Venues Days on 9th December 2014 was the first of its kind in the UK, gathering together around 120 independent music venue representatives from England, Scotland, and Wales, and around 300 delegates in total to London’s Southbank Centre. It is apparent that small venues are struggling for a variety of reasons, and, as the author of this article points out, ‘It’s time to have a real, honest conversation about how bad things are right now’. However, the organiser of the event – Music Venue Trust’s Mark Davyd – told us that the day was not meant to be a wake, and in general there was a very positive collaborative feeling to the day, albeit tempered by the many stories of venues struggling against noise abatement orders and licensing reviews. As ever, Live Music Exchange was there to observe, so here follow the ten things we learned over the course of the day.
- A show of hands in the room indicated that there was general consensus that there should be some sort of national union for (small) venues – an association of independent venues, if you like, perhaps along the lines of the Association of Independent Music (AIM) or the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF). As one speaker pointed out, ‘Everyone else in this sector has an organisation that stands up for it – where’s ours?’ It was suggested that such a body could assist with sourcing reliable lawyers, planning consultants, and insurers; could organise mediation sessions between venues and enforcement officers; and would provide a useful network for venues around the country, particularly for venues in trouble. While one delegate asked for a show of hands to vote to see whether Music Venue Trust (MVT) should be the body to take on setting up such an association, it was felt that people hadn’t yet had time to consider the options. As Mark Davyd pointed out, MVT needs to be asked – ‘you collectively need to give permission to someone to set up the group’ – but also that MVT might not be the right body. It does need somebody to take the idea forward, however, and to build on the momentum of Venues Day, so watch this space. Matt Booth from Sidmouth’s Drill Hall highlighted the Live-DMA European venue network as both a model and as a pre-existing network to which UK venues could perhaps become members. Live-DMA was established in May 2012 to represent small and medium sized popular music venues and festivals; it started in France and has spread from Scandinavia to Spain. Live DMA is now an umbrella association made up of ten national networks of venues and festivals, and now represents 1,300 venues and festivals in Europe. Other interesting ideas from the day as to how to assist the small venue sector can be found in this article.
- The most surprising (and perhaps welcome) part of the day came when Mike Weatherley, Tory MP for Hove and Portslade (until he steps down at next year’s general election) and founder of the Rock The House competition, told the 300 or so delegates that the government might be interested both in tax breaks (akin to those given in 2014 for theatre production) and in directly subsidising live music venues. For the Musicians’ Union, Horace Trubridge suggested that the private sector (record labels, publishers and festival promoters) should invest in grassroots venues. Trubridge also suggested that venues take a cue from orchestras and carry out more outreach work; to this end, he encouraged venues to establish links with schools to get children into the venues to learn about sound and lighting at an early age. (The idea is also politically motivated: Trubridge feels that children’s parents might be more amenable to music venues if their children are enthusiastic users of them.) Ben Lane from the Arts Council encouraged venue owners to get in contact to see how Arts Council England can help them. While it was unclear what form this might take, Lane was keen for venues to contact him to start a conversation about what kind of financial help might be available. While he admitted that the Arts Council was ‘not the answer to all your prayers’, he said that ACE can help venues to take risks. (A show of hands indicated that the majority of venues in the room had not applied for Arts Council funding before – another delegate pointed out that small venues are necessarily entrepreneurial and may be nervous about funding because it can mean lots of forms, reports and paperwork.)
- One delegate asked for live music venues to be recognised as cultural centres rather than as simply businesses. A show of hands revealed that pretty much all of the venues represented in the room subsidise their live music offering with club nights and, as one delegate pointed out, the danger here is that councils will overlook the cultural aspect of venues in favour of their commercial nature if they are perceived as nightclubs.
- Another issue under discussion was whether we need an Agent of Change principle – this places the onus on the party who has disrupted the status quo (by moving in next door, for example, or putting on live music); the idea was first mooted in Australia as the ‘right of first occupant’. A useful model as to how the Agent of Change principle could work in practice is contained within the City of Sydney’s Live Music and Live Performance Action Plan, which contains a whole raft of recommendations as to how local authorities can support live music. For example, other recommendations include: designated live music and performance areas such as Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley; education and induction programmes for council staff about cultural policies and support for live music; mediation processes for residents, businesses and venues; and the commissioning of data on the sector, similar to the state of Victoria’s live music census (also see Martin Cloonan’s article for a comparative analysis of popular music policy in Scotland and Australia).
- One panel at Venues Day was dedicated to talking about noise. According to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, officials apparently received 10,500 complaints against pubs and clubs in 2012/13, 25% of which were actionable and 253 of which led to noise abatement orders. At Venues Day 2014, Lisa Lavia of the Noise Abatement Society raised some delegates’ hackles when she described noise as ‘a hygiene issue’ but later explained that she meant that it could be solved in a similar way to a health & safety issue. (Although as acoustic consultant Andrew Jarvis pointed out, ‘there’s no such thing as sound proof’ as sound will always pass through walls.) Dom Frazer of Guildford’s Boileroom was also keen to point out the subjectivity of noise and questioned how council enforcement officers are being trained as to what is acceptable. Another delegate posited that back street pubs should be busy and therefore noisy (‘quiet community pubs are closed community pubs’) and that noise in the street should be accepted rather than trying to be squashed.
- Another of the factors behind venues’ decline is that tour support for touring artists has hugely decreased over the past decade and hence tours are not subsidised by record labels in the same way, but no new investment has come into the sector (apart from via national promoters such as Live Nation, more of which later). Another factor is that while 15-20 UK date tours used to be common, 6-8 date tours are now more common. Agents are now often asked to schedule tours across the whole of Europe in just three weeks, meaning that many venues lose out. When asked why artists couldn’t play two shows if there’s an audience for it, or play five weeks if demand is there, The Agency’s Geoff Meall explained that artists should ‘leave business on the table’, i.e. leave demand in the market and sell venues out rather than playing to emptier rooms.
- Musician Jehnny Beth of Savages noted that musicians she has spoken to outside the UK have been telling fellow musicians not to tour the UK as ‘it’s so bad’. In a panel about what makes good venues great, she went on to list such qualities from a musician’s point of view, citing London’s now defunct Luminaire as an example of a really great venue: good customer service; promoters arriving on time and knowing what’s happening; a good PA; clean microphones and cables; help with loading in and out; a sound engineer present before and during the gig; a safe place to store backline; a secure backstage area which is warm, has mirrors, and a place to sit down, away from the soundcheck; sympathetic positioning of branding/sponsorship within the venue – she doesn’t want to play in front of a huge Red Bull sign, for example; signs asking the audience to respect the music and for bar staff to be quiet as well, particularly for quiet acoustic music; and treating all artists the same way – support artists as well as headliners. Her final point was that if you treat artists well, artists will put on a better show.
- The elephant in the room across the entire day was that nobody mentioned the influence of national promoters and venue operators such as Live Nation or the Academy Music Group’s network of O2-branded academy venues. Either there has been no impact (unlikely) or perhaps because nobody wants to rock the boat and upset booking agents or other industry figures. The lack of discussion about national promoters and venue operators is in marked contrast to the AIF’s Festival Congress in Cardiff in October 2014 at which James Scarlett of AIF member festival 2000Trees vented his spleen about the tactics of festival promoters such as Live Nation and Festival Republic, in particular around exclusivity deals.
- One delegate brought up the issue of sexism within the sector, explaining that as a female musician she gets treated very different to her male counterparts, particularly by sound engineers. In general, a quick analysis of the gender balance at Venues Day 2014 from the delegate list showed that approx. 35% of the listed delegates were female, which is gratifyingly high compared to other similar events (25% at the Live UK Summit in 2008, for example), especially combined with strong female representation at the event both on stage and behind-the-scenes.
- The day ended with a scenic two-hour boat trip up to Chelsea and down to Tower Bridge, helped along by a free bar, which was all subsidised by agencies including Coda, X-Ray and ITB. However, as one delegate who refused to get on the boat said to me, ‘But if only all that money could have gone into helping struggling venues …’.
The majority of people in the room raised their hands when asked whether they wanted a Venues Day 2015 so Live Music Exchange will be there next year, hopefully to welcome in the new Association of Independent Venues.