With most gig venues still stuck in a dark and silent stasis, and coronavirus restrictions getting tighter, it’s an unlikely time for new venues to be opening their doors.
Craig Pennington has been busy measuring out socially-distanced “pods” on the floor of Future Yard in Birkenhead. When indie band She Drew The Gun launch the venue to a sell-out crowd of 60 people later, each pair of fans will be allocated a pod in which they can stand and watch – but not dance, sing along or cheer.
If opening a small venue wasn’t arduous and risky enough, doing so amid the Covid-19 crisis – especially with cases rising again – is a logistical migraine and a licence to lose money.
“Launching a live music venue in the midst of a global pandemic is not something I’d advise,” Pennington says with a wry laugh.
And yet he’s going ahead. He got the keys to the building in January, before Covid was really on the radar, initially planning to open in April with a capacity of 350. When the government gave the go-ahead for indoor venues to reopen in England with social distancing in August, Pennington didn’t want to wait much longer.
As well as hosting gigs, Future Yard will offer training for 16- to 24-year-olds in the live music industry, and rehearsal and recording spaces for new local artists.
“It’s just really important that we could get open,” Pennington said on Thursday. “That comes with great pressures financially and also operationally, but it’s something we feel like we’ve got to do.
“If we’d just sat here and mothballed and waited to the point where it made absolute financial sense, potentially it could have been years before we opened.
“Our primary motivation is to really think how we can use a venue like Future Yard to be a positive influence for the local community. We’re here to use music as a powerful lever for social change. This is a moment when we’re needed more than ever, so we just had to find a way of getting open.”
On Friday, the government added a new complication with new restrictions for Merseyside, among other areas. From Tuesday, people from different households won’t be allowed to meet in private homes or gardens. They can still meet in pubs, bars and entertainment venues, but those venues must have table service and close by 10pm.
Pennington is undeterred. Future Yard has tables (made from milk crates) in the pods, and the bands will just finish earlier. He’s planning more socially-distanced shows next month, as long as restrictions aren’t tightened further.
And he has already announced a string of concerts for the new year – by which time he hopes the venue will be able to relax its rules.
“If you look at our listings for next year, there’s a lot of stuff in there where we’re going to need a dancefloor,” he says. “I don’t think those shows will happen if we’re still in the same situation we are now with the level of social distancing because I don’t think they’ll be viable, and the artists and agents won’t want to do them.”
For now, government guidelines say venues must discourage communal dancing, singing along, shouting, cheering or chanting. “It clearly comes with challenges,” Pennington admits.
The pods are marked out on the floor, rather than being separated by physical screens. Other safety measures range from staggered arrival times to an app to order drinks to avoid having to go to the bar. A ventilation system will change the air 20 times per hour.
Fans must wear face masks, but may remove them to drink – which may in reality be very often. If people get carried away and blur the social distancing boundaries, the venue has “overstaffed heavily on stewards”, Pennington says. But he wants to police it with a “light touch”.
He adds: “The key is about trusting your audiences and working with them and communicating well with them and making sure they know what to expect. We think we’ve done that. There’s just a real appetite to come out and enjoy a live music experience. If you’re doing that in a safe and controlled way, the audience will go with you on it.”
One venue that has already opened recently is the NE Volume Bar in Stockton-on-Tees, Teesside, where 32 people can sit at 11 socially-distanced tables. The full capacity should be 110. So far, they have hosted a mixture of singer-songwriters and bands playing stripped-back acoustic sets.
“It’s still a good atmosphere,” says co-owner Adam Allcock. “People aren’t standing up and going wild. Our customer base is quite nice. They’re there for the music, so they want to listen to the music anyway. It’s all been going fine. No-one’s had to be told to settle down or stay in their seat or anything like that.”
Another venue, Strange Brew in Bristol, is also opening this weekend. All three were in the pipeline before the virus wrecked their plans. Allcock and his brother Lee got the keys to NE Volume Bar one day before lockdown. They initially opened as a bar when allowed to in July, then staged the first gig on 4 September.
“We had to open it because we didn’t get any funding, to bring some money in instead of just outgoings,” he says. “We get messages every day of people looking for tickets, but we just obviously can’t fit them in with the capacity.”
Stockton is just outside the zone in the north-east where new restrictions were introduced on Thursday, forcing an outdoor venue in Newcastle, the 2,500-capacity Virgin Money Unity Arena, to close prematurely. It had been the only major UK venue to be staging regular gigs.
Mark Davyd, chief executive of the Music Venues Trust, says 84 of the organisation’s 900 members have staged some live music so far since lockdown, but just 13 are doing so regularly.
“There are these local lockdowns and restrictions, which remain a challenge to doing anything more comprehensive,” he says. “It’s a developing picture. We don’t know quite where it’s going to go to yet.”
And the long-term future remains uncertain for many grassroots venues. Since lockdown, 11 have announced they are closing permanently – although nine of those have since been taken over by new operators. Davyd says another nine are expected to announce their intentions to close. “They’re all still in a fairly precarious position right the way across the UK,” he says.
Around half of MVT venues want to reopen in some form by the end of October, when furlough ends. Some hope to do so with emergency government funding, while others just want to get back up and running for the sake of their communities and crews, he says.
Beyond the uncertainty over being allowed to reopen, there is the question of whether it makes financial sense to do so.
“The short answer frankly is no,” he says. “The slightly longer answer is, financial viability wouldn’t be the only reason why they would be doing it. They really are community-run and community-led spaces.”