The Joiners in Southampton is one of the independent music venues that makes up the “toilet circuit” in the UK.
Music Venue Trust in London has published “Understanding Small Music Venues” as the product of their research conducted around Venues Day 2014 last December. The first-time gathering hosted representatives from small music venues in England, Scotland and Wales, with 120 venues participating in total. “Understanding Small Music Venues” acts as a discussion document composed from surveys and interviews about how these small venues operate, the challenges they face and the role they play in the UK music industry.
“The point of the report was really to bring into focus the issues around running these small venues and how important they are for the music ecosystem,” said Beverley Whitrick, Strategic director for Music Venue Trust. “These venues are kind of like the training ground of the music industry, and yet they haven’t really been championed by the music industry. We’re at a point in time where a combination of economic pressure, licensing issues and dropping audiences are all starting to affect the ability of small venues to carry on operating as they have in the past.”
For the report, an online survey was sent out to a number of venues, and once they filled it out they would receive a free ticket to Venues Day 2014. At the conference, the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance also conducted one-on-one interviews with representatives from the venues. Whitrick said no national body had represented these small music venues before Music Venue Trust was started, so the research included really basic info such as whether the venue rents or owns the building they operate in, as well as covering issues like if they’ve experienced noise complaints and how their relationship with the local police is.
“We know a lot about theaters, we know a lot about the centers and we know a lot about the arenas and big concert halls,” said Whitrick, “but nobody has ever collected information about small music venues before.”
Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd said this report is aimed at local authorities, government agencies, local sectors and the overall music industry to explain the challenges these small music venues are actually facing. On the survey, Davyd said 60 percent of the venues that participated reported that they felt under imminent threat of closure.
“There’s an interesting set of circumstances in the UK at the moment which are causing a lot of problems for what we describe as grassroots music venues. Those relate to licensing, planning, development, or some change in use laws regarding the conversion of office space to residential. Those have been getting gradually worse over the last couple years.”
Whitrick said that up to this point, most of these challenges have all been anecdotal, but the report backs up the stories with actual research that can be used to start conversations with people in the music industry and the government.
“There’s a huge patchwork of things that could help, but we’re very early in the process,” said Whitrick. “This research was about getting in a strong foundation about why we want to do the things we want to do.”
Music Venue Trust was started in January 2014 as a not for profit supporting agency for grass roots venues in the UK, like Southampton Joiners, Turnbridge Wells Forum and the 100 Club in London. It acts as a unifier for small music venues when a collective and collaborative effort is required.
“Our failure to take a collaborative approach has really left these grassroots venues slightly isolated from where they belong within the structure of the music industry and the cultural sector in the UK,” said Davyd. “They’ve kind of been on their own for years and years and haven’t really had a voice. National policy has been designed without really thinking about them, and they haven’t really spoken up for what they might need.”
Certain laws in the UK dealing with public nuisance and residential space have made it nearly impossible for these venues to host shows and policy makers repeatedly fail to consult these venues when creating these laws. A lack of monetary investment is also affecting the quality of shows these venues are able to produce.
“Even within the music industry itself in the UK there’s been a failure to recognize what these venues have historically done in the last 40 to 50 years,” said Davyd, “which, to be blunt, is to produce a string of incredible UK bands that have gone out and pretty much conquered the entire planet. Most of those bands started at a 150-capacity venue in a small town in the UK. We haven’t really placed enough value in the music industry itself on what those grass roots venues do, and that’s resulted in a failure to invest in them.”
Davyd said he will be meeting with the state secretary of culture, media and sports later this week but that most of the political movement will be halted until after the general election in May.
“We’re hoping we’ve done enough work on all sides of the political spectrum that there will be some significant policy changes after the election that will really benefit these venues and give them a little more support,” said Davyd.
In response to the report, Music Venue Trust also started the Grassroots Investor Program as strategic intervention into the grassroots music sector. The first phase of the program is to develop a central agency to represent and defend the venues at a national level. Whitrick said at Venues Day 2014 they learned of 14 different venues that hired 14 different legal firms to represent them in noise complaint cases in their communities. The goal would be to have one firm employed to represent all the venues as needed, which would save them a lot of money. The second phase is to put direct investment into the venues, to raise their quality and give audiences and artists a better environment. Jack Daniels has already signed on as their first key partner.
“We’re at that crux point where everybody has to stop saying what a brilliant idea it is and actually work out what the value of it to them in dollars and cents is,” said Davyd. “It’s not anybody’s one particular responsibility. As the music industry kind of abandoned these places to their own fate a little bit, it’s not the best way to do it. There’s a good way to do this just to give them a little more support.”
Interviewed for this story: Mark Davyd, 44 7778 668225; Beverley Whitrick, 44 7031 745994