 million Cultural Recovery Fund (CRF). Funding for this came from a Barnett consequential triggered by equivalent spending by the UK Government in England. Professor Carr notes that this funding was “slow to emerge when compared to other European nations”. The CRF was subsequently extended in March 2021 with “up to £30 million” of additional funding from the Welsh Government.

The ban on live activity was longer in Wales than other UK, and many other European nations. This difference is unlikely to have given much of an economic advantage to venues outside Wales, as gigs in small venues typically operate with slim profit margins which are eroded by social distancing measures.

But, when CWLC spoke to venue operators in November 2020 they were keen to re-start socially-distant performances, even if they were not profitable. “It's not about whether we can survive financially without the gigs”, said Le Public Space’s Sam Dabb, “it's about whether people's mental health can survive without creative outlets”.

Other venue operators noted that re-starting activity would get money into their supply chains, including artists and sound technicians. And that the longer Wales went without activity compared to other nations, the more disadvantaged Wales would be when it re-started.

The effects of the pandemic are far from over

Since late May indoor live performances have been possible again in Wales, subject to COVID control measures. Earlier in May, 500 people attended the Tafwyl festival, as part of the Welsh Government’s pilot test event programme. The First Minister said this programme was “very successful”, and he had not seen evidence of people getting ill as a result. Up to 4,000 standing, or 10,000 seated, can now attend regulated outdoor events or gatherings.

But for the live music industry, the effects of the pandemic are far from over. It won’t be until social distancing requirements are removed – something the First Minister has warned may not happen in 2021 - that venues can return to full profitability. Even then, attendance could be limited by consumer confidence, or a change of leisure habits developed over a year of socialising from the sofa.

The Musicians’ Union has called for a “seat matching” scheme, whereby the state compensates venues for the cost of putting on events with low attendances. It warns that over a third of musicians are thinking of abandoning their musical careers.

Large events, such as festivals, have long lead-in times, so need long-term certainty. In normal circumstances, a lack of certainty can be mitigated with insurance, but this is generally unavailable for risks associated with the pandemic.

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has called for the UK Government to fill this gap. The festivals sector, it warns “faces another ‘lost summer’ directly as a result of the Government’s refusal to back insurance for events at risk of cancellation due to COVID-19 restrictions”. At the time of writing, Wales’s biggest festival, Green Man, hopes to go ahead in August 2021 and has sold out.

A workaround to enable music performances to take place with profitable capacities could be the use of COVID Status Certificates (CSCs), or “vaccine passports”, which would enable venues to vet attendees for their likelihood of having the virus. This is a matter on which the Welsh Government has so far been largely silent, and the results of a UK Government review are expected in the coming weeks.

For a sector that was struggling before COVID-19, the restarting of live performances is just one step on the road to recovery.

Further reading

Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee, Turn up the volume: inquiry into the live music industry (December 2020)

Professor Paul Carr, University of South Wales, The Welsh music industries in a post-COVID world (November 2020)

Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament