Music industry warns Scotland is facing 'mass closure' of venues within months

Scotland is facing the "mass closure" of live music venues within the next few months, industry leaders have told MSPs.

Sneaky Pete's is one of Edinburgh's best-known live music venues. Picture: Ryan Buchanan
Sneaky Pete's is one of Edinburgh's best-known live music venues. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

Nick Stewart, head of the Music Venues Alliance in Scotland, today warned many venues are facing an "absolute cliff edge" at the end of October, due to the prospect of emergency funding running out and huge uncertainty over when and how they will be able to get back up and running properly.

Experts have predicted that more than half the jobs in Scotland’s previously booming music industry are under threat due to the long-lasting impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Giving evidence to Holyrood’s culture committee, Mr Stewart, who is also manager of Sneaky Pete's in Edinburgh, raised concerns that £2.2m pledged by the Scottish Government for “grassroots venues” was only intended to support them until the end of October and not been distributed yet.

Although indoor music venues have been told they can start preparing to reopen in the middle of next month, Mr Stewart insisted live gigs would not be financially viable in most small-scale venues due to the need to enforce social distancing restrictions.

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He also raised concerns about the prospect of venues never reopening again if the businesses running them went under.

An official report published last year suggested the-then booming Scottish music industry was supporting about 4,300 jobs and generated upwards of £430m in economic impact.

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However, there have been predictions that three quarters of Scotland’s music venues may not survive the impact of the pandemic due to the likelihood of social distancing restrictions having to remain in place well into 2021.

Mr Stewart said: "Most grassroots music venues physically cannot host socially-distanced performances.

"At Sneaky Pete’s, for example, if you were to try to do a show there, it would have a capacity of 12, instead of 100, and that would include performers and staff.

"On a financial level, it would be extremely difficult to run shows with social distancing in place. They would certainly not be profitable without very significant funding coming from somewhere else.

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"For a venue like Sneaky Pete’s, between live gigs and club nights, we host something like 650 events a year.

"If we get to a point where socially-distanced shows are allowed to happen and the furlough scheme has ended some venues will find that they have to do shows.

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"That will actually be the crunch point for some venues because they will try to trade and will probably do so unsuccessfully. That could be the unravelling of them.”

The live music sector was pledged £2.2m by the Scottish Government on 10 July, but applications to a new fund – which is aimed at help venues with a capacity of under 600 stave off the threat of closure - were not opened by its arts agency Creative Scotland until 19 August.

However official guidance states that grants of up to £50,000 are only intended to support businesses until the end of October, when the UK Government’s furlough scheme is due to be wound up.

Creative Scotland has told the Scottish Parliament that of the £97m allocated to Scotland by the UK Government from a £1.57 billion arts rescue package announced in July more than £74 million has still to be allocated.

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However Mr Stewart told the committee that his his understanding was that this was all accounted for and none would be available to support the music sector.

He was giving evidence days after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was accused of withholding the remaining £74 million from the cultural sector when she insisted that the government’s resources to help arts organisations and companies were “finite.”

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Mr Stewart said: “In terms of how long funding will last for, the £2.2m fund for grassroots music venues is not designed to get us through till 31 March. It is intended to get venues through till 31 October. Thereafter, there is no further funding in place.

“We are in an environment where we don’t know what is actually happening with that £74 million. We have advice that any further support from the Scottish Government will have to be found elsewhere in its budget.

"Our thinking about what comes next is still happening. The £2.2m figure was decided on because it was the fixed costs for the grassroots music venues in Scotland to get through three months.

"Once we get to the end of October, we will be at an absolute cliff edge, there is no plan for what happens next and that is when the job retention scheme ends.

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"It would be foolhardy for most businesses to try to continue at that point. We urgently need information on what kind of future funding we can get to keep us going. There must be a plan or we are going to see mass closures.

"It would be great to prioritise getting venues to reopen, but venues all seem to agree that the real priority is to protect public health. We need continued support in some form to allow us to do that.

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"Any venues that are permanent closed are very unlikely to be reopened by anybody else.

"While live music is wildly popular, it is very expensive and difficult to run a grassroots music venue.

"Given local licensing conditions and property values, it has been very rare for people to open a grassroots venue. It it seems venue unlikely that venues that do close would subsequently reopen.

"Most likely a canny landlord would decide to turn the building into something else.”

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