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Live music in Leeds: An industry still in crisis?

Two weeks ago, Leeds, along with many other cities in the UK, received its cut of the first tranche of Cultural Recovery Fund. Has it been enough to save live music in Leeds, a scene that thrives on grassroots music?

Yorkshire Voice Singer-songwriter Gabrielle Aplin performs at The Wardrobe, Leeds, for the venue’s final gig before lockdown.

By Sarah Jewers

I still remember the last gig I attended before lockdown. It was full of nervous energy, coughs were already met with uneasy stares, but the room was still alive. I watched people sing, I watched people dance on the spot, and I watched people stand within a two-metre distance of their fellow attendees without a worry in the world. Seven months on from this odd March evening, not only am I faced with the yearning to be in a packed crowd listening to live music, but I’m living, like many in Leeds’ music scene, with a constant dread of an on-going future without it. To a music appreciator but semi-outsider like myself, the Art Council’s Cultural Recovery Fund seemed to be a breath of fresh air similar to that of the one you get when leaving a stifling crowd. Sorry to alarm everyone, but it just really is not that simple.

On Monday 12th October 2020, the Arts Council announced it would be investing £257 million into the UK’s culture industries, including theatres, museums, and other cultural organsiations in its first tranche of Cultural Recovery Fund. This money went to the applications below one million pounds, which included successful applications from small music / late-night venues and music organisations in my beloved Leeds. Grassroots music is an industry that usually would not get a look in, but it was fought hard for by the Music Venues Trust, an organisation that normally helps venues with issues such as noise complaints, but really came into its own by fighting to keep this vital part of our nation’s culture alive. Overall, the music scene in Leeds received £1,640,570, which is over a quarter of the money Leeds received in total. As I scrolled down my Instagram feed on that Monday morning, I saw posts from my favourite venues such as Hyde Park Book Club and Brudenell Social Club expressing gratefulness and excitement over their successful applications for what, to me, looked like large sums of money.

I was not alone in my excitement. The news that multi-purpose venue and LGBTQ+ safespace Wharf Chambers was receiving £103,842 sparked one person on Twitter to exclaim that he was most ecstatic for this particular space as “it hosts so many amazing nights/events but more importantly it is such a safe and important space for queer people in Leeds.” Leeds North West Labour MP Alex Sobel also illustrated his elation by stating that these sorts of venues are “vital cultural institutions for our communities”. Surely, this was Leeds’ music scene being rewarded a shiny medal for its contribution to the culture of the city. It was only upon speaking to those behind the scenes at venues that I began to realise the nuances and the still-large presence of the have-nots in the aftermath of this announcement.

The news of Wharf Chambers’ success met positive reactions

Events and Marketing Manager at Call Lane’s Oporto Nick Simcock, 36, was positive about the news. He said, “it was really good to see a wide range of different places from Domino, to Wharf Chambers, and Oporto, getting the funding which means different genres will still be represented.” Leeds does not just support one genre – the city has venues to showcase the smallest names in grassroots music to the largest names in classical music. To use Nick’s words: “it supports many different vibrant scenes”. The diversity of venue supported is certainly one favourable aspect from this most recent grant. However, as Nick identifies, the scene is not just about these venues. The scene involves freelance sound engineers, venue reps, and of course, the musicians and artists themselves. These people did not receive a cut of this so-called recovery fund, yet they are so intrinsic to music scenes like the one in Leeds. In Nick’s eyes it is now down to the venues to make sure the money gets spread around by making opportunities for these people to get back to work. “Just because one person is based in a venue and one person carries a PA around in a van, doesn’t mean that person doesn’t do something as valuable.”

Whilst Nick did present an air of positivity, Toby Womack, 20, a Promoter at Futuresound Ltd, presents a more cynical, albeit justified, assessment of this money. He explains that the “sums seem quite a lot but with a large amount of full-time staff, this will just keep us afloat until the supposed end of restrictions in March / April.” In fact, it was written in the contract of the application that, if successful, venues had to post on social media to show their gratitude. Furthermore, the reality is that “it came too late for a whole other group of people.” He does agree with Nick that it is now down to venues to ensure that they involve the freelance staff associated with their venue. This includes the engineers and the reps, but also the in-house security who have equally not been able to work during this time. This also means a certain level of reaching out to venues who were simply not allowed to apply or were unsuccessful should take place. Boom in Leeds is a sole trader, and under the terms of the application, this prevented such a venue to apply. Similarly, The Lexington in London only received 40% of their application. For a sector that was described by the Music Venues Trust in late September as being on “red alert”, cracks in the recovery fund seeking to help this are blatantly obvious.

Yorkshire Voice Oporto, 33 Call Lane, Leeds, West Yorkshire

To onlookers, some may question why those working in industries like the live music industry need additional help beyond schemes such as the furlough scheme. Toby articulated it perfectly by describing this particular industry as “unique” as it needs support, but also it needs people to be working in order to operate in the future. Futuresound is there to book gigs, but how can they function post-pandemic if these events are not organised? “If we didn’t have extra support, we would have had our furlough pay and come off and there’d be nothing for us”, he said. Kane Whitelam, 27, a freelance sound engineer working in Leeds and the Yorkshire area, also expresses his frustration with these other schemes because he only views the money from the grant as having the purpose of ensuring venues stay open. He does not believe that he should be helped by the “money that the Music Venues Trust have bled out of the Cultural Recovery Fund”, but he, and others like him in all facets of society who are self-employed, should be getting better and more specified help from the government.

One way in which these small venues in Leeds and elsewhere in the country are beginning to get the cogs moving again is by socially distanced gigs. For example, at the beginning of October, Futuresound’s venue The Wardrobe announced a whole string of socially distanced events for the end of the month and the beginning of November. Kane himself has already worked a few of these sorts of events and says that this new setup has not “compromised on the vibe”. However, these events are not profitable, but are intended to show solidarity with the live music industry. “No one is doing them to make a big buck right now. They’re doing them because they care about the arts and culture.” He sees them as a performative measure to show the government the importance of live music. Toby is of a similar opinion. He says there is a likelihood of money being lost on them, but they’re there to give work to the aforementioned freelancers and also to put money behind the bar. Whilst they may be running for now, these events are also met with the threat of Leeds going into Tier 3 restrictions, under which these events simply cannot take place. With government restrictions tightening again, is the culture that they have apparently just ‘saved’ in crisis once more?

Furthermore, whilst the 10pm curfew does not stop socially distanced gigs, it does mean that the bars in these small venues lose money which is their main source of revenue. Gigs are at their heart, but their bars fuel their micro-economies. Instead of this being an attack on the virus, as it is not actually proven to help relieve the effects of the pandemic, it almost appears as an attack on culture. To Nick, Toby and Kane, this and the government rhetoric of those in the arts needing to retrain, has them believing the government does not actually care about culture, unless it’s in the Westminster interests. “A lot of things that happen after 10pm are wholesome, and very cultural and valuable,” said Nick. “People forget that people don’t live to work. People don’t move to cities because they love living in cramped flats and they love working in jobs. They move to cities centres because there’s something wonderful happening there and one of those things is hospitality and culture, and food and music and drink.”

Sendito Photography Leeds at Night, by Sendito Photography 

Finally, I posed to them a made-up character that did not understand the importance of live music, and culture in general, to Leeds as a city. How would they persuade this person that not only was this grant so extremely necessary, but that a loss of culture in Leeds would be near-apocalyptic? “If you go on holiday anywhere in Europe, the only thing that separates it from where you’re living is just that”, says Kane. “The lowest common denominator that makes a city unique is culture.” Nick explained that people don’t love Leeds because of its rainy Octobers and its transformation into the new home of the Conservative headquarters. They love Leeds because of its culture. “Daft Punk played their first ever gig in the UK at Back to Basics club night. That’s cool as hell and that makes me proud of the city”

On October 12th, the music and late-night scenes were not saved from the brink of extinction by a god-like force. They were not pulled up from dangling off the cliff. In reality, it was as if a bungy cord caught them at the final second, but they are destined to fall back if the restrictions don’t end or the government doesn’t realise the necessity of these industries to our cities. The live music industry in the UK contributed £4.5 billion to the UK economy in 2019, but this year its revenue has been almost zero. Venues shouldn’t have to be posting their gratitude across social media. In reality, small music scenes across the country like the one here in Leeds received the minimum of what the government truly owed them. Having now understood the more nuanced details of the ongoing storm against the live music industry and late-night industry, I think I now believe that not only should this grant be seen as a thank you to such a vital part of our culture and economy, but also that it may have come too late.

What do you think?