‘There are meteorites coming at us’: London’s music venues on the battle against Omicron – Evening Standard

January 26, 2022
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After weeks of disruption due to the new Covid variant, London’s gig venues are once again in crisis mode
“Really uncertain”: Union Chapel saw all of its January gigs cancelled in the face of Omicron
t says a lot about the toll Omicron has taken on London’s live music scene that even after almost two years of the pandemic, three national lockdowns, multiple rounds of funding applications, and all manner of shape-shifting restrictions sent down by the Government, these past couple of months are being talked about as “the hardest time yet”.
That’s according to Helen Wallace, artistic and executive director of north London venue Kings Place. “We are ostensibly able to operate normally,” she says, “but there are these meteorites coming at us, and they sort of explode everything.”
Official guidelines have been, in comparison to what’s come before, relatively light for music venues — under Plan B rules, face masks are mandated at gigs, and Covid passes are required for standing audiences of more than 500 people — but rampant Covid infection rates across the capital in December and into January, driven by the new variant, have led to a situation where venues have been forced to roll multiple dice, and hope they all land on the right number.
Will artists catch Covid and have to cancel or isolate? How many staff members need to get sick before it becomes untenable? And how many audience no-shows can there be, either as a result of infection, isolation or worry, before a gig is financially unsustainable?
“What has been very, very challenging is that actually, there are [almost] no restrictions on us doing anything at the moment, but there are so many ways in which things can fail,” says Wallace. “We can have sold out shows, and they can be absolutely fantastic and do brilliantly, which they have done. And then we can have a night where everything falls apart, because one person in a team, not even the artist necessarily, has Covid.”
Kings Place has been forced to cancel gigs in recent weeks, but despite the hardships, has managed to power through with both full-capacity events and smaller, socially distanced shows. Over in Islington, however, at Union Chapel, the venue has postponed all its January concerts, and half of those planned for February.
And “the majority of the cancellations”, says Michael Chandler, the venue’s CEO, “were not our decision”. Covid-infected artists being forced to miss shows was the main factor, although general safety concerns in the face of Omicron and the risk of low audience attendance also played a part. In mid December, the Music Venue Trust reported a “catastrophic” drop in audience numbers, falling by almost a quarter in the past week, which it estimated was costing its member venues some £2m a week.
It all came after what had, by most measures, been a promising few months in the live music scene. A residency from Celeste kicked off Union Chapel’s summer reopening — “just seeing audiences back in the space and hearing applause and cheering and laughter, it was a bit special,” says Chandler — and then, “slowly but surely” the venue started working its way back towards pre-pandemic levels of around five gigs per week in October and November.
But then Omicron happened, and the cancellations began to pile up. “And it remains really uncertain, going into February and March,” Chandler says. Sometimes, cancellations aren’t even down to Covid infecting the artists, but rather thanks to continental tours being rearranged as one block due to travel restrictions, wiping out a whole run of shows.
The problem posed by a lack of gig income at Union Chapel is two-fold, as the venue’s profits make up 80 per cent of the income for its associated charity, which offers support and advice to vulnerable members of the local community and those experiencing homelessness — a service for which demand has almost tripled since the start of the pandemic.
To bridge the gap, the venue has launched a crowdfunder, with almost £20,000 donated so far. Union Chapel gratefully received financial support from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund as recently as November, but as Chandler points out, “we applied for that back in August, September, when the landscape was, once again, very different. As part of that application, we anticipated getting back to a fairly steady January, February and March. Now that looks like it’s not the case.”
In December, the Government announced a new round of £6,000 grants for grassroots music venues — a move widely derided in the industry, and described by the Music Venue Trust as “woefully inadequate” — while word of an extra £30m for the Culture Recovery Fund failed to mention music venues specifically.
Both Chandler and Wallace agree that ambiguous messaging from the Government during Plan B — it’s ok to go to gigs, but it’s not ok to go to the office — hasn’t helped either. “Audiences just don’t know what they are supposed to do,” says Chandler.
Things could be about to change, though. Days after speaking to Chandler and Wallace, prime minister Boris Johnson announced that all Plan B measures would be scrapped in England from January 26, including compulsory mask-wearing, vaccine certificates, and the work-from-home directive; another reminder, as if it were needed, of just how quickly things can change.
Wallace says the move to encourage people back to the office could “be the biggest help for us”, doing away with the inference that it’s unsafe to travel and congregate. Cutting the self-isolation periods could also help, she adds. “When we have foreign artists coming, the quarantining has been a massive issue, because it adds so much cost to somebody coming into the country if they’ve got to stay and wait to find out about a PCR — if they’ve got to pay more hotel bills, everyone’s got to cover that.”
So while the end of Plan B is promising news for gigs, it seems venues are not getting ahead of themselves. “I hope this Omicron variant will start to subside by April, if not sooner,” says Chandler. “But then the challenge is: what if there’s another variant? Is this the tail-end of the pandemic? No-one knows.
“In that respect, we plan — and we’re enormously excited about our plans as a venue and as a community charity. But we also are mindful that plans might change.”

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