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With relaxed social distancing rules not helping live music, UK live industry again calls for extra government support

By | Published on Wednesday 24 June 2020

UK Music

UK Music yesterday told the government that the music industry risks being treated like a “forgotten relative” as the economy slowly returns to normal after the COVID-19 shutdown but live music remains without any timeline for re-opening.

The comments came as ministers confirmed they were amending COVID-19 social distancing rules in England in order to allow bars and restaurants to re-open on 4 Jul, albeit with some restrictions still in place. The rule that people should be able to stay at least two metres apart at all times has been amended to one metre, though with the add-on that ideally people should be further apart than that. That’s a key change that will allow some – though not all – in the hospitality sector to start trading again in a commercially viable way.

Somewhat bizarrely, the official list of businesses that will be able to re-open next month also included “theatres and concert halls”. Though there was an extra restriction for those businesses: no live performances. Which basically means theatres and concert halls cannot re-open on 4 Jul. Meanwhile nightclubs are still on the government’s ‘can’t open’ list.

That the live music and clubbing sectors won’t be among the businesses able to re-open on 4 Jul is not a surprise, pretty much from the start of the COVID-19 crisis it’s been clear that these sectors will be among the last to get back to normal.

However, the music industry – and other similarly affected sectors like theatre – fear that, as the narrative in political circles becomes “things are back to normal”, the general COVID-19 financial support packages will wind down while music venues and theatres are still closed.

Of course, no one is suggesting that venues should re-open until it is safe to do so. But it’s crucial that ministers and public health officials are working with the relevant sectors to consider every option for getting things back up and running again in a safe way, and keeping everyone in the loop on what might happen when.

And while that is happening, the music and theatre sectors argue, sector-specific financial support will be required to keep venues, promoters, producers and other live event service providers functioning in the extra months it takes for their businesses to resume.

The Music Venue Trust says grassroots venues need a £50 million cash injection to ensure their survival over the summer, and has also proposed a VAT holiday for all live music companies once things do re-open.

The acting CEO of cross sector trade group UK Music, Tom Kiehl, said yesterday: “While it’s welcome news that social distancing guidelines are being eased for other sectors, many parts of the music industry are still urgently awaiting clarity from the government”.

“Thousands of people who work in the music industry, which generates £5.2 billion a year for the UK economy, are struggling to survive and many businesses will go to the wall unless we get the vital support needed to get the music business back on its feet”, he went on. “There is a real risk that music will be left swinging in the wind unless the government moves quickly to agree a detailed plan with the sector to re-open”.

“We cannot afford for music – which is so culturally, socially and economically important – to be treated like some kind of forgotten relative while so many other sectors are being given a blueprint for them to emerge from lockdown. With much of the financial support from the government tapering to an end over the next few weeks, the music industry urgently needs to know what financial help will be available to support businesses … while they remain closed”.

Going into specifics, he added: “Live music needs VAT relief on future ticket sales which would amount to a lifeline worth up to £300 million to the sector over a twelve month period”.

“If the UK government does not provide swift and well-targeted support to the music sector”, he concluded, “we will see venues close for good, thousands of job losses, as well as the loss of irreplaceable musical talent and technical skills – even if the industry is able to return to economic viability. The absence of live music has left a huge hole in the lives of millions of music lovers and temporarily deprived tens of thousands of people of the livelihoods. We need to move towards a place where we can once again let the music play”.

The Night Time Industries Association has also called for more clarity and support from government. Although some of its members – ie bars and restaurants – may well be able to re-open on 4 Jul, it criticised the short notice provided by government of the rule changes, while also pointing out that the venues and clubs in its membership, as well as some of those on the hospitality side too, still face major challenges.

CEO Michael Kill said: “Today’s announcements are to be welcomed as they will help many businesses start to recover from lockdown. But the ten day build up period to 4 Jul will be costly and hard to meet for many businesses and we need to see the details of the guidance and protocols associated with today’s news”.

“And it’s important to remember”, he went on, “that whilst this is the ‘green light’ for some venues to re-open, many of them will struggle to be profitable even with the social distancing mandate reduced to one metre. [And] for many of our members, including nightclubs, casinos and some pubs, restaurants and bars that can’t meet the one metre social distancing obligations, the nightmare of enforced closure goes on”.

With that in mind, Kill concluded: “This reinforces our urgent call for the government to commit to further immediate financial support for our sector. These excluded venues play a vital part in the cultural and civic life of our communities the length and breadth of the country. Businesses operating in the nighttime economy have needs distinct from those operating in more general hospitality and it would be unforgivable if those needs are not taken into account by government”.