September in Leeds has a slightly different feel to it this year. When our capacity to lose ourselves in the deafening blare of a speaker and boogie till the sun comes up has been curtailed for the past 18 months, the return of Freshers Week is a more emotional one than usual.
James Abbott Donnelly, director of Leeds bar and events space Sheaf Street, knows this feeling better than most. After 18 months of closed doors – for venue owners like James, there is finally a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. However, it has been a long road to get here:
“When you’ve got a venue that is forced to be closed it might seem like the people involved are just sitting back waiting, but that was definitely not the case. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I have through the pandemic – just to try and keep our heads above water.”
For 18 months, James has had to navigate long funding applications, difficult staffing decisions and the need to constantly reinvent his business to keep its brand alive. Sheaf Street did benefit from some financial aid through the government’s furlough scheme and Cultural Recovery Fund which James describes as ‘dramatically useful’. However, when it came to keeping up with ever-changing rules and restrictions, support was virtually non-existent:
“The advice-side was terrible. It was like playing mind games with the public and with businesses. The funding was useful, but I would have swapped some of that funding for better decisions or more time.”
James argues that the lack of support received by businesses like his is largely a consequence of the fact that those making the rules don’t understand his industry; both in terms of how it operates and its value:
“The people that end up at the top have not come from this world. Our particular government is even worse than most at being able to understand the value of culture in general and even more so the nighttime economy. There is just nobody at high levels that has gone through it and really understands how valuable the economics of the dancefloor is.”
Club-goers have a history of being vilified in the UK that dates back to the rave scene of the 80s and 90s, where rave culture was widely perceived as a dangerous, anti-establishment movement. James thinks that some of the attitudes that persist towards the UK club scene today are a legacy of this:
“Back then it was like ‘they are the enemy, they’re the worst thing that’s happening at the moment and we need to stop these people having fun’. The people in power have come up through that, and so as a country we still haven’t quite grown out of it.”
The impact of these enduring attitudes is that James, and other venue owners like him, often felt that they were not just fighting for the survival of their own businesses through the pandemic, but ‘for the whole industry’s worth’.
Yet if ever there was an event with the potential to be a catalyst for changing attitudes – it is surely the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst James admits that staff shortages, supply-chain issues and slow ticket sales make the outlook for the near-term still hugely uncertain, when it comes to public perceptions of the industry as a whole, things might actually be starting to look up:
“I think potentially we have a little more non-industry support on our side because people are going ‘oh yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t realised that, but this is really important and it should be valued more. This was a massive part of my life just going out dancing or meeting people or being able to listen to music, and it’s huge that that’s gone’.”
The pandemic has also had the silver lining of accelerating positive change within the events industry itself. The shared struggles of the pandemic have served as an impetus for venues to start working to correct some of the problems with their industry that were, in James’s words, ‘getting out of control’:
“It’s the general war-effect of a whole bunch of people going through some quite tough times. You come out the other end together and a lot of things get innovated along the way because they have to.”
“A lot of things were brought up in the last 18 months that really needed addressing in our industry. It was about to implode in terms of the white male dominance and lack of diversity in dance music, as well as the disproportionate amounts of money small DJs were getting compared to headline DJs and the tiny amount of money a promoter was able to make from an event.”
“The places that care have made changes and are trying to work together to keep them. It’s like ‘right this was kind of rubbish about our industry before – remember when it all kind of disappeared and went away? If it’s coming back again, maybe we should fix this’.”
The pandemic is by no means a silver bullet solution to all of the industry’s problems and James is clear that they are still very much facing ‘a massive uphill battle’. However, if venues like Sheaf Street can retain some of the motivation and momentum they have coming out of the pandemic, the future for the events industry could be really promising:
“I think we’ll have a better chance at tackling some of our issues than we did without the pandemic and the public having the shock of ‘oh night life is gone’. People are realising it’s not just about having a drink and jumping around. It’s lifelong friendships, connections being made, businesses being formed.”
Sometimes it does take something being taken away from us entirely to fully appreciate its value. So whether you’re pressed up against the speaker or chatting someone’s ear off in the smoking area this Freshers Week, perhaps try finding a second to step back, and see how far we really have come.
Find out more about Sheaf Street’s upcoming events here – https://sheafst.com/events/
Header Image Credit: Designmynight