“First industry to stop, last to return,” read the signs attached to hundreds of flight cases being pushed down Manchester’s Oxford Road this Tuesday, during a silent march organised by #WeMakeEvents.
Despite the sweltering heat, 2,000 people turned up to send an urgent message: 114,000 jobs within the UK touring, festival and events industry are at risk, following the COVID-19 lockdown.
Marchers who represented the technical side of the events industry were there to signal that the sector, which is worth £42.3 billion, needs immediate help. The entire industry, they say, is on “Red Alert”.
A major concern of the musicians, DJs, tour managers, venue owners and production and event staff is that #WeMakeEvents estimate that only 50 percent of businesses will have the capital to get them through the next four months. By the time these businesses are in a position to reopen – perhaps as late as March of 2021 – the fear is that they won’t be able to, and that 60 percent of people in the sector will lose their jobs.
Many live music spaces and nightclubs have already announced closure or are on the brink of collapse, fearful that the government’s £2.25 million pledge to grassroots venues won’t come soon enough. Already, in Glasgow, techno focused Sub Club was saved from permanent closure by a crowdfunder rather than a grant, and in Sheffield the Arctic Monkeys launched a similar campaign to save indie venue the Leadmill. In Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham called on the city’s Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord to help save the city’s much loved Gorilla and Deaf Institute venues, where artists as wide ranging as Kylie Minogue and Dave have performed.
Sacha, who also heads up the Parklife Festival, which employs 4,500 support staff each year, called on investors to buy the venues after they announced closure in July. Luckily, a deal with a fellow local operator was struck. However, many other Manchester venues face uncertain futures, remaining shut as pubs and bars start to re-open. Some have already made difficult longterm decisions: the historic jazz and soul-championing Band on the Wall brought forward planned refurbishment works, cutting 26 jobs.
Sacha says he’s fearful for other iconic spaces, and is increasingly concerned about the support workers whose talent might be lost when furlough and the self-employment grant end in October: “It’s fantastic to save the bricks and mortar, but if the people within this sector today aren’t given immediate support by the government, when it comes to reopening, you’re not going to be able to see gigs even at big venues, like the Manchester Arena.”
Audio specialist Melvyn Coote, who’s been running sound design and equipment hire for the live events industry for 20 years, says that before the pandemic, his company Tube UK had a turnover in excess of £1.2 million a year. But in mid-March, it became a zero income business overnight.
With no roadmap for how live events can restart, he fears redundancies for his staff and the closure of his business. Unless there’s state support while the whole sector is unable to work, he believes “this whole events industry, and the whole creativity and culture that goes alongside that, will disappear”.
As the march makes its way down Europe’s busiest bus route, Oxford Road, which usually shuttles many of Manchester’s thousands of students to venues like The White Hotel, Soup Kitchen and Sacha Lord’s own superclub The Warehouse Project, there’s distinct mourning every time a shuttered venue such as the Deaf Institute is passed, with protesters pausing to reflect.
When the march reaches long-standing rock pub Grand Central, a worker opens the window of the flat above. Holding a sign reading, “Long live the crew,” he shouts down, “We need you guys as much as anything.”
While the socially distanced walk is a peaceful and at times carnivalesque affair, with Revolución de Cuba dancers wearing eye-catching hats and others waving red flags, there’s a real sense of despair in the voices of many I talk to.
A number of those gathered at the protest – road managers, musicians and DJs – operate as limited company directors, which means they’ve completely slipped through the cracks of COVID-19 state support.
“Many in the events industry are small businesses, and small businesses have been forgotten,” says May, a saxophonist who plays in nightclubs, at weddings and corporate events in Manchester and across the world. She tells me her mental health has been severely affected after losing all her work, as a result of what she describes as the government’s failure to recognise the unique situation of this particular industry.
“Because of the lack of support from [Chancellor] Rishi Sunak, I’ve gone on antidepressants, as I’m suffering from severe anxiety and depression at the moment,” she confides.
Hacienda’s first female resident, DJ Paulette, says she was due to have her first live gig since March at Manchester’s socially-distanced club night, Puffin Box. However, due to the local lockdown that came back into effect on 30th of July, the event series has been postponed, meaning Paulette’s unsure again about when she’ll return to playing out.
But, as she says, even getting a gig at the moment is difficult: “In terms of entertainment, DJs, performers, singers are at the bottom of the list for what clubs and bars are bringing back.”
“It’s weird,” concludes Manchester band Blossoms’ road manager, who goes by the name Wolfie and lives in Stockport, “because if there’s ever a crisis that needs money raising for, someone puts a gig on. We love putting a gig on and saying, ‘Look what we can achieve together.’ But we can’t put a gig on for this.”
The #WeMakeEvents protesters are united in saying that, this time, they need the help, and a fundraising gig won’t do – that something much more urgent needs to be done to save Britain’s live events industry.