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Skiddle hits out at the Culture Recovery Fund grants received by rival ticketing firms

By | Published on Thursday 22 October 2020


The founders of ticketing company Skiddle have hit out at the news that two of their competitors have received sizeable grants from the Culture Recovery Fund despite them being led to believe that the Arts Council England initiative was meant to be primarily supporting venues and event organisers. Meanwhile, they add, a number of venues and event organisers that they admire were unsuccessful in their bids.

The Culture Recovery Fund, of course, is distributing a significant chunk of the £1.57 billion in sector-specific COVID funding provided by the UK government to the cultural and heritage industries. Two rounds of grants have been confirmed so far, with monies going to an eclectic mix of businesses operating in music, theatre, dance and other performance disciples, as well as the visual arts and museums.

In an open letter, Skiddle co-founders Richard Dyer and Ben Sebborn talk through the challenges they have been tackling this year as the COVID-19 shutdown brought the entire live industry to a standstill. That has obviously had a major impact on the firm’s revenues, while also resulting in lots of extra work as an unprecedented number of cancellations had to be processed in a very short time.

“Unfortunately”, they write, “we have had to lose some fantastic members of staff (around 20 in total), we have closed one of our offices. We had to outlay on digital phone systems and purchase a whole load of hardware so we could maintain our usual levels of customer service whilst working from the sofa, kitchen table or garden shed. We’ve tried to laugh, we’ve definitely cried, we are tired and a little bit broken”.

Skiddle made use of both the UK government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the furlough scheme, the latter covering most of the wages of employees whose roles with the company were paused during shutdown. However, the company was not eligible for any business rates relief because its base near Preston in Lancashire was not categorised as “hospitality or cultural”. After reaching out to a local MP about that latter exclusion, the firm was “signposted … to a discretionary grant, of which we were not eligible for as we had too many employees”.

Which brings us to the Culture Recovery Fund. When that was announced, Dyer and Sebborn say, “we checked the criteria which reads ‘by cultural organisation, we mean an organisation that works in one of our supported artforms or disciplines: music, theatre, dance, combined arts, visual arts, museums, or literature’. Or, as our MP Ben Wallace put it, ‘This support package will benefit cultural sector services by providing support to cultural venues and many other organisations in the creative industries that host live events, to stay open and continue operating'”.

They go on: “Skiddle took the decision not to apply, as we frankly did not fit the criteria as a cultural venue or host live events. We felt, and still feel, that the money was best distributed to the many thousands of amazing venues, promoters and arts organisations across the country that frankly, without you Skiddle would be nothing”.

“Imagine our sheer disgust then”, they add, “when the lists are published of who received grants, and amongst the many great people that received money we see companies like Resident Advisor – a website that writes music reviews of events across the world, whilst generating income from tickets – or Ticketline (the clue’s in the name) receiving vast sums of money – whilst at the same time some of the best venues and event creators in the country/the world were not successful as they ‘didn’t fit the bill'”.

“We are talking about The Frog And Bucket in Manchester who helped launch the careers of Peter Kay and Jack Whitehall, or Printworks in London which has been a simply magnificent addition to UK nightlife. Many venues who did apply were not awarded, whilst publications or dormant event brands were. This is frankly ridiculous and yet more evidence of how disconnected our government is from culture. [Culture Secretary] Oliver Dowden bleats on about the opera whilst our industry dies. A fund that was designed to save venues, to save culture has been savaged by people who knew how to write better applications than others – even if they don’t appear to fit the criteria”.

Dance music website Resident Advisor received a £750,000 grant in the first round of CRF funding, while Ticketline Network received £508,820 in the second round.

The Skiddle founders are not the first to criticise the amount of money awarded to Resident Advisor in particular. Though some other critics of that grant did seem to base their criticism on the assumption that Resident Advisor was primarily an editorial operation, not realising that selling tickets for clubbing and dance music events is a key revenue generator for the company, and therefore it has been significantly hit by the COVID-19 shutdown.

Following that earlier criticism, Resident Advisor co-founder Nick Sabine defended the grant his company had received, insisting that the pandemic had resulted in a “95% loss in revenue” at the firm. Adding that he expected “no meaningful recovery for at least the next six months”, Sabine said the grant would cover about 30% of its losses until April 2021. Most of the money, he said, would “go towards retaining jobs and continuing to support ‘critically important causes'”, while 25% of the grant would benefit the company’s “network of creative freelancers”.

The Skiddle founders, of course, are well aware that ticketing is key to the Resident Advisor business. Their argument is that CRF was never positioned as a scheme to benefit cultural industry service providers like ticketing companies. And, in their opinion, the priority of the scheme should have been to first and foremost support venues and event organisers, rather than service provider businesses.

There have already been calls, from the Night Time Industries Association in particular, for the Arts Council to publish the criteria it employed when selecting which organisations to support with CRF grants.

And, while the Arts Council did stress when the CRF scheme was first announced that it was encouraging applications from a particularly wide range of cultural organisations, it does seem that there was some confusion in the music industry over exactly who could apply. Some companies were under the impression that they were not eligible but then saw their competitors secure grants.

Dyer and Sebborn end their letter by writing: “Skiddle will be OK. The road to recovery will be a long, bumpy one, but as long as we stick together with the remainder of our fantastic team then we will be able to continue serving both the event organisers and customers for a long time to come. Our approach to finance has always been simple, we never touch event organisers ticket money for our own use, we don’t have any investors to please. Nearly 20 years of hard work was constantly reinvested into the company to further our growth. We will pay back our CBILS loan. Eventually”.

“Now it is time for our leaders to listen. Time to listen to some of the amazing people in this industry that actually have the slightest clue of the UK events scene and the importance of it to our culture. We made our greatest friends on the dancefloor, and we would like our children to be able to as well”.

“In summary, we call on you, the UK government to get a grip. A funding process should be fair. There should be clear guidance across all authorities and agencies regarding who can apply for what support and why. Define culture, define hospitality, define retail. Alongside this, there needs to be a clear roadmap out of the pandemic, and a conversation around what the future might hold for the fantastic music and cultural sector this country has been proud of for so long”.