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Independent venues fight for survival during the pandemic

Six UK independent venues on their fight for survival during the pandemic

With the Music Venue Trust’s #SaveOurVenues campaign trying to secure the future of the DIY and grassroots scene, we speak to the venues affected by the lockdown

TextSelim BulutIllustrationCallum Abbott

On April 27, the Music Venue Trust launched the #SaveOurVenues campaign, hoping to protect and secure the future of over 500 independent, grassroots, and DIY venues across the UK facing hardship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Three weeks later, the campaign has raised over £1.5m in donations, with 140 venues being taken off the ‘critical’ list of venues facing imminent closure. But is it enough? 

“The fact we have managed to remove 140 grassroots music venues off of our critical list in the last three weeks is, of course, a cause for celebration, but we are not complacent as this is only a relatively short-term fix,” says Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of the Music Venue Trust. “They are still under real threat in the coming months, as are over 400 others.”

Independent venues were struggling, even before the pandemic hit. Costs were high, returns were low, and local cuts and vulturous property developers were circling. The shuttering of beloved nightlife spots one of the more dispiriting cultural trends of the 2010s. The pandemic has only exacerbated these problems. While the government has offered some support to businesses, it hasn’t really gone far enough in offering them long term protection. Clubs and venues are likely to be the last businesses to reopen, given the inherent risk of congregation (South Korea, which seemed to have a handle on coronavirus, traced a fresh outbreak back to a nightclub), and even then it might be at a costly reduced capacity. The whole point of being in a crowd is to feel close to friends and strangers, so it’s likely that there will be a long period for the public to readjust to venues, even when they can safely reopen.

In the meantime, then, it’s essential that grassroots venues are helped in any way they can be, so that there’s something to go back to in a post-pandemic world. “We still desperately need more music industry companies to step up and help with donations alongside real action from (the) government specifically around rent relief, more financial help and clearer guidance,” says Davyd. We spoke to six venues around the UK about how they’ve been coping with their closures, and what they need to survive.


Gareth Barber, director: It’s a testing time for venues, as everyone is aware. I took over Esquires in 2016, and it’s been four years of hard work by the promoters here to re-establish the venue on the national circuit. This year was meant to be the 30th anniversary year, and we had so much planned that has fallen by the wayside. The lockdown has ceased all trading, and I wouldn't be surprised if it harms consumer confidence for some time once we are allowed to reopen. Sales for our events have fallen off a cliff, so it’s hard to be able to plan going forward due to a lack of sales for events and the uncertainty around when reopening may be and what that would look like. 

I don’t trust the government to support the sector properly – our greatest hope lies with Music Venue Trust, who have been doing an amazing job fighting our corner for the last few years. If we are expected to reopen at a reduced capacity, with social distancing measures in place and extra staff to enforce this, I believe this could signal the end for venues much quicker than being told to stay shut. It just won’t work. We needed more support and funding before this crisis. We prop up a billion-pound live music industry by ensuring the future headliners have somewhere to cut their teeth, and the sector is mainly independent – not owned by big corporations, but funded by passionate people who love music. We have been very fortunate to have raised some good money through our own venue’s fundraising, but we are still unsure whether that will be enough to keep going. 

The goodwill from the landlord will only last so long, and we have some large-scale repair work needed on the venue (a roof bill at £6K, for example), so any fundraising is going to be a big help not just to survive, but to also fix things that are broken! Our fundraising target is £12,000, although if we reach a target we think we are safe, we are talking about putting more into the central fund.  We have been very lucky at Esquires that the venue means so much to the community. They have in turn shown their support through a crowdfunder to keep the venue alive, and we might not be here without it.


Ciaran P. Smyth, director: Voodoo opened its doors in the pit of a depression some nine years ago. Music venues are not great when it comes to a business model at the best of times, but we had brought with us some intense venue experience and recognised that there was a whole raft of talent and followers that were never going to be part of what was the relatively recently government-supported music establishment. There is some amazing talent in Northern Ireland that still prefers to follow the path of practically all the province’s big music successes, and cut its teeth in the tough music venue circuit. Our customers love their music. We’re the go to place for those people.

It took six of our nine years at Voodoo to build up a reputation as the place to go for wide-ranging and exciting live music in Belfast. We considered ourselves successful when we started to break even; we immediately reinvested in the place to make it bigger and better. The venue has been refurbished and an extra shop unit added to form a good cocktail bar – another big investment that had just started to come good. What a slap in the face it was when the whole lot had to close on the morning of March 17, St Patrick’s Day no less. No payback, a huge debt, a bunch of young enthusiastic staff with nowhere to go. It was a horrible day.

Thankfully, we have been able to retain all the staff so far through the furloughing scheme, and a government grant has held some debtors at bay. But now I’m working on a very uncertain future. We have lots of possibilities and ideas exercising in our minds, but they all depend on guidelines that are anything but clear. Everything that we have to do is subject to our being able to cope with the demands that will be made of us. Will there be any more government help? Will our insurance company pay out for Business Interruption? Will we have to fight them? Will our landlord agree to a reduction in rent, or will he just drive us into further future debt.

“In the space of two weeks, we lost six months of our carefully curated calendar of seven gigs and three club nights per week, without any vague timeline of when we may be able to open again” – Toni Coe, booker, production, and programming manager for Brighton’s Green Door Store


Toni Coe, booker, production, and programming manager: As soon as we made the decision to go into lockdown, we were flooded with emails from bands and promoters cancelling and rescheduling shows. In the space of two weeks, we lost six months of our carefully curated calendar of seven gigs and three club nights per week, without any vague timeline of when we may be able to open again. We’ve been living in a state of limbo, waiting for guidance from the government on how we can safely reopen or whether there is any kind of plan to support the cultural sector through this turbulent time. We still have expensive rent and bills to pay, but we have no way of providing a profit-making service. We are burning through our reserves very quickly.

Our venue is home to a lot of community groups, and we’re concerned that we aren’t able to support them through this unpredictable situation. Our next-gen, not-for-profit radio station, Platform B, hasn’t been able to access their studio at Green Door for over six weeks, as well as the local charity Carousel who make live music performance accessible to young adults with additional needs. We’ve had to cancel 30 gigs promoted and performed by groups of BIMM students. These events are crucial in supporting the development of creativity and many people feel lost while they are unable to express themselves or socialise with like minded people in a safe space. We are keen to find a way to reach out to those that feel isolated at home, but it is difficult to know how to support while the entire team are furloughed.


Tim Perry, booker: Government support covered rent and bills up to mid-April, but also we entered the Covid lockdown with our commercial landlords trying to double the rent. Despite all that’s happened since, they’re now actively pursuing the case. Any increase would put the venue in jeopardy as we’re essentially just a backstreet shack dealing in new and leftfield music, but maybe it’s because of those factors that we have seen offers of support flooding in doing the Covid crisis. These range from regular customers to bands deeply connected to the venue, 16 of whom – including black midi, Kate Tempest, Goat Girl, Shame, and Fontaines DC – gave us a track to put on a fundraising album that we stuck on Bandcamp.


Nick Stewart, manager: These are such strange times for us! I’m getting so much love from the community around us who are so keen to know that we’ll be back – which we will. The venue is empty, but we’re getting messages all the time, people keep contributing to our crowdfunder even though it reached its target ages ago, and we are selling a ton of t-shirts and stickers. I guess people know that when Sneaky Pete’s returns, life can be good again and this crisis will be over – we’re kind of totemic in that respect. They can see their families, and they can be with us where their friends are.

Sneaky Pete’s and venues like us don’t just support the communities around us; we’re also employers of musicians, at the emerging level and at the professional level, so we’re really so desperate to be back out there for musicians and DJs above all. They are the reason we exist. Grassroots music venues and clubs like ours are the research and development arm of the UK music industry. Sneaky Pete’s hosted 643 gigs and clubs last year, and every musician, group or DJ was paid. Not bad for a 100-capacity space!

Government support has helped us bunker down so we can safely hibernate, but the real crunch time will be when we’re told we can reopen. Trading will be incredibly hard with social distancing and less confidence from audiences that they can attend venues safely. The government has to come up with sector-specific funding to make sure venues make it through reopening, even though that could take some time. We have never been a burden on the public sector in the past, but now it’s crunch time: support us, or lose us and all we mean for communities and musicians. REVS! Reopen Every Venue Safely, and make sure all music venues survive!


Sarah Smillie, manager As with all cafés and venues, we had to make the heartbreaking decision to close our doors back in March. It has been an incredibly difficult and worrying time for us all. Gigs, exhibitions, and classes have been cancelled, but we have recently managed to start up some of our regular music groups, including those for young people with autism, the guitar group, and the Glad Children’s Choir, through the Glad Foundation’s online sessions. Like so many other small, independent businesses, we face a very uncertain future. We are just doing all we can in the hopes that our beloved Glad Café will pull through this. 

We’ve had offers from musicians and bands to support our fundraising campaigns, even before lockdown and the Save Our Venues campaign, who we are so grateful to – many of them are facing an uncertain future themselves. The Glad Café has always survived on huge levels of generosity, support, and love from the community of musicians and artists around us, who have been behind us from day one. They put their hearts into creating beautiful moments at the Glad and have rallied round to support us in times of need. We are forever grateful to them all, and it is this that keeps us strong and gives us hope as we look ahead.

Learn more and donate to the #SaveOurVenues campaign here.