Open Letter to my MP on the Culture Recovery Fund

bencurthoys Oct 30, 2020

[Sent to my local MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan 30th October 2020]


I have the office literally next door to your constituency office in the Berwick Workspace, and I thought I’d drop you a note about some things that are going on with the Culture Recovery Fund.

I run a company that supplies box office ticketing systems to theatres, cinemas and other live events. We’re a small company, but we have some substantial clients; the biggest two are probably the Royal Academy of Music and the Shetland Arts Development Agency, but there are plenty more, all important to us and all important to their local communities.

Like everyone connected with live events, our income has been devastated by the COVID restrictions. We earned our living by charging our customers fees based on the number of tickets sold, because we thought that was the fairest way to measure how much they were using the software, and when the first lockdown struck, obviously no one was selling any tickets any more for anything.

But just because they weren’t selling tickets didn’t mean they didn’t need our services. We have been helping our customers issue and process refunds, implement social distancing, and pivot to selling tickets for online Zoom events, for a start. But all the way through, we have had to balance doing the work that our customers need - so that they can survive, and continue to be customers after all this is over - and not working, because the only support available to us has been the furlough scheme, which will only support us if we are NOT working. We have worked as much as we have been able to afford to, and had to balance that with not working enough to be able to claim furlough money. This is as big a perverse incentive as your can imagine, to lose money by working and to only gain money by not working, the opposite of what literally everyone wants. We can work from home; we just can’t afford to.

It has always seemed obvious to me that even if sector specific support was made available to the live events industry, we wouldn’t get it - any survey or database is going to have us down as a technology company, not a live events company. After all, what we do is make software, not theatre. But we are still indisputably in and dependent on live events continuing to happen; ticket sales are the source of the money we make. We have begun the gradual and difficult process of changing our pricing model, so that we charge customers for all the help we give them, and not just the tickets they sell. But this is not without resistance: obviously now is a terrible time to be telling people running venues that instead of charging them purely per-ticket, we will now be charging a flat fee (of roughly half what they were spending with us before) whether they sell any tickets or not. Still, we thought. They will be able to apply for funding and support, and we must restructure our business so that some of that funding can trickle down to us.

You can imagine then my surprise to learn that the Culture Recovery Fund had made a grant of £508,820 available to Ticketline, a ticketing technology company based in Manchester. They don’t do anything we don’t do, but whilst we read the criteria for the Culture Recovery Fund and, like every other ticketing company in the country apart from Ticketline, decided we didn’t meet the criteria, they evidently chanced an application and walked away with more than half a million pounds. Another ticketing company equally shocked that Ticketline were funded is Skiddle: and I had a conversation with Arts Professional magazine on Wednesday, some quotes from which appear in Ticketing companies aghast at 'ridiculous' funding awards | News | ArtsProfessional along comments from other industry professionals.

The criteria published here by the Arts Council:

What is a ‘cultural organisation’? Can comedy clubs/cinemas/independent cinemas apply?
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. Although libraries are technically one of the Arts Council’s supported disciplines, we are not able to support them through this fund.

Please see this document for a range of genres and subgenres that we are able to support through this fund. If you are an organisation whose primary role is to create, present or support one (or more) of these genres or sub genres, then you are eligible to apply to Recovery Grants.

Comedy venues are eligible for this fund. Cinemas (both commercial and independent) cannot apply, as they will be eligible for support through a fund managed by the BFI.

certainly don’t seem to include technology companies that supply venues.

I don’t begrudge Ticketline their grant. I will be the first to say that we - alongside all other suppliers to the events industry, other ticketing companies, paper ticket stock manufacturers like our distribution partners SecureMedia, lighting hire companies, and many more that I can’t think of - need support to get through this crisis. And this support is absolutely necessary to the aims of the culture recovery fund: there is little point in having supported venues and theatre companies through the crisis only if they find they cannot reopen afterwards because all of their suppliers have gone. But that support should be distributed fairly and equitably, either through a fund that specifically says that suppliers are eligible to apply, or by funding venues and allowing them to the continue to pay their suppliers. It should not be provided haphazardly, by one company deciding to chance an application, and one Arts Council panel incorrectly deciding to let them through whilst everyone else looks on in astonishment.

I would be happy to discuss possible solutions if you are interested; a question in the house might be a start. I will also be publishing a copy of this message on our company blog.

Kind regards,

Ben Curthoys