Guest list: a plague on all our houses

[Illustration by Jake Parker]

I wrote about this in May 2012. It needs to be said again.

From time to time an article appears in the national press, lamenting the demise of the UK’s grassroots live music venues, usually prompted by the closure of one, and ignoring the opening of at least one to replace it. The Guardian ran one last year, and they pretty much reprised it the other day

They asked if the ‘toilet tour circuit’ can survive. Of course it can survive. They’re asking the wrong question. The right question is ‘can the toilet tour circuit improve to the point where it is no longer a toilet tour circuit’?

To do that it needs money.

The recession is 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 – our 275 capacity live venue in London which we closed in 2011 – 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 could 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 – in our bigger cities – 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 Birthdays in London 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:


[This is an edited version of a longer post from May 2012 which analysed the reasons for The Luminaire’s closure in 2011, and how it related to the original Guardian article which prompted the post in the first place.]


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