Mapping the gaps

Mapping the gaps: Researching Live music in Birmingham and the Cultural Recovery Fund

In a situation where the entire economy has been derailed and unprecedented tensions have arisen between economic activity and public health, it is beyond doubt that the live arts ¬– and along with them the hospitality sector more generally – are amongst the sectors that have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. At stake are the future of numerous businesses, along with the creative opportunities and cultural resources that exist alongside them. Faced with this, the response to the crisis from the arts sector has been at a level not previously seen, with venues, artists, funders and campaigners operating creatively – at scale and at speed – in an attempt to protect these cultural resources. Such is the size of the crisis that it has added new pressure on the sector, while also revealing longstanding complications in the overall ecosystem that would be hard to address even at the best of times. In this post, we attempt to unpick some of the complexity involved not only in delivering support to hard-hit venues, but also the nuances of measuring, researching and defining the various aspects of the situation.

As the next round of the government’s Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) is announced, we have drawn from research on the live music sector in Birmingham, and an initial look at the earlier delivery CRF resources to identify some of the nuances of the live music ecology, and the consequent challenges that arise for the task of supporting, and researching, it.

Setting the scene

On Thursday 5th November, England joined other home UK nations in implementing further ‘lockdown’ measures intended to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Although intended to last for a shorter, four-week period than similar measures introduced in March 2020, the move is nevertheless likely to impact on almost every area of cultural and economic life in the countries concerned, highlighted by the extension of the UK government furlough scheme to cover the period. Amongst the many types of businesses who will see their activities suspended into early December 2020 (at the earliest), are the arts, leisure and hospitality sectors. Live music venues, musicians, touring crews, and many other associated businesses, once again face a period of uncertainty and must curtail activities that had only recently started up again – albeit in largely reduced or drastically altered forms – following the gradual easing of earlier restrictions during the summer months.

Those summer months saw a great deal of lobbying and campaigning activity requesting support for the arts organisations, including live music organisations.– eg #SaveTheArts, #LetTheMusicPlay #RedAlert, #WeMakeEvents #MakeMusicWork #SaveOurVenues. On 5th July 2020, the UK government announced a £1.57Bn package of support intended to help organisations in the sector ride out the present period.

What is the Culture Recovery Fund?

Announced by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on 5th July 2020, the Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) was described by the government as the “biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture [to] provide a lifeline to vital cultural and heritage organisations across the country hit hard by the pandemic”. The size of the package was certainly historic (it represented approximately 20% of the entire DCMS spend in 2016-17, for example), as was the context. The Chancellor’s own announcement also pointed at the scale of what it needed to address, taking in “galleries, museums, heritage sites, music venues and independent cinemas”.

‘Culture’ – across all of these fields, but even within them individually – is a necessarily broad term and understandings of ‘heritage’ and what constitutes cultural activity play differently across the numerous sites and spaces involved. Negotiating and reconciling all of these understandings, at pace, is not a straightforward task and, arguably, one made even more difficult given the urgency of the situation and the precarious nature of the many livelihoods that depend on them.

The Culture Recovery Fund (Grants Programme) opened for initial applications on 10th August 2020, followed by a second round on 21st August. Although the deadlines were tight – understandably and inevitably given the nature of the COVID-19 emergency – the scheme offered financial support for cultural organizations that were ‘financially stable before COVID-19, but were at imminent risk of failure’ (Arts Council 2020, CRF Key Information).

The first tranche of funding available was up to £500 million, with grants ranging £50,000 to a maximum of £3 million, in response to need, and specifically the risk of insolvency by 31st March 2021 as a result of Covid with grant requests to focus on the amount needed to avoid this. The eligibility criteria specified that cultural organizations (whether for profit or not for profit) should be based in England, constituted as an organization, and have at least one year of certified or audited financial statements. The fund was immediately recognised as a ‘lifeline’ for theatres, museums, orchestras and music venues, a view further confirmed during the release of the first of three separate rounds of grant awards in October 2020 (The Guardian, 12 Oct 2020). The scheme received widespread public support from a range of cultural organizations (eg. Music Venue Trust, Theatres Trust) who also noted how the crisis had unlocked funding in an unprecedented fashion.

One of the interesting things about the division of this funding … the two rounds that have been under £1 million so far …are, if we were not involved in a crisis, if that was a blank review of the distribution of cultural funding, it would be a remarkable turnaround. … 0.2% of the available public funding through the national portfolio went to the grassroots venues sector in 2018. In this one single pot of funding [CRF 2020], 12.4% of the entire money went to just grassroots music venues. (Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust – BLMP/Foreign Policy Centre, Panel discussion on 20th October 2020)

That the CRF has helped to keep a swathe of valuable institutions afloat is clear. (Indeed, we could imagine a different general scenario had some other aspects of the government’s Covid-19 response been delivered with comparable pace). The relationship between government and the arts has been complicated, though, since at least the end of the Second World War, in terms of its allocation across different genres and geographically, across regions. While there isn’t scope here to explore longstanding historical debates around cultural and economic value, or the wide range of regional variations, we hope to explore some of the definitional and research issues that underpin them through the case of Birmingham.

How did the fund play out in Birmingham? What does this tell us about identifying the case for support for the live music in the city?

Across the three rounds (released on 12th, 17th and 24th October), 48 Birmingham-based organisations received a total of £15 million. The amount awarded to Birmingham-based organisations constituted 3.68% of the total funds distributed (2.05% in Round 1, 1.31% in Round 2, and 11.70% in Round 3).

The geographical definition of Birmingham in this instance is based on data provided by the CRF and Arts Council England, which itself is based on the postcodes supplied by applicants to the scheme. In some cases, a postcode does not align with where the organisation is based (since a registered business address may differ from – for example – the location of a venue, or other location(s) where arts activities take place), and in other cases an organisation may have applied for funding that benefited multiple organisations in various geographical areas (Arts Council, CRF: Data). However, based on the information available (as of 24th October), we can assume that all organisations identified as being based in Birmingham supplied B-postcodes as their geographical location: This included postcodes B1-B48, covering the city centre and surrounding areas. Other B-postcode areas, such as Redditch (B97-98) and Sandwell (B64-B71) have been included in the CRF database separately.

If the focus is just on Birmingham defined as B1-B48, the funding awarded to organisations within the city limits has been comparable to other cities with a similar profile. Liverpool-based organisations, for instance, received grants amounting to 2.46% of the total budget, and Manchester’s organisations received 3.61%. All West Midlands based organizations received 9.85% of the total funding. While that leaves it behind the London region (which received 33.37%), the distribution of funding seems proportionate to other areas based on the size of geographic areas and the assumption that the larger an area and its associated population is, the higher number of cultural organisations it will play host to.

In Birmingham, as elsewhere, the funding was received by organizations that were self-categorised as ‘combined arts’, ‘dance’, ‘literature’, ‘music’, ‘museums’, ‘theatres’ and ‘visual arts’. Out of 48 organisations awarded funds in Birmingham, 20 were self-classified as working within the ‘music’ discipline. The categorisation and FAQ section of the CRF specified that any organization whose ‘primary role is to create, present or support one (or more)’ of a provided list of genres and sub genres could apply (Arts Council, CRF Sub-genres for FAQ). The ‘music’ discipline in particular included: brass bands; choral; classical; contemporary popular; experimental; folk; jazz; world/diasporic music; and other.

How did this funding translate to the BLMP database definition of Birmingham live music venues?

The focus of the BLMP is on live music venues. We define these as “a place in which live music events take place”. A live music event in this context is one in which musicians (including DJs) provide music for audiences and dancers gathering in public places where the music is the principal purpose of that gathering (cf: UK Live Music Census 2017). For a live music activity where the purpose is less clear — for example, a singer in a restaurant — we included the host venue in our list if an event was advertised on live music event pages (eg: Songkick) and/or if the performer was named on the social media pages of the venue (e.g. Facebook pages, Instagram or Twitter posts). Based on that definition, and following three stages of data collection that took place between Feb and May 2020, the BLMP database at present includes 197 music venues across whole B-postcode, and 158 within the B1-B48 that matches the Birmingham area according to CRF’s mapping.

This, then, points towards some aspects of a local cultural ecology that are hard to capture in a nationwide scheme, yet still provide employment and platforms for local operatives. Musical activity is – happily – hard to contain in pre-defined spaces and spills out across a region. ‘Scenes’ are notoriously hard to pin down. This is part of their strength and appeal, but also a challenge in terms of identifying loci for support in the face of a pandemic. A related complication that arises in terms of attempting to reconcile the CRF and BLMP data is that our broad definition (which seeks to maximise coverage of the ecology as a whole) doesn’t fully match the ‘music’ discipline as defined in the CRF (which has a time limited remit to support specific nodes within it).

In some other cases, our definition goes beyond it, including some of the organisations marked as ‘Theatre’ and/or ‘Combined arts’. The BLMP categorisation of a live music venue focuses on a physical space, and as such we do not include promoters’ activities and music academies (unless they have performance rooms open to the public). In contrast, our database does include bars and restaurants that have occasional live music performances, with a variable included to denote whether a space uses music as part of its main business. The CRF eligibility criteria, as per the definition quoted above, disqualifies some such places, as ‘music’ is not their primary role/business focus, but still applies to outdoor spaces, such as parks, where events such as music festivals may take place.

Despite the practical difficulties in reconciling the CRF and BLMP data and definitions, an analysis across the CRF three founding rounds indicates that the balance of funding in the city (more than 79% of funds) went more extensively – and perhaps inevitably, given the emergency timeframe – to organisations with an existing track record of securing Arts Council England funding pre-Covid. For example: the Birmingham Hippodrome received £125,000 in 2017 for the ASTONish Programme, and was part of the successful Birmingham Dance Hub application in 2019; Birmingham Symphony and Town Hall, meanwhile, received funding for renovations in 2019 (£4.5 million), and Birmingham REP was part of a bid in 2016 that received £4.6 million. The pre-Covid awards to the Hippodrome, Dance Hub, THSH and Birmingham REP include awards made from the Arts Council’s Capital Programme and Project Grants for specific activity, representing of course only a partial picture of the total investments by ACE in the music ecology of the city.

Similarly, those in the city that received the 5 largest grants are defined in our database as theatres (‘mainly theatre with some live music/opera’, arts (‘arts centre, multi-arts, multi-purpose venue’), with the Symphony Hall being an exception and defined as a concert hall (‘concert hall/auditorium, dedicated music venue, mainly seated gigs’).

The key point here is not that the CRF was biased towards previous applicants. Indeed, it available to any cultural, commercial, charitable or not for profit organisation as well as Arts Council funded organisations and recipients included a number of successful applicants who had not previously engaged with the Arts Council. Rather, it is to illustrate the scale of activity that occurs beyond the immediate reach of such schemes, and the need for greater awareness amongst practitioners on the margins of the potential for support, and guidance in accessing it.

A smaller proportion of funding landed in the hands of places traditionally more closely linked with live music gigs often more associated with popular musical forms, like small venues (‘small music venue, less than 350 capacity, dedicated music venue, mainly standing gigs’, 3 venues) and medium venues (‘medium music venue, capacity 351-600, dedicated music venue, mainly standing gigs’; 1 venue). As Arts Council England (one of the Arms’ Length Bodies responsible for the CRF distribution) have noted, most requests from music venues and live events organisations were for less than £250,000 (e-mail communication with ACE, 8th December 2020). This is reflected in Table 2 and feeds into the lower portion of the total funds being awarded to those venues and organizations.

We should keep in mind that, while we focus on CRF in this blog, there are other initiatives which support grassroots music venues through the pandemic: Emergency Grassroots Music Fund (preceding CRF), Capital Kickstart (upcoming), ACE Emergency Response Fund (with almost £100,000 awarded to live music venues and festivals), and National Lottery Project Grants that included a Grassroots Live Music strand.

However, an initial look at the CRF reveals the complications in play across the broader musical ecology and the difficulty in accounting for it as a whole., There is, for example, an apparent disparity between the amounts granted to organizations which are dedicated to music as their main business (table 2, column 5) and those with a broader focus (column 3). Across 48 organisations that received the CRF award in Birmingham (28 in the first round, 16 in the second, and 4 in the third round), only a few are venues or organizations which have a dedicated and primary focus on live music. Out of 197 live music venues active on the scene in the Birmingham B-postcode before the 2020 COVID lockdowns (or 158 as specified to CRF mapping), only an estimated 10% have received funding in the scheme (6% in round 1, 2.5% in round 2, and 1.9% in round 3).

The results suggest that, while the live music sector is vital to the UK’s collective ‘morale’ (UK Music 2017, the job of protecting cultural activity in Birmingham is less straightforward than extant definitional frameworks might suggest. Arguably the throes of a pandemic is not an optimal time to reconfigure funding structures, although the size and speed of what was delivered points towards the possibilities for further work and engagement both from funders and applicants alike. Indeed, beyond venues themselves, the extent to which the needs of freelancers and individual practitioners have been put into the spotlight is one example of how a crisis highlights both broader problems, but also the capacity for addressing them – the ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ scheme, for instance, has an increased budget from £3.6m to £18m and has extended the eligibility criteria for applications.

The CRF and other grants are a welcome indication of both the will and – albeit under extraordinary circumstances – the capacity to expand support for live music activity and culture at large. We can, though, also observe how those circumstances have revealed the extent to which many of those venues that make up the ecology of live music in the city sit uneasily beyond, or at least on the edges of, the parameters of such schemes.

One of the associated complications of researching the situation arises from trying to align the funding criteria – and awards – with the various definitional issues surrounding live music production, and the ways in which the various organisations describe themselves, along with the variety of their business models. Several venues defined themselves in other categories but host live music and were also supported, at the same time as some spaces that actively promote live music showed up on the BLMP mapping but didn’t fall into the CRF catchment, often as a result of not applying or seeing themselves in those terms.

There is, then, clearly work to be done by a variety of stakeholders, including researchers, in terms of making visible the types of live music activity that – to date – falls outside of over those parameters. To that end, the willingness of organisations such as the Arts Council, Music Venue Trust, UK Music and others to engage in dialogue to push things forward is therefore a welcome corollary to the challenges.

With that in mind, the BLMP’s on-going work with the venue map created immediately prior to the COVID pandemic will now focus on how venues can cope over the coming months, whether supported by these grants, or not. The map will enable us to collect, analyse and share examples of best practice, as well as to detail on any new revenue streams and activities that emerge that may enable venues to ride out the present crisis. Our hope is that we can offer some support to the hard-working stakeholders of the Birmingham live music sector, and feed back what we have learned to regional and national organisations who are attempting to provide financial and other support.

With a large proportion of the West Midlands population below 25 years old (and in particular in Birmingham, where 40% of the population fall in that bracket; BLMP 2019 & 2019), two of the largest indoor venues in England, and with the city due to host the Commonwealth Games in 2022, the region’s sensitivity to and recovery from the effects of Covid-19, the fallout from Brexit in terms of the ‘cultural tourism’ economy, and – indeed – the general day-to-day struggle of maintaining an arts-based business, place the city’s live music sector at the centre of the local and the global debates about the creative culture economy. While crisis conditions militate towards a necessarily tactical approach, the government response over the longer term will need to start taking account of strategic considerations, including the role of those spaces and participants diffused throughout the musical ecology. The venues and participants themselves also need to make themselves known. Some of them are harder to reach through established frameworks, and gathering information about them and where they fit into the broader picture will be a stepping stone to on the longer strategic route.

Music’s significant contribution to the economy as a whole – in jobs (2.453 FTE in West Midlands alone linked to music tourism; UK Music, Music by Numbers 2020) and GVA – is closely connected to the way that venues are embedded into their localities and communities. When lost, these assets are hard to replace. The cultural connection to a space cannot easily be switched on and off. So while support for individual organisations is both welcome and vital, it’s necessary to acknowledge that every business lost can weaken the network as a whole – and increase the task of building back. Protecting cultural activity means thinking through the implications of a range policy initiatives and their connections – from the planning system, to employment – and self-employment protection – to Brexit (and movement of people). This sector is vital to the UK’s economy, and its identity – morale, even. It cannot be an afterthought.

The CRF grants brought a huge sense of relief and optimism to many venues. It has given them a real opportunity to secure the future of their businesses in the short and mid-term. Our intention in this post has been highlight that support, but also to depict the broader context (locally) of programmes like the CRF and the COVID crisis. Resources, at any time, are an issue in support for the arts – and across the different kinds of activity within the arts. In a crisis like the current one, longstanding debates about boundaries of cultural activity, its relationship to the market, and the definitional terms used by different stakeholders and institutions (from academics to government to practitioners) become moot to an extent – everyone needs support. At the same time, as the issues shift from underlying to acute – these are no longer structural or definitional matters, but immediate questions of viability for jobs and creative endeavours.

To finish on a positive note, and to illustrate how collaboration can assist in the present crisis, it’s worth noting the 89% success rate in CRF funding of venues who were supported by the MVT in their applications. This clearly demonstrates the value of communication, and collective activity across networks. Despite their own limited resources, the MVT’s capacity to act as a focal point and to channel its expertise has been of demonstrable benefit.

The difficulties – as we all can easily recognise – are not over yet. Indeed, the MVT, for instance, has now turned its attention to those venues that remain under threat – with a crowd-funding, ‘traffic light’ scheme focused initially on venues classified as ineligible for CRF support and with targeted responses for venues at different risk levels. Some live music venues may not make it through to spring 2020, with obvious implications for their employees and, consequently, further implications for the future of a city’s music scene (see for example: BLMP, Roadmap to Live Music 2020), so a spirit of collaboration and a willingness to support the sector at all levels will be a crucial ingredient in helping the sector through this difficult time.

This post first appeared on the Birmingham Live Music Project website and is republished here with permission.

Dr Craig Hamilton
Dr Craig Hamilton

My research interests include popular music, digital humanities and online cultures.