The hopes and fears of music venue owners as they battle to defy the odds
David Jackson talks to the people who run three leading grassroots venues about the challenges of the past few months - and their hopes for the future
More than four months after music venues across the country were forced to close because of the coronavirus, the government announced in July that 150 small venues would receive emergency funding.
The £2.25m is the first slice of a £1.57bn relief package.
However, away from national headlines, many venue owners had long since realised the severity of the situation and had started to take action.
Esquires in Bedford, the Craufurd Arms in Milton Keynes and the Roadmender in Northampton have all been working to help secure their long-term future.
While none operate within metropolitan city surroundings, all three are staples of the UK music scene.
At last year’s Live Music Awards, Esquires was nominated in the best venue under an 800-capacity category and it headed into 2020 ready to celebrate its 30th birthday.
“We’d made a strong start to the year, with multiple sold out shows and some exciting artists like Dry Cleaning, Warmduscher, JOHN, BC Camplight and Ho99o9 having already played,” explains Gareth Barber, owner of the 270-capacity venue.
“The rest of the year was looking so good too. It was our 30th anniversary so it’s a bit upsetting to see all that go up in smoke.
“I’ve been a promoter for 18 years and involved in music in some way or another for the same amount of time. I don’t think anyone has ever known anything like this.
“Hopefully there is an end and we don’t see anything like this again in our lifetime.”
At the 300-capacity Craufurd Arms, in Wolverton, Milton Keynes it was a similar story.
While catering for the heavier side of the musical landscape, it is also a regular on the alternative scene, with the likes of Idles, Fontaines DC, Basement and Cancer Bats all having played sold-out shows in recent years.
Jason Hall, who runs the venue with colleague Max Harvey, said: “It was a sickening feeling. I was a bit optimistic it would only be a few weeks and I’d not be sat at home four months later with no real time frame to re-open.
“We had five sold-out shows lined up for the two weeks leading up to and during the closure which were subsequently cancelled or postponed.”
The Roadmender in Northampton is the largest of the three, with an 800-capacity main room.
With roots as a social club in the town, the venue was a regular stop-off for everyone during the Britpop era.
More recently the likes of Slowthai, Gary Numan and Don Broco have headlined with the venue also hosting regular electronic music and dance events. This year it was set to mark its 80th birthday.
Husband and wife team David and Natalie Norris were left “frightened” at the prospect of closure.
Mr Norris said: “It was shaping up to be a promising year but this just put us into another zone.
“It was frightening. I genuinely thought we’d be back up and running by about July.
“The realisation has hit us that until there’s a vaccine, we’re never going to be the same.”
The unexpected closure of all three venues saw a scramble to reschedule gigs, asking ticket holders to forgo refunds and dealing with bar inventory. More than four months on, some gigs have already been rescheduled for a second time.
Natalie Norris said: “Ninety-nine per cent of our supporters have been brilliant and we’ve only lost a small proportion of ticket sales.
“People don’t always realise there’s human beings behind the names of venues.”
Aside from Esquires, Mr Barber is also part of promoters The Pad Presents so was rapidly having to rearrange other national tours and regional shows.
“We did around four months' work in two weeks and I was moving house during lockdown too, so it was quite intense,” he explains.
“Other than that, we have just been trying to put as many of our ongoing accounts into a dormant status to try and save as much money as possible.”
The Craufurd Arms and Esquires were quick to establish Crowdfunder appeals after closing - before the Music Venue Trust’s #SaveOurVenues campaign and before the government announced financial support packages.
Both smashed their targets, raising £30,490 and £50,429 respectively.
Mr Barber said: “I was humbled, surprised and very thankful. It felt like a validation of all the hard work we’d put in since taking over a few years ago and the hard work of everyone involved in the venue before that.
“I had to stop reading the comments on the Crowdfunder after a while as it got so overwhelming.”
Commenting on Craufurd’s success, Mr Hall adds: “I was absolutely speechless about hitting our target– it meant so much to us that so many people cared enough about Craufurd to protect and help save it.”
More recently the Roadmender also launched its own Crowdfunder appeal.
All three venues remain optimistic that the £1.75 billion support package which was announced on July 5 will trickle down to a grassroots level.
Mr Norris said: “It’s about keeping people in jobs - even though gigs won’t be profitable, grants will hopefully mean you can balance the books.”
As with thousands of other businesses, the government’s furlough scheme has proved invaluable in helping to pay staff wages and the same is true at music venues – despite there being many roles fulfilled by contractors, not employees. The Craufurd Arms, the Roadmender and Esquires have all been using the scheme to help keep paying their staff.
Mr Norris said: “The furlough scheme has kept the wolf from the door, massively.”
Similarly, Craufurd Arms has been able to retain all its staff through the scheme as well as being able to make up the final 20 per cent of wages.
And it’s a similar story at Esquires. “We had to take advantage of it, it was either that or all of the staff would have lost their income,” explains Mr Barber.
“I do worry how we will be paying back for it as a society going forward, but at the moment it’s one step at a time.”
In an industry with hundreds of venues operating independently, the work of national charitable foundation the Music Venue Trust has been invaluable in providing a unified voice and support.All three venues are quick to praise the help it has been.
“The Music Venue Trust are a shining light in all this,” explains Mr Hall. “Their work is relentless and invaluable.”
The sentiment mirrored by Mr Barber and Mrs Norris. "I can’t really put into words how helpful the support has been,” adds Mr Barber. “Without them, I think you will have seen absolute carnage in the sector, not just through this but over the last few years as well.”
Mrs Norris added: “Without the work of The Music Venue Trust, we may have only been talking about theatres and large venues – they are so passionate and they have been so good during this.”
On July 11 the government eased restrictions on live music performances, permitting socially distanced gigs outdoors.
While neither Esquires, the Roadmender or the Craufurd Arms have dedicated outdoor performance spaces, Northampton’s 200-capacity venue The Black Prince was quick to capitalise on this with its garden which can hold almost as many as its venue - while complying with social distancing restrictions.
It is one of the few venues in the region which has started to put ‘quieter’ music and comedy back on the calendar.
In the interim, the Craufurd Arms has started to look at broadcasting gigs to fans. Mr Hall said: “We will be launching this very soon and are looking at different avenues to make it the best it can be but also provide some income for us and the bands that perform.
“We also want the ability to stream our gigs once it’s safe (to re-open), so going forward if people don’t quite have the confidence to go out, then they can still access them.”
While music fans and those involved in the industry are all hoping for an eventual return to ‘normality’, there remains a nervousness and reluctance to pack hundreds of people into a room before it is safe.
“I don’t think anyone wants to go and stand in a busy room and nobody wants to host one either – everyone is just praying for the magic ‘V’ word,” concedes Mr Barber.
“I believe we will (get through this),” he adds. “We are a strong venue and the support from the community will get us through it, along with further assistance from this support package.”
At the Roadmender, despite PPE, thermal imaging camera equipment and screens, Natalie and David are not hurrying to bring people back inside for capacity gigs and are even considering alternative uses for the venue until they can properly host gigs again.
The pair admit it could be another 12 months before big gigs return.
Mr Norris said: “We have to be hopeful that at some point we will be able to have 800 people back inside but I have a responsibility, as do artists, to only do this when it’s safe.
“People love live music and want a place to go. That isn’t going to change. We just have to try and get through this and into next year.”
Mr Hall concludes: “We cannot wait to open back as normal and get on with what we do. It’s hard at the moment to see an end though.”
* This article is part of The Show Must Go On, JPIMedia's campaign to support live arts venues