Ever get the impression times are tight at your local gig space? Whether the pints come with a restoration levy, the PA’s seen better days, or you need a hazmat suit just to get to the bathrooms, the likelihood is they’re probably not stacking the Benjamins. Most of us are romantic enough to buy into the dive bar aesthetic when standards aren’t met, but the reality of the matter is this: 35% of all small UK music venues closed between 2007 and 2015. When it comes to cash dollar, grassroots music venues across the UK are in the grips of crisis. And it’s having a serious effect on the way we experience live music.
The most recent turn of the screw hit London in its cultural epicenter, when both Hackney and Tower Hamlets Council gave the green light to introduce the Late Night Levy. Ushered in under Theresa May’s ‘Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011’, the Late Night Levy was initially rolled out in a handful of local councils in 2014, and forces licensed premises operating after midnight to cough up for extra policing in the local area. Camden, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Southampton were among the first wave to enforce the tariff, and responses have been – at best – mixed. Cheltenham made the early call to scrap it after almost half of the city’s affected businesses chose to sack off early hours trading completely. In Islington meanwhile, license holders are yet to see a decent return for their payouts. “Most of the extra policing budget appears to have gone into funding support teams,” explains Stacey Thomas, owner of whiskey-slinging Pentonville Road haunt The Lexington. “They aren’t even qualified to make arrests, so if someone is in possession of drugs or acting aggressively, the police are called anyway. We were hoping to see more officers on the streets, not bouncers.”
With the nocturnal economy plugging the gap for government police cuts, the cultural value of nightlife across the UK is being increasingly overlooked. But the financial threat posed by the Late Night Levy pales in comparison to the sudden astronomical rise in business rates, which followed the government's review of business' rateable value in April 2017. Last calculated in 2008, rateable value holds a direct influence on a company’s business rate, and is heavily linked to local property prices. Positioned in one of London’s most aggressively gentrified hotspots, The Lexington was stung with a business rate rise of over 330%. Over on Downing Street, little has been done to help soften the blow, with Chancellor Philip Hammond drawing widespread ridicule for his offer to shave a grand off business rates for pubs whose rateable value equals less than £100k. “It’s an empty gesture,” Thomas adds. “It won’t keep people open. The bottom line is this: you suck up the increases or you close down. There’s no relief.”
Left unrevised, the government’s business rates review will undoubtedly lead to the plug being pulled on many independent venues across the UK. But on a broader scale, it’s audiences that should really be counting the cost. “The majority of gigs are put on by outside promoters, but if we hiked up their hire fee to cover the new rates, no one would buy tickets,” Thomas explains. “Unlike back in the day, the door is no longer a profit-making entity for venues. So the main take has to be the bar.”
But £6.50 IPAs aren’t the only worrying fallout for gig-goers. Programming is suffering too, with cash-strapped venues and promoters more inclined to play it safe on commercially dependable acts. “The sad truth is that there are bills to pay, and a Clash cover band is a guaranteed sell,” Thomas sighs. “Without any relief funding in place, venues and promoters are less able to offer emerging artists the platform they need to grow.”
One organization keen to flip the script is the Music Venue Trust, a charity set up in 2014 to provide a unified voice for some 400 independent venues across the UK. “No one’s out to purposefully throttle UK venues with extortionate taxes,” acknowledges trust chairman Mark Davyd, “but a separate assessment policy is needed to differentiate the practicalities of running a venue, from those of running a pub or retail space. Over the past 20 years, our performance spaces have been continually overlooked in this regard. If we’re serious about the survival of the UK music scene, then we need to develop vibrant, well-supported establishments where people feel inspired to get involved. As it stands we’re in need of serious cultural funding just to keep up with the rest of Europe.”
Cast your gaze across the water, and that sweet European grass is looking a whole lot greener right now. The German government recently forked out €8.2 million for pop, rock and jazz music, with a weighty chunk earmarked to help venues reduce running costs by digitising equipment. In France, 195 venues benefitted from trading subsidies in 2015, whilst 59 received infrastructure grants from a wide range of ministerial departments. And in Denmark, the touring circuit has boomed thanks to an infrastructure and trading subsidy budget, which has helped fund 19 brand new grassroots music venues across the country.
Back home, Arts Council England holds the cards when it comes to distributing lottery and government cash. After announcing its National Portfolio of funding for 2018–2022 in June, ACE was slated by live music enthusiasts for allocating an astonishing 85% of its £368 million music industry budget towards funding opera and classical music, with a hefty £96m going straight to the Royal Opera House. New music wasn’t entirely overlooked, with NTS Radio, Boiler Room, and contemporary music curators Capsule all successful in securing investment. But the stark truth is that just 0.06% of ACE’s total funding over the next four years will be used to fund popular music venues.
“It’s a real shame,” Mark Davyd reflects after his organisation’s three funding applications were denied. “We felt encouraged to apply and were hopeful that the cultural value of independent venues would be taken into account. ACE has on numerous occasions acknowledged the massive cultural crisis facing grassroots music venues in this country, but has failed to step up and financially back them in their hour of need. We can’t even begin to guess how many venues will have to close over the next four years.”
In desperate need of financial investment, grassroots venues across the UK are now hoping there’s still time to court European support, ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU in March 2019. In 2018 the European Commission’s Music Moves Europe initiative is set to roll out, with the aim of enhancing the EU’s political and financial support for creation, diversity, and distribution within the industry. British arts organisations benefitted from €40 million of EU funding between 2014 and 2016, and with a budget reportedly in the hundreds of millions, Music Moves Europe could provide a welcome farewell boost to venues across the UK. “We remain somewhat hopeful that arrangements can be made with the European Commission before Brexit strikes,” says Mark Davyd, “but we’re certainly working against the clock. Any further EU investment in UK venues would be a huge help, but sadly that’s no longer a sustainable option long-term.”
Instead, private financial investment is expected to play an increasingly crucial role in deciding the fate of Britain’s grassroots music scene. On 17 October, Sony Music UK became the first major music industry player to commit its financial support to the Music Venue Trust, with the label’s CEO Jason Iley commenting: “These venues are the heart of our music communities, and we support the work of the Music Venues Trust to protect, secure and improve them." For Mark Davyd, it’s a development that could prove to be a game-changer: “The rest of the record industry now needs to get its act together and respect the work these grassroots venues have done. We can make big changes if everyone pulls together.”
In such uncertain times, it’s easy to draw damning prognoses for the future of Britain’s live music scene. But as the rumbling international climate continues to prove, institutional adversity can always be challenged with a killer beat. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Cairo’s Electro Chaabi movement sidestepped strict authoritarian censorship through P2P distribution and off-the-books wedding raves. In eastern Europe meanwhile, artists such as Pussy Riot and Pyotr Pavlensky have placed their bodies on the line to openly question Putin’s domestic and Crimean strong-arming. These are extreme examples, but the message rings clear universally: creative minds breed creative solutions. Gentrification and development pose a huge threat to the performance spaces we love, but as the #SaveFabric campaign proved, passionate, united voices are a powerful force in shaping policy for the better. The Music Venue Trust, #SaveNightlife, We Love Hackney and many others continue to brush through the cobwebs in the fight for recognition, with every new voice bringing a fresh perspective to their cause. If we’re to protect our local venues, we’ve got to use these channels. Sign up, sip that overpriced beer slowly, and keep on getting down.
Photo Credit: Emily Brooks