Opinion: Why stability for grassroots music venues will make for a better industry
- Harry Harris
- 5 February 2020
With the Music Venue Trust securing a 50% rate reduction in venues across England and Wales, Harry Harris explores the next steps for the industry
Last year, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published their Report Into Live Music, a pretty significant and wide ranging document covering issues facing the music industry. Chief among their findings was the threat posed to small music venues, with one of the main recommendations reading: 'The Government should immediately review the impact of recent business rates changes on the live music sector and introduce new or extend existing relief schemes.'
Less than a year later, that has now happened, with the Government announcing a 50% reduction in business rates for small and medium sized music venues, thanks to the work of the Music Venue Trust. Nick Simcock, events manager at Oporto in Leeds, estimates his own savings will be around £8000. 'That allows us to put some money to one side,' he tells me, 'maybe hire somebody to help out on occasional days when we need it, take a few more risks on musicians and book some more bands, and y'know, maybe have a little bit more depth to our entertainment.'
However, looking back at that report, it hardly advocates for a utopian remodelling of the industry from the grassroots upwards. Take the criticism of ticket reselling sites for example. The report quotes Ed Sheeran's promoter Stuart Galbraith saying: 'If somebody has paid £1000 for a ticket that had a face value of £100, then, in my opinion, that is nine shows they will not go and see.' The issue here is: £100 is already arguably too much money to pay for a gig, especially an Ed Sheeran show, the budget of which I'd imagine pales in comparison to other artists who'll play large arenas. You do wonder whether the concern from Galbraith, and others, isn't that money is being sucked out of the industry at large, but whether it's being taken away from them specifically.
More to the point, the whole report is written with the idea that the music industry is beneficial to the economy. The justification for supporting small music venues is made in terms of them breeding future festival headliners. It ignores bands and artists for whom small venues may be their career ceiling, who may want a career in music outside of the wider machine of the music industry. It sees the music industry as a ladder that everyone is climbing, and assumes that bands and artists become successful solely through sustained touring and the existence of these small venues, and while there are romantic stories that speak to that, it's not the whole reality.
Then, there is the timing – a week before the United Kingdom packed up to leave the European Union. 'Brexit is going to cause a lot of problems for the touring market and international touring both to and from the UK,' Simcock says. Obviously, nobody is exactly sure what a post-Brexit Britain is going to look like, but in terms of live music, things like touring visas and tour carnets – a legal document listing all the gear used on tour, which can cost around £500 – certainly seem likely, and will make life a lot more difficult financially for artists.
Certainly existing music venues being more stable, and the creation of an environment where new ones can be introduced, will make for a better industry. But music venues can only thrive if the people playing in them are equally supported. By the Government's own admission, there is still more to be done, but maybe it's worth revisiting the question of what the right things to do are in the first place.
Find out more about the Music Venue Trust at musicvenuetrust.com