The easing of lockdown has come as a relief for bars and restaurants across Northern Ireland, but there is no sign of live music returning.
The revenue generated from ticket sales and venue bars accounted for 47% of the total income of the live arts sector in 2018-19 and the complete removal of these sources has been devastating.
It is why the decision made last weekend by the UK government to invest £1.57bn into the arts sector has been broadly welcomed. Attention in Northern Ireland will now turn to exactly how the Executive chooses to disperse its allocated £33m support package.
Charlotte Dryden, CEO of the Oh Yeah Music Centre, one of Belfast’s most pivotal music hubs, has been involved in behind-the-scenes discussions focused on keeping the industry active.
“The arts in general have really pulled together,” she says, reflecting on the efforts of venue owners, arts organisations and local charities.
She admits that the government’s announcement came “out of the blue” and that it is “a very positive step forward,” but inevitably questions still remain. “It’s just, how will it be distributed? The devil will be in the detail,” she says. “The main concern is going to be around artists and freelancers, they are still living hand-to-mouth. There’s still an emergency there, in my opinion.”
The investment follows a sustained period of lobbying and campaigning from a number of organisations, perhaps most notably the Music Venues Trust, a UK-wide charitable organisation whose #LetTheMusicPlay and #SaveOurVenues campaigns have been at the forefront of efforts to raise money to support grassroots venues.
In Northern Ireland, the Arts Collaboration Network recently presented the argument for the arts sector to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Communities, a campaign which last week resulted in a separate announcement from the Assembly of a £4m emergency arts funding package.
Whilst the Executive is not legally bound to direct all of the £33m into the arts, Charlotte Dryden believes that there is a moral obligation to do so. Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin commented that, “whilst ultimately it will be for the Executive to decide on how this money should be spent, the argument for a comprehensive package of support to local musicians, freelancers, theatres, artists, museums and the heritage sector at a time when they are struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be overstated.”
Ciaran Smyth, the owner of the Voodoo venue in Belfast city centre, worries, however, that the money may not reach everyone in need.
“I’m extremely concerned that a grassroots commercial venue like Voodoo will be ignored by Northern Ireland arts administrators,” he tells us. “Unlike arts support in most of Europe, our venues never receive any funding from government. There aren’t many of us left as a result. We are at the forefront of trying to rebuild a sustainable music infrastructure in Northern Ireland.”
Charlotte Dryden agrees that venues have often been overlooked. “We are being left behind,” she says. “Every time I watch the news, they talk about sports and retail but you don’t really get much about small, grassroots venues.”
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland immediately repurposed its public funds at the beginning of lockdown, providing £1.5m of emergency funding to the worst affected arts organisations, artists and freelancers, but they also accepted that much more is needed.
They estimate that the Northern Ireland arts sector is facing an initial loss of box office income of £25 million and have expressed specific concern for seriously affected venues.
The Oh Yeah Music Centre is a charity and a social enterprise as well as a venue and generates approximately 45% of its income from its bar, cafe, ticket sales and rented rehearsal rooms, which Charlotte admits puts them in a less dangerous position than some others. “My heart goes out to venues that completely rely on ticket and bar income,” she says.
For Voodoo, it is a case of having to contemplate adapting the venue into a bar or facing long periods of inaction. “The government have said that you have to leave six metres in front of a singer clear, which is half the venue gone,” says Ciaran Smyth. “We are looking at if there is any way we can do alternative presentation of live music. All that costs an awful lot of money, though.”