Newsletter #113: This Business Of Live Music

11 Dec 2014

For a country which punches well above its weight as one of only three global net exporters of music, the disconnect between that and the grass roots live music sector and its role in supporting the next-generation of hit-makers has arguably never been greater.

Little appears to have changed in the ten years MusicTank has looked at issues afflicting live, from noise abatement, and Licensing Act reform to form 696 and secondary ticketing.

In some areas the sector appears overburdened in regulation which duplicates pre-existing law (the Licensing Act 2003), yet is crying out for more considered regulation in others (ticketing and noise abatement).  Above all, regulation desperately needs to better balance the live sector’s ecosystem with consumers’ interests.

It’s beyond the realm of this editorial to cover ‘chapter and verse’, the complex and at times, conflicting interests of the live music business, but he ‘helicopter view’ is one of a (apparently) healthy, burgeoning sector that’s pretty much out-performed the recorded industry since 2009.  Focusing in on the detail reveals a stark division between the record gross takings of sell-out stadium tours commanding ever-higher ticket prices (and for which there seems no limit to consumer appetite), and the vital small capacity venues sector that forms the bedrock of grass-roots live performance, which is fighting for its very survival.

With that in mind, the Music Venue Trust should be congratulated in facilitating Tuesday’s Venues Day, which drew a capacity audience of venue owner/ operators the length and breadth of the UK, unanimously galvanized in their daily struggle to stay afloat.

Presented as celebration of small venues rather than a funeral wake, it necessarily began as gloomy discussion whose role call of  ‘macro’ issues remains all too depressingly familiar – relaxed planning laws, threats from development, indifferent landlords, over zealous licensing enforcement, neighbourhood intolerance and hard-nosed breweries chief among them.

But there are ‘micro’ issues that continue to stifle.  Informal conversations with a range of stakeholders present revealed internal mechanics of an industry that doesn’t always appear to pull in the same direction at the same time…

Small venue owners complain that promoters don’t understand the venue business – that venues can’t operate solely from the profit of ‘wet’ sales (drinking at venues is in steady and continued decline); that they can’t routinely take a hit on splitting door takings unless takings are sustained at capacity or near-to-capacity levels; that the perilous economics of running a venue are simply not understood by other’s in the ecosystem – promoters, musicians and booking agents alike.

The simple truth is that the vast majority of small capacity live music venues ironically can’t sustain themselves solely through live music; rather they cross-subsidise live music from the profit made by club nights and private hires.  It’s a pretty grim state of affairs.

Savages’ Jehnny Beth’s artist perspective illustrated just how badly-served the artist community can be by some in business of live, be they promoter, venue or booking agent – issues long-championed by Andy Inglis (who frequently considered himself as being in the customer service business first, and the music industry second…).

The overzealous and pernicious way in which noise abatement cases are brought (and on an increasing basis and at great cost to venues) remain the single biggest threat, in a process that appears to be trying to catch venues out, rather than working proactively towards a mutually acceptable solution.

It’s with heavy anticipation that the venues business awaits the outcome of heavy lobbying, led by artist Frank Turner, for the adoption of the ‘agent of change’ principle.  This would place the responsibility for incoming businesses bringing change to an area to manage and be responsible for that change, bringing to an end incidences of, say, new residential developments near pre-existing music venues forcing venues to remedy noise issues.

Despite the inevitable gloom, there is a clear desire to make the small venue experience great; for venues to do their bit for new music that they all feel so passionate about.  And amidst the call for unity (literally the suggestion of the formation of a Union for small venues), some interesting ideas were floated:

  • lobbying Government for an extension of the tax status recently afforded theatre and orchestras (VAT is crippling small venue businesses);
  • pooling of knowledge via a website (to help each other);
  • booking agents ‘gifting’ back a successful band, to, say a venue that helped them on their way in the early years (supporting and acknowledging the importance of this sector);
  • local authorities having to include cultural policy as part of planning policy;
  • take a lead from Unesco and introduce its protective status to areas of music heritage and high cultural value;
  • further highlight the economic value live music brings to cities, towns and neighbourhoods;
  • make a case for state funding for UK bands to be able to do UK tours (in the same way funding is available for touring overseas);
  • learn from (and copy?) European state-funded models for live music.

As commented by Music Venue Trust founder, Mark Davyd, “…the ‘rule book’ for the small venue sector was written in the 70s, little has changed since and there’s been a definite lack in asking [government] for what we need…it’s time to do something radical.”

Having over-regulated music in small capacity venues to within an inch of its life the Government has latterly set about to de-regulate it in part (small venue capacity exemption), and for its part has proved it is listening.

Much more could and should be done, however.  There’s a powerful economic and cultural argument encompassing employment, GDP and cultural value that aren’t in anyone’s interests to be ignored.

Editorial by Jonathan Robinson

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