COVID-19 AND THE MUSIC INDUSTRY: EMMA HOLLING, UNDERNEATH THE STARS FESTIVAL

emma-holling.jpg

 

Emma is managing director of Pure Records and a director of the Underneath the Stars festival. Pure Records is a family-run business set up initially around performer Kate Rusby – Emma came on board when Kate’s parents stood aside from their direct roles in Pure Records. Underneath the Stars festival is a music and arts event usually held at the beginning of August at a rural site near Barnsley (this year’s festival was postponed due to Covid-19).

How did Covid-19 affect your income and/or earnings in the weeks immediately following lockdown?

We were due to start a UK tour with Kate Rusby in April and May, but as lockdown loomed, we started to think about what might happen with live music and it quickly became apparent that gigs would not take place. It was quite a difficult decision to postpone the tour, as nobody initially knew who would make the ultimate decision – us or the venues.

Ordinarily, we would be looking at around £120,000 gross income for a tour like this, so we immediately lost all of this revenue. This is a top line figure from which we pay the band, crew and all the touring costs. Luckily, we hadn’t got far down the road of spending on tour preparation expenses, and anyway we don’t tend to spend lots in advance of tours.

We have rolled the whole tour (including ticket sales) over to 2021, but there is a great deal of uncertainty whether it will take place if social distancing is still in place. For example, one of our venues – the Union Chapel – which normally holds 900, has already said social distancing would reduce its capacity to 100 people, immediately raising questions around financial viability.

Pure Records obviously lost income from the postponement of the tour, but it also meant the company couldn’t pay the 13 or so band and crew who normally accompany us – some are faring OK as have diversified, but others are struggling.

Did you apply for any Covid-19 loans or grants and were you successful?

The business didn’t apply for a “bounceback” loan as I decided we had enough funds to keep us ticking over – also we don’t have anything to “bounceback” to yet. We used the furlough scheme for three employees (including me). We weren’t eligible for any grants to cover property costs because these tend to be linked to a building’s rateable value, and we don’t operate out of a rated property.

We have applied to the local authority for a discretionary grant for businesses excluded from applying for grants linked to a property’s rateable value, but are still waiting to hear if we’ve been successful. I’m wary of applying for loans that, of course, need to be paid back.

In terms of the festival, we were successful in getting some emergency Arts Council funding, which bolstered the Underneath the Stars festival (UTSf) and enabled us to move plans forward into 2021 – otherwise we would have been carrying forward a bigger debt into next year’s event.

Have you developed new ways of working, or diversified what you do, in response to the impact of Covid-19?

Covid-19 affected both Pure Records and Underneath the Stars. By March, the festival was 80% sold on the back of a really successful 2019. We initially watched and waited during the first weeks of lockdown, but made the decision in April that it was not going to be possible to go ahead. For example, we have international artists and around 400 volunteers to organise, many of whom will be in the vulnerable categories. Also, our audience is older than a typical festival’s and we anticipated many of them would be nervous about attending.

We gave customers the option to roll over their tickets to 2021, to have a refund or the facility to donate. We spent more in advance on the festival than on the tour, and knew just before we took the decision to postpone that we were approaching the point when expenditure was really going to start to climb. 65% of ticket holders asked for a rollover, but we also had quite a few requests for refunds. All of this year’s planned line up (bar one) has confirmed for 2021, but whether it goes ahead still depends on what is happening with social distancing this time next year.

Pure Records is involved in both touring and recording, so once lockdown put touring on hold, we decided to bring forward an album release from November to August. This has become Kate’s lockdown album – her husband Damian is a recording engineer, so they have both been able to carry on working. So although we’re not gigging, we are busy recording. The release of this album on 14/8/20 (trailed by two single releases in May/June, with a Radio 2 play listing) has meant Kate’s profile has remained high.

Because our focus initially in lockdown was on recording and releasing the album, we didn’t really look at live streaming – Kate has done one paid streamed performance, but we didn’t arrange it and didn’t get much out of it financially. We are now beginning to consider diversifying into the live streaming of “behind closed door” gigs.

We feel confident that we have the skills to manage the technological challenges involved. Damian, Kate’s husband, has learned a whole new set of skills around sharing music digitally and remotely in addition to his recording engineering ones. To a certain extent, this move into digital was happening pre-Covid as we already collaborated with overseas musicians.

Generating income from streaming performances is raising questions for us – for example, do you ticket it, or instead ask people to make a voluntary, “pay what you can”, donation? Research suggests the latter is a better approach, as people tend to then buy a CD or t-shirt as well. We’re just hoping Kate’s fan base will support us by buying merchandise when we can’t tour.

We’re planning to do thre streamed performances over the next six month, including the Kate Rusby Christmas show. This 14-day tour is still in place, but feels fragile, and I think it will start unravelling soon: it’s tied a bit to panto, as we visit similar sorts of venues, so if panto goes, those venues are unlikely to be open for us. Instead, we will be looking to perform the show via a single streamed performance.

What about alternative sources of income other than that earned in the music industry? And what have you done about employees of your business?

I’m the only full-time employee of the company (Pure Records), so do not have a source of income beyond it. I am a teacher, so in theory could teach, but at the minute, we’re using a combination of the furlough scheme and reduced payments out of the business for Kate, her parents and me. Kate has copyrighted works, so does get income from this, but even these payments are linked to live performances of her work by other performers, which of course have now stopped.

How do you see yourself emerging from lockdown in the medium and longer term?

Pure Records: We will continue to work from home, using the available technology. Our building was on the market before lockdown as we’d decided we don’t need a big space for recording; this can be done from just about anywhere these days. It’s still on the market, but I’m not expecting much interest.

Lockdown has made us have a good think about touring in future – the turnover it generates is high, but there are issues around its environmental impact, and the fact that the income raised has to support quite a large team, in terms of hotels/restaurants and other expenses. The online world is so much smaller – Kate and Damian can play to thousands of people at once via a single live stream, with minimal involvement from other people, rather than to thousands of people at 30 venues over several weeks involving a large team on the road in the case of a tour. But this means the people we normally pay to work with us on tour are not earning and, even though they are freelancers, we still feel responsible for these people who have worked with us over a number of years now. Also, personally I don’t have a great appetite for watching content online, it doesn’t do it for me – going to a venue is the real experience.

Underneath the Stars festival: all of our plans have been rolled forward to 2021, but we are doing a “stay home” streamed festival on 1 August 2020 (when this year’s festival should have been taking place). This is all about keeping our community together and keeping it talking. Optimistically, I’m hoping that things will be a bit more normal next year, but we are having to plan for increased infrastructure costs.

What about support for the arts from national and local government and agencies? What do you think needs to be done to help artists and venues access information and sources of financial support?

The national package of financial support for the arts is absolutely essential and suggests that the background lobbying worked. But the government is still prepared to let some of the industry go under, and some venues will close. Others will have to take advantage of the emergency funding to stay closed, ticking over, in the hope that reopening becomes viable again if/when social distancing is eased. I don’t think our business will be able to apply for any of this funding, as it seems to apply mainly to venues and physical buildings.

We have two strands to our business – live and recorded music – so can keep going, but are not likely to be able to support any “extras”, for example, those people that usually come on tour with us.

What about local help to access information and sources of financial support? I’ve signed up for alerts from HMRC and also follow government announcements online. I get regular email alerts from Barnsley Council, letting us know what we might be eligible for in terms of grants, loans and access to national schemes such as the job retention one. This is how I learned about the discretionary grants available to those organisations not operating from rated properties. I also get good support for the festival from the head of culture/tourism at Barnsley Council, and have good working relationships with them.

Sometimes, you just have a question that you can’t find the answer to, for example, a legal one, or something to do with the furlough scheme, and as we don’t have an HR department, I’m not sure how to get the answer. It might be helpful if this kind of support were provided at regional level. Sometimes the information available is too London-centric, and maybe the City Region could help with this – the risk is our industry will remain closed whilst the rest of the economy and society slowly reopens and unlocks.

Jobs in the music industry will change as new ways of working are established – how should training opportunities develop to meet the needs of the “new normal”?

Some people will upskill but others will be left behind – people are already making this shift, looking to get additional qualifications, and some education providers are already developing their digital courses. The danger is that we lose really skilled people, who are forced to take whatever work they can over the coming months – musicians and performers are already taking non-creative work just to pay their mortgages. If our technicians and engineers are forced to do the same, it compounds the issue around keeping venues open/reopening others that have been closed for months due to Covid-19.

Live music is vital for the wellbeing of people, but how can we get this message across to politicians and funders?

This comes back to lobbying – the Let the Music Play campaign, including the open letter signed by a host of artists and musicians, sets out the case clearly – without live venues, there is no live music. From our point of view, we are lucky because we still have a CD-buying audience, but it’s very difficult to make a living on income from music streaming (unless you’re Ed Sheeran).

Many people will no longer be able to make a living from being a musician if it becomes the case that we have to depend on streaming income from recorded music alone. But this isn’t a priority for the government at the moment, although they might start to listen once they’ve sorted everything else out. The profession of musician is a relatively new one – before recorded and amplified music, musicians played for enjoyment as a hobby, or relied on patronage. Perhaps we’re returning to a patronage model, but community patronage with lots of people donating very small amounts? It makes planning a career as musicians very uncertain at the moment.

FIND OUT MORE

Visit the Music Board homepage.