The Blog

How to Save Live Music in the UK

Music venues are fighting off noise complaints, abatement notices and planning applications; 12 venues are already under threat, an avalanche will follow if we don't take action. We are genuinely facing a meltdown in the British live music circuit while the government sits on its hands reciting legal precedents from the 1800s.

The UK Music Industry was valued at £3.5billion in 2012. Huge swathes of that value came from the frontline talent we have produced; Adele, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Elbow or Noel Gallagher, take your pick. But each and every one of the artists who sold those records and reached out to audiences around the world took their first faltering steps along that path on a stage in one of our network of incredible live music venues; The Night & Day in Manchester, King Tuts in Glasgow, The Fleece in Bristol, The Forum in Tunbridge Wells, the 12 Bar in London. These venues are the cornerstone of our music success story, the places where artists learn to engage with their audience, where they hone their stage and songwriting, where they are exposed to new music, build a fanbase. Right now that cornerstone is under a very specific and direct attack.

And we can do something simple to save it.

Staithes is a really beautiful fishing village on the Yorkshire coast between Whitby and Saltburn-by-the-sea. There's a fantastic property for sale that overlooks the buzzing, active harbour, set within a quiet courtyard but just a short walk from the boats bringing in their daily catch. The lobster from the Staithes boats is particularly delicious, I've tried it and I highly recommend it. But I'm not buying that house, and I'm not moving to Staithes, no matter how picturesque it looks or sounds, and no matter how lovely and welcoming the local people are.

I'm not moving to Staithes because, and this is important, I don't really like the smell of fish. Pernickety I know, but when I'm choosing somewhere to live, I'm going to try and choose somewhere that isn't located directly next to a place that will inevitably have fish as one of the prevalent environmental smells.

Because I don't really like the smell of fish, I think I just mentioned that.

Now, you're probably thinking "this is a bit weird, what has this got to do with live music in the UK being under attack?" and you'd be right to be thinking that, because obviously common sense would tell you that somebody who doesn't like the smell of fish isn't going to move to a fishing village and complain about the smell. And even if he did, nobody would take him seriously. He'd just be that idiot who didn't like the smell of fish but bought a house right next to a harbour and then wrote letters to the council moaning about the smell and demanding that fishermen stop making it. You know the one, the bloke everybody in the village keeps laughing about.

Music, obviously, is a noise. Because it's a noise, sometimes it can be a nuisance. If it's a nuisance, it needs to be controlled. But music, obviously, isn't the same thing as a nuisance, and yet in their recent reply to the Music Venue Trust, in reference to music noise coming from music venues, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs stated;

"the grant of planning permission does not license a nuisance and in some cases businesses may need to do more than just comply with their planning conditions to avoid causing a nuisance."

Not 'avoid causing music to be heard' or 'avoid the noise of music', you will note, because as far as DEFRA are concerned music is a nuisance. They went on to unveil this amazing fact that I'm guessing all us keen anti-fish-smell house-hunters probably didn't know:

"Since the late 1800s, it has become well established in case law that it is not a defence to proceedings for nuisance that a complainant 'came to the nuisance'. Enforcement action can be taken in relation to issues that constitute a statutory nuisance, regardless of whether those circumstances arose before the complainant became the occupier of the affected premises. This is to protect a person's rights to the comfortable and healthy enjoyment of the premises owned or occupied by them. This principle applies equally between two business occupiers or two residential occupiers as between a resident and a business."

I'd urge to read that again to fully understand the impact of what DEFRA are saying. Because what they are saying is this:

DEFRA thinks I should move to Staithes.

It doesn't matter that I don't like the smell of fish, because after I move to Staithes I'm simply going to stop the fishing, because I don't like it. All the people who live there, all the jobs created, all the history of fishing, and all the delicious lobster will, according to British Law dating back to the 1800s, simply have to adjust their behaviour to suit whatever it is I want. Because bugger common sense, I fancy living somewhere and Staithes looks nice except for the fishing.

Fishing produces a smell. A smell is a nuisance. Ipso facto, according to UK Law and according to DEFRA, fishing is a nuisance. I object to the nuisance, and UK Law says you can put away your lobster pots and furl up your nets, a bloke's just arrived that doesn't like the 'nuisance'.

This is great news for me, and the lobster, but not so good for Staithes or for our fishing industry.

The government changed the planning laws between 2012 and 2014 in a number of ways to achieve a key number of aims about generating economic growth and addressing the housing shortage. Specifically, they are making amendments that permit changes of use to residential use without requiring planning permission. Offices and car parks across the country can be converted to residences. And right next door to those offices and car parks are the UK's music venues. They are there on purpose, many of them, because they chose those locations deliberately so that the music wouldn't ever be described by people like DEFRA as a 'nuisance'. The developers have no legal obligation to soundproof these new homes; UK law says the business or person making the noise is making the nuisance, and they must manage it. Good councils across the country, such as in Bristol, are trying to put conditions on the new builds, but developers have deep pockets. Faced with a mountain of litigation, many councils will have no option other than to permit the developments to proceed and let the venues deal with the consequences.

Across the country we are already seeing the results. Music venues are fighting off noise complaints, abatement notices and planning applications; 12 venues are already under threat, an avalanche will follow if we don't take action. We are genuinely facing a meltdown in the British live music circuit while the government sits on its hands reciting legal precedents from the 1800s.

And it won't end with music venues.

Fancy living next door to a Church but don't like the sound of bells? Just write a letter and you can silence them! Fancy living in the country but don't like the sound of farm animals? Shut the farm! Want to make a lot of money building some flats next to a speedway track and worried that the sound of motorbikes might reduce the price? Never fear - build them anyway and just close the track down!

And yet a solution is simple, and it's called the Agent of Change principle.

Under the Agent of Change principle, an apartment block to be built near an established live music venue would have to pay for soundproofing, while a live music venue opening in a residential area would be responsible for the costs. A resident who moves next door to a music venue would, in law, be assessed as having made that decision understanding that there's going to be some music noise, and a music venue that buys a new PA would be expected to carry out tests to make sure its noise emissions don't increase. Agent of Change says the person or business responsible for the change is responsible for managing the impact of the change.

Agent of Change is so obvious and common sense that most people are amazed it isn't already part of UK law. In Australia it's already being adopted, and the outcome is improved planning; venues working alongside their communities to manage their noise when it changes, developers making better residences that are fit for purpose.

Everyone's a winner.

So this is a challenge to the UK government in the shape of DEFRA, The Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government. It's a challenge to the UK Music Industry, and to all those musicians, famous or otherwise, who have grown up in these venues and to all our great talent yet to be discovered:

Please, work with the Music Venue Trust and the UK's incredible network of live music venues. The Musician's Union, The Music Industries Association, UK Live Music Group all support it . Dozens of agencies, musicians, bands, sound engineers are contacting us every day to join the fight to stop the closures.

Let's act together, right now, to adopt and enforce Agent of Change.

Or I will move to Staithes.