On Tuesday, 350 people converged on the Purcell Rooms in the Southbank Centre. The venue (hire fee graciously waived) played host to the inaugural Venues Day, organised by the recently created Music Venues Trust. The people, a mix of venue owners, agents, relevant bodies such as the Musicians Union & the Arts Council of England, and interested parties (including at least one MP and a Lord), had gathered to talk about the state of the UK’s small venues and what, exactly, could be done about it.
At first glance, the turnout was impressive. More than 120 venues were represented from all over the UK, with 350 total attendees. Thinking further on this, sadness takes root as I realise that if the scene was really as healthy as some people would have you believe, the room would be all but empty, the panellists addressing 5 bored-looking press folk and a handful of volunteers.
When an individual venue shuts its doors, after the initial outpouring of sadness, there’s often a period of reflection which starts with “actually, I can’t remember the last time I went to a gig there” and ends with “they must have been doing something wrong. I bet I could have made it make money”. Dangerous thoughts, these (and ones I’ve been guilty of myself in the past). Because when you look across at a sea of worried faces belonging to people who have travelled from as far afield as Plymouth and Scotland, who run venues with pretty illustrious reputations, it is overwhelmingly clear that they can’t all simply be ‘doing it wrong’.
So what, exactly, is the problem? The problem mainly is that there isn’t a single problem. Rising alcohol tax, brewery fees and rents alongside the hike in VAT to 20% on the one side have met deflating wages, less disposable income and a devaluation of music on the other. Cheap chain pubs doing outrageous deals on beer means people resent having to pay a fair price for a pint, and a rising outspoken DIY movement lamenting how hard it is to be an independent musician at this level (and it is hard, don’t get me wrong) has seen people hold off on that pint of beer so they can buy a CD directly from the band they want to support. A noble aim, without a doubt. But if the venue you’ve just seen them perform in goes under because no-one’s buying beer at live gigs, then that strikes a blow to small bands everywhere.
Did you know the bar takings from the majority of live nights rarely even cover the venue’s costs? I didn’t. Neither did most of the promoters I know, who will always try and negotiate getting the full door fee because otherwise they won’t be able to pay the bands. Did you know the overwhelming majority of venues are subsiding the cost of their live music programme with other income? That club night you complain about being kicked out at 10.30 for, that’s what’s paying for the gig you just attended. And yet these venues are still doing it. They’re still putting on gigs, booking bands, giving time over to live nights when the space could be used for something more profitable. Because they truly want the live music scene in the UK to still exist, and they want to be a part of it. So they’re spending money they don’t have on PA systems, monitors, microphones, trying to keep the dressing rooms in good repair, doing everything they can to provide the best space they can to the bands who are playing there. Far from vilification, these people deserve a medal.
And yet even money issues pale somewhat in comparison to redevelopment and noise abatement orders. Financially successful venues can still be undone by a single signature, and that spectre was palpably hanging over the room. 14 of the venues represented had received noise complaints in the past year. One venue owner had spent £11,000 defending a noise abatement order (out of a total profit of £20,000 on the entire year). If that’s representative, that’s a huge burden to put on an already strained sector. Not to mention the emotional toll of thinking you might lose something you’ve put your heart and soul into over the last 15 years because it doesn’t ‘fit’ with developers’ view of what the area should now be like, or risks reducing the value of the shiny new flats that wouldn’t even have been built had the reputation of your venue not made the area more desirable.
Finding solutions to this shapeless, shifting gamut of issues is even harder than identifying the issues themselves. Where do you even start raising defences when you’re being attacked from all sides simultaneously? Well, you start by getting everyone in a room so each person can really, truly realise that they’re not alone, which is is exactly what Mark Davyd and the Venues Trust did on Tuesday. There’s no representative body for live music venues. None. Just let that sink in for a second. There’s no union, society or association which seeks to represent the very real concerns and problems that small venue owners are facing. They have no collective bargaining power right now. That needs to change, and hopefully Venues Day is the first move towards creating a body which can act in their interests in the same way as the Musician’s Union, Performers Rights Society and the Association of Independent Music were set up to act in the interests of other parts of the industry. As Davyd pointed out, a collective could have a single lawyer on retainer to deal with noise complaints, rather than 14 venues each individually paying a different firm, each individually having to set out their case to someone who may not have dealt with anything similar before. A collective could lobby MPs for a change in the noise abatement and planning laws; protected status for venues as cultural landmarks; tax-breaks of the type received by theatres. More than that, a collective could provide support, a place to discuss issues with likeminded people, to share experiences and commiserate about the situation – despite the obvious passion for live music which must exist for venue owners to subsidise it out of their own pockets, there was a sombre air to the day. Nobody can stay entirely positive all of the time, particularly in such straitened circumstances, and emotional support is often as important as the financial kind.
However, like all multi-faceted problems, there isn’t a single solution, and forming an association isn’t going to immediately solve everyone’s problems.
It’s time to have a real, honest conversation about how bad things are right now. Jo Dipple of UK music said that live music revenues had gone up 28% in the past year, and Mike Weatherly MP made the claim that a venue which puts on live music takes 40% more revenue than one without (I didn’t get the source for either of these statistics, I’m afraid 0 if you know them, please link to them in the comments). But those figures only apply to the very top of the scale, and while I’m sure both speakers were trying to put a positive spin on the situation, it seemed like a bit of a slap in the face to say to people who are seeing lower turnout and lower bar takes, night after night, ‘but people love live music! More people are going to gigs than ever before!”. The money is at the top – in recorded music, the top 1% of bands & solo artists now earn 77% of all revenue (hat tip to Sean Adams for the link) – and that isn’t set to change anytime soon.
Telling people who are struggling to make ends meet that their sector is doing fine is like telling a check-out worker on minimum wage that the supermarket CEO is earning millions of pounds a year, so what’s all the fuss about? And expecting the people at the top of the ladder to put some money towards saving the rungs at the bottom is about as realistic as expecting that same CEO to give every single checkout worker in their company a pay rise so they’re earning at least a living wage. It might sound like a noble pursuit, but I think we all know it’s not going to happen any time soon.
It was mooted that an entire cultural shift is needed – that people don’t simply ‘go out to a gig’ because they fancy some live music; rather, they go out to see bands they already know. Getting people to think about going to see a band they’ve never heard of in the same way as trying out that new restaurant that’s recently opened could really make a difference to the scene as a whole. But where do you even start with achieving something like that? Seeing 4 local bands at your local pub has cost around £4 for the last 15 years, and when people don’t even want to pay that much, what can you do?
What really needs to happen is an end to this pervasive belief that there’s still loads of money to be made in music, and the equally pervasive opinion that anyone who actually makes money from music is somehow evil and not to be trusted. Musicians have day jobs. Even relatively successful musicians. We wish we didn’t have to, but the vast majority of us do. Venue owners can’t have day jobs. Running the venue IS their day job. They have to be able to make it profitable and we shouldn’t resent them for that. The hard truth is that while there will always be another band, there may not be anywhere for them to play if things carry on as there are. Bands can scrimp and save by rehearsing and even recording in their bedroom, if they have to. Venue owners simply don’t have the same sort of cost-saving options.
I’m not a venue owner. I don’t personally know any venue owners – not well enough to chat about their financial situation, at any rate. I don’t know exact details of how they’re struggling and it’s not my place to tell them what needs to be done to turn things around. But I do want to help. My interest comes from the fact that live music – particularly live music in small venues – is a huge, huge part of my life. On average, I go to a gig every couple of weeks, mostly at venues of 200 capacity or below. If small venues didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be writing this piece, because I wouldn’t have met Dan. The first five times we met were at gigs – The Unicorn, The Bull & Gate, 93 Feet East, The Borderline and The Wheelbarrow. Without small venues, I think it’s unlikely that we’d ever have met in person. I’d actually go further than that and say without small venues, Echoes and Dust probably wouldn’t even exist – I know Rumour Cubes wouldn’t.
As music fans, ask yourselves how much of your life would be different if your favourite small venues hadn’t existed. Because it became increasingly apparent yesterday that without some fairly major interventions, they won’t exist forever, and just as we lament the fact that the kids of today rarely get the opportunity to spend an afternoon aimlessly browsing through the racks of their local record store, so too will we lament the fact that the kids of tomorrow won’t get the opportunity to lose themselves amongst 50-60 sweaty, joyous bodies crammed into a local venue watching a band play their heart out. Without small venues we obviously wouldn’t have the bands who now play stadiums, but I don’t even think we’d have the music fans who buy tickets for their shows. Music is truly an ecosystem, and we need to nurture every facet if we want the whole to survive.