Birmingham’s Roadmap to live music

By BCMCR Alumni on July 17th, 2020

I am currently working on a research project with colleagues from Aston and Newcastle Universities that is looking at live music in the city of Birmingham. ‘The UK Live Music Industry in a post-2019 era: A Globalised local perspective’ is funded by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC), which is led by Nestaand funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. 

One of the main areas of interest for the project is how COVID-19 is impacting on the live music ecology of Birmingham. In this blog post, written with my BLMP colleagues Patrycja Rozbicka and Adam Behr, we explore what a return to live music in the city of Birmingham may look like, and consider the implications of venue capacity reductions that will be required by the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. At the end of the post, we provide an interactive tool I developed for exploring the extent of potential capacity reductions on venues in the city. 

Pre and Post-Covid live music venue capacities in Birmingham, UK

Live music is a significant contributor to the West Midlands economy – generating around £211 Million per annum, according to UK Music figures. This includes direct spending (e.g. ticket sales, merchandise, and money spend on drinks, food and accommodation), as well as indirect spending(i.e. the costs of running the gigs). Central to that income are the live music venues that host the gigs and shows. Following PM Boris Johnson’s order of 20thMarch to close all venues with immediate effect as part of attempts to tackle coronavirus, the live music experience stopped, and along with it the income it generates.

On 25thJune, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden published a five-stage roadmap for a phased return for live performances. While Stages 1 and 2 focus on rehearsals and recordings – so do not relate to audiences – Stage 3 (initiated on 11thJuly) stared the gradual process of re-opening live events to the public. Initially, venues will only be allowed to only put gigs outdoors (Stage 3), with an expectation that Stages 4 and 5 will allow audiences inside venues, pending social distancing (2m, moving gradually to 1m ‘plus’) and various other safety restrictions in line with COVID-19 Secure guidelines. Stage 3 in particular changes the nature of an outdoor space. Where previously it was an area to hang out and have a smoke during a break in performances, it now becomes the main staging room of the show itself.

Pre-COVID, across ~197 venues within the B-postcode area, the total music venue capacity in the city was an estimated 98,000. This could have included a small gig in the Sunflower Lounge (B5 4EG), a city centre venues with a 150 capacity, through to a 15,600 capacity sold-out show at Resort World(B40 1NT) on the city’s outskirts. Our work with the Birmingham Live Music Venue Map demonstrates that the city’s live music landscape comprises a variety of venue types, ranging from social and student clubs (around 14%) putting occasional live performances, all the way to large and medium-sized venues (~4%), such as the O2 Academy (B11 DB). However, predominant amongst the city-wide total are pubs, bars and small venues with capacities of below 400. These comprises 56% of venues in the city. These venues are particularly at risk.

Looking at the data within the BLMP map, we can estimate some of the impacts of the COVID Guidelines and the easing of lockdown restrictions on the city’s live music economy. On paper, moving to Stage 3 means that 47% venues in the city may be able to put on live gigs using their outdoor spaces. However, roughly half of those will have to negotiate licensing and other issues depending on how their outdoor space is accessed. Direct access from the street (as opposed to having to walk through a pub/venue to reach that space) will be a big factor. There will also be noise regulations to take into consideration, particularly for venues in residential areas, meaning the outdoor shows may not be possible or must take place with considerable restrictions on volume and when events can take place. Moreover, 81% of venues with outdoor spaces utilise live music only as part of their business models, which seems likely to further decrease the chances of some venues putting on live gigs as they prioritise other areas of their business (e.g. food) as part of projected costs/benefits calculations.

The truly problematic area, however, lies in the implementation of Stage 4and Stage 5 (indoor gigs with social distancing). The potential number of gig-goers permitted will depend on the layout of live music spaces, and how social distancing can be achieved within that space. Across Birmingham, numbers will vary from venue to venue, but seem likely to fall within a range where some venues will open at 20-25% of their pre-COVID capacity (using 2m social distancing), and those who will be able to stage events at 33% of their pre-COVID capacity using the 1m ‘plus’ rule. A rough estimate, then, is that Birmingham’s 98,000 capacity for live music will be reduced to c 29,400.

In a best case scenario, where public confidence is restored sufficiently for all potential shows to sell-out when venues launch their their post-COVID opening nights (which we know is unlikely), venues could be looking at a drop in their potential income of around 75%. Whether shows are viable under those conditions will be a crucial question. The Music Venue Trust, for instance, has noted that ‘social distancing measures would not be financially viable for the majority of Grassroots Music Venues’ to the proposed timeframe, especially given the advance preparation and planning time required for most musical events.

Meanwhile, there are still a number of other questions with regard to existing regulations and their interpretations. For example, the Guidance for performing arts applies exclusively to professionals. This leaves semi-professional and amateur bands subject to the Guidelines on meeting people outside their households, where the group size for a gathering must not exceed 30 people. This may lead to venues removing non-professional acts from their programme.

The £1.57 billion rescue package announced by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer may offer a much-needed breathing room for venues as they negotiate the questions and issues outlined above. But much will depend on how the rescue package is administered across arts and entertainment sectors, and across different venue types in the live music landscape. The question of how much more (or less) support, for example, a venue such the Utility Arena Birmingham (15.800 capacity) will receive in comparison to small and medium-sized venues remains unanswered at this time. BLMP’s Adam Behr explores this issue in more detail in a recent post on The Conversation website.

“Given the scale of the crisis, resources are finite but it’s important, where possible, not to view it as a zero-sum game. A key feature of the relationship between the grassroots clubs, the concert halls and the arenas is interdependence – an ecology where diversity of venues, as well as music styles, provides not only a pathway for musical careers but a cultural system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Adam Behr, BLMP- CI, Newcastle University (the Conversation, 7thJuly 2020


The big questions for the live music sector in the short-to-medium term are likely to hinge on the extent to which it can function as Britain moves towards Stage 5. The BLMP project will continue to work with local and national stakeholders in exploring the response of the sector, and we will aim to assist where we can.

Explore estimated post-COVID Birmingham music venue capacities

Based on data that comprises the Birmingham Live Music Venue Map developed by BLMP, the link t the interactive tool below will open a map that will enable you to look at estimated capacities of music venues in the city of Birmingham at Stage 5 of restriction easing.

The map contains information for 78 venues. You can zoom in and out of the map to search different parts of the city.

Pre-COVID capacities are represented by blue dots, with estimated capacities at Stage 5 shown in red. By clicking on a venue dot you can compare capacities.

Dr Craig Hamilton