UK's first live music census finds small venues struggling

Survey highlights venues’ problems with business rates and noise restrictions

The UK’s first live music census has found that a third of Britain’s small venues outside of London are fighting to survive in the face of high business rates and noise restrictions.

Of almost 200 small music venues (with a capacity of up to 350 people) surveyed, 33% reported that increases in business rates had an “extreme, strong or moderate” impact on their existence in the past 12 months. One medium-sized venue (351 – 650 capacity) reported their rateable value quadrupling from £17,500 to £72,000.

Some 29% of small venues, and 27% of all venues, reported experiencing problems with property development around their premises, which can provoke complaints from nearby residents. In response, the researchers recommended that the government continue to develop at a national level a legally binding “agent of change” principle, which would put the onus on developers to soundproof new-build properties, rather than placing restrictions on existing venues. Last month, ministers including housing secretary Sajid Javid committed to strengthening planning rules to protect grassroots venues.

Beverley Whitrick, strategic director of the Music Venue Trust, welcomed the news. “For us, the UK live music census is an entirely positive story because it’s taking a lot of the things that we have been saying about the needs of the grassroots music sector and reinforcing it with evidence. MVT has operated as a small organisation on anecdotal evidence for the last few years and we have gone as far as we can with that. And what we needed was evidence to show why help is needed. The census is a huge step forward in providing that help.”

The signage for Glasgow’s King Tut’s, where Alan McGee spotted Oasis.
Glasgow’s King Tut’s, where Alan McGee spotted Oasis. Photograph: PR

Led by researchers from the universities of Edinburgh, Newcastle and Turku in Finland, the results formed part of a wider survey of trends in Britain’s music consumption. On 9 March 2017, the researchers carried out a census around venues in Brighton, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Oxford and Southampton. They also ran nationwide online surveys targeting musicians, venues, promoters and audiences. They describe the census as the first of its kind, “focusing on the social and cultural value of live music specifically, which at times has taken something of a back seat to economic analyses”. It is also one of the first surveys to focus on live music habits outside of London.

Matt Brennan, from the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music, said: “Festival and concert attendance continue to grow. This report not only shows the cultural and economic value of live music but also the challenges it faces. This survey is the largest of its kind in the UK. We hope it can influence the valuable contribution live music makes to wider society and help support the protection of the live music ecology.”

Timothy Clement-Jones, Liberal Democrat peer and spokesperson for the creative industries in the House of Commons, praised the research. “The UK Live Music census is a very welcome initiative for policymakers as it will provide rich data about local live music activity from those who make it and those who enjoy it. Live music is facing a number of challenges at the moment, from venues closing down to the threat of increased business rates. However, data about the sector has so far been relatively scarce and mostly anecdotal, and so the much needed data will help us protect live music going into the future.”

Investigations showed that live music contributes significant sums of money to local economies: £78.8m annually in Glasgow equating to an estimated 2,450 full-time equivalent jobs; £43.3m in Newcastle-Gateshead (1,620); and £10.5m in Oxford (350). The study recommended that local authorities “recognise small and medium music venues as key sites of artist and audience development and as cultural and community assets.”

Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club.
Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club. Photograph: Andrew Benge/Getty Images

The census found that 78% of music fans had visited small music venues during the past 12 months, with 74% visiting pubs and bars to see live music. In keeping with trends dating to 2008 according to research from UK Music, they were more likely to spend money on live music events than on recorded music: 47% spent more than £20 per month on concerts or festival tickets, while 25% reported spending the same amount on recorded music.

The report also addressed the issue of accessibility in British music venues, with 6% of respondents saying they had access requirements that need to be met in order to attend performances. Nine out 10 promoters saw accessibility as an “essential or desirable” factor when booking shows, however 86% of promoters and 47% of venues said they had not received disability awareness training.

The report also highlighted the difficulty of making a living as a musician in Britain: 68% said stagnating pay made it difficult to earn a viable income, with the figure rising to 80% for those identifying as professional musicians; 66% reported working unpaid for “exposure” that they believe had no positive effect on their career.

Further recommendations resulting from the census included continuing to investigate secondary ticketing via the Competition and Markets Authority, encouraging more extensive funding for emerging artists, venue infrastructure, tour support and rehearsal spaces, and promoting music education in schools and encouraging live music attendance inside and outside the curriculum.

They also suggested that local authority cultural policy recognise the economic value of live music and live music venues as key sites of artist and audience development and as cultural and community assets, and that they work closely with all stakeholders on any proposed property development that affects existing live music spaces.

The researchers also addressed the relatively low proportion of BAME respondents participating in the census, and recognised the need to address this in future surveys. In future, they also plan to address smaller urban and rural populations in addition to cities.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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