‘Uncertainty is the worst thing’: the energy bill crisis facing UK independent music venues | MUSIC

With a 200-year history, Band on the Wall in Manchester is one of the North West of England’s best-loved music venues. Over the years, it has played host to jazz greats, important early appearances by the Buzzcocks, Joy Division and the Fall, and more recently, the likes of James Blake and Self Esteem. However, like most of the country’s venues, it is now reeling from the cost of living crisis as bills go through the roof.

“We’re constantly budgeting, but it’s becoming impossible because with double-digit inflation you don’t know how much anything will be in four or 10 weeks,” explains CEO Gavin Sharp. “Let’s say a supplier increases prices by 6% or 8% – that’s not an individual increase, it’s the same with every supplier. And our staff costs – our single biggest expense – are affected because we’ve had to put in the hourly rate so they can pay their bills. It becomes a spiral.”

With an annual turnover of £2m, venue costs have soared from £450,000 to £650,000. The Music Venue Trust estimates that for the industry as a whole, which has a gross turnover of £399m, the current rise equates to an extra £90m in costs.

And the Band on the Wall bills don’t factor in the energy crisis yet. Unlike pubs and cafes which have already been forced to close after facing astronomical bills, the Manchester venue secured a fixed price energy deal before prices started to soar. This 12 month contract expires in February. “Uncertainty is the worst thing,” Sharp says of what’s next. “It’s impossible to plan.”

Craig Charles on the decks last March.
Vibe… Craig Charles on the decks last March. Photo: Jody Hartley

Although the government has announced it will help businesses with their energy bills, the details are very sketchy, Sharp says. “We haven’t had a chance to absorb it yet and it’s very unclear. They have to do something important, or we’re going to see the wholesale collapse of all kinds of businesses.”

It’s the latest crisis for UK venues – after difficulties including the smoking ban, the financial crash, soaring rents and prices, changes in alcohol consumption and Covid-19. The Band on the Wall avoided the worst of the pandemic: it had already planned to close for a period in 2020 to undergo a major expansion and refurbishment funded by the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Lloyds Bank and Carlsberg each contributed £150,000 to help retain staff and maintain the venue.

“The timing was ridiculous,” says Sharp. “We were told to lock down on Friday [20 March 2020], and we had the demolition contractors on Monday.” After knocking on a derelict Victorian fruit and vegetable building at the back, the historic venue – which was first licensed for music in 1806 – reopened in January with an increased capacity of 520, up from 340, a new stage, bigger dance floor and interior at a New York jazz club.

Downscaling… rising cost of living means players will stay away?
Downscaling… rising cost of living means players will stay away? Photo: Jody Hartley

“Artists say: this is the best venue of its scale in the country now,” says Sharp, who programs soul, reggae, jazz, South American and African music to “celebrate the city’s immigrant heritage.” As a non-profit charity with community-based ideals, the venue hosts a variety of activities ranging from educational programs to free concerts.

The relaunch and return to live music has been hugely successful, but the tide is changing. The rising cost of everything from drinks to taxis means many people are cutting back on the fun, just as Band on the Wall’s cost increases are five times higher than they expected to be after the revamp. “We’re staffed with the expectation of going through 25,000 people in the next six months, but if everything looks like we’re going to take half of that, then we’re going to have to reshape the business,” says Sharp – potentially leading to layoffs and downsizing of operations.

Many live music professionals who fell prey to government support have retrained in other areas: Sharp is concerned that the current crisis facing the industry could lead to a repeat, and says that many of the bands that stopped playing gigs during Covid have not they ever reappeared.

In a worst-case scenario, Band on the Wall could be limited to weekend trading, but Sharp is trying to be optimistic. “So many people around me are going, ‘This is going to be a disaster,'” he sighs. “But I don’t think people in the Treasury are stupid. They have to know that they have to intervene.”

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