Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd’s monthly deep dive into live music’s biggest issues...
I’m sure that were you to assemble all these monthly columns into a collated bestseller – well, I can dream – then they might run the risk of unfortunately just appearing to be a regular opportunity to whinge and to try to make everyone feel guilty. That isn’t the aim of these opinion pieces, but it is the regrettable consequence of two things in the music industry bashing up against each other.
On the one hand, we can point proudly at what we have done in the last 10 years and say that we are truly bouncing back after a decade of digital impact and the shock wave of the pandemic.
Previously unimagined revenue streams are starting to flow into the system. Universal’s recent 2021 financial report, and even more its Q1 2022 report, show an industry that is not just bouncing back after Covid, but is in rugged and robust health. Our largest festivals are back and sold out to fans eager to return to live music, while Ed Sheeran is adding all the dates he can to a seemingly endless tour, creating thousands of jobs and incredible experiences for people wherever he goes.
Recognising the incredible work that has gone into obtaining those fantastic results – and we really need to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts being made by so many in the live industry to get people back to work and get shows back – it is reasonable to say that the top of the pyramid of the music industry has probably never been in better financial health.
And yet we have long-term, systemic problems for a huge swathe of artists, writers, crew, staff and venues who have not yet made their way towards the top half of that pyramid, and many who probably never will. They are struggling to survive. Music Venue Trust is aware of 26 venues who have survived the pandemic with the support of their communities who now face imminent permanent closure.
Grassroots artists, writers and crews are simply giving up, unable to hold out on wages significantly below minimum wage long enough for the break they need. There should be nothing more frustrating for people in our industry than to see an artist with incredible unrealised potential forced out of the career they love because they simply cannot make ends meet.
At one end, we have fantastic revenues being generated, returning us to the sort of health last seen in the boom time of the late nineties. At the other, venues being closed down and people quitting altogether because they can’t pay rent. This gap between the top of the pyramid and the foundations is not unique to our industry, we can see it all around us in our society. But we aren’t the government or the opposition, and we aren’t driven by political dogma. The problems of inequality we have in our industry belong to us, they are our responsibility and it is up to us to solve them.
You don’t have to be Leon Trotsky to work out that this model in our industry is not sustainable. The wealth of our industry is built on potential. If we continue to allow that potential to slip away the wealth will eventually evaporate. Reprints and repackaging of back catalogue will tide us over for a few years, and Netflix placements for Kate Bush and TikTok trends will continue to generate much appreciated revenue. But, ultimately, new music, new artists and new experiences are the fundamental core of our business.
So why is this happening? Grassroots Music Venues aren’t closing because they failed to land a sponsorship deal or missed their target for a multi-million bonus. They are closing because the very basics of the function they perform for the whole industry require them to take risks with their programming.
Grassroots venues are closing because the very basics of the function they perform for the whole industry require them to take risks with their programming
The job we all need them to do is to put on music nobody knows or likes yet. As soon as they have created something people want to see, it is the job of the whole industry to take that away from them and put it in front of more people. That inherently creates an economically unsustainable model; attempting to sell a product nobody yet knows they want, investing into it until people do want to see it, then losing it at the very point where you might expect a return. It is precisely what we all, collectively, need them to do that results in them effectively being, at best, not-for-profit entities.
Every venue that closes is a potential point of aspiration, inspiration, creation, and development permanently lost. Whole swathes of young people in the UK are now hours of public transport away from their nearest potential life-changing moment when they could first encounter original live music. You have to be able to see it to want to be it.
The closure of a single venue in Preston, Bideford, Newport, Derby or Galashiels may not feel like it should be at the top of your list of concerns, but it represents young people who will never get the option to be it because they never got to see it. Every single closure represents lost potential for our industry, we have to stop just letting it happen and take direct action to prevent it.
That action needs to start by every single person in our industry resetting their thinking. Everyone needs to understand that the existence of these venues carrying out research and development on our behalf isn’t a luxury we can simply take for granted. We need to build the sustainability and resilience of these venues into our circle of responsibility, into our model of what we need to do to create new talent and, yes, into how we consider the financial distribution. That way we can ensure that we continue to enjoy this foundation stone of the work we all do.