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‘Grassroots Venues are still treated as commercial concerns not cultural assets’: The current state of the UK’s Grassroots Music Venues

Rising business rates and property rents have led to a series of small and medium size venue closures in London and elsewhere. But as David Davies discovers, there are plenty of people determined to ensure that the UK doesn’t turn into a live music wasteland

Black Honey at Tunbridge Wells Forum

The news in May that London venue The Borderline was to close came as an unwelcome, but in truth not entirely surprising, blow. The narrative of a venue being priced out of existence by soaring business rates and operational costs has become all-too-familiar in recent years, with the capital city – and many other UK towns and cities – losing multiple small and medium size grassroots facilities.

There is no denying the symbolic edge to The Borderline’s demise, though. For both its longevity
and hosting of genres across the spectrum, it came to epitomise London’s musical diversity and gave many regular gig-goers some of their most indelible cultural experiences. (For the present writer, a 2013 concert at the venue by genius arranger and The Beach Boys’ Smile lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, will live in the memory forever.)

But in a wider context, its closure is part of a long-established trend. A report released in 2015 by the Mayor of London’s Music Venues Taskforce – which was established to help secure the future of live music facilities as part of the night-time economy – discovered that 35 per cent of London’s live music venues had closed since 2007. In 2017, the same organisation claimed that the number of ‘grassroots’ venues in London was now stable for the first time in 10 years.

However, any minor optimism here has tended to be overshadowed by recurrent media coverage of rising business rates and operational costs that are pricing not just gig venues, but many other arts-related organisations, out of the market. And with strident property developers feeling further emboldened by the frequently-voiced call by Government to build new flats and houses, the trend of more space being converted to residential usage shows little sign of abating.

The temporary closure of Fabric in 2016 led The Independent to suggest that London is “on its way to becoming Europe’s most boring capital city”, noting the recent closure of LGBTQ+ venues, as well as live music facilities. The developments of the intervening three years are unlikely to have shaken that supposition – but what has emerged as a powerful voice during that time is the Music Venue Trust (MVT), a UK charity which aims to protect, secure and improve grassroots music venues.

Working in conjunction with the Music Venues Alliance – which is an informal association of grassroots venues, organisations and individuals who support the aims of the MVT – the Trust has made significant strides in both raising awareness of smaller venues’ plights, and ensuring that we don’t lose too many more of them.

Ring-fenced funding

When PSNLive speaks to MVT strategic director Beverley Whitrick, one of the first topics of conversation that comes up is a landmark recent move by Arts Council England that has resulted in the creation of the Supporting Grassroots Live Music funding strand – the first-ever ring-fenced fund of its kind and part of the Arts Council’s National Lottery Project Grants for Grassroots music venues and promoters.

“Previously, the position was that people could apply to the general fund, but the success rate tended to be very poor as they were often not sure what was required and the forms could be very daunting,” says Whitrick. “Another challenge was that the lead-in time for [grassroots venues] can be much shorter than with other cultural venues. So sometimes people put in for projects with artists who were unconfirmed, and because of that [their application did not progress successfully].”

MVT and Arts Council England will work together to help venues apply for and access the initial fund of £1.5 million. At the time of the interview nearly 80 venues had already registered on the funding portal, and “now we are in the process of supporting those who want to submit applications”, says Whitrick.

At the same May 2019 event that marked the arrival of the new fund, the MVT also announced the first
steps in encouraging reinvestment by the live music industry in grassroots venues on the basis that they have historically provided the “research and development department of the industry”. Actions agreed to date include the use of apprenticeship levy funds to support apprentices in grassroots venues, as well as direct donations from major companies to support the

MVT’s Emergency Response service, which has been developed to help venues resolve noise complaints, licensing and planning issues. There is increasing acceptance that “the argument we put forward – that the more successful bits of the industry should be investing in the R&D department – is a good one,” although not surprisingly “some people are less keen on the bit of money going back to the grassroots coming from their particular bit of the industry.”

But there have been enough positive noises to mean that Whitrick is upbeat about this becoming a long-term trend. MVT would also like to “persuade the record companies and streaming companies that they also benefit from [smaller venues], and that they need to contribute. It is ridiculous when you think that so many venues are closing because [they lack resources such as] £2K to fight a noise abatement order.”

Frank Turner performing at the Tunbridge Wells Forum

Taking it to the streets

The MVT’s UK-wide remit means that, ultimately, Whitrick hopes to see the same measures applied in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Inevitably, “we are at different stages in each country…and in Northern Ireland it’s been difficult to do much as they have had no sitting government [since the power-sharing agreement collapsed in early 2017].”

Speak to virtually any grassroots venue and they will confirm that rising business rates constitute one
of their greatest worries. Alas, a recent request to the Treasury to see if a business rate discount for pubs, bars and restaurants might logically be applied to grassroots venues was answered in the negative.

“This would have been a very easy opportunity to apply a slight reduction to rates, but they said ‘no’ as grassroots music venues do not have their own category in law – and it seems there is no will to create one,” explains Whitrick.

It can only be perceived as frustrating that such a simple move that would have made such an important difference across the board has been rebuffed. But then, perhaps that it is partly down to a collective failure by the those in power to understand how much the cultural industries contribute to the wellbeing and prosperity of the UK. And when it comes to music, the whole story starts with the grassroots venues.

Part of the problem, concludes Whitrick, is that “grassroots venues are often still treated as commercial concerns rather than cultural assets”. They will continue to be important battlegrounds in the future, not least because they reside at a critical juncture in the “discussion about living in towns and cities, and how to make the move to the nighttime economy being valued more. [Some people have issues with venues] because they want to have somewhere quieter to live, but at the same time they expect to live in a vibrant cultural environment as well.”

A model for the future?

Established more than 20 years ago, the Tunbridge Wells Forum is well-placed to observe the changing environment for grassroots venues in more ways than one. For a start, its co-founder, Mark Davyd, is CEO of MVT, whilst fellow founder and venue manager Jason Dormon is a trustee.

He echoes the disparity over business rates mentioned by Whitrick, noting that “rates are indeed an issue facing town centres, and on top of that the licensing of pubs and bars is subject to the fair maintainable trade model of rates evaluation.” But it’s hardly the only challenge; as Dormon observes, “each venue will have its own set of pressures and hurdles ranging from inflated costs of operating to new builds [being constructed] next to their venues due to the gentrification of town centres.”

The summer months can also be more problematic these days with more and more acts drawn away from the circuit and onto the festival treadmill. “The ever-expanding festival season is a challenge with bands touring less as a result,” he says. “So we find that a different approach to programming [is required] through the summer months.”

Hence, the Forum’s 250 annual events include under- 18s nights and a “sprinkling of weddings”. Community events with local charities are also on the schedule for a venue that may provide a template for future developments. It’s run as a community interest company with all profits invested back into the local community. Dormon adds: “We have a couple of part-time staff members who work more than part-time, and a wonderful group of volunteers. We all work hard to keep the programme as varied and vibrant as we can.”

As part of this process the Forum actively pursues sympathetic collaborations that can enhance its remit. It is also currently in the process of expanding Music Station, “a wonderful music school that works in the Forum, and we have been working closely with RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] to get young architects’ ideas for expansion and increased usage of the building. We also plan to make the most of the Arts Council England funding stream and are looking to obtain a state of the art, eco-friendly lighting system.”

Dormon does not underestimate the impact of local factors on venues’ viability, but he is convinced that there is a long-term role for organisations like the MVT. “We figured that rather than campaigning and negotiating at a local level it would make more sense to do this on a national level. With everyone working together as one, all venues have a louder voice,” he says.

Like Whitrick, Dormon believes that a paradigm shift needs to take place in which grassroots venues are viewed in a wider cultural context. “They are essential cultural incubators and should be treated the same as theatres, arts centres and opera houses,” he says.

The fact that they are still not perceived this way in some quarters is baffling, not least because the contribution of the creative industries to the UK continues to grow. Indeed, it passed the £100 billion mark in 2018, according to figures published by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport. Small and medium-size venues are quite literally the grassroots of this success, and it’s a testament to the persistence of owners and operators that so many venues do still prosper despite the many challenges they face.

GRASSROOTS VENUES: FIVE OF THE BEST

The Old Cinema Launderette, Durham: The very definition of a versatile small venue, The Old Cinema Launderette is a coffee house and retro launderette in the daytime, and a bar and gig venue at night.

Ashburton Arts Centre, Devon: Part of a growing trend for community-owned venues, this converted Methodist chapel is run by volunteers. A notably eclectic programme includes jazz, folk, dance and orchestral music.

The Deaf Institute, Manchester: A much- loved Manchester institution that regularly hosts some of the most exciting new acts, as well as returning heroes such as …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Craig Finn and Robyn Hitchcock.

The Greystones, Sheffield: With a huge student population it’s unsurprising that Sheffield continues to support a vibrant small venue scene, but The Greystones is undoubtedly one of the very best. Situated in a pub, The Greystones is particularly strong on roots and acoustic music.

Stereo, Glasgow: Great vegan food and an appealingly grungy atmosphere are among the hallmarks of this venue. More broadly, Glasgow is now extremely well-served for small venues, with King Tut’s, Broadcast, Mono, the Hug and Pint and Nice ’N’ Sleazy among the other ‘must visits’.

On another note, MVT’s Venues Day 2019 – a key event for anyone working in or in support of Grassroots Music Venues – is taking place on October 9 at Islington Assembly Hall, London, and tickets have just been put on sale.

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