'There are venues in Leeds in serious trouble' - How the Covid pandemic is affecting the city's music scene

As we approach what would have been Leeds Festival - a key date in the UK's musical calendar - the Yorkshire Evening Post looks at other live music casualties of the coronavirus pandemic in Leeds and what needs to be done to ensure the city's 'vibrant' music scene survives the crisis.

Friday, 21st August 2020, 6:00 am
Kevan Williams, head of marketing and communications at Leeds first direct arena. Picture: Simon Hulme

“It’s very worrying. There are venues in Leeds that are in serious trouble and in serious danger of not being able to re-open unless they get a lot of help.”

That’s the stark warning of one stalwart of the Leeds music scene, Ian De-Whytell, owner of the 35-year-old Crash Records shop on the Headrow.

He has joined a chorus of musicians and venue bosses in Leeds urging the Government to provide more support to an industry which has been left "in limbo" throughout the coronavirus pandemic - throwing the future of this city’s vibrant music scene into real doubt.

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Ian De-Whytell, owner of Crash Records in Leeds. Picture: Simon Hulme

Last week, the Government announced that live music venues could open, with restrictions in place, from August 15 - but the move has left many scratching their heads.

It’s a puzzle with seemingly no solution.

How can music fans - particularly in stand-up venues - realistically enjoy a socially-distanced gig?

How can promoters justify the high costs when the audience could be just a third or half the size?

How are venues to survive when many have lain empty for so long with a now-bare events calendar and the prospect of the furlough scheme ending in October.

Ian told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “I do think people are getting really fed up now. They just can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.

“'Socially-distanced gigs' just seems a contradictory statement.

“A socially-distanced celebration of a band of artist - and you want to be up close and personal not just with the band but with each other. It’s a real shame.”

He added: “The problem is, particularly with the stand up shows, there’s just no way of being able to socially distance people properly. No way of being able to calm people’s enthusiasm down. People are going to want to sing along, which apparently is something you’re not allowed these days because of the potential to spread infection.

“Everything just seems to work against it.

“And even when they do open, it can only really work if they can get capacity crowds in, not a third or even half capacity.

“The only alternative is to hike up the price of tickets and obviously that isn’t an answer. There’s no desire from promoters to do that and no appetite from people to pay £30 for what was a £10 gig.

“There’s no immediate answer to it. Until there’s a magic vaccine and people feel comfortable and safe about being crowded in together. But boy are people missing it so much.”

The Government announcement that venues could reopen came at the end of a week which saw music industry staff across the country join a protest over the handling of live events and venues during the pandemic.

The Red Alert campaign aimed to highlight the very real threat to the sector and was supported by many in Leeds, including the city’s historic Brudenell Social Club which turned red for the occasion.

Its owner Nathan Clark tweeted: “We recognise the interconnected ecosphere we all work in, and that without the skill, passion and knowledge of these people, the industry does not work.

"We want to show appreciation for the engineers, crew, security, production suppliers, merch persons, riggers, tour managers, agents, technicians and many other roles that never get the true recognition, they don't ask for any spotlight, they just get on and do.

"Right now, there is no work, it's banned and there is no guide as to when it actually might appear again. This forgotten group need action and support urgently from the Government... to do the right thing and support the entire industry.”

Another city centre venue which turned red in support of the campaign was Leeds’ first direct arena.

Its head of marketing and communications, Kevan Williams, said they are simply “in limbo” at the moment and “desperate” for more guidance from the Government.

A socially-distanced gig at the 13,780-seater venue would mean only around a third of the full capacity, which Kevan said: “For most of our promoters just doesn’t make the tours viable.”

So far this year, 61 events at the arena have been postponed until 2021/2 and four cancelled. Approximately 85 per cent of its workforce, employed by ASM Global, are on furlough and consultations are underway regarding a number of redundancies.

Kevan said they have joined the National Arena Association in lobbying Government for more help such as extending the furlough scheme for the industry beyond October.

“We just really need more support.

“Even if it’s to say, ‘from January 2021 we are planning [to allow] non-socially distanced shows’.

“I think if we don’t get any news soon, with the furlough scheme due to end, we fear the worst with that.

“It’s going to be an extremely difficult time because that would mean no genuine income coming in for eight months for us.”

While acknowledging the arena is lucky to be part of a global group, he said his “heart goes out” to other smaller venues in Leeds.

“They are vital to the whole music scene, we’re not rivals. We are all part of the music culture of the city.

“We’re desperate to see all those come through and out the other side as well.”

And it is that friendly, co-operative vibe which helped create the much-revered music scene which Leeds must regain post-Covid, according to Crash Records boss Ian.

He said: “It’s a really great local scene, everyone works together, there’s a friendliness about it, just everything about it is so good.

“It’s vibrant. Just a fantastic music scene in Leeds. Everything you can wish for - in terms of larger venues, smaller venues, something for everything.

“It’s the reason why so many people want to come to Leeds - students and such like - there’s so much excitement about it. So much going on. It’s the reason why people who come to study end up staying here.”

A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport highlighted the recent £2.25m of emergency funding - part of the £1.57bn culture recovery package - to save around 150 grassroots music venues from insolvency.

He said: “We are here for culture to make sure it weathers the storm of coronavirus and comes back stronger.

"We have been clear that we can't save every establishment but venues that have been unsuccessful at this stage can put in new applications to the Arts Council for a share of the £500 million worth of grants being made available to arts and culture organisations in the coming weeks."

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Thank you

Laura Collins