‘The Most Important Thing Is A Clear Exit Strategy’: Q’s With NTIA CEO Michael Kill

Michael Kill
– Michael Kill
CEO of the UK’s Night Time Industries Association NTIA.

Pollstar speaks to Michael Kill, CEO of the UK’s Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), which has been one of the loudest voices shouting about the desperate situation many professionals working in live are finding themselves in.

The NTIA represents all kinds of events, festival, nightclubs, companies working in recorded and particularly electronic dance music, pubs, restaurant, and bars in front of government. “We very much house ourselves around the 6 p.m. till 6 a.m. businesses,” Kill sums it up, adding that, “no one is more important than the other, each of them have vital importance, whether its economic or cultural.”
In the UK, as well as all over the world right now, there’s an immense amount of freelancers, self-employed traders and sole directors that have been excluded from the many government funding schemes launched in reaction to help businesses that have been out of work since March.
NTIA has found that many night time businesses don’t get the recognition or value they deserve from some of the cultural departments in government, despite their musical export value, and obvious importance in terms of contemporary music, particularly around youth culture. 
In its latest press release on the further tightening of restrictions across the UK, NTIA stated, the “Night Time Economy Sector has lost all confidence in the Government strategy against COVID. NTIA describes the new set of restrictions as “ill conceived” and “unsubstantiated”, lamenting “inadequate support”.
That was before Europe decided to severely restrict or outright ban air travel from and in some cases to the UK, due to the emergence of what’s been reported to be a mutated version of COVID.
We asked Kill about the state of conversations with decision maker on how to help out all those, who’ve been the first to shut down, and who will be the last to reopen. At least as things currently stand.
Pollstar: Can you define the number one reason why people are falling through the cracks of government funding schemes in the UK?
Michael Kill: A lot of freelancers are financially set up in such a way, that they will pay themselves a wage, and then also pay themselves through dividends. And our government is not happy to accept a dividend as income, so they only measured any relief or support through the self-employed scheme to come via that small wage that was attributed to the freelancers. 
As you can appreciate, if you pay yourself £1,000 a month, and then you pay yourself a dividend later down the line, it means that the support will only be very moderate, comparative to what you’re used to for covering your bills. So, many of these people have been put into a position where they’re in debt, they’ve had to borrow. They’ve had to think about retraining, which, as you can appreciate with our industry, is like being a footballer and being told that you’ve got to be an IT consultant. 
You get into this because you’ve got a passion for what you do. You get into it, because you love the buzz you love the drive, whether you’re a manager or a DJ. It’s almost emblazoned on your shirt in some respects, it’s part of you. 
I’ve been doing this nearly, what, 26 years. I started as a barman, I worked my way out, I worked in marketing and blue-chip companies, I’ve had my own venue, I’ve worked in a festival, I’ve been a commercial director for university, I’ve done lots of different jobs within this environment, but I can’t lose the bug for it. Hence, I’m here now. I feel that there’s something I need to fight for, because it’s given me so much in the past.
What’s you status of your talks with government? Is the understanding for what it means to be freelance or a sole trader in this sector growing?
I think the government understands it. I know that the Excluded UK group have been working very hard with government. And we’ve seen some of their proposals that have been put forward and seem like they’re making some really good headway, not only politically, but in terms of the press.
We have built a relationship with the Arts Council, we’ve been working alongside DJs and creatives to try and access funding outside of things like the Cultural Recovery Fund. The Department for Culture, Media and Sports has something called a project fund, which is accessible up to 100K. Then there’s funding for developing your own creative practice, whether you’re a DJ, creative light technician, sound engineer, whatever, perfecting your skill.
We’ve just done a webinar with about 170 representatives from the sector, which they found very valuable. It just gives them an understanding of what’s available, so they can actually go out and apply. And with the support of the Arts Council, we’re looking to do more of those, so that people understand what’s available to them. 
The Arts Council traditionally always felt like a very classic arts organization. They would naturally sit with the likes of opera and theatre, etc. They wouldn’t naturally sit with electronic music, DJs, or live music, although they did help grassroots music venues in the past. But we’ve obviously got quite a broad spread in terms of events and venues. We’ve taken a mantle on that and started moving that forward with the Arts Council. 
We’ve been working with things like the Drinks Trust, a charity that’s distributed grants to some of the lower paid sectors, like bar staff. We work very hard just getting some ground level support for people that need as much as possible.
You’ve lamented that some of the government restrictions lack the scientific evidence for their effectiveness. On the other side, live industry pros have been running pilots, consulting with health experts, and coming up with concepts that have been approved by scientists. Do you see any chance that these findings will be taken into account by the authorities?
If it wasn’t winter, we’d be sat here doing a lot more pilots with outdoor events. I think indoor events are always going to be a challenge. The restrictions that are put in place make things untenable in many ways. Nightclubs have always been misconceived as sweaty boxes by politicians, so electronic music venues in particular have always been a challenge. 
The rapid testing has become something that’s obviously been highlighted. We’re working with private companies on that at the moment. The challenge that we’ve got is obviously getting the risk-averse MP to come forward and allow us to do what we need to do. It’s becoming more and more and more relevant as time goes on. I think they’re recognizing that they’re running out of time. 
They’re also recognizing that they have to look at a strategy based on financial bridging support, as well as an opening strategy based on rapid testing, and then the facilitation of vaccination up to critical mass. 
We’ve had conversations with a lot of the players in live music, who are looking to be able to re-engage around the April period. Venues haven’t been able to open since March, they’re frustrated. So, what the authorities are trying to do is potentially put us at the front of the queue in terms of opening. 
There are some challenges with that: track and trace and rapid testing all come with some expense and caveats, which need to be covered. Either way, whether you support the businesses financially, or whether you support the businesses through getting the doors open, we’ve still got to overcome some of the public health issues which they’re concerned about, and that’s around ingress and egress. 
Can you specify?
It’s all about creating a negative COVID bubble, where people can integrate. We have to look at 100% capacity. That way, it becomes viable. Safety first, it’s paramount, we understand that. If we create a safe bubble, where people are all negatively tested from entry through to egress, then we know that we’re protected and the staff are protected in a similar way. The viability is based on between 80 and 90% of capacity minimum, particularly for venues. 
The other element to this is making the experience something that people want to come back to or otherwise we’re going to systematically close these businesses anyway. For people to enjoy a safe environment, there cannot be any hindrances. The social distancing has to be removed. That’s a bit that we need to work towards, we can’t have things that are going to subjectively kill the experience to a point. 
We’ve talked about things like the Leipzig report, which has come back, which has highlighted ventilation, we’ve talked about face masks, we’ve produced an Institute of Occupational Medicine report, alongside some other trade bodies, which has brought about some of these conversations. 
We’re moving forward very quickly, but there are obviously some challenging times ahead. It really is dependent on what those transmission rates look like. And how we come out of the festive season, because one of our biggest concerns with the restrictions is, that we’re going to see an immense amount of illegal parties. They’re going to explode around New Year’s Eve, when the people are not going to be able to hold back. They’re going to want to get out and do what they want to do. And we can say, it’s a little blue in the face, but it is going to happen. 
What’s the most crucial thing that needs to be achieved in the immediate future, in order to save at least a modicum of business? 
It depends on the type of business. An immediate cash injection needs to come in to save the late-night sector. And there is absolutely work that needs to be done to save some of the individual freelancers, sole traders, etc. But the biggest and probably most important thing is to have a clear exit strategy so people can plan. 
At the moment, if you are loaning money or you’ve got any sort of financial challenges, how do you plan for your workforce? It’s almost like you’re walking down a road, you can’t see the end of the road, but you know, every mile you go, you’re losing a tenner. At some point you’re going to run out of money.
Some people want to consolidate what they have in terms of cash reserves, but some are not able to. For them January and February will be stark months.