The Straw That Broke the Manager's Back
By Thom Bentley
If you want to get the measure of how active a manager is within a music venue, ask them about their back. Ironically, the most spineless managers in the industry have perfectly healthy backbones. Why is that you may ask? It's down to one of two reasons.
The venue is large enough that it can afford to pay staff to handle deliveries and rigging. In this instance the venue is undoubtedly not considered grassroots and is at no immediate threat.
The manager would rather pay someone to do the hard work for them than get stuck in and do it themself. A luxury of days since past.
You may be thinking that it seems like the kind of grunt work that the Don should delegate to able hands so they might spend their time doing less important things. Well, you'd be right, if you're operating above 20% profit, but that's just not a reality for grassroot venues any more. Some are lucky to make a dime on the dollar whilst others are forced to operate as NFP charities relying upon the generosity of patrons and wealthy donors. A standing relationship between the sector and our government designed to make them feel indebted to the very system that bleeds them like a hooker ingratiating her pimp.
In an industry relying upon professionals in-between rungs of the ladder, bands that go on to rear-view them with fleeting nostalgia instead of honouring them as the resolute foundation of their career, and increasingly apprehensive and apathetic audiences, the first step on the ladder to legend is being crush asphyxiated under the feet of farmed likes, listens, and comments. This pandemic will either reshape that new trend in reaching an audience or it will be the death knell of the grassroots music venue.
In 2018 UK gig attendance remained consistent with 2017 figures of 24 million. The reason UK Music were able to pencil in that par for the course was a surge in festival tickets sales, despite another depressing fallow year for Glastonbury. That surge resulted in an extra 900,000 festival attendees, probably largely from London, turning up on the Friday, and erecting gazebos right over your pissed out campfire. Larger concert attendances remained comparative with previous years, meaning that across the UK, grassroots gigs saw a fall in attendance by 900,000. That's a potential loss of more than £6,000,000 in ticket sales alone, without even mentioning the potential revenue lost across the bar, and in merchandising and record sales for artists. So why are people becoming more apprehensive toward grassroots gigs? The reason is twofold.
Firstly, and most simply put, the ticket price hasn't gone up but the amount of money in the average pocket has gone down due to consistent price hikes elsewhere. We're paying more in rent, bills, food, and transport than ever before. I won't bore you with Freddo economics, we've all felt the pinch, but by the time we've laid out the last of our scratch each month we're far more careful with how we spend the remainder. Gone are the days of Fernet Branca and Jamón ibérico, we enter an age of Mad Dog 20/20 and reconstituted Hock. Which leads me to the second reason; the adaptation of the modern concert venue.
Larger venues are taking advantage of their financial prowess and investing in inventive ways to utilise their spaces. With the likes of 02, universities, and arenas adapting the capacity of their venues via partitioning or opening second and third rooms they are able to cater to the grassroots, the lower tier, the mid tier, and the higher tier artists in the industry. Our one-stop shop for all of your concert venue needs if you will, because who wants to go to different venues and experience different things when you can get it all under one roof. You've got Netflix telling you what to watch next at home, let 02 tell you what to watch next in their live music megastore. Concert goers who enjoyed the Dandy Warhols also purchased tickets for Brian Jonestown. Did they? Ooo err.
This expansion coupled with the mastering of marketing strategies by independent artists from the get go has lead to an era of self-produced mid-tier artists that have no need for the grassroots music scene whatsoever. They've painted an arrow on the bottom step of the ladder pointed to a plush elevator straight to the third floor. Decades from now starstruck hipster musicians will look back fondly on their first ever live performance, headlining the Kentish Town Forum off the back of a four track E.P produced in their bedroom using nothing but VST's. We'll watch a rebooted VH1: Behind The Music with Low Fi Indie musicians discussing their Aderall dependency during the difficult years in the attic bedroom of their parent's Wessex cottage. Kudos to anyone that calls themselves the Wessex Pistols, don't stiff me on the royalties.
But Thom, what does this have to do with the manager of my local venue's spine? Everything. You see now, more than ever, every penny in a grassroots venue needs to be fought for, tooth and nail. It's harder than ever to get enough good bands on the stage, it's harder than ever to convince the public to spend their hard earned money on a ticket to see a band that didn't get the memo from Soundcloud (Or told Soundcloud to go fuck themselves), it's harder than ever to convince someone that bought a ticket to buy a drink, or a shirt, or a CD. If you factor in the fact that without a universally available vaccine for Covid-19, venues will only be able to open with reduced capacity, and bizarre queuing procedures the maximum potential earnings from a gig will be severely reduced (Have you considered how long it will take to get into a 20,000 capacity venue even at a reduced 10,000 capacity with a 2 metre distancing rule covering the entirety of the queue? All the fun of a half-dayer but without the value for money). The cost of this change in the way we view live music at any level will impact someone, somewhere, be it the band, the sound guy, the DJ, or the bartenders. Like a bride at stake in a game of poker, when we get to the river, somebody is getting fucked. Every penny will need to be conserved, there are no pennies for surplus staffing, the manager will have to fill in in most roles, and your expectations for the whole live experience will have to change entirely.
Last week Dave Chappelle performed his first stand up in two months to a field with pairs of seats distanced more than 2 metres apart and red chalk boxes surrounding them. Attendees were served at their seats, no one entered anyone else's space. It sounds crazy, but it worked, it was a realistic solution, it felt different to any show I had seen before, and it's very likely going to be our future.
Get used to it.
So when the industry finds it's way to reopen, if Chappelle's method is the one adopted, take a look around the room and see if every seat is filled. If there are empty seats, ask the manager how their back is, it's probably the best metric there is for the longevity of their business.
Thom Bentley is the co-founder and co-manager of the Save Womanby Street campaign. He has written for Rockshot Magazine, amongst other online music journals. You can follow him on Instagram at @thomthehumanboy.