The U.K.’s Music Venue Trust’s Mark Davyd On Saving The Future Of Live Music (European Live Savers Issue)

Mark Davyd of the Music Venue Trust at The Forum in Kent

Feeling It: Mark Davyd of the U.K.’s Music Venue Trust at The Forum in Turn Bridge Wells, Kent.

Beacons Of Hope From Europe’s Live Savers

How many times over the past couple of years have you heard somebody say that the live experience couldn’t be replaced? How many times have you heard someone infer that the live industry was therefore recession proof? If this crisis has shown us anything, it is that both of the assertions above are completely unrelated: because if there’s no way of generating supply, it doesn’t matter how great the demand.

And there’s always demand for live experiences, probably more so during bad times. A night out, after all, whether that’s a concert, a comedy show or a football match, carries the promise of good times. Being able to deliver on that promise is one of the biggest appeals for professionals working in this business. And it explains why so many promoters, agents, tour managers – anyone forming a part of the greater whole – have been telling Pollstar that they couldn’t just stand idly by and wait this crisis out. 

We’ve picked eight individuals, who’ve been doing everything in their power to keep live going even under the most adverse circumstances imaginable. Aside from tickets sold and visitors welcomed, we’ve looked at the sheer force of will displayed in some cases, even if their efforts failed and their pleas fell on deaf ears in the end. (See below for links to a few of the European Live Savers features and check back later this week for the rest)

And while all of the efforts are noble, some even turning a profit, they cannot belie the fact that live audience events aren’t economically viable as long as distancing mandates are in place. What is more, the atmosphere is severely lacking when there’s no opportunity to lose control, to dance without worrying about touching a fellow human, or to meet your new best friend while fetching beers at the bar. Which is why all of the individuals interviewed for this list of Live Savers have emphasized that their efforts of the past half year were intended as beacons of hope; to remind the public and its so-called representatives just how much is at stake if we decide to sacrifice everything we love about life – and live – for some sense of safety. 

Check out our profile on Mark Davyd, the founder and CEO of Music Venue Trust, below.

 Saving The Future Of Live Music 
“I need a holiday. A proper, long holiday. I think everybody on the team deserves a holiday,” said Mark Davyd back in October, after the Music Venue Trust (MVT) had just helped 259 grassroots music venues in the UK successfully apply for the UK government’s COVID relief fund. The holiday, however, had to wait. The 259 venues represented 89% of a total of 292 venues that had applied for the latest round of funds, meaning that 33 venues still required help. And if you know Davyd, you also know that he would never be able to relax, let alone go on a vacation, as long as there’s a chance of saving even one more venue from closure.
Davyd feels “incredibly invested in” the grassroots music sector, “I’ve got an enormous amount of respect for a huge number of people who work to keep their venues open. The individual people, who do that, are all heroes of mine. Being able to give them some support and make sure they were able to keep doing what they love doing, and what they need to do, frankly, for the benefit of all of us has been most rewarding.”

– Mark Davyd

Just how much the world benefits from grassroots music venues has become particularly apparent since March, when governments seemingly decided that a venue filled to capacity poses a greater health risk than, say, a plane filled to capacity. The gap left in peoples’ private and professional lives by the ban on live music is painfully wide. But that’s not all: grassroots music venues are the breeding grounds for some of the greatest live acts of all time. Name any one great live performer, and you can be sure they started out in a beautifully dingy underground venue, probably in front of a meager crowd, getting paid with free beer.

When the UK government shut down live events, it effectively banned the professionals in the sector from working. Davyd and his team immediately began assessing what this meant for the country’s grassroots venues in general, and the 900 venues that are part of MVT’s Music Venue Alliance in particular. “We had pretty clear evidence that over 500 venues would be closed by the end of August,” Davyd recalled. Fast forward to the end of September, and there had remained only one venue that was permanently lost. 
This feat required an incredibly bespoke approach, as each venue had its own struggles to overcome. “Me talking to ministers of government is great, but it isn’t going to prevent to closure of a venue in Hull. What’s going to bring back two venues that have closed in Hull is finding the right people in Hull that can do something,” Davyd explained. “Get a local coordinator there who can talk to the city about why they must reopen their venues, talk to the local council about what they’re going to do, discuss it with everybody, build a network of people around getting that venue reopened.”
To establish local coordinators across the UK, the MVT expanded from two full-time and three part-time members of staff to 20 people all together. They engaged with every single local authority as well as landlords of individual buildings. “There were probably some 200 letters issued to landlords, asking them not to take their rent, issued to local authorities asking them not to collect this or that tax. I think the bit we’re proudest of is how individual it’s been,” Davyd recalled. Davyd realized early on that when looking at a problem of that size, over 500 venues under threat, it’s actually impossible to defend them all at once. 
“We would have literally had to go to government and say, ‘We need £250 million to make sure that none of them close down.’ It would have been impossible. But by taking little bits of it out, going to the landlord and saying, ‘Look, we know you want your full rent, but would you accept half the rent?’ And then going the local council and saying, ‘Look, they didn’t get any kind of grant from you, because they were £1,000 over the limit. Can they get that money to pay half the rent the landlord has just agreed to?’ We’ve done a huge amount of that, just negotiating a pathway through to keeping individual venues open,” he explained. 
For more from the European LiveSavers issue, subscribers can access the digital edition here.

Dave Hogan / Getty Images

The Rolling Stones at the 100 Club, London, in 1980, one of many venues facing closure due to the UK’s COVID restrictions, before the Music Venue Trust intervened.
MVT’s entire effort runs under the hashtag #saveourvenues. Aside from applying for government money, venues from as far south as Plymouth all the way up to the Scottish Highlands also ran their own crowdfunding campaigns. Iconic London venues like the Dublin Castle, The 100 Club, and the Phoenix Arts Club couldn’t have survived otherwise. While the money aspect has been huge, the personal has been even bigger. After all, no one decides to run a small music venue to get rich. Venue owners and operators are in it out of passion and love for live music.

“I don’t think there’s a member of the team that hasn’t had to deal with a tearful phone call. There’s been people who are very, very close to the edge. We deal with people who live in their venue. When you say, ‘Their venue’s closing down,’ you mean, ‘They’re going to lose their home.’ That’s pretty serious,” Davyd explained. “We’re kind of blasé with big numbers, but actually the individual story of each of these venues is pretty big stuff. We’ve done a lot of work to prevent the closure of the Dublin Castle, for instance, but it’s not just the Dublin Castle. Henry, who runs it now, his mom used to run it, it’s been in the family since 1972. It’s not as simple as stopping a venue from closing down, they’re risking an entire family legacy. The pressure on somebody like Henry to keep that venue going, not only for the local community, but also because it’s his family business.”

He continued, “Jeff of the 100 Club, his family’s been there since 1964, his father ran it, and before that his auntie ran it. You’re talking about real heritage, deeply emotive situations that people are in. Each one of these venues is somebody’s personal history and life’s work. You threaten to take that away from them, of course it gets personal. We talk about the music industry a lot, but a lot of this is just about communities and people. I’m very proud of what we’ve done for people, that’s it.”Back in April, when many people still thought this whole crisis would be over in no time, the MVT had already developed four different protocols of how to bring live music back.

Amy Winehouse
Samir Hussein / Getty Images

Amy Winehouse at Dublin Castle as part of The Camden Crawl in April 2007 in London.

Getting politicians on board, however, turned out to be a drag. A lot of the discussions between the government and the venues working group Davyd is a part of revolved around ventilation.

“You’re allowed to do more outside than you’re allowed to do inside. So, at one point I asked, scientifically speaking, what is the level of ventilation [to recreate] the conditions outside? If a venue could create those conditions inside, would it not be allowed to do what you’re allowed to do outdoors? To which the answer was, ‘No’,” Davyd explained, adding, “A lot of the government position and advice on this virus isn’t as scientifically based as you might hope it would be. A lot of it is about a public narrative. I do get that, but at the same time there’s a number of proposals being made, where very sensible scientific risk management isn’t picked up. There’s a disconnect there.” That has been showing forever. Grassroots music venues never received funding from government prior to this crisis. Most European governments tend not to recognize anything outside of classical and opera music as culture. If this crisis was good for anything, then hopefully to change politicians’ perception of contemporary grassroots music and club culture.

Said Davyd, “There’s a little bit of me that’s kind of angry that we had to wait for this crisis to come along before everybody just agreed on what we already knew: that, actually, if you’ve got a venue near you where artists come through, it’s unbelievably important to these communities and to the artists. It’s nice to see that, finally, maybe, contemporary music, everything that’s been made since 1950, is being recognized as part of our national identity, that it’s important to the kind of country we want to be.”