The Music Venue Trust held a Venues Day at EartH in Dalston on 5 October. Oliver Weindling of the Vortex attended. Here is his report:
The Music Venue Trust’s Venues Day was the first chance for 2 years for the grassroots music venues to get together. There was a strong celebratory element to it. Most venues are now open again, though can mean many different things. The hard work of MVT founder and chief executive Mark Davyd and of his team has delivered results: only four out of 770 members had actually closed, in contrast with the fear, in March 2021, that 83% could permanently disappear.
There were 5 main parts to the day (that includes the drinks get-together at the bar at the end of the day). The opening address was by punk musician Bobby Vylan, where he pointed out that of course it is a great feeling that venues are open again but we shouldn’t forget to continue the move to increase ethnic and gender diversity of staff, technicians and more (in stark contrast to the barbed comments by the likes of Nadine Dorries at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester going on at the same time).
What followed was a description, involving all the staff of MVT, along with their huge group of regional co-ordinators of how hard a battle it was to save the venues. No one had expected it to be such a long haul, and certainly with repeated lockdowns and changing health regulations, as members we were frequently aware of quite how hard they needed to work to interpret the twists and turns of regulation as it evolved, and to keep us informed.
The successful battle to keep the sector afloat was seemingly little to do with direct contact with the politicians, since they rarely responded to any letters – though Mark was complimentary about the civil servants at DCMS – and often gave conflicting advice about how to open. But a groundswell built through the support of the communities by means of crowdfunding and the #SaveOurVenues campaign (raising in total around £5 million – we at the Vortex were indeed grateful to receiving over £45,000 in this way), by musicians themselves lending support, and a few exceptional cities such as London. In particular, the MVT was able to mobilise venues to raise money through the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund. The success rate was extraordinary, with 80% of member venues getting grants of £70 million, even though virtually none had applied for any grants in the past and so had to learn fast. The main credit for this was due to the work of fundraiser Lucy Stone and her team. For that, she understandably won the MVT Outstanding Contribution Award.
It was in rather upbeat mood that the next session followed where several venues described how they pulled themselves out of the pit of despair when venues were forced to close in March 2020. Though bizarrely we had been reminded that there was a period of a week, they were told by Boris Johnson to stay open while he was also telling the public not to go out. A cross section of owners and managers from across genres and from all parts of the UK told their imaginative and powerful stories of how they worked with their community and colleagues. In that way they had the energy to reopen when the time came and keep creditors at bay. On the panel was Russell Occomore from the Camberwell Crypt, strangely one of the few other jazz venues at the event. He described eloquently his own experience and how the club is moving forward. But, as also came out from him and others, the positive attitude and joy at reopening for all hides an exhaustion and continued fears.
One of these issues in particular was raised in the final plenary, where discussion was about the problem that most grassroots venues are tenants and at the whim of private landlords. This contrasted with the situation for classical venues or concert halls. It was pointed out that a high percentage of the CRF money actually went to paying rent, rather than on ways for the venues themselves to adapt and move forwards for the long term, and that many landlords have been fairly unsympathetic throughout. So even if venues upgrade now and improve, their landlords may just turn round and take advantage of this smartening-up to substantially increase rent or bring in a more commercial alternative. A solution being investigated is the setting up a vehicle through the MVT which could gradually own venues, but remain in the control of sympathetic shareholders, through a community shares issue.
Intriguingly, through the course of the day, there was very little discussion of digital action and livestreaming, which was a major focus during lockdown, and the growth of which has been important for us. So for many, it seems like it was just something to do until reopening? Certainly it needs further discussion. Also very little discussion about the role of the media in the future.
Further discussions at an online follow-up meeting covered these and more in detail. Among these include how venues have been able to extend their activities, often in terms of working more closely with their communities, closer local connections between venues and also with local authorities and getting involved with more training of sound engineers and other tech staff. Of course, we now have to hope that these can be consolidated and extended.
So, overall, this a great chance to meet and catch up. But it really surprised me how the jazz sector seems to act away from the rest of the grassroots venues, even though we have a lot to share. But this was really just a chance to celebrate the hard work of Mark, Bev, Lucy and all the others at MVT and the grassroots sector’s survival instinct!
Categories: Conference Report