Venues in crisis – how campaign is helping Sheffield clubs in their battle for survival

When lockdown came into effect, music venues were some of the places hardest hit by the requirement for ‘non-essential’ businesses to stay closed until further notice.

By Richard Blackledge
Tuesday, 26th May 2020, 4:03 pm
Updated Tuesday, 2nd June 2020, 12:20 pm

Reliant on income from ticket sales and bar takings, and posing an unfortunate risk at the pandemic’s peak by virtue of their role in enabling social gatherings, independent clubs and theatres have been grappling with an unprecedented number of event cancellations, leaving many in financial peril.

Figures have suggested the problems faced by Sheffield, with its heritage of big homegrown acts like Arctic Monkeys, Pulp and Bring Me The Horizon, are particularly acute.

Last month the online entertainment guide The List ranked the top 10 UK towns and cities whose music scenes will be worst affected by the Covid-19 pandemic – Sheffield was in sixth place, above Manchester and Birmingham.

Just over 11 per cent of the city’s annual events are gigs, the magazine found, a proportion more than five per cent higher than the national average.

It is against this backdrop that the Music Venue Trust has set up #saveourvenues, a national campaign aimed at rescuing hundreds of at-risk venues that are recognised as playing a crucial role in developing British music, boosting local economies and creating cultural vibrancy.

In Sheffield, three sites are highlighted on the trust's ‘crisis’ list. Artists are playing livestreamed gigs in return for donations, an approach that has paid off highly successfully for at least one popular city location.

The Leadmill, which should have been marking its 40th anniversary with celebrations throughout 2020, was the first venue to sign up locally. So far the club has raised more than double its £10,000 target, largely down to donations made during a live-streamed concert staged by singer-songwriter Billy Bragg – consequently a new ‘stretch target’ of £30,000 has been set.

A night at The Leadmill in Sheffield.

While the trust says many of the businesses involved in the campaign are facing permanent closure, The Leadmill accepts it is in ‘a slightly more fortunate position’. In April the club revealed it had made more than £10,000 from an online auction of memorabilia to cover costs during the coronavirus crisis; other fundraisers have included a virtual pub quiz hosted by reformed Sheffield band Little Man Tate.

“However, if these forced closures continue into the rest of the year we could also be looking at some pretty high debts and inevitable staff redundancies,” the venue said on its crowdfunding page. “We want to try and avoid this as much as possible. Any money raised through this fundraiser will be split 50/50 between The Leadmill and the Music Venue Trust's nationwide pot.”

The Leadmill explained: “Our half of your kind donations will be used to help cover the following immediate costs: staff that we are unable to furlough who are desperately trying to keep the venue alive and kicking for the future; financial help for our freelance DJs/engineers/crew; rent that we are unable to get a holiday period from via our landlord; essential running costs that are a legal/safety requirement.”

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The Leadmill in Sheffield is shut at present and staff have been furloughed because of the coronavirus crisis. Picture: Simon Hulme.

Corporation has also joined the campaign in Sheffield. With its emphasis on rock music, range of club nights and legendary drinks deals, a visit to the club is something of a rite of passage for the city's youth – now staff are facing the prospect of a shuttered venue for months longer.

Alongside its target of £15,000, Corporation is urging people to buy merchandise from its website, saying its income ‘ceased overnight’ in March. Donors are being offered rewards, the most valuable being a ‘main stage production day’ worth £300, while artist Bryan John has painted a picture of the club’s Milton Street building and is giving a proportion of the proceeds from print sales.

“The entire industry was asked to wait,” Corporation said. “We are still waiting. There is mass uncertainty within the industry; the ‘unknowns’ far outweigh the ‘knowns’. Making plans and preparing for everyone’s future is impossible. What we do know is money still going out and nothing coming in can only continue for so long.

“Money raised will go a long way to help cover essential overheads/running costs involved in keeping the venue ticking over.”

Abbeydale Picture House.

The Abbeydale Picture House, a grand former cinema now run by the charity CADS South Yorkshire, is the third Sheffield venue being helped by the trust. Like The Leadmill, it is also marking a milestone year – in December it will be a century since films were first shown at the Picture House, which has just undergone important work to help secure a premises licence.

“The Music Venue Trust has been an incredibly supportive organisation for the team, and we are incredibly proud to be able to call ourselves members of such a vital initiative that works so hard to protect the future of so many vital music venues,” said CADS.

“We have unfortunately lost all income to the venue, jeopardising the future of the project and the recently completed improvement works which were so generously funded.

“Donations will help ensure Abbeydale Picture House is able to reopen its doors to the public once again after the current crisis has passed and it is safe to do so, by ensuring overheads are covered and staff's jobs are protected.”

The Mulberry Bar and Venue, on Arundel Gate, has launched a crowdfunding page linked to the campaign too.

Nationally, #saveourvenues has raised more than £1.5 million, alongside action from bodies such as Arts Council England. The trust says 140 venues have been removed from the critical list, out of more than 500 sites registered for support.

Corporation on Milton Street, Sheffield.

However Mark Davyd, the Music Venue Trust’s founder, said more needed to be done to protect clubs’ long-term future.

He said: “The fact we have managed to remove 140 grassroots music venues off of our critical list in the last three weeks is, of course, a cause for celebration but we are not complacent as this is only a relatively short-term fix.

"While the immediate threat of closure for these venues has been halted they are still under real threat in the coming months as are over 400 others.

"This is a good start and we can’t emphasise how grateful we are, but we cannot relax as we still have a mountain to climb to secure the long-term future of this sector.

"We still desperately need more music industry companies to step up and help with donations alongside real action from government specifically around rent relief, more financial help and clearer guidance.”

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