Beat Surrender? The grass-roots live music industry is self-harming

On Satuday 26 May The Guardian ran an article (printed in The Observer the next day) titled ‘Beat Surrender: why the heart of British rock music is under threat. Across the country iconic venues where the top bands learned their trade are shutting down as rent rises and falling audiences spell crisis for promoters and future stars‘.

It looked at the plight of Edinburgh’s Bongo Club (their premises are owned by Edinburgh University, who want the building back for their own administrative purposes), The Horn in St. Albans (who’re suffering in the tough economic climate) and MAMA Group‘s Barfly in Cardiff, which closed in August 2010 (it’s not clear why it shut but it’s worth noting that MAMA have closed all their Barflys in recent years, with the exception of Camden, which looks a lot to me like a rationalisation of their business model).

In March 2011, the owners of London’s Luminaire venue took the decision to shut down. Announced soon after London’s 100 Club statement of their own plight (they were subsequently saved by a sponsorship deal from Converse), they chose not to state their reasons – “It’s been a labour of love for a while now, and at this point it makes no sense for us to continue.” – leading to the inevitable ill-informed commentary from industry ‘experts’, and a litany of ‘crisis!’ news stories in the press. I was Luminaire’s co-founder and co-owner, along with John Donnelly, and we decided to close the club while she still looked good, sounded good, and we still had the shirts on our backs. We realised it was inevitable way back in the Spring of 2010, and we set about planning a dignified and responsible exit.

Closing a small business is never easy; you have to deal with the effects of making a load of people redundant, along with yourself, and it’s not a pleasant notion to realise that you are, in part, to blame. It’s a position I found myself in. I identified ten factors, and you can debate all day which is the most prominent. Some small venue operators may recognise one or two of them:

1. In the six years between our opening and closure, the world completely changed. Here’s how
2. Brent Council were charging us almost four grand a month in business rates
3. Our mortgage lenders Allied Irish Bank very aggressively screwed us for more money as they suffered the consequences of their own mismanagement, despite us being quite literally years ahead of our scheduled mortgage repayments
4.  The music industry – specifically some of the London-based national booking agents – never warmed to us, primarily because of our…
5. Location. After the demise of The National in 1996, people got out of the habit of visiting Kilburn for live music, despite being on two tube lines, two train lines and four bus routes into the centre of town. We heard of one agent who wouldn’t book his bands with us because it took him longer to get home in a taxi, just as…
6. The centre of gravity of London’s live music scene moved from Central to East, much as it did in New York, from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn. East London became where the industry wanted its bands to emerge from
7. Transport for London, whose engineering works routinely closed the Jubilee and Overground lines over the weekends, cutting us off from much of London. This went on for two years, with many promoters declining to book shows with us over weekends
8. The recession, making it harder for small businesses to survive, and many bars and pubs turned to live music, and hosting free shows which are attractive to those with declining incomes, dovetailing with…
9. The gradual collapse of recorded music sales, leading many to turn to the live industry to attempt to make up for the loss of earnings, increasing the pressure on an already over-saturated market
10. Me. I could have done more to engage with the live industry, particularly the booking agents, who now hold the power in our sector. But as I became exposed (and victim) to some of their questionable business practices, it became more difficult to keep quiet, and my outspoken attitude during occasional appearances at industry conferences and panels didn’t do much endear me to them

But back to the article.

The recession is indeed contributing toward a lot of closures, city councils could do more to support the arts on their doorsteps, and there are any number of other reasons why some small venues are struggling: leases tied to breweries making it difficult for tenants to turn a profit, competing venues in the area, staff and supplier costs, utilities bills, inability to run DJ club nights which can greatly increase bar sales, maintenance, conditions imposed on them by the terms of their license, opposition from neighbours, local authorities who don’t understand or value the arts… and on it goes. Each business is different. But it’s time we all faced up to the core issue which we have the power to affect: the grass-roots live music industry is self-harming, and we’re all complicit.

I worked out that we gave away somewhere in the region of £240,000 in guest list places over the six years of Luminaire’s life: 1,500 gigs at an average of £8 per ticket with an average of 20 people on the guest list each night. A very crude calculation, of course, but it’s purpose is illustrative. Guest lists aren’t inherently bad. They can be useful, they can actually generate income if you look after the right person, and they’re a nice way of saying thank you to someone who’s been kind to you. But guest lists are often abused. Guest lists are taken for granted. Guest lists are the music industry’s equivalent of benefit culture.

We’re good at taking things for free, but we’re useless at putting back into our own industry. We take free CDs and MP3s (either stolen, or as gifts from PRs, labels or artists) and we’re great at taking guest list for gigs when we can afford to pay in. We’ve created a culture of not paying to get into a gig because “I’m the artist’s manager/agent/boyfriend” to flourish, when in fact we should take the opposite tack: small artist + independent promoter + independent venue + low ticket price = you should pay to get in, if you can afford it. It will make the next show slightly easier for the artist, promoter and venue to stage. Next time someone offers you a free CD, refuse it, or pay for it. Next time someone offers you guest list, buy a ticket. It doesn’t need to be a hard-and-fast rule; if you’re following your band around on tour, it’s going to get expensive if you’re paying every night. If the gig’s at The O2, fuck it; if AEG can afford to pay Beckham’s wages, they can probably afford to swallow the cost of your ticket. Same goes for Live Nation venues. But if you’re earning, and the show’s £5, £7… buy a ticket, because that independent venue isn’t about to get any help any time soon from anywhere else, whether it’s from funding or from those who’re doing pretty well out of our business at the top end.

While every other European nation funds culture across the board (to varying degrees), the UK continues to throw money (primarily) at the high arts; opera, ballet, classical. The Southbank Centre gets £20 million a year in arts funding. Add to that their commercial income from tickets, drink, merchandise, hall hire etc, and from their private and corporate donations, and you can see that they’re doing far better than those who don’t have access to these funds. Now, The Southbank Centre is a world-class facility and London needs world-class facilities, but could we not give them £19 million instead and funnel £1 million into our globally-derided small venue circuit? £100,000 each for ten UK venues? £10,000 for 100 venues to fund improvements to their infrastructure and sound equipment? Can’t we do the same with The Barbican – another fantastic, world-class facility – who’re funded by the City of London Corporation and the Arts Council?

We could, but we won’t, because we don’t have to.

When London’s Astoria announced it was closing due to the Crossrail development, the press and audience were dismayed, but there wasn’t much of a noise made about it from the industry (they could use Koko, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Electric Ballroom) and when Spitz and Luminaire closed down, the industry again had many other venues to use in their place, and indeed there are many more at this level (and more to come if the Live Music Act has the effect I fear it might). So while some artists and audience members (and indeed some industry) may miss a venue, ultimately its demise becomes an irrelevance as new gig-goers appear, and find their own ‘homes’; those venues that they will miss if they close down. London is a big place though, and there are many more rooms to pick up the slack. That’s not always the case in smaller towns and cities. Even if the O2 closed, the industry would just have to use football stadiums. The bands would still play, the audience would still come and, in time, the O2 would fade to the back of our memories, as those kids who go to their first show tonight ask “What was The Luminaire?”, just as the kid who’s going out to Vice’s brand new venue Birthdays, or the Captain’s Rest in Glasgow, or Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach may not have heard of the other venues which bit the dust in their town over the years.

Businesses are born, and live, and die, just as we do. It’s the conveyor belt of death, my friends, and we’re all on it. But until we fall off the end, we can choose how we live, and if we really do value our small venues, we can choose to support them using one very simple method:

Cash.



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24 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your response to the article – very interesting.
    Another issue that I believe guest lists contribute to is the amount of chattering that seems now to be the norm. Now I can’t prove this, but it seems to me that if people are in a venue, where drinks prices are likely to be higher than a pub,and they are treating the evening like an evening down the pub by talking through the music then chances are that someone else is paying. And support groups/musicians and their friends are amongst the worst . Of course, alchohol consumption often only makes things worse, but venues rely on the bar to boost the revenue so possibly a conflict of interest. And its getting worse. At least The Luminaire had signs to try to curtail this thoughtlessness/selfishness. This is the single biggest factor that threatens my gig going (currently a gig a week on average).
    Thanks for all your efforts with The Luminaire. I had many great nights there and its much missed. And the musicians seemed to love playing there. Not much consolation in the mix/grief of things, I guess.

    Regards

    Jim Moss

  2. I worked at the Hope and Anchor for a few years and watched it die.

    1, The smoking ban.
    I saw this affect a few venues suffer from this including BIG clubs.

    2, Yes, tube improvements again.
    The Victoria line is a pain in the.

    3, Not enough good bands.
    I’m serious here, I would see a lot of bands complaining about guest list and entry price (all stuff that is mentioned in the contract), 5 people would turn up to see them and they would be rubbish.
    Cool clones of stuff that’s already out of date. More worried about how they look rather than are they a tight, engaging and musically exciting act.

    I give thanks for the bands that were good even the ones I didn’t like but there greatness was still obvious.

  3. Aye, it’s a strange situation.

    “Please be quiet and watch the bands, which we get you drunk, then complain when you’re not quiet.”

    Was speaking to some Danes about the same thing. They were pointing out the contradiction of a government and music industry who warn of the dangers of drinking, then invite Tuborg and Carlsberg to sponsor their venues.

  4. The smoking ban didn’t help. We were able to slightly mitigate its effects by doing more two band bills, leaving a larger gap between them, and allowing people to go for a fag and another drink, before the second band came on.

  5. The smoking ban was also effectively the end of the gig DJ for a lot of venues – if everyone runs outside between bands, to smoke or talk to smokers, what’s the point in hiring a between-bands DJ?

  6. Why should I pay for my music when I can just take a short Innocent Smoothie survey and let them have my data?

    Data, Data, Data. “It’s the new oil” – as Channel 4 CEO David Abrahams has noted. I seem to note that the music industry (reeling from cyber-crime and laughable royalties paid out by Spotify, You Tube and our other good friends) has taken to offering itself up to O2 or Fiat for a quick money shot to help make their boring product desirable. So frankly, with all this free stuff I fail to see why I should bother paying for a ticket.

    Free Coldplay download anyone? Just log on to my website and let me know what you had for breakfast.

    The Luminaire Forever!

  7. So you quit so you could take up a lucrative writing career Andy, unbelievable.

    At The Good Ship, The Luminaire’s long suffering near neighbour I recognise near all of Andy’s grief. We had no trouble with lenders but unbelievable and unresolved problems with a landlord (legally I cannot say exactly) but suffice to say they want a raise of 10 (TEN!) times more rent than what most people would find reasonable.

    As for agents we have pretty much stopped dealing with them altogether. There are rare exceptions to the rule but for the most part they make unreasonable asks, I honestly believe that most of them have neither an idea or a care about the finances of small venues. Plus riders… just say no. In small venues where often staff are working ridiculous hours just to keep the show on the road, having to pop to 5 different shops to cater for some ridiculous whims is just a waste of time that you could spend promoting.

    Another massive problem is that I do not need both hands to count the promoters/venues who very new bands feel they are treated well and fairly by. There is quite a malaise amongst acts generally about the toilet circuit and it is understandable.

    Our DJ nights on a Friday and Saturday absolutely subsidise our live music offering and I would have it no other way but any reasonable business person would have given up the ghost a long time ago.

  8. A cogent, thought provoking and honest piece, pointing out the many ways that the music industry, like the film industry, is often its own worst enemy in creating a self-destructive culture of entitlement.

    I worked with a wide variety of artists across a number of labels, and there were always certain venues that loads of our artists loved playing, largely because of the quality of the sound rig, stage and lighting, and the RESPECT with which the venue managers/promoter treated the artist (which does not refer to how many bottles of Moet they treated them to).

  9. Appreciate the feedback Ian.

    I had a battle last week with two friends. They’re putting on a show and asked if I wanted to come. I said I would and would get a ticket online. They told me they’d put me on the guest list. It’s only a fiver, I said. No, we’ll put you on the guest list, they said.

    We then restated our positions for what felt like an hour.

    I bought a ticket.

    They put me on the guest list anyway.

  10. Who pays for the rider? Does it come out of the money the band would get, or is the venue expected to pay for it?

    The Luminaire was great. You make me feel guilty for not coming more often, and accepting free tickets from a competition I won. So I guess you can add me as number 11 on the list.

  11. Haha! Guest list can be useful sometimes. I’m just against the abuse of it, and the ‘entitlement’ to it.

    Promoter pays for rider, then adds it to the show costs. Once the show costs are covered by income, the band (and hopefully the promoter) will start to earn, over and above the guaranteed fee the band will get no matter what happens. So if a show doesn’t sell, the promoter pays for everything.

    Promoters are the bank. Promoters are now the bands’ mums and dads.

    A more equitable way would be for the band and promoter to share equally (or at least more equally) in any profit or loss a show makes. As it stands the risk is usually entirely with the promoter.

    There are various kinds of deals though. I’m just speaking about the most common one, where a band gets a guarantee or a percentage of the net income, whichever is greater.

  12. Andy have you ever worked for a major label? You’d fit right in… this pessimistic tune of the world changed and it was out of your hands; I can play fiddle for you.

    Companies globally have to change with the times and businesses have to adapt to this change, what did Luminaire do to bring the punters back NW? What decisive action did to take to ensure the financial security of Luminaire?

    Never did the local venues/promoters sit in a room and discuss a joint initiative which would help them all; they sat and watched everyone move East. For instance places like Luton the venues work together, you can get stamps from one music venue to get queue jump for the later opening music venue…

    Places like Brixton are even less accessible from Central but they sustain large venues and don’t forget places like Shepherds Bush which is much further than this music hub you describe out East.

    Your ‘What’s Changed’ article described why people stay in, but I think they actually went out, to a gig, just not yours. I argue this because the Good Ship exists still… on the same street as the Luminaire shell, only a few doors down.

    The difference between Luminaire and The Ship appears to be that one of the venues didn’t shut down and whine about it on the internet, which makes a good point that it’s more about management over anything else.

    Also wasn’t it John D who said that the reason for selling up was an $$ offer $$ from the developer of the flats you couldn’t refuse?

  13. Let’s not forget Power’s Bar down the road, they definitely need a mention

  14. Thanks for the comment. I’ll try and answer methodically…

    From our perspective we ran the business in as financially prudent way as we could, and I don’t know how many times we sat down with the figures, and listened to advice from any number of people and aye, sat down with similar business in order to discuss what could be done together.

    Brixton Academy and Shepherd’s Bush Empire are ‘destination’ venues. The artists who play there won’t play in London again around that touring cycle, so the audience can either choose to go, or not see the band they want to see. The same rule doesn’t apply to small venues. The artists who play them tend to play more frequently (to build a fanbase, to build an income) and some of them do play more than one venue in London during one tour cycle.

    The Good Ship, Powers Bar, Luminaire, Bush Hall… all have different business models, different strains on their resources. Perhaps Bush Hall own the freehold on their building and have paid off their mortgage. So you are indeed right that there are differences between The Good Ship and Luminaire, just not the one you mention. Perhaps John – who owns it – would talk to you about his business if you went along to see him. I don’t have any insider knowledge, but I don’t imagine he finds it easy. I know of a number of small London venues – many out East, and that you’d probably heard of – who are struggling, and they’re struggling because of a list of issues, some within their control, many otherwise. By the way, in most cases, when it comes to touring bands with booking agents, it’s very rarely the venue or promoter who chooses where the band plays; it’s their agent and / or manager.

    The realisation that we would have to close (I say “have to”; we had the option to continue to inject money into the business, but chose not to) was taken before the building was sold, or any conversation about to whom the building would be sold took place. As it happens, I’m glad we did it. We had six great years. It was pleasure and a privilege. All you can do is the best you can, and when that doesn’t cut it, it’s time to knock it on the head.

    I don’t mind being called a whiner (though you really don’t make any kind of a point there, never mind a good one). I’ve been called worse, but you can assume that, after 22 years in the business, there’s lots I love about it. I just think it could be run in a more equitable way to help those at the coal face.

  15. Andy, my point is that out of the three music venues on Kilburn High Road you’re the only ones who threw the towel in, the other two are still open for business. Of the ten factors you listed, nine of them both The Ship and Powers have to deal with in one way or another. The only significant difference between all three venues is the last point – You, otherwise known as management.

    Thus if three venues all in similar circumstances, one shuts down and two stay open the most important factor would be the internal management rather than external influences?

  16. Aye, and like I said, the three venues were different in a great many ways. To be explicit: they cannot be directly compared. I’ve (genuinely) not the time to list all the ways that we could possibly be different, but you can see for yourself that other than the fact that all three rooms booked bands and had a bar, they look and feel different.

    You’re trying to compare venues because they are ‘small’, which makes as little sense as comparing small cars, because they are ‘small’. With respect, you’re extrapolating erroneously, based on assumptions about three different businesses.

    People wiser than me have said “never get into an argument with someone on the internet” and I’ll take that advice now. I’m really happy to put my hands up and admit my mistakes (as I did in that piece), and God knows I made plenty of them at Luminaire. So let’s you and I disagree and be done with it.

  17. I was quickly browsing through my mail yesterday and the words “annoyed” and “guestlist” on your e-mail made my eyes open widely. That has been the main topic of conversation between me and one friend for the last year. How ridiculous the whole thing has got and how worthless it’s actually become. And the smaller the venue/artist/promoter the worse seems to be.

    I’ve been living in London for 4 years already with 250+ gigs on my back so I’ve basically done every venue in town, big and small. That obviously means I’ve got in touch with enough promoters, managers, artists, gig-goers and almost every single layer of the music community to have a fairly decent perspective on the state of things from the point of view of somebody who just happens to love music.

    Regarding the guestlist business I’ve been in a few myself although, competitions apart, in most cases it’s been friends/artists I’ve seen repeatedly/filmed or usually a combination of all. I just feel terribly guilty asking a band or promoter for guestlisting, particularly if it’s a small band for a 7 pounds show. So I’ve also been the idiot who after being added to a list has bought the ticket, especially if I knew the show wasn’t selling well. However, I’ve seen that feeling of entitlement to guestlist way more often than I would have liked and actually heard the words “no guestlisting, no going” being muttered, arguing that there are other bands who would happily accept. It’s horrific.

    In a lot of cases it doesn’t even have to do with music. A lot of these people are only there to see and be seen. And I completely agree with Jim’s comment at the beginning. A lot of guestlist people are actually the worst in terms of being chatty and annoying in small venues (The Lexington for the way it’s arranged has always been pretty bad for that). Not so long ago the guitarist of one band that shall remain nameless interrupted a promotional show they were doing for a big online site to ask a group of girls to shut up. Afterwards he told me it happened more and more that they had to put up with people just turning up to particular shows to be seen.

    Also going back to the general topic I’m dreading how things are going now, especially with the Live Music Act approaching. The hyperproliferation of shit venues around Dalston/Stoke Newington is just unbelievable (seriously, have you seen some of those places?). And the unbelievable thing is the amount of booking agents and promoters that buy into that. “Intimate shows”. Ha! I remember talking to another artist who’s getting considerably big at the moment around the time when she played small venues and telling her that whoever her booking agent is was taking her around the worst sounding venues in London. And I could go over a few cases more like that. And that’s without getting into the problem of particular venues with ridiculously dense and absurd line-ups that have nothing to do with curating a show.

    I have to say The Luminaire was always my favourite purpose-built venue while it was around and now I wish I had gone to more shows even without knowing the artists. Going back to where a lot of the names I’m digging now first played in London, The Luminaire crops up more than once and more than twice…

  18. Thanks for taking the time to write that Andres. Greatly appreciated.

    Was at a show tonight, a friend’s show, and one I’d bought a ticket for. Second band came on, a quiet band, and it became difficult to hear them over everyone talking. I stood getting increasingly angry and then, just as the band made to start their next song, I exploded in a volcanic rage at the 130 people or so in the room. It shut them up for half a song, then they just cracked on with talking over the band. I thought it better to leave.

    There was a large guest list.

    I wonder if they two are linked.

    The worst culprit?

    The band who were on first.

  19. I actually forgot to comment on that. Not the first time that it’s not friends and family but actually the members of one of the bands talking the most. Best thing was a show where the guitarist of the headliners had to play with the support because theirs didn’t show up and then they didn’t stop chatting when the headliners came on stage. That’s some consideration…

  20. I don’t quite understand GreenGiant’s postings… The Luminaire promoted shows in a totally different league to all the other venues that are mentioned on that same road in Kilburn! You just CANNOT compare the venues in such simplistic ways!

    The Luminaire was in premier league and the others are in Div. 2 if you want an easy way of looking at it. This is nothing to do with the quality of what the venue provides for the customer… this is more based on the kind of artists that are being booked, and the kind of fees, riders etc that would be expected. Totally different finances and more!

    And Andy is not one to generally whine and I thought it was GREAT that he shared his perspective on things in the honest description on what happened above and how it was from their side of things… he is sharing it for the purpose of helping others in this industry to hopefully learn something from it.

    Just as he does at Westminster University who have taken him on for a few years to share his wealth of industry expertise on the subject of promoting shows and the live industry in general.

    I have only been to one of these lectures, but the quality and content is outstanding!

    So, I would much prefer it if GreenGiant instead of whining about Andy’s post… please share something that can add value to the rest of us.

    Many thanks.

  21. This piece was just waiting to be written, and it’s been written brilliantly. Thanks Andy. My piece “Why I Hate Rock N Roll” is a kind of companion piece from the point of view of a musician. Originally written for Plan B magazine, I then put it on my blog, and then it was republished as part of the Ultraskull comic that came with my new Gravenhurst album. You can read it here:
    http://policediversnotebook.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/why-i-hate-rock-n-roll.html

    There is enough money going to opera and ballet for some of it to be funnelled off to provide affordable rehearsal space for bands, another area which is desperately under funded. Bristol punches well above its weight musicially, and has given so much to the world, but property prices are so obscene that it is very difficult to find anywhere affordable to rehearse. We need places where we can leave our gear safely, places we can go and not have to pay by the hour. Places with decent PA equipment. Places where we can set up microphones and make our own records without constantly glancing at the clock.

    Equally we need gig venues with equipment that matches that of the average French venue, so i don’t feel ashamed whenever a band comes over from abroad and has to wallow in our toilets.
    I’m convinced we’re not talking about extra funding, we’re talking about diverting existing funding into sorely deserving channels.

  22. This was definitely an interesting read and thanks for a bit of extra insight.
    Yes i’m not sure where it’s going to go next with the devaluing of the gig ticket that’s come from oversaturation.

    But just to add a point of annoyance…something that really gets to me, which is also causing the closure of so many charming and historic small venues…..are those bastards that move in next door to a venue, making that choice, and then complaining to the council that the venue is making noise.
    We’re losing the places with the most character this way.
    It’s changing the shape of cities – and it’s not just in this country but for instance cities like Melbourne have totally fallen fowl of this – and areas that have been epicentres for music sub-cultures are threatened and losing their homes

    it gets me

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