'The future of grassroots music venues is uncertain.'

EVAN MURRY talked to ANDY JONES about FOCUS WALES International Showcase Festival, Wrexham, Wales, UK.

Andy Jones is one of the co-founders and the music programmer at FOCUS Wales, an international showcase festival and conference, that takes place in Wrexham, Wales, each Spring (although this year it's postponed to October, due to COVID-19).

In December the event picked up the UK Festival Award for 'Best Festival for Emerging Talent', further cementing its reputation as one of the leading showcase events in Europe. FOCUS Wales 2020 marks the festival’s 10th anniversary, and will welcome over 15,000 festival goers, with over 250 bands from around the world performing across 20 stages.

Hope all is well, and everyone around you is safe, hale and hearty. Possible to give us an insight on the festival status and the latest updates?

I am very pleased to say that we're all healthy here, thanks, so we have no complaints. I'm pretty certain (antibody test pending) that I had the virus towards the end of January, but at that time I didn't seriously consider that it could have been COVID-19, and I just put it down to a combination of doing too much work and a bad flu. It was rough, and everything we now know suggests it was COVID-19, as I had all of the tell-tale symptoms, which is a bit scary to think about, looking back now.

For me, after a week or so of being bed ridden I was able to overcome my symptoms and get back to work on the festival, so I count myself very lucky. I live in the North Wales countryside, and as I have to travel extensively with the music export work we do, when I'm back in Wales I will quite often opt to work from my home office, and not travel into Wrexham to the festival office, so I can spend quality time with my family. In that instance I chose to work from home, meaning, I did isolate and not add to the spread of the virus.

The workload that has come with this crisis has been insane. We made the call to postpone our 2020 edition (from May to October), back in early March. Fortunately I was able to re-book the vast majority of our artists for our new dates, 7th-10th October, and although it was a lot of work, it was a relief, given how much time and energy had gone into building the programme.

As things stand, we're hopeful we'll be able to deliver our event in October, but of course it does depend on how things develop with the virus, and we'll only go ahead and conduct the festival if we deem it safe and feasible to do so. We are at the mercy of a number of factors, so it's a matter of us having to stand by patiently for the time being, until we know a little more.

What are some of the biggest challenges the festival is facing right now? 

I think one of the biggest challenges for our festival, and for the live sector in the UK in general right now, is the lack of clarity from the government on a number of issues, which is leaving us unable to plan ahead with any degree of confidence. We need to know what the plan is for the safe reopening of music venues, but we still have nothing definite to work with, and that's a problem. 

Also, we - like many other organisations that have an international component to the work they do - need clarity on the plan for the 14 day international quarantine rule that will soon come into force for everyone arriving in the UK from overseas. UK Government did mention that this will be reviewed every 3 weeks, and while that could just be in place for a couple of months, equally it could be in place for a year. We just don't know yet.

So it feels rather vague with no hint of when they even hope to start easing off this measure. With the government leaving it so open ended it makes it extremely difficult for us to plan ahead, so we'll just have to wait for further developments.

There is a glimmer of hope as Spain has announced they're removing their quarantine measures for international arrivals from 1st July, and considering that the UK seems to be around a month behind Spain in terms of how it manages the virus, it's only reasonable to assume that the UK may choose to lift its quarantine measures a month or so later, and so perhaps from August. Here's hoping. I mean, it's all we can do right now in the absence of any concrete information.

I think everyone understands that there is no easy fixes, but we really do need a plan of sorts for all of the above, and soon. Simultaneously, we are aware of the possibility that the guidelines and policies that are eventually issued by government might make it difficult for us in 2020, but, either way, we need these details as soon as possible so that we can work and plan for the future.

On a positive note, I can tell you that there's been good conversations happening within Wales on how to help venues and events to move forward, as and when lockdown measures are eased. Also, the Music Venue Trust are doing great work across the UK, working with venues and talking with the relevant government departments to ensure that this issue is on the agenda, and so I'm encouraged that the guidelines are in the post, hopefully that situation doesn't drag on too much longer.

Are there any plans in place, in case this scenario repeats?

I think in the future, all event organizers will have to build in some contingency planning to factor in the possibility of something like this happening again. I would add though, that where many events could possibly fall back on a plan B, perhaps to move an event programme online, we know that's just not possible for all types of events and festivals, so there's no easy answers, sadly.  What are the changes that would ensue in the music industry with the impact the virus has had? 

There is no getting around the fact that the industry will look different post COVID-19. I say that because it's reasonable to presume that not all businesses will be able to survive this. I think we're generally quite a resilient bunch of folk in the industry, and most of us get into it because we're primarily passionate about music, and not driven by money.

But it can be a tough industry at the best of times, and we all need to keep the wolves from the door, so I'm expecting to see some changes across the industry. I've already had emails from a few industry friends saying they're exploring new areas of work, which is sad to hear.

For me, one of my biggest concerns is the future of grassroots music venues, as they're such a vital part of artist development, and they're facing very uncertain  times. We have the Music Venue Trust who are running their #SaveOurVenues campaign, which is a great initiative to help the most at risk venues, and the last time I checked they'd raised over £1.5 million, for UK venues in just a couple of weeks.

The work they're doing is so important for the venue circuit. I really hope that when all of this is over people are going to extend their support to local venues, because they're really going to need it.

As music trends roll, do you have any predictions for the future ? From your point of view, where is the live music industry headed? 

I'm sure we're going to see artistes and the industry utilising the potential of their online social profiles going forward, because this situation has forced everyone to adapt and adopt new ways of working, and innovative ways of engaging with audiences.

So I don't think that's simply a temporary reaction to the current situation, as I think it will continue to some degree. However, while I think there are always lessons to be learnt, I do think talk of a radical 'new normal', where the live sector is suddenly changed forever, is just a bit sensationalist, because I don't believe people really want any significant changes to how they experience live shows.

Sure, artists will continue to use platforms to do the occasional exclusive online shows, and they should, I'm all in for that, but I ultimately think that both artists and audiences really want that connection of being in the same room. We all miss that.

Any comments or open thoughts?

I think the strong sense of community within the music world has been quite heartening throughout all of this, and I really hope that that's something we all can take forward.

EVAN MURRAY is Event Co-ordinator at Live at Heart, Newfoundland, Export Development Officer at Vision 360 (Canada) and Canadian Coordinator at Live at Heart, Sweden. He is also International Music Consultant at Wonderwall Media, India.