[pictured: Jason Dormon, co-founder of The Tunbridge Wells Forum. Photo by Pat Pope]
Back in 2006, I assembled 15-20 small venue operators and promoters in a hotel bar in London. We talked about how we could help each other, pool resources, share experiences and – I hoped – grow into some kind of UK-wide network of independent venues and promoters. The next day I emailed round to ask when we could meet again, suggested some dates, but no-one could make it. We were all one-person operations and taking hours out of a day or evening just wasn’t possible without negatively impacting our business (in some cases our business couldn’t trade). I was working 14-16 hour days at our venue, and for the first year or so ran the floor, box office and acted as security; three jobs that took place simultaneously in different locations in the building. And so the idea returned whence it came, waiting for when I had the time or inclination to try again. I never did, we closed the venue, and that was that.
Eight years later, the problems that beset the UK’s small venues haven’t gone anywhere. Maybe they’ve got worse, or maybe the invention of social media lets us now see just how bad it’s always been. I’ve done a lot of touring, seen hundreds of venues across the world, watched how they’re run, learned how they’re financed, and noted the cultural differences that inform different outlooks on customer service.
Enter Mark Davyd.
In brief, he co-owns Tunbridge Wells Forum, is CEO of the Music Venue Trust and the brains behind Venues Day, which will bring together representatives from 120 small venues on Tuesday 09 December in London, to discuss their trials and beefs, plus promoters, booking agents and others with vested interests, and see if they can’t find strength and direction in common cause. I can’t speak to how Mark found himself leading this extraordinary head of steam, but maybe a threat to his own livelihood focussed his mind.
I was never the right person for the job. I don’t have the patience or temperament. My method was (and remains) to shout loudly about how far behind the UK lags in hospitality, customer service and production, compared with the European mainland, and to ask when staggeringly rich booking agents, promoters and venue groups would grow a conscience and start putting some money back into the small venue circuit they have so richly benefitted from. I’ve actually got an idea for that, but again, it would take someone more suited to calm discourse to take it forward. I’m a good enough diplomat, but I’m shite at politics. My methods will never bear any fruit, but I still feel like I make the occasional valid point.
Mark is on record recently as saying “the UK has the best live circuit in the world producing the best music in the world”. I fundamentally disagree with both halves of his statement. I look down the list of venues and see some of the names, and among the good I note a bunch that I’d like to see shut down.
But Venues Day is not the place for me to voice that. Venues Day is a hugely important, significant event, and it has my full support. Its focus is positive and that’s as it should be.
So on Tuesday, I’ll sit quietly, and listen.
I’ll want to ask Jane Beese of Southbank Centre if she can channel some of the twenty million pounds they’ll receive from Arts Council England this year toward some small venues who couldn’t afford the price of reupholstering even one of the Queen Elizabeth Hall’s leather seats. I’ll want to ask Arts Council England if they can shave a wee bit off the £16.7m grant that’s to fund the repair and maintenance of Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, and spread it around some of the UK’s backstage rooms that desperately need refurbished. I’ll want to ask Geoff Meall of The Agency Group if he’ll donate his commission on just one Paramore show to a small venue who’re struggling to find the money to replace the SM58 they had stolen the other night. Or maybe small venues will fill in their own grant applications, and convince those with the money that they’re as important to society’s cultural fabric as the bigger institutions like Southbank and Barbican. And I’d ask Jo Dipple of UK Music for her thoughts on the affects of The Live Music Act 2012 – a bone-headedly shortsighted piece of legislation – on existing live venues who were already struggling in the teeth of the worst recession in global history, back when it was introduced.
But I won’t, because Venues Day – this year at least – is not the place for that. It is, for me, a place to shut up and listen.
To all attending, I wish you luck and success, and for the sake of the artists you host and the audiences who attend your venues, better facilities.