Sticky floor by sticky floor, independent venues are disappearing. A report released in 2015 by the Mayor’s Music Venues Taskforce (which wasset up to help London’s live music spots) found that 35% had closed since 2007. The figures for the rest of the UK are unclear, as there is no set definition of what constitutes a music venue, and what’s just a plain old pub. But it’s clear that music haunts all over the country are closing – in the last five years, we’ve lost Manchester’s Roadhouse, Leeds’ Cockpit and The Arches in Glasgow, to name but a few. If keeping venues open continues to be a monumental battle, upcoming bands won’t have the platform they need to progress to academies and festival slots, let alone arenas. There’ll be no fresh sounds on the scene, and nowhere to go beyond a hired practice room. Break the link in the chain that is small venues, and the rest of the scene will crumble.
“These places are where bands cut their teeth,” says Rolo Tomassi’s James Spence. “They let DIY promoters in to do their stuff, which is crucial for bands starting out. Small gigs help spread the word. They’re where you hone your craft as a band.” There are a bunch of reasons small venues are being wiped out. Urban areas are a capitalist whack-a-mole, where venues are bulldozed to make way for flats and offices, while complicated licensing restrictions and noise complaints can lead to bureaucratic battles with local authorities. Luckily, there are people who are determined to address the issues and secure the future of live music.
First off, running a venue isn’t cheap. There’s rent, insurance, staff wages and equipment to consider, and hosting twice-weekly gigs is unlikely to cover the costs. In London, there’s nothing to stop landlords charging six-figure deposits before renting out their buildings. Steve Pitt, who ran The Cellars in Portsmouth until its closure last year, says that in his experience, the council “stood on the sidelines”. The Cellars’ profits had been down since the recession, and they couldn’t afford the rent. “Councils can’t give money to businesses, but if they sent in outreach officers to give advice, more venues would stand a chance,” he says. Steve and Mark Davyd – founder and CEO of the Music Venue Trust, a charity that supports independent venues – explain that if a venue is run as a community interest company (a nonprofit organisation with monitoring from figures in the local community) instead, it can qualify for Arts Council funding.
“Restructuring those businesses is key to getting the government to view them differently,” explains Mark, who also chairs The Mayor’s Taskforce. Mark also suggests venues run different activities to attract different clientele, or offer out their facilities to bring in extra money. “Venues are the baby of the people who run them, but there is a need to diversify,” he says. “Hire out the venue on off-nights for band practices. Have a coffee bar during the day and a live music space at night. That’s better than it sitting empty.”
This is what happens at Leicester’s Firebug, which has had the likes of Katatonia and Rolo Tomassi on its stage during its 12 years. “We don’t restrict ourselves to just music,” promoter John Helps says. “Live shows are part of what makes it an attractive bar, but we also have food served in the day, and I do other things like hip hop karaoke. All of Leicester’s successful venues are ones that have diversified.” Venue owners, the council and thecreative community are all supportive of each other – something that Mark says is integral to improving the situation. “Responsible venue owners get a bit of help,” says John. “A night-time economy collective met for a while; I think that’s faded out now, but the whole city is really supportive.”
Glasgow’s Cathouse, which has hosted the likes of Pearl Jam, Guns N’ Roses and Dream Theater, has weathered the storm for 25 years. Owner Donald MacLeod believes part of its success is down to keeping up with trends. “When we started, ‘poodle rock’ was in fashion. Then grunge came through, and the Cathouse was tapping into both those veins,” he says. “You’ve got to have a serious look at the music business and play the right music.” Glasgow’s venues – including the Cathouse, whose first premises were converted into an office block – face the same battle with property developers as London’s, but Donald is pragmatic. “You’ll never stop it,” he says. “I’d say to those caught in that situation to see if your business is viable, and get the best deal you can from those selling the building, and look for another place.”
Punters’ support can be invaluable. When Norwich’s Owl Sanctuary – considered by locals to be the centre of the city’s music scene – was sold to a property developer, local magazine Outline set up a crowdfunding campaign to help manager Dan Hawcroft find new premises. It fell a few quid short of the £7,000 goal, but was still enough for them to rent a new building and reopen in February, thanks to vocal support of the campaign in local press and on social media.
In Brighton, The Freebutt hosted the likes of Viking Skull and Orange Goblin before closing in 2010, after being served with a noise abatement notice. “We had a noise limiter fitted that cuts the power if the volume goes too high, and the council wanted to turn it down so low we couldn’t have drums,” says former co-owner Andy Rossiter. Despite fitting extra soundproofing, the neighbours weren’t satisfied. “We had no choice but to close,” he says. People who move next door to venues and then complain about noise levels are generally maligned as party poopers, but legally they have the upper hand. Both the Mayor’s Taskforce and Music Venue Trust have been pushing for the government to accept the Agent Of Change principle, which makes it the responsibility of developers building houses near venues to take charge of soundproofing. A petition for Agent Of Change started by Frank Turner amassed over 30,000 signatures, and high-profile figures such as Green Party MP Caroline Lucas have spoken out in favour of it. The government took note, and in April they introduced a law requiring developers to prove they’ve considered the noise impact from existing licensed premises before they can get approval for their plans. It’s a breakthrough, but stops short of full Agent Of Change law.
Licensing conditions can also be a death knell, as Andre Joyzi, the ex-manager of London’s late, great, 12 Bar knows. Despite a petition against its closure and a sit-in by activists, it closed in 2015 as part of a redevelopment project linked to the Crossrail line. After a year in new premises, 12 Bar closed again. There were also problems at Soho Rocks, another venue Andre managed last year. “The licence was an issue there,” he says. “We had to close doors on weekends at midnight, when the place was peaking. Closing at 2am would’ve made the difference between making enough to get by, and making it a profitable business.”
Soho Rocks closed last September, but 12 Bar’s original premises might yet be revived. The Mayor’s Taskforce recently announced that Consolidated Developments, the company behind the redevelopment of Denmark Street, will build a new venue next to the Crossrail station and ‘retain the former 12 Bar as a grassroots live music venue and add an underground gig space’. The Taskforce is also planning to appoint a night mayor; Amsterdam and Berlin already have ‘night time champions’ to fight for small venues, and new mayor Sadiq Khan has spoken out in support of the idea, promising someone “who will be a strong voice of support in City Hall for London’s vibrant night-time economy”.
In the rest of the UK, Mark is working to get venues and local councils to work together to improve the situation. He’s already got Edinburgh City Council on board – they released a report last year calling for direct action to protect the city’s venues. Meanwhile, two hundred venues have signed up to the Trust’s Music Venues Alliance, which Mark describes as “an informal network of music venues represented by the Trust, so we can have conversations with the government nationally”. At the Trust’s Venues Day conference in October, Mark will announce “the first wave of money going into the infrastructure of around 20 venues” as a result of investments he’s secured. It’ll be a welcome cash injection – not only is there a lack of investment from the government, but record labels have scaled back their touring budgets, too, says Mark. That means fewer upcoming bands can hit the road, making independent promoters’ jobs difficult. “In 2006, labels spent £36billion on touring, butmin 2015 it was around £4.8billion.”
At the root of the problem is the fact that venues aren’t viewed by the government as cultural enterprises. “There’s a Theatres Trust, which acts on behalf of theatres and their interests,” notes Mark. “It’s a governmentfunded body with statutory powers to protect theatres. No such body is funded by the government or has such powers when it comes to music venues; we have had to create one.”
So, when complaints arise or landlords decide to sell up, there’s no legislation in place toprotect them. As well as encouraging venue owners to register as community interest companies, Mark is helping improve relations with other agencies like ticket companies and the royalty collection service, PRS. “Theatre shows that are losing money are exempt from VAT on ticket sales, but venues still pay full VAT,” he explains. “If you have 30 venues coming together to lobby a ticket company to take less commission, you’ve got power. With the PRS, we responded to their last review of royalties tariffs, and that’s resulted in negotiations on what the tariffs will be in the future. We want them to design something specific to that sector that goes to the grassroots bands playing there. These kind of things haven’t happened before, and it’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just that there wasn’t an agency to speak up on behalf of venues before.”
Public support for venues clearly exists, but the places themselves are still at the mercy of laws that work against them. The fact that venue owners have new allies close to thegovernment is a glimmer of hope, though. If indie venues can band together and be vocal about the changes they want to see, they’ll stand a better chance of fighting the developers, complainers and bureaucracy that are threatening to flush the ‘toilet circuit’ – as the Trust affectionately calls it – away.
SEE MORE AT MUSICVENUETRUST.COM AND LONDON.GOV.UK