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New alarm bells ring for UK’s live music industry

Sky rocketing costs and rising inflation are resulting in poor ticket sales, cancelled tours and pulled gigs. Now Then explains why.

I have reported extensively (see NT's passim) on the Brexit-based impact of prohibitive customs and visa costs and the 90/180 ‘Schengen Rule’ affecting UK artists touring the EU, with the current situation being that most fledgling bands are simply unable to afford to tour.

Whilst the UK and EU representatives have yet to find a satisfactory solution to this, there is some hope that discussions may be resumed with the fresh arrival of Michelle Donelan as the latest Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The cynics amongst us will point out that continued government inertia in engaging with this critical issue could be in part due to the fact that Minister role re-generation is verging on Doctor Who proportions; at the last count Donelan will be the fifth occupant of the role in just four years.

2560px Little Simz Openair Frauenfeld 2019 06

Little Simz on stage in 2019.

Frank Schwichtenberg (Wikimedia Commons)

'An economic reality that is not sustainable'

As if the main dish of restrictive Brexit-related EU touring costs wasn't unpalatable enough, for UK-based bands and artists there is now an unpleasant side-order of skyrocketing inflation and energy expenses, meaning it's far easier for bands to cancel gigs than expose themselves to reduced attendances at shows.

The result is a succession of high-profile gig and tour cancellations including the likes of Bonobo, Animal Collective and 2022 Mercury Prize winner Little Simz, reflecting the increased cost of staffing and goods, aligned with marked reductions in ticket sales that have made gigs too expensive to run.

Recently announced touring casualties also include Santigold, Demi Levato and rising UK star Poppy Ajudha. On a different tack, but not directly linked, major headliners like Justin Bieber and Arlo Parks have cited "mental health" reasons for pulling out of shows.

Sybil Bell, founder of Independent Venue Week, told to The Guardian that “every week we see another act cancelling a tour. It's not a decision people take lightly. It's a tough time and the production world is being decimated."

Sybil's views are corroborated by Kelly Wood, national organiser for live performance at the Musician's Union, who says artists are “painfully cancelling shows. It's a really big thing to do and there is no other option".

Annabella Coldrick, chief executive of the Music Managers Forum, is a committed supporter and advocate of the UK music industry, and has been a key figure in encouraging resolution on the EU/UK touring issue. So her words carry weight and importance when she says: "Ticket sales are slow, people are worried about money, there is a massive labour shortage and the cost of hiring vans and trucks has increased dramatically. On top of that, there is a currency devaluation and a fuel crisis. It's absolutely horrible."

A headache for the industry is in determining which acts will be financially viable to support, as some promoters calculate interest via metrics like streaming figures and social media clicks, not by any means an exact science in assessing the fiscal viability of tour investment and wider financial success.

Brainchild Festival in East Sussex had to cancel their 2022 event this year, citing "post-pandemic factors" of which reduced ticket sales were an important element. The festival's Creative Director, Marina Blake, says that this theme is continuing. "Everything feels quieter, and even when tickets are given out for free, people still don't bite."

Shockingly, half of respondents to a recent survey of professional musicians in the UK by Help Musicians said they may have to leave the industry due to rising costs and 91% said they face a ​‘cost of working’ crisis.

Opportunities born of a desperate situation

Amidst this depressing landscape, there are two areas of opportunity for up-and-coming UK bands and artists that deserve mentioning, albeit born of a desperate situation.

Smaller promoters are looking intently at local artist bookings as one of the few options left open to them. The Guardian reports Edinburgh-based Nick Checketts commenting that: "With the rising costs of flights and visas, we are stopping booking people from Europe for a while," thus opening the door for smaller, local bands and artists to fill the void and gain some much-needed exposure.

In a similar vein, albeit with a broader intention, this year has seen an increase in the number of one-day events like Float Along 2022 in Sheffield, the recent and highly successful multi-band format held across a variety of venues that saw some 30-plus small bands and artists gaining stage time, support and exposure alongside big guns like Everything Everything.

Now more than ever, the live music industry is facing – that oft used, somewhat hackneyed expression, but valid nevertheless – unprecedented challenges. Leviathan acts playing at massive venues don't get there by accident. Without the infrastructure, hierarchy and networked web of artist, gig and venue on a structured, developmental path, there will simply be no upcoming artists in the UK achieving a high level of status. We'll be left with a diet of legacy and heritage acts playing big arenas.

The industry itself has reacted incredibly imaginatively since the beginning of the pandemic, constantly generating ideas and innovations to keep bands in the public eye through live streaming, record store appearances, acoustic shows, social media interactions and one-off events. But now it’s critical that the industry addresses these new obstacles and hurdles.

Whilst UK government intervention and support in the removal of EU touring restrictions and the introduction of visa-free, cross border travel would help enormously in broadening potential audiences, and thus improve finances and employment, the cost of living and energy crises affecting everyone presents fresh challenges in supporting and developing the talent of tomorrow.

It's with fervent hope that the efforts of those mentioned above bear fruit, and that the music industry emerges from the despair of these crises intact, with a bright future for the incredible, truly world-class talent found in the UK.

What can we do? Support our local bands and venues as best we can. A future without them is too dire to contemplate.

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