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How can we save our grassroots music venues?

The Music Venue Trust claims that the UK is set to lose 10 per cent of its independent venues by the end of 2023. What can be done to stop this?

By Emma Wilkes

Enter Shikari have been vocal supporters of independent music venues (Photo by Katja Ogrin/Redferns)

The story of independent music venues in the UK facing a battle for survival is not a new one. For the last few decades, we’ve seen rent hikes and mounting energy bills, to name but two problems, causing a situation where bulldozers move in to destroy the sweat-and-sawdust rooms where many festival headliners cut their teeth.

But in the last three years, there’s no doubt that those challenges have got even tougher. Many venues struggled to survive when COVID-19 forced them to shut their doors for over a year, relying on support from crowd-funders or fundraising efforts led, in particular, by the Music Venue Trust (MVT). Then, only months after they were allowed to host gigs again, the ongoing cost of living crisis posed another threat, both by sending venues’ energy bills skyrocketing and squeezing the incomes of their patrons, meaning that for many people, gigs had to be put on the back burner in favour of essentials.

There remains the looming threat of developers too. In Manchester, the legendary Night And Day Cafe in Manchester, for example, has been subject to a lengthy battle for its survival over a planning file to redevelop flats nearby, as well as a noise abatement order following complaints from neighbours who moved in over lockdown. Meanwhile, just earlier this week, there was an outcry over plans to demolish Hitchin’s Club 85, and turn it into flats.

There have been repeated warnings of how bleak the picture looks for the grassroots sector in 2023, but the most stark of them came earlier this week, when the Music Venue Trust claimed that the UK is set to lose 10 per cent of its independent venues by the end of 2023. To avoid a future where all but the country’s major cities are cultural deserts, radical solutions are needed – but what initiatives exist to keep independent venues open?

Community ownership

According to the MVT, 93 per cent of venues in the UK aren’t owned by the entity that operates them, meaning that they run the risk of being evicted by their landlord at any time, if they wish to sell or review the rent. Sheffield’s Leadmill is one venue that has been threatened by this very issue, though the Electric Group, who bought the freehold in 2017, insist they had no intention of closing the venue when the current occupiers’ lease runs out at the end of the year. (Despite this, the Leadmill’s current management have claimed that they are being “exterminated by the landlords”.)

The MVT have said that “all the other problems and challenges that grassroots music venues face” boil down to this issue. “No grassroots music venue in the UK is sustainable or resilient, no venue can have 100% confidence in its future, no venue can continue to support musicians and bring music to our communities for decades to come, unless the music venues are owned by people who want them to be music venues,” they said in a statement last year, in response to the closure of Nambucca in North London.

The charity then kickstarted a campaign, #OwnOurVenues, to raise money to purchase the freeholds of nine venues and bring them under community ownership. The scheme has been likened to “The National Trust, but for venues” and raised £2.3 million through donations and investments earlier this year, allowing the process of buying the freeholds to begin. It transforms venues into not-for-profit organisations, with members of the community able to invest in community shares in order to have a say at AGMs.

One successful example of the community ownership model is Sister Midnight, a venue in Lewisham, south-east London. A campaign was started in 2021, initially to convert the defunct Ravensbourne Arms pub into a community-owned live music venue for all ages, but despite raising £260,000 through community investment and donations, the owners of the pub were unwilling to sell. Instead, the campaign took over a derelict former working men’s club in Catford and secured a 7-year rent-free lease. The 250-capacity venue is set to open in late 2023.

Top-down ‘research and development’ investment from arenas

Eight new arenas have been proposed to be built in the UK, including Co-Op Live, which is set to open in Manchester next year, while large-scale venues have also been earmarked to open in Bristol, Cardiff, London, Edinburgh, Gateshead, Sunderland and Dundee in the next few years. But when grassroots venues are under threat, where will the arena-fillers of tomorrow get their start and nurture their craft?

In a speech delivered in the Houses Of Parliament earlier this year in reference to its 2022 annual report, the MVT’s Mark Davyd called on arenas to invest back into grassroots spaces. “We cannot go on building more and more arenas with no plan of how to fill the stages they create,” he said. He proposed that arenas invest a percentage of every ticket they sell into the grassroots sector, with the logic that it’s unjustified for these venues to be generating huge profits when the talent pipeline is being squeezed.

Davyd even suggested that this be a condition of these new arenas opening, and that they’re prevented from doing so if they don’t comply. Doing so would shift some of the burden from venues to single-handedly keep their heads above water, and mean that the independent venue sector is treated as the music industry’s collective responsibility, almost as a means of investing in itself to keep it sustainable in the future. What is an arena, after all, if there are no global stars to play in them?

Big-name supporters

Political support has been fairly scant, with Rishi Sunak’s words about musicians needing to retrain during the pandemic, instead of pledging them financial support, having hardly been forgotten. (However, various venues later received financial support through the Culture Recovery Fund, though not without struggle).

Despite this, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has, in recent months, pledged to support grassroots venues through the Music For The Many campaign, run by his Peace and Justice organisation. The campaign has called for the creation of a specific government fund to support and invest in these at risk spaces, paid for with a small levy on corporate sponsorship of large music venues. In line with this, Corbyn hosted a Leadmill benefit show with alt pop newcomer ZAND last month.

“The prospect of losing as much as 10% of the UK’s grassroots music venues should be a wake up call for the government to act immediately to secure futures of these absolutely invaluable community creative spaces,” Corbyn told Rolling Stone UK.

“It is admirable that groups such as Enter Shikari are willing to donate a percentage of their earnings from shows to support grassroots music venues, but the reality is the burden should not fall on artists, many of whom already face significant financial challenges.  

“Many of the companies who have attached their name to live music arenas have enjoyed record profits and have paid huge dividends to shareholders.  A small levy per show at these shows could generate thousands of pounds to support grassroots music venues and the artists who will eventually go on to play the bigger arenas and stadiums.

“We cannot let cuts, austerity and corporate greed destroy the next generation of talent, artists and expression.”

We’re looking at you, Westminster. If you truly care about music, make your voice heard.

Put your money where your music is.

Political support is all well and good, but sometimes the backing of a musician who has honed their craft in independent venues will really help to get the message across.

Enter Shikari, for instance, have said they will donate £1 from every ticket sold to their upcoming UK and Ireland arena tour to benefit the Music Venue Trust.

“It sounds like there’s a lot of focus on providing spaces for the real high-end of the music industry,” frontman Rou Reynolds recently told NME. “There are a lot of new arenas on the way, while at the same time there is no support whatsoever for the grassroots circuit. There’s a very clear link between small venues and big venues – especially in the terms of providing new artists with a space to find their way in the industry and find their audience.

“We’re going to have all these new arenas without supporting the ways that artists can grow into them. It just all seems a bit silly!”