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:



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