Music Venues and the impact of covid-19

2020 is a year that no one across the globe will be able to forget. Why won’t we forget? The parasite called Covid-19 stepped in, took over, and destroyed everything we were so comfortable with, turning our lives upside down and leaving more than half the globe confused. Many lives were lost, people felt imprisoned, mental health was affected, and not to mention, people’s livelihoods were taken away from them just like that. When I say livelihoods, I’m referring to the taking of work and finance from more or less every institution, especially entertainment. Something we all rely on after a heavy day at work when we are feeling stressed when we just want to let our hair down and forget about our troubles. I’m turning my attention to and focusing on Music Venues in general and especially in the London Borough of Lambeth and their closures due to the pandemic. My Borough!

The Borough of Lambeth has approximately 318,000 residents and several distinctive neighborhoods, including Brixton Clapham, which is the heart and soul of the Borough. These particular areas are the liveliest and most vibrant in South London and can be seen buzzing 7 days of the week and especially on the weekends in all venues. Venues like Topix, Aquum, Revolution, Infernos, O’Neils, Lotus, and many more on Clapham High Street. Brixton comes alive with live music at Upstairs the Ritzy Bar, Hootananny, Brixton O2 Academy, Brixton Jam, and Electric Brixton. These venues host a gig 7 days per week between them.

Can you imagine the silence, the quietness, and empty streets due to Covid-19 and the lack of events taking place for a whole year?. Once opened, how many will still be there? how many will be able to revert to their originality?. From my research, Revolution, on Clapham High Street, one of the most spirited and energetic venues seven days per week, will be closing its doors.

I am a regular patron at some of these venues, and I reached out to event planners of live music at two of our local Music Venues in Brixton, Upstairs the Ritzy & Hootananny. These venues host a regular, weekly, or monthly gig, which has been affected by Covid-19 and has impacted them immensely.

Geoff Parker, one of our respected promoters in Brixton, hosts a monthly event called “Catch a Fire“. Catch a Fire is South London’s longest-running live Reggae music night, 1st Sunday every month for 10 yrs at Upstairs at The Ritzy; Admission Free 8-12 pm.” Speaking with Mr. Parker on the impact of Covid-19 at his monthly events, this was his response to me.

Geoff Parker: Promoter at Upstairs the Ritzy Brixton

Question 1

Considering you have been closed for a year, have you put any plans in place when Upstairs at the Ritzy reopens? And if you have, what are they?  

”I haven’t made any plans at all. There are two reasons. 1. It’s absolutely impossible to predict what is going to happen next and 2. If I start speculating about what’s going to happen next when I don’t know, it’s not going to be very good for my mental health. The best thing is to ride this out not expect anything, stay in touch with people via what I am doing right now on Instagram posting previous events reminding people that the event and I still exists.”

Question 2

Has the government or Mayor of London pledged any financial support towards you as a promoter? 

”They would have to get through to me directly which means I’ll have to tell them I’m a freelance promoter or Reggae Fraternity would have to tell them there is this Reggae Night that deserves funding or the cinema itself would get in touch with the Lord Mayor or whoever disperses money.”

”Therefore, I think it is very unlikely money will be forthcoming to me because I am not a part of the Ritzy Cinema. They are not my employer. They just give a budget to the events manager of Upstairs the Ritzy and she puts the night on. That’s my only relationship with the cinema via the events manager.”

Question 3

Are looking forward to reopening after this chaos? 

”Absolutely, there is nothing I would like more. My events are important to me and to a lot of people plus the audience and the musicians. It’s a big thing in my life.”

I also spoke with prominent event planner and promoter, Cecil Reuben, whose live gigs are hosted at Hootananny every Sunday. Roots, Rock, Reggae (with a live band), artists, & resident sound, The Mighty Revelation Sound. I asked Cecil more or less the same questions I asked Geoff Parker about his live events and his response was a little different but enlightening. ”There is one live event coming up on Thursday, June 24th, 2021; Don Sinclair Reggae Vibes w/ Cecil Reuben, Sir Lloyd Coxsone, Carolene Thompson, Anthony Johnson.

Cecil Reuben: Event Organiser at Hootananny Brixton

After speaking with these promoters, I have observed that the UK has partially reopened as everything seems to be getting back to normal, steadily, but will these: Music Venues, event organizers, or concert promoters be able to withstand hosting gigs again?. Cecil Reuben was reassuring and confident, which is a positive for Reggae Nights, but how many can say the same?.

As early as July 2020, major celebrities and stars have come together and signed a letter warning the culture secretary Oliver Dowden to support the Music Industry, venues, and musicians. It says that “the music industry faces “mass insolvencies,” with gigs and festivals unlikely to return until 2021.”

The letter to Oliver Dowden reads: “With no end to social distancing in sight or financial support from government yet agreed, the future for concerts and festivals and the hundreds of thousands of people who work in them looks bleak.”

Research shows that without government-backed cancellation insurance, most planned gigs/festivals could be scrapped. Paul Reed, who is chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), said in April 2021: “For months now, we have been warning the government that the UK’s 2021 festival season would be quickly eroded if they failed to back their roadmap out of lockdown and act on Covid related cancellation insurance.”

“Without a safety net, independent promoters cannot begin to confidently invest in their events.”

Mr. Dowden continued to then say that “If government-backed insurance is off the table, festival organisers deserve to know what [the] government is proposing as an alternative to prevent the widespread collapse of the festival season.”

In May 2021, AIF issued a red alert this time, saying that “over a quarter of UK festivals over 5,000 capacity have been cancelled due to Government inaction on insurance.”

Thanks to venues like London Royal Albert Hall, the O2, and quite a number of other venues and event organizers, they are backing the Covid-19 certification scheme to help reopen the economy and support the smaller venues. Groups that included gig organizers and indoor sports venues published a letter supporting the scheme. 

“We would support a blanket, industry-wide introduction of COVID-status certification on a temporary basis, to permit the full relaxation of capacity limits from 21 June,” the letter signed by over 50 organizations and institutions, said: “(It) could be a pragmatic solution that would enable events to resume at commercially viable attendance levels and will also give further confidence to customers that events are safe to attend.”

But despite all the chaos of closed venues, scrapped gigs/festivals, or the loss of earnings across the Music Industry over the past year, reopening has been a great success in London with the Brits Awards. There were no face masks or social distancing as part of the government live events trial, looking at how live concerts will withstand a packed environment post covid. Does this mean most music venues will have a trial? How will it work from here on?.

People in the crowd during Brits Awards 2021 – Photo credits: (Ian West/PA)

Another point I would like to observe, musicians and artists traveling from abroad for booked events in the UK after June 21st, will they need to go into quarantine? The government has set out guidelines from May 17th, which indicates: “Quarantine must take place for 10 days after arrival.” I know that from Cecil Reuben’s interview, he will be honoring gigs that were booked the year before. 

At the end of all this confusion and mayhem, who will be left standing? The larger events, like Glastonbury, reinvented themselves with a spectacular five-hour global stream from Worthy Farm, their home, and an exclusive lineup of artists. Not to mention a choice of multiple broadcasts across different time zones; Will the smaller music venues be able to pull it off the same in that spectacular way?… Not so sure but optimistic. 

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