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Music industry assesses impact of new COVID restrictions in the UK

By | Published on Wednesday 23 September 2020

Live music

The music industry in the UK is assessing quite what impact the new COVID restrictions announced by the government yesterday will have on the sector. Late night entertainment will be hardest hit. However, people being urged to work from home again will affect any music company that had started to reintroduce office working, while an admission that these new measures could be in place for six months is a candid reality check that the impact of COVID is likely to be felt well into 2021.

Probably the biggest of the new COVID restrictions announced by UK prime minister ‘Boris’ Johnson yesterday is the one we already knew about: that pubs, bars and restaurants will be forced to close each night at 10pm. The government insists that pilots of such a curfew have proven effective in curtailing the spread of the coronavirus, even though some critics argue that early closing will probably result in more people – especially young people – socialising at home where social distancing rules are much less likely to be adhered to, resulting in an increase rather than decrease in infections.

Representatives for the hospitality and night time entertainment sectors have hit out at the curfew. The boss of the Night Time Industries Association had already dubbed the move a “devastating blow” before Johnson even formally announced it.

It is most problematic, of course, for those hospitality and night time businesses that had invested time and money into finding commercially viable ways to re-open following the initial lockdown period while still adhering to social distancing rules. In most cases, those approaches to doing business were only just commercially viable, so that the addition of the 10pm curfew will make operating at all very tricky.

In the night time entertainment sector specifically, plenty of businesses hadn’t been able to re-open anyway because of the COVID restrictions that were still in place from the original lockdown. However, the announcement of new restrictions now being added that could be in place for six months kills off any optimism that clubbing and other night-time entertainment might be able to start returning to normal in the months ahead.

For live music in general, the impact may not be so significant, even for promoters and venues whose shows usually go on somewhat later than 10pm. The government’s Department Of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport qualified the big curfew announcement by stating “guidance will make it clear that cinemas, theatres and concert halls can continue beyond 10pm but only if the performance started before 10pm and alcohol cannot be served after 10pm”.

Of course, for those venues where post-show bar sales are key to profitability – or where post-show drinking is a key part of the experience for audience members – the curfew will still be problematic. But for others that restriction on the restriction might mean the curfew doesn’t make much difference. Though, as with all new COVID rules, the devil is often in the detail that isn’t always immediately available.

Noting the DCMS’s clarification on the curfew, the Music Venue Trust said last night: “Based on this statement, MVT cannot officially comment on the impact of these new restrictions since it is not clear how grassroots music venues will be affected”.

“We assume that if the government believes that seated audiences enjoying a cultural event should be permitted to do so until the completion of that event, then that belief will obviously extend equally to the enjoyment of rap performance as it does to a classical music piece”, it went on. “We assume, based on this position from DCMS, that audiences that are enjoying the theatrics of Muse, for example, are as entitled to watch those theatrics conclude as an audience enjoying a West End play”.

Though given the impact on the wider night time economy, MVT stressed that the music and night time industries really now need two things from government.

First, more clarity on why the curfew has public health benefits. And second – as has been stated by pretty much every music and hospitality industry trade group – if ongoing COVID restrictions, however necessary, mean certain sectors are still basically in lockdown, those sectors should continue to receive the financial support that was in place for the original lockdown period.

MVT added: “[The] government report detailing the very concerning spread of [COVID-19] infection does not seem to demonstrate a causal link between the rise in infection, which we feel is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and the use of night-time economy spaces after 10pm. Closing night-time economy spaces is a serious measure with very significant impacts upon people’s businesses, jobs and livelihoods. Closing them during their most economically rewarding hours, 10pm to 1am, is an equally serious measure which will have precisely the same impacts”.

That said, if there really is good scientific evidence that such a curfew can restrict the spread of COVID-19, “then it should, we regrettably agree, be done. In the event of a 10pm curfew being required on the basis of scientific evidence, [the] government must recognise that this is a decision that must be made for the benefit of the country, and that therefore the country has a responsibility to the businesses and people impacted by that decision”.

“Businesses impacted by this decision must have the full furlough scheme extended immediately,”, it concluded, “and a financial support package must be created and provided to ensure such businesses survive this crisis”.

The general COVID support schemes for furloughed employers and the self-employed set up by the UK government earlier this year are now winding down, of course. That has already resulted in a steep rise in redundancies across the music and night time sectors as companies still basically in shutdown, which had previously been relying on those schemes to keep employees on the pay-roll, now have to make very difficult decisions as shutdown extends and financial support runs out.

The new restrictions, and the formal confirmation that they could be in place for six months, piles on more pressure and will result in more difficult decisions needing to be made.

Posting on Facebook last night the boss of Ministry Of Sound, Lohan Presencer, wrote: “Nearly all late night venues in the UK have had zero income since March. Furlough allowed us to keep our staff employed, but since August they’ve required us to start contributing to salaries – with what exactly? Sadly that means gradually we’ve had to make redundancies and then from the end of October furlough ends. Now we are told six more months and a 10pm curfew. No furlough extension, no financial support, no news of the culture grants, just sympathetic noises with zero fucking action”.

“70%+ of late night venues will be bust in five weeks”, he then warned. “These are not businesses that can simply restart on the other side. Landlords will have to agree huge rent waivers, councils (who are still demanding rates for our office space!) will have to stop saying ‘computer says no’, new tenants will have to fit out these spaces at huge expense, teams with years of accumulated expertise will vanish as they have to earn a living elsewhere and put food on the table for their kids, and raving will go underground into unlicensed, unsafe spaces controlled by criminals”.

He concluded: “Good luck Boris, hope you enjoy the party”.