‘Back to Our Roots’: The fight to keep grassroots venues open in Manchester

It will come as no surprise that coronavirus restrictions have hit the creative and events industries hard. While owners and investors can keep larger venues and businesses afloat, grassroots music venues – often the first step on the ladder for artists trying to make a name for themselves – have struggled to keep their heads above water. 

Whilst the reopening of live music venues on the 15 August was welcomed by representatives for Manchester’s night-time economy, reduced capacities and the recent introduction of the 10pm curfew has knocked the sector back once again. 

The Art Council’s £2.25m Emergency Grassroots Music Venue Fund, administered on behalf of the Government as part of the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund, was only designed to ensure the survival of English music venues until 30 September. With no further scheme yet announced the uncertainty is mounting for grassroots cultural spaces. 

Photograph of Public Service Broadcasting, part of the Back to Our Roots.
Public Service Broadcasting are playing the Amersham Arms in London | Photograph: Republic Media

Against this backdrop, the Passport: Back to Our Roots initiative was devised to support independent grassroots venues that are the lifeblood of the UK music scene. 

Foreseeing the existential threat venues faced in shutting doors for extended periods of time, the idea was sprung six months ago by Sally Cook, Director of Operations at Manchester’s iconic Band on the Wall.  

The project follows the model created by Stephen Budd in 2004, when his Passport: Back to the Bars raised huge amounts for War Child and Shelter. Involving collaboration between Budd, Band on the Wall, the Music Venues Trust, and Save Our Venues, the new initiative seeks to shift the focus to an often-overlooked industry, and deliver much-needed funds to grassroots venues. 

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Cook praised Stephen Budd, who, as the ex-Chair of the Music Managers Forum, “worked tirelessly to get artists on board.”

That work paid off – the initiative features artists such as Pet Shop Boys, Russell Watson, KT Tunstall, Jamie XX and Passenger, with each successful raffle winner winning a pair of passes to their event. 

“A key aim is to ensure that the shows would not be compromised. We wanted these to take place when normal service is able to resume, rather than under the limitations of social distancing,” Cook explained. 

The events will run in 2021. Metronomy’s performance at Brighton’s Patterns club will welcome around 200 people through its doors, a moderate reduction on its usual main room capacity of 320. Likewise, Russell Watson at Manchester’s Stoller Hall will see a crowd of around 400 people. 

Photograph of Metronomy who are part of Back to Our Roots.
Metronomy are playing Patterns in Brighton | Photograph: Republic Media

Watson’s career was launched by playing working men’s clubs across the North West during the 1990s. Like him, many artists owe a debt of gratitude to the smaller, independent venues that Back to Our Roots seeks to protect.  

Whilst only a dozen or so venues were chosen to host the gigs, the fund itself is split – 40 per cent goes to the host venue, 40 per cent goes to the Music Venue Trust’s Crisis Fund, with a final 20 per cent going to Inner City Music Ltd, the charity that operates the award-winning Band on the Wall.  

Yet, for all the exceptional work the campaign is doing, the sector has been left in the lurch by central government. 

News regarding the future of the Culture Recovery Fund is expected on 4 October, and while the industry nervously awaits the outcome, grassroots venues remain in dire need of financial intervention – the £2.25m that was earmarked from the fund to form the Art Council’s Emergency Grassroots Music Venues Fund, later increased to £3.36m to support 135 venues, is soon to run dry, with the fund only designed to last until the end of this month. 

Of this amount, £260,000 of this was given to 11 Mancunian venues, with the largest grants going to Soup Kitchen and Jimmy’s with £41,000 and £40,000, respectively. As the name suggests however, an emergency fund can only ever be a short-term fix. 

Until recently, there remained some optimism surrounding industry prospects, a belief that socially distanced gigs, in tandem with targeted government support, could be enough to see the sector through a turbulent few months. 

Photography of Jamie XX who is part of Back to Our Roots.
Jamie XX is playing the Corsica Studios in London | Photograph: Republic Media

Cook suggests this has changed with the introduction of one of the government’s latest measure:  the introduction of the 10pm curfew. The curfew was sprung upon Parliament at a moment’s notice and “without sufficient consultation,” according to one member of SAGE (the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). Likewise, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has suggested it is “doing more harm than good.”

Venues are technically exempt provided the performance has already started by 10pm, but bars must close in accordance with the curfew. It is clear the policy is placing further financial strain on an already teetering industry. 

Cook described how demoralising this was: “Just when people are finding their feet, they find that the rug has been pulled out from under them.” 

So far, she says that there has been a lack of “a clear directive” and that “any directive from central government isn’t disseminated to those responsible for enforcing it,” going as far as to describe the situation as: “farcical, it borders on satire.” 

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has suggested the 10pm curfew may be “doing more ham than good”

Furthermore, Cook highlighted the enormous problem of commercial rents, which applies to the vast majority of venues apart from the privileged few who own and operate their premises. 

Until the future of the Culture Recovery Fund is decided, it is difficult to know what government support is needed for grassroots venues. What we do know is that the industry has found the lack of targeted and sector-specific support frustrating, especially given the fact that the clock is ticking down to the end of the furlough scheme at the end of October, and the inevitable job losses that will bring with it. 

To Cook, all of this painted a “pretty bleak picture.” 

The concern for night-time economy representatives is that the Chancellor’s new provision for job retention as part of his Winter Economy Plan, a watered-down version of the German Kurzarbeit scheme, will do next to nothing for many venues – talk of subsidy and wage top-ups is all well and good but the reality is that this is no good for venues that are either closed completely or operating at minimal capacity. 

This spells trouble for the grassroots music industry. Cook highlighted that many of the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the £5bn sector are not in it for the money. A “heart-breaking situation” looms ahead: in which people cannot do the work that they love and are not supported whist the industry remains at a standstill. 

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For all the curves on a graph or numbers on a chart, behind each statistic is a real person and a real livelihood, people with families to support like so many others, and given the high numbers of freelancers in the industry, many have found themselves falling through the cracks of the government’s Job Retention Scheme. 

Despite great work by campaigns such as We Make Events, whose marches called for better support for industry freelancers, the loss of festival season this year dealt another enormous blow to workers, although there is hope that festivals can go ahead in 2021. 

The fact remains that there are close to 1000 grassroots venues in the UK. Passport: Back to Our Roots could not hope to raise enough to support every venue – tight margins and a lack of any real cash reserves makes further support crucial. Even with proper insurance and good accountancy and management, venues only have enough to see them through a bad month or two – nobody foresaw a situation where they would be shutting their doors for over 6 months. 

All of this gets right to the heart of why Passport: Back to Our Roots is so vital. 

Having raised over £100,000 – an amount that Cook described as “phenomenal” – and with more rounds of fundraising and more prize draws in the works, the project will continue to support grassroots venues through the pandemic. 

Just when people are finding their feet, they find that the rug has been pulled out from under them 

Sally Cook, Director of Operations at Band on the Wall

However, for all the immense fundraising efforts, perhaps the most important role the initiative has performed is providing a voice for the grassroots music scene across the country, raising the profile of the industry and putting its concerns on the agenda. 

Grassroots music and culture venues, so often ignored by government, provide an invaluable community function in the areas they operate.

Photograph of Manchester group Everything Everything.
Everything Everything are playing Esquires in Bedford | Photograph: Republic Media

Cook believes that one positive of recent months may be that – as a society – we seem to be finally recognising the need to promote grassroots venues.  

“It’s important to remember that those at the top selling out packed arenas are only there because of the grassroots arena that everyone starts off in.”  

Where previously these spaces were left out of discussions of the region’s wider cultural offer, organisations like Band on the Wall have been able to capitalise on the project’s momentum and bang the drum for grassroots venues up and down the country. 

Another block of artists will be announced towards the end of 2020, before continuing again in the New Year. In the meantime, the prize draws for the latest round of events is still open. You can buy a raffle ticket, or simply donate to the project and support grassroots venue both in Manchester and further afield.

Featured: Elbow are playing the Night and Day Cafe in Manchester | Photo: Republic Media.