Wanted: nine million affluent gig-goers

Just the other day The Live Music Act became law in England and Wales, which ushered in the deregulation of live performance in rooms of no more than 200 people. I’ve followed its progress for some time, attended debates on it, and been invited to give my perspective on it. I don’t claim to understand every word (it’s a piece of legislation and my mind doesn’t effortlessly wrap itself around legalese), but I know enough about it to risk writing about it on a public website, and I’d suggest I know more about running a small venue than most, if not all, of the architects and supporters of the Act.


I used to co-own a small venue. I know what it’s like at the coalface (and wrote frankly about it here). I know what it’s like to operate in an environment where – unlike almost all of our European neighbours – there is close to no financial state or industry support for our small venues (but plenty for opera, ballet, classical and our world-class arts centres such as Southbank and Barbican). These days I lecture in live music, manage and tour manage bands, consult for foreign bands who want to break the UK, and a bunch of other stuff that, in all honesty, should probably preclude my getting involved in this debate. Moreover, my arguments against the new Act are now utterly redundant now that it’s law, whether it was my contention that, in fact, there wasn’t necessarily that much ‘red tape’ involved in getting an entertainment license, or that I couldn’t work out where – once we had a load of new rooms putting gigs on – we were going to find the people to populate them, and that latter point is the one I want to mull over here.

Jo Dipple is Chief Executive of UK Music, whose website defines its purpose as ” the umbrella organisation which represents the collective interests of the UK’s commercial music industry – from artists, musicians, songwriters and composers, to record labels, music managers, music publishers, studio producers and music licensing organisations”.

It also has as one of its members the Live Music Group, which consists of eight industry bodies under an umbrella. I cannot find a website for them, though it seems that they meet every six weeks, presumably to talk about the big issues for the live industry, one of which, apparently, was the need to put every UK festival on a big map. If they’ve made progress in other areas then they really should make it easier for us to see. They have important work to do.

Anyway, Jo says that the Act will mean “the staging of live music will be easier and cheaper for venues up and down the country. Venues with an audience of 200 and under will no longer require an entertainment license for the staging of live music. This means many more venues can now put on live performances without needing to apply for a separate license or bear any additional cost for this.”

UK Music commissioned a study to assess the potential effects of the introduction of the Act and – in a particularly clear and easy to read document – suggested the following, though I should point out that the figures are projections based on the reported intentions of new and existing venues:

• If every premise that said it would increase the number of shows as a result of the Act did so, after just one a year, there would be 33,400 more live shows

• If the 13,000 premises that currently don’t stage any live music went on to host the average number of shows per year, there would be an additional 312,000 live music performances each year

If they’re right, and England and Wales have to support another 312,000 live shows per year, and if we very conservatively say that there will be 30 people at these shows, that’s 9,360,000 people needed to populate them

I would like therefore like to respectfully ask UK Music, The Musicians’ Union, the UK Live Music Group and the other supporters of the Act three questions:

1. Where will these 13,000 new rooms and these 24,000 existing rooms find 9 million people to populate their gigs?

2. Where will this 9 million people find the money to pay to get in and buy drink?

3. What will the effect of this pilgrimage of nine million people (who we can assume currently exist, and who already have places to go when they decide they can afford a night out) have on the existing venues who’re finding it hard to get enough people through the door as it is?

Of course, some of these people will go to shows regularly so we don’t need to actually find 9 million extra people, but the people have to come from somewhere, and where they will come from if not, partly, from existing live venues?

Sorry, that’s four questions.

Now, it’s unlikely that all those premises who say they will start hosting live music, or increase the number of shows they currently offer, will do so to the extent that UK Music’s figures suggest is possible, but if there’s only a 10% increase, that’s still almost a million extra gig-goers.

If you were to read the press, or follow bodies such The Musicians’ Union, UK Music and others on social media platforms, you would assume that This Is A Good Thing. And in some ways it is.

Deregulation in this area is generally to be applauded. Schools and churches not having to jump through hoops to host live music is probably a good thing. A live music room appearing in a town where one did not exist is potentially a good thing. Good, creative promoters utilising previously-unused spaces to programme innovative music and other art is a good thing. And it is right that these positives should be highlighted.

But in some ways it Is Not A Good Thing. And it is right that these should also be highlighted. But that is not happening. It’s pretty much been a one-way street of This Will Be Great Let’s Have A Party At The Houses Of Parliament.

I might feel more relaxed about all of this back-slapping and glass-raising if, in my twenty-three years in this business, during which I’ve toured all over the UK, Europe and the US, live-music-hosting pub landlords had demonstrated an understanding of the economics of live music, and an appreciation for both the artists’ craft and the needs of their customers. But I’ve mostly seen them look upon bands as a way to get a few extra bodies through the door and a few extra quid in the till, often with the bands being paid nothing more than two cans of Red Stripe each. But that’s fair enough, no? We live in a capitalist society, venues come and go and there’s no point getting attached to inanimate objects. However, let’s not pretend that this is going to do anything to improve the production and customer service standards in a country with the world’s worst reputation among touring musicians.

If proponents of the Act did not foresee the potential downside for existing live venues, then that’s pretty worrying. If they did but chose to ignore them, then that’s pretty irresponsible, particularly when some of these organisations represent the interests of those who may be affected. The grass-roots industry needs funding. It needs hard cash. It needs support. It needs sponsors. It needs some of the aforementioned bodies to put money on the table to pay for new infrastructure and equipment.

I call upon The Musician’s Union, UK Music, UK Live Music Group, Audience Magazine, IQ Magazine, PRS For Music, CMU Daily, MusicWeek, MusicTank, The Live Music Forum and the rest of a long roll-call of industry bodies, media outlets and individuals who have the power to affect change, particularly those of them who fought long and hard for the Act to be made into law. I call upon them to start a dialogue, to commission a report into the potentially detrimental effects of the Live Music Act on our existing small venues who are already struggling in what is widely recognised as the worst economic climate in living memory.

I call upon them to look at the damage the Act might do to our existing small venue circuit, and I urge the small venues who are worried to shout louder.

I would dearly love to be completely wrong about all of this, and see the Brixton Windmills, Lexingtons, Clwb Ifor Bachs and LePubs of these Isles survive and new rooms flourish.

The only thing that would make me happier would be if the live music industry put their fucking drinks down for a minute, (damn, they took the photo-gallery down) came out from under their cocktail umbrellas, extended a hand toward our existing small venues and said; “We see that you are struggling and we recognise how vital you are to our industry.  How can we help?”

Let me know if you need help finding their email addresses and phone numbers.

Andy Inglis, 5000



[photograph of Lightning Bolt at The Luminaire, May 2006, © Michelle Brooks]


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3 Comments

  1. Gloves on!

    SOME PROS:

    – possibility in London of one or more credible 120-200 capacity venues emerging to plug a gaping hole in the capital’s pretty woeful venue portfolio.

    – possibility of events in more interesting and less orthodox venues and spaces.

    – opportunity for more localised events eg. in boroughs/areas outside of central London, as well as better continuity with DIY, grassroots and artist-promoted events. (eg. excellent ‘Whats Cookin’ Americana shows at Birbeck Tavern, Leytonstone E11).

    – traditional folk musicians and listeners enjoying more old-style, unplugged sessions without puritan jobsworths telling them they’re having too much of a good time.

    CONS:

    – further pressure on venue managers from venue owners to disregard any booking policies that may reap rewards longer terms but don’t necessarily result in short-term rewards behind the bar as described above.

    – more shows being placed in unsuitable venues where an agent/promoter/artist may get a better deal but the audience get a raw deal due to poor sight-lines, PA, inexperienced sound tech and the other elements where corners and costs have been cut.

    – more exploitation of hapless musicians by certain venues and promoters who see it is as an opportunity to adopt old-school promoter methods and minimal quality control to fill venues and sell beer short-terrm, and not to support or compensate musicians.

    – people who already go to gigs less regularly (and less religiously) than some of us, start to do so even LESS REGULARLY again – or perhaps give up in order to listen to mp3s at home in peace – because they’re not aware of the better venues/promoters that exist, and so find themselves at badly-organised gigs in rooms where the experience is memorable only for how bad the sound, sight-lines, taste and cost of the beer are.

    eg. I once went to V2 Festival, after not attending a festival for several years, and thought it was MY fault I didn’t enjoy myself and that perhaps I should stop going to festivals.

  2. I should probably add the caveat that my figures are, of course, utterly fanciful, and are used to make the wider point of ‘why wasn’t this extensively discussed and can we now, finally, financially support our small, independent venues?’

  3. As a regular part of the audience to small shows my main concern is the quality of the shows is going to go down the drain. It’s already been happening in London that just ahead of the act becoming law plenty of little shitholes with horrible PA systems and useless organisers have started appearing. Dark basements belonging to other businesses, some of them even being obvious fire hazards. And, as Andy said, it’s so crystaline some places only do it to get people in and don’t care about the music at all. I won’t give names but there’s a new, painfully middle-class “venue” in Islington where this is just ridiculous. Customer service is appalling and people get constantly shoved around just to fit tables so then somebody can come mid-show to offer you platters of quiche. Sound is horrendous and the background noise of people chatting (or even watching TV) is just unbelievable. I’ve had artists telling me playing there was the most challenging thing they’ve done. And if you go up and down Dalston and Stoke Newington there’s not a single available space where there’s not a gig in the back room/basement of a bar.

    I see the point of the ease to use new spaces and to organise events in cities/towns where there isn’t the music scene we have here. But my view is the same as Andy’s. Good, small venues/promoters are going to struggle even more because they put the effort, the time and the money to organise proper shows while these little shitholes are going to start stealing their audience for appalling shows, organised on the cheap, just to exploit artists and audience.

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