135 U.K. Indie Venues Saved, But For How Long?

The Dublin Castle
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The Dublin Castle closed Music Venue on Parkway in Camden on June 21, 2020 in London.

"I wouldn't say that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel," says one advocate, "but we can see that light exists."

LONDON — When COVID-19 closed the doors of North London's iconic music venue The Dublin Castle on March 20, owner Henry Conlon initially hoped it would just be a temporary measure lasting eight weeks at most.

Five months later, the 300-capacity venue is once again welcoming customers through its doors, but only in vastly reduced numbers and only to buy and consume alcohol on the premises. Live music at The Dublin Castle, like the vast majority of U.K. venues, concert halls and nightclubs, remains strictly off limits, at least for the time being.

"It's just not financially viable for us to put on shows at the moment what with all the restrictions around social distancing," says Conlon, whose family have run The Dublin Castle for more than 30 years, with Blur, Madness, Coldplay, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys and Amy Winehouse just a few of the famous names to play there.

The coronavirus pandemic, Conlon says, almost brought the business to its knees. "The threat of closure was very real," he says.

The Dublin Castle was thrown a vital lifeline in the form of a £78,500 ($102,000) grant from the British government – part of £3.4 million ($4.4 million) emergency funding announced Aug. 22 that's being allocated to 135 grassroots venues in the U.K at imminent risk of insolvency.

Other recipients of the emergency aid include The Troubadour in London, where Adele and Ed Sheeran performed at the start of their careers; The Jacaranda in Liverpool, where The Beatles played early gigs; and London's 1,250-capacity The Clapham Grand, one of several businesses to receive £80,000 from the Arts Council England managed fund.  

"The money buys us another six weeks of life. It gives us a bit of breathing space," says Ally Wolf, venue manager at The Clapham Grand. Despite furloughing all its staff at the start of the pandemic, he says the business has continued to rack up large debts throughout lockdown with rent and building insurance alone costing £50,000 ($65,000) a month.

"Without this funding coming in many of these grass roots venues would not have made it to the end of September," says Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of Music Venue Trust, representing 900 small and medium-sized venues in the U.K, more than 90% of which are private tenants.

Davyd says that COVID-19 has placed around 400 venues at risk of permanent closure with only 10% of the sector able to reopen under the U.K. government's current regulations for live entertainment.

Since August 15, venues in large parts of the U.K. have been allowed to host indoor gigs again, providing that audiences are socially distanced and owners abide by the government's COVID-19 safety regulations.

However, two thirds of U.K. grassroots venues don't have the physical space to allow safe social distancing. The lucky ones that can still struggle to make the numbers work when operating on a reduced capacity, says Davyd, who says that only around 100 venues have so far reopened in the U.K.

The Clapham Grand -- which hosted a government-backed pilot July 28 that saw Frank Turner perform to 200 fans, around 15% of the hall's full capacity -- is one of the small number of venues taking a financial hit to welcome back punters with a mix of comedy, cabaret and live music.

Vasilis Dagadakis
The Clapham Grand

In accordance with COVID-19 safety measures, the 120-year-old venue has been reformatted as an all seated space with a reduced capacity of 200 people. Wolf has also introduced "TV studio quality" live streams for select events, recently selling 1,000 tickets -- costing £9.99 ($13) – for a live comedy fundraiser (proceeds after costs were split between The Clapham Grand and a number of other entertainment venues it is supporting).

"Short-term, it's never going to create the revenue to cover your fixed overheads," says Wolf. "But it's about looking at each individual show and asking: 'Is it a progressive step forward? Can we do two shows in one night? Can we do multiple nights? It's about being creative and positive with the programming to create what is in effect a new venue within the existing building."

Nevertheless, Wolf says The Clapham Grand's future survival is still dependent on it receiving further financial aid. "We've gone from being open six or seven nights a week to one or two nights with only 200 people per night. It's just not sustainable," he says.

A crowdfunding campaign has so far raised £55,000 ($71,000) for the business, while Wolf has filed an application for a share of the $500 million ($650 million) Arts Council England Culture Recovery Fund, which will distribute grants of between £50,000 ($65,000) and £3 million ($3.9 million) to U.K. cultural institutions in dire need. The fund is part of a wider £1.57 billion ($1.3 billion) culture rescue package announced by the British government Jul. 5 with the first wave of recipients to be announced late September.

Davyd says the Music Venue Trust has helped around 200 struggling businesses apply for the fund, which, if successful, will help venues to cover losses accrued by operating at a reduced capacity, or survive until they are able to fully reopen. U.K. venues are also eligible to apply for Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants and National Lottery Project Grants: Supporting Grassroots Live Music.

The Music Venue Trust is additionally one of many organizations lobbying government for an extension to its employee furlough scheme, which has seen the British government subsidizing up to 80% of furloughed staff wages and is due to end October 31.

According to research by the Night Time Industries Association, representing night clubs, bars and music venues in the U.K., more than 80% of night time businesses will be forced to make redundancies when the furlough scheme ends, if they do not receive further support. Sixty percent of businesses will similarly not survive longer than two months without aid, says the association.

"Eventually, this will be over and we need to make sure that the venues are still there for people to go back to. But we also need to protect the ecosystem that surrounds them," says Davyd. "We can't afford to lose all those skills and experience, whether it's door staff, sound engineers or lighting technicians."

Looking ahead, Conlon fears it could be another two years before he is able to open The Dublin Castle at full capacity, but is cautiously looking forward to having live music return to his venue in the near future, possibly as early as September. The tough financial realities of running a small music venue mean that he's also used to coping with often having only a handful of music fans in the room.

"Putting on grassroots acts is often loss-making as there is usually no packed audience," he reflects. "Many fledgling musicians have had their hearts broken whilst they play to an empty room."

"I wouldn't say that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel," says Davyd, "but we can see that light exists and that's a welcome improvement on a couple of months ago."

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