The Blog

How Soon Is Now?

A combination of legal, licensing, costs and trading issues has resulted in the outcome that running a grassroots music venue in the UK is economically non-viable. We need to make it viable or we will lose it.

"When you say it's going to happen now, when exactly do you mean?"

This is an article about a globally important UK product. A part of the ecosystem of the industry that creates that product is under real, serious, and urgent threat. The product on which that industry depends adds £3.5billion to the UK economy, creates hundreds of thousands of jobs, and supports thousands of micro-businesses, many of them start ups.

You'd think that faced with a collapse in the research and development part of that industry, the essential "gestation" phase of the ecosystem from which all other activity emanates, the UK government would be hosting special cross-department meetings to ensure we don't lose hundreds of jobs now and thousands of jobs in the future. Faced by a fall of more than a third in the number of companies working in that specific sector, you'd be expecting urgent and immediate state intervention in the form of business rate relief, tax credits, tax breaks and a longer term programme of investment into protecting, securing and improving it.

Unfortunately, as things stand, you'd be wrong, because the product in question is music and the sector within the music industry under threat isn't The Rolling Stones or Adele, it's new music in new venues - the grassroots live music sector.

The numerous problems facing grassroots live music venues in the UK are well documented, widely evidenced and understood. For the sake of argument, let's re-run the list so we all know what we are talking about; noise complaints; cost of noise complaint procedure; new development; cost of development procedure; licensing; licensing conditions; cost of licensing conditions; health and safety costs; geographic relocation, fall in student attendance; gentrification; competition from non-music sectors; lack of investment; no succession planning; economically non-viable model; international competition; change of use legislation; music industry market decline; cuts to touring budgets; rising service costs; business rate rises; night time levy/police costs; professional fees; legal compliance costs; fire regulations; and somebody even suggested a "broader societal failure to combat an instant stardom culture".

Because that's a stupidly long list, let's break it down into two easy, attention-grabbing sentences:

A combination of legal, licensing, costs and trading issues has resulted in the outcome that running a grassroots music venue in the UK is economically non-viable. We need to make it viable or we will lose it.

The question for government, the music industry and the cultural sector is what exactly do they propose to do about that, and when do they propose to do it? Because every venue that closes is another set of job losses, another set of micro-businesses (artists, bands) with nowhere to be nurtured or to flourish, another loss to the future economy of the UK.

I have an idea for an information film we should make so that everybody understands what these venues actually do. I could use a number of artists as examples, but I'm going to use Ed Sheeran because he's a good guy and will probably appreciate that I'm not picking on him; plus, believe it or not, because he understands the issues facing live music venues, this is the sort of thing I can actually imagine him doing. Although his accountant might ask we use fake money.

Opening shot: Wembley Way, the stadium framed in the background. Rubbish blows across the camera view, and we see one piece catch against a lamp post. Zoom in, and we see it is a programme for Ed Sheeran's recent three sell out shows at the Stadium. A hand reaches down to pick it up; it's Ed Sheeran. He has a guitar in his hand and a bulging rucksack on his back. He walks towards the stadium.

We see Ed set up to busk outside the stadium doors. He takes out his guitar and sets it to one side. He opens the top of the rucksack wide and tips the contents into the open guitar case. We see a torrent of £50 notes tumble from the case. The guitar case is now full of £50 notes. Ed picks up his guitar and starts to sing.

The camera pulls back to show a queue of people forming. The first person walks up and takes £50 out of the guitar case and holds it up the camera. We see the caption "The £50 we lost putting Ed on at The Troubadour, London. We believed in Ed".

The next person walks up, takes £100 out of the guitar case, holds it up the camera and we see the caption "The £100 we lost putting Ed on at The Masque, Liverpool. We believed in Ed".

One by one, the whole queue comes forward and picks up the money that grassroots music venues invested in Ed Sheeran. Because they believed in Ed.

It's going to be a long film; Ed played 312 gigs in 2009, and I'm going to guess that a significant majority of them lost money for the venue and for Ed himself.

That's the reality of the music industry model we have in place. Every day, across the UK, hundreds of passionate people put their own money and their own time into developing careers of musicians because they believe in them. When that artist makes it, grassroots music venues are not expecting or demanding a financial return. All they are asking is that government, the music industry and the cultural sector respect the work they are doing.

Across Europe, grassroots music venues are subsidised by an average of 42%. In France it's 60%. In the UK, the subsidy is as close to zero as makes no difference. The next time you hear an artist ask "why can't UK music venues pay artists more and treat them like they do in France?", that's your answer. The next time you wonder why your favourite US band chooses to play only three shows in the UK and 40 on the continent, that's your answer.

But UK grassroots music venues aren't demanding that they suddenly be handed massive subsidies. All they are asking is that government, the music industry and the cultural sector get legislation, costs and bad business practices out of their way and let them get on with it.

To tackle the market failure of local newspapers, where profits have sharply declined and significant jobs have been lost in the move to digital, the Chancellor George Osborne is currently undertaking a consultation on business rate relief for those commercial businesses. But he's not doing it for grassroots music venues YET, where the issue isn't just profits declining, or all the job losses that entails, it's actual business closures with no equivalent move to digital.

To tackle the extraordinary costs of breaking new artists, UK Trade and Investment under the leadership of Francis Maude, recently announced the Music Export Growth scheme, a fantastic programme that supports the marketing, including touring, of new and breaking UK artists around the world. But there's no UK TI grant scheme YET that supports the marketing, especially the touring, of new and breaking UK artists in the UK, where the costs of touring are the highest in Europe and venues struggle day-to-day to try and get money into touring acts' hands.

Speaking on the plight of grassroots music venues, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey recently said "I certainly think there is a case to be made for business rate relief".

Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of The Arts Council, on the challenges faced by music venues, said "Anything that threatens the social and cultural life of a city also threatens the economy of those cities".

The Mayor of London's Music Venues Taskforce will issue its report in September. It's currently being finalised, but that report contains practical measures which provide a national example of what can be done. Speaking at City Hall last month, Boris Johnson said: "We need to ensure that London maintains its position as the music capital of the world".

All of the challenges being faced by grassroots music venues are being openly talked about within government, the cultural sector and the music industry.

Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive of the BPI, said: "Small music venues are a vitally important part of the UK's music scene. They matter to people because they're a window to modern culture and to the visceral experience that live music brings. And they matter to the music business, because venues are where British artists hone their performances and songwriting and build that special connection that exists between bands and their core fans. British music is incredibly successful at home and abroad because there is an ecosystem that promotes the development of talent. Venues are a key element of that ecosystem and so BPI is helping to encourage cross-industry efforts to protect them. That's why we will take part in Venues Day 2015."

Venues Day 2015 takes place at Ministry of Sound on Tuesday 20 October. 300 venues from across the country that need help right now will attend. And this is a public invite to government, the culture sector and others in the music industry:

Join us and the BPI at Venues Day. Let's work together to make sure that we aren't losing our future music world-beaters through a lack of grassroots opportunities.

Come down to Venues Day and tell grassroots music venues the practical actions we're all going to take.

How soon do we need to take action? How soon is now? We've already waited too long.

Popular in the Community