Last call

Small venues are the lifeblood of the live music industry, but they're closing down at an alarming rate

23rd November 2018

There’s no experience quite like being packed in a small room, surrounded by sweaty strangers, all united by the power of music, shouting lyrics in unison. Gigs provide an experience like no other, and some of the best take place at independent music venues. So, why are they under threat? More than a third of smaller venues closed their doors for the last time in the past decade, according to UK Music, and many more are fighting to survive.

High business rates and noise restrictions are to blame for the closures, as well as rising ticket prices, research shows. About 33% of 200 small venues (capacity of 350 people) say increase business rates have had an extreme, strong or moderate impact on their existence in the past year. And 29% of smaller venues say they reported problems with property developments in the area, which led to noise complaints from local residents, who moved in around the venues.

Opening in 1937, Earls Court, a venue steeped in history, closed its doors for the final time in 2014, with Bombay Bicycle Club playing the send-off set. The venue had previously hosted artists such as Bowie, Led Zepplin and The Rolling Stones. Manchester has seen the closure of The Sound Control last year, which has seen the likes of The 1975 and Skepta perform. In Leeds, indie fans mourned the loss of The Cockpit, a venue that provided people with plenty of memories and hosted live acts, such as, Amy Winehouse, Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines.

Despite the decline in venues, festival and concert attendances continue to grow. The census found that 78% of music fans visit venues frequently, continuing to add economic and cultural value to the music industry. Smaller venues provide something that larger venues cannot: a more intimate experience, which means fans feel closer to the artist and are able to establish more of a connection.

Without venues, smaller bands will have no platform to perform or to gain a fanbase, and will struggle to eventually fill the shoes of some of the biggest artists today. Live music is thriving right now, but it isn’t sustainable. Billions of pounds are made from arenas and venues like the O2, however, the loss of these smaller venues means fewer artists rising to the top and even fewer opportunities to perform on these big stages in years to come.

The Music Venue Trust was set up in 2014 and aims to protect, secure and improve music venues across the country.  “Smaller venues have provided a crucial role in the development of British music over the last 40 years,” Tom Green, administrator for The Music Venue Trust, says. “They provide platforms for smaller artists to build their careers.” The trust works hard to gain recognition of the importance of these venues, not only to help a musician’s career, but for the music industry and the local communities. They aim to protect as many of these venues they can, with the help of people’s donations. Patrons for this organisation include Sir Paul McCartney, Madness and Elbow.

Musicians

“Independent music venues are vital for musicians wanting to make an impact on the music industry, providing a platform for aspiring musicians. It helps artists promote themselves,” Jon Fellows, a musician from Chester, says. “Small music venues are fundamental to the music scene. It is a real shame to see so many closing. Small venues are where a lot of new bands and artists learn their craft and, even though the way we consume music is changing, there is still a lot of potential in small venues to help a band establish a following or book another gig,” Fellows says.

“Being a really great act to see live should still be something to aspire to, and the only way you achieve that is through the experience of playing these places and watching other bands play them.”

Fans

The closure of these venues has a huge impact on the music industry, which affects the people that visit these venues frequently, decreasing the opportunities to experience live music. “It’s such a shame to think about the smaller venues across the UK closing, they’re usually independent and an opportunity to support bands that deserve recognition,” Emmie Harrison, a music journalist says.I go to gigs frequently — especially smaller venues. I’d like to go to them more, but the prices are too high. Unsurprisingly, they’re bigger bands in branded venues. I would say I go to at least two a month.”

Fans often prefer the overall experience a smaller venue can bring.I much prefer smaller venues. The sound is better, you’re with ‘true’ fans who don’t spend the whole time streaming it on social media, and you feel a connection with the artist who is usually closer to you. Plus, there’s a sense of hush amongst the crowd and it’s crazy but you feel a bond with everyone, like you go on a journey together and it’s just yours to share for the night,” Harrison says.

Venues

“It is incredibly hard to run a small music venue. As a promoter and owner, I am lucky in that I’m able to keep the bar take — but after staff, rent, power, use of kit, artist payment etc, we need to have an 80% capacity to even start to make money — not a huge amount of money either,” Dan Clapton, owner of The Wanstead Tap in London, says. “With a venue of less than 100 people, you have to be busy a lot of the time — which unfortunately can limit the experimentation of the acts we put on.”

There is something music lovers can do to help protect these venues closing, Clapton says. “Go to gigs, buy advance tickets and take chances. Spend £5-10 if you can, maybe go and see an artist you may never have heard of — you might just enjoy it.”

Music venues are integral in the early years of a budding musician’s career; therefore, the closures of music venues could jeopardise their development. The closure of smaller venues is problematic for the music industry, which is why it is crucial to continue to buy tickets and support your local venues whenever you can.

For more information visit The Music Venue Trust.

23rd November 2018