The Night Owl in Birmingham, England, hosts a show before the shutdown. (Courtesy the Night Owl)

Music Venue Trust launches campaign; ticket buyers donate refunds

The Music Venue Trust has identified 556 venues across the U.K. that are in dire straits as long as they’re not allowed to open their doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trust founder Mark Davyd realized that this crisis was too big to handle for one national nonprofit organization, so his team came up with ways of creating opportunities for local communities and artists to get behind each venue individually, effectively launching 556 individual crowdfunding campaigns across the country.

Dubbed #saveourvenues, the campaign, launched May 4, raised 1.2 million pounds ($1.49 million) in the first week, following six-figure pledges from Beggars Group, Amazon Music/The BPI and the mayor of London and “very substantial donations” from several other companies, including Sony Music, SJM, Kilimanjaro Live and DHP, according to a trust statement.

But it’s not just the big players that are stepping up; the fans are as well. There are many venues that have been reporting that their fans are not asking for ticket refunds but instead donating them to help their favorite venue stay afloat.

One such venue is the Night Owl in Birmingham, a 250-capacity club championing ska, reggae, Motown and Northern soul. Mazzy Snape, who handles PR and bookings at the Night Owl, told VenuesNow, “Maybe about 10% of people are asking for refunds, and those are the people who are maybe in a bad financial position, who’ve actually said, ‘We’ve really would have liked to donate tickets, but we can’t.’ We’ve been really overwhelmed with how kind people have been about that.”

“The flip side,” according to Snape, “is that the normal ticket buying that we would expect has completely ceased. No one’s buying tickets for future events.”

The Night Owl had set up its own crowdfunder before the #saveourvenues launched and has since joined the campaign “because obviously it gives us a bigger voice as a collective, and it’s a nice way of helping to bolster all of the other venues, if we all come together,” Snapes said.

The venue has increased its merchandise offerings, which people are also buying to support it, and is keeping the audience engaged online with “loads of livestreams, DJ sets, cocktail classes, debates (and) a thing called The Night Owl Northern Soul Championships, where we play a few records and talk about why (people) like the record, which people have been seeing as a bit of a social.”

Night Owl co-owner Arith Liyanage recently said in an interview on BBC WM 95.6FM that government grants and furlough plans did help his business but only so much. “Like most businesses, we probably only got a month or two’s cash flow ahead, even with that support,” he said.

“I appreciate the social distancing and the issues that we’re facing with the virus, but as a business we depend on being open as a venue, customers coming through the door and seeing out music,” Liyanage said.

Davyd, who also appeared on the BBC show, pointed out that “there was some government support. Looking at it nationally, that support technically was used up on the 27th of April. We have a period now between 27th of April and 30th of May in which there isn’t any government support, and venue still have all their costs,” he said.

Those costs include rent, some staff and maintenance costs, and services to make sure the venue doesn’t decline. The trust is working with the government on possible reopenings, and how to make sure that venues are protected in the next phase.

Grassroots music venues are “where we come together, where we celebrate,” Davyd said. “We want to make sure that when we come out of lockdown, which we hope will we sometime soon … people are able to go back and really enjoy and socialize with each other.”

Governments across Europe are rolling out phased reopening plans, which will allow venues to reopen, albeit with limited capacity. The staff at the Night Owl is thinking about different ways of making the most of each phase.

“Maybe if there’s some people who are still vulnerable and can’t come out, they might be able to watch things from home, and stuff like that. [Once] you can have gatherings of, say, 20 people, that could mean that we could film three bands playing live at the venue and sell tickets to that,” Snape said, “If we have to have limited capacity, we might have some people that come along and some people that watch from home via pay-per-view, or something. We’re considering all options, really. We’re determined to make it work and for us to survive.”