For whom The Bell tolls

With continuing uncertainty as to when live music will be allowed back in pubs and even then will it be viable, AWTY asks one iconic local venue whether it, and others, can survive?

Our region is fortunate in having some famous music venues. Thekla, The Fleece and the Louisiana in Bristol are all well known, as is Moles in Bath. However, the location that not so long ago had to test whether the public supported it as a music venue, The Bell, now faces a second challenge of how can it survive the impact of the Coronavirus?

As the BBC reported in 2013, faced with potential closure, The Bell needed to raise just under a million in order to save it. Supported by Robert Plant, Van Morrison and Peter Gabriel, the public raced to the rescue and within a comparatively short time the famous pub was saved as a music venue.

Over the intervening seven years it has flourished as a community owned pub and as a place where a wide variety of music can be heard free of charge. Yet, is that now at risk due to the virus?

Steve Henwood, music promoter for The Bell, talked to AWTY about the pub's current position and what might happen in the future. “There are stories of venues closing and of places opening no matter what, because they have to get income to cover rent and debts. We are very fortunate because we are not in that position, in part because of the support we have received over recent years and because we own the property.

"So we do not have to open because we have rent to pay or debts that cannot be met. We can choose what we want to do depending on what’s happening with the virus. Our plan is that The Bell will re-open as a pub in August, but we won’t be having live music in the format, as we did before, until it is completely safe. However, we may experiment with one or two things before then.

“Many venues are in a difficult position. Yes, you can open but is it financially viable? Many pubs, like The Bell, have restricted space. We are able to put on music for free because we get enough people in for the takings to pay for the bands. If we can’t get people into the building in sufficient numbers to make it viable then we can’t have music. We are also very reluctant to pay musicians less for their services than we were before. Some will have struggled although others will have received self-employment payments from the government. However, we are very much at the grass roots level. I suspect bigger bands or venues that employ lots of people will have suffered more.”

“The Bell has always been a key part of Bath's live music scene, often giving musicians their first break and always providing music that is vibrant, diverse and free.”

Peter Gabriel

As part of the Government's support during the pandemic crisis, on the 25th July the Arts Council announced a £2.25 million Emergency Grassroots Music Venues Fund, designed to ensure the survival of grassroots music venues in England. Funding is open to live music venues across all music genres. Whether it will be sufficient, or has come soon enough to support venues whose finances are already marginal, remains to be seen.

Henwood however, looks forward to the day when musical normality can return to The Bell. “Eventually we are working on the basis that we will return to a pre-pandemic position at some point but we just don’t know when that will be.We are lucky that our region has an awful lot of talent. When we are able to return to something approaching normality, I suspect musicians are going to be itching to play live again.

"If and when that occurs we will move swiftly and, although we won't take actions that put musicians or our customers at risk, live music will return.”


See also


Can Festivals Survive?

What will be the long term impact of Covid on Britain's summer music festivals?