'Without venues, music will suffer': what's at risk as the pandemic takes its toll

Aaron Hamilton of The American Bar in Belfast writes about the fate of music venues in a global pandemic

There is something truly important about independent music venues. The things that take place within them can’t happen anywhere else; its where new music is born.

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Grassroots venues like The American Bar, here in Belfast, Northern Ireland, are at the forefront of emerging musical talent. We are not alone - there are a plethora of venues across the city offering experiences that can’t be found elsewhere. These pubs and bars are intimate and personal, whether they be fitted to host rock bands, singer-songwriters or DJs. The diversity of live music venues here is a rare treat.

Music lovers loyally attend these places, and young artists cut their teeth in rooms like these, honing their craft. Most of the stadium-fillers and festival headliners we know today learned the ropes in these spaces.The advantage those stadiums and festivals have over us, however, is scale. No matter how successful a given concert is, there are only so many tickets to sell. The sale of those tickets has to pay the band, the sound engineer, and the door staff. It has to pay for accommodation for touring acts. Other costs vary from gig to gig, venue to venue - staffing costs, equipment hire, and more.

Aaron Hamilton outside The American BarAaron Hamilton outside The American Bar
Aaron Hamilton outside The American Bar

All of this must be paid for with the sale of, in our case, 50 tickets. We don’t have the luxury of the huge capacities of concert halls and stadiums. It’s also notable that there’s only so much we can reasonably charge for a ticket. If it’s rainy outside? Door sales plummet. And here in Northern Ireland, there’s a solid chance of rain at any given moment.

Additional sales are essential to bolster our income. Food and drink sales and merchandise help us cover the many costs of running the venue. It helps us pay our staff, print tickets and posters, advertise events and cover equipment costs. Needless to say, margins are tight - extremely tight. Nobody is getting into this business to make a quick buck. And in the summer of 2020, amid a global pandemic that forced venues to close for months, and to reopen with reduced capacities, many of us are under more financial strain than ever.

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The music that is performed here makes it worth the work. When I think back on the things I’ve heard and seen here, I recall the silent reverence of the crowd as Haley Heynderickx, a star in the making from Portland, Oregon, wowed us with her delicate, wistful folk balladry. I was floored - along with the 50 or so lucky punters in that crowded room. Then I picture the sweaty, rowdy bombast of Belfast pop-punk favourites Brand New Friend playing as though their young lives depended on it, crowd surfers grazing the ceiling, and as I worried in the back of my mind that the building would collapse in the excitement, I couldn’t help but grin ear to ear from start to finish.

These are important moments that must be protected, now that so many venues are at very real risk. As the world has adapted to living in a world with COVID-19, live music has been put on pause, and independent venues are without their lifeblood. It is not only our passion, but how we make the money to survive. It’s how we pay our staff, keep the bar stocked, and how we keep the lights on. Without live music, many venues are preparing for a difficult future, and many face closure. And without venues, the music will suffer. We simply cannot allow that to happen.

* This article is part of The Show Must Go On, JPIMedia's campaign to support live arts venues