Grassroots music venues from across the UK have spoken to NME about the “perfect storm” they face from the cost of living crisis, Brexit, cancelled shows and music fans’ last minute decisions on showing up – as well as their vigilance and confidence as “the best places to see new art right right now”.
- READ MORE: UK grassroots venues “going over a cliff” without urgent government action or investment from arenas
As well as being Independent Venue Week, this week also saw the Music Venue Trust launch its 2022 annual report, laying out the value of the sector to both the UK economy and the music industry as well as the grave danger that venues and the UK face without urgent action. As it stands, the latest figures show that audience numbers were at 89 per cent of their 2019 level at about 21million.
Gareth Barber is the venue owner and promoter, as well as a band manager, at Esquires in Bedford. Speaking to NME, he described the “perfect storm” facing smaller gig spaces across the UK.
“COVID’s not gone away, everyone’s feeling the pinch, there’s a cost of living crisis and people are generally more apathetic to going out,” he said. “Plus, the way the country is being run is depressing and everything going on outside of the country is depressing too.”
Speaking of the difficulty in selling tickets that Esquires is experiencing, he said: “Generally, you’ll shift a load at the start, then you’ll stall, then sell more in the last week and sometimes you’ll double your attendance in the last 24 hours. That means it’s really hard to plan and budget. That causes its own stresses.”
Asked if they led to venues being less confident in taking risks on putting on newer artists, he replied: “Some of the promoters that work in the venue have become more cautious. Some will veer towards shows that we’re not particularly excited about like tribute bands, for example, but that only makes up a small fraction. We have put on newer bands like Fake Turins and Regressive Left. We’ll always do that, but it’s harder to get people excited because people seem to want to go to gigs where they know what they’re going to get.”
Barber also spoke of how the sheer cost of touring meant that bands were becoming less likely to play outside of major cities.
“I know there are bands who are holding back on tours and reducing dates,” he said. “That’s another problem that’s more longer-term. You only have to go back a few years to when record labels stopped givings bands as much money to finance the tours. That means tours become A-markets and you don’t get regional dates. We’re a regional venue. It’s not a new problem, but on top of everything else, it’s an added problem.”
Admitting that “gone are the days when tickets cost £5”, Barber added that many gigs are run “for free or at a loss” to keep prices as low as possible without risking “devaluing what the experience is worth”.
He added: “Just support your local venues; it’s as simple as that. These venues are rare spaces, they’re closing fast and they’re under threat. Go out and take a chance on something.”
Dan Maiden has been the owner and promoter at The Fiddler’s Elbow in Camden for 25 years. Speaking of the acute issues facing his venue today, he said: “There’s been a drop in ticket sales. We’re not getting the crowds in that we used to get”.
“Pre-COVID, we had our biggest calendar,” he told NME. “I only had seven or eight empty days for the whole year, then COVID hit. In 2020 I was rammed in a way I’ve not seen in 25 years, then during COVID, we obviously dropped down to zero, then we had a massive spike of being busy again until COVID hit again at Christmas, then we dropped down to nothing to close the doors, then another spike before a massive deterioration.”
He continued: “One of our main problems isn’t just people not coming, but it’s also promoters pulling gigs at the last minute. They’re not getting the ticket sales so they’re getting scared and pulling the gig. They’re not waiting until the day when people buy tickets on the door. They panic that they’re not getting many pre-sale tickets, but people aren’t buying tickets because they’re not sure whether to put food on the table or go to the gigs that they used to. Maybe they used to go to four or five gigs a month and now they can only afford to go to one.
“We have no passing trade because we’re off the main track of Camden, so that means if we cancel a gig and shut the doors then my staff lose wages. That’s my engineers, bar staff, security, everybody. We can’t pay the bills and there’s a knock-on effect. In recent months, it’s been very, very difficult.”
Asked for a solution, Maiden put it that “the government needs to get a grip on what’s actually happening”.
“All of the hard work done by MVT falls on deaf ears because the government doesn’t have the experience of people in the culture sector who can react to help people like us in the arts,” he said. You need someone from the grassroots level in government who actually knows what they’re talking about.”
As well as naming Brexit as an issue (“we aren’t getting any more touring bands from Europe,” he claimed), Maiden vowed that The Fiddler’s Elbow would do their best to face all challenges head-on.
He added: “We’ll be fighting to the end and staying open, 100 per cent, as long as people get a bit of help.”
Reece Ritchie is an in-house promoter at Manchester’s Night & Day, who has been in headlines of late due to a legal battle over a noise complaint threatening their future. The local community, gig-goers across the UK and a raft of music legends since came out in support of the venue, which Ritchie described as “a massive deal” for all involved.
“There are bands that I’ve dreamt of working with since I was a kid saying that what we’re doing here is incredibly important,” he told NME. “That’s super important. Beyond the bands and the industry, to hear music fans say that they met their significant others in the venue, that they met their favourite bands here or decided to start a band here – there are thousands of stories to be told and it’s what’s keeping us going at the moment.”
- READ MORE: Post-lockdown noise complaint threatens Manchester’s Night & Day venue – but they’re not alone
“Everyone who has ever worked here has tried to offer a varied line-up and never just the same bands week-in, week-out. The bills just for February and March at the moment have electronic DJs, jazz, rock, indie, punk – everything, from the UK and international touring acts. It really is a platform for everyone to come together. That’s why people love it so much.”
Beyond the noise complaint, Ritchie spoke of the many other daily challenges that Night & Day were facing.
“The cost of living crisis has been huge for us,” he said. “People are going to less shows, everyone has a lot less money and it’s the creative outlets that suffer first. Night & Day is somewhere where people go to have a good time, but it’s where you cross off your list when budgets are tight. Everyone’s feeling the squeeze.
“Without getting too political, Brexit is a nightmare, so trying to get European acts into the country is harder.”
While admitting that there are “always a million trials and tribulations to running a music venue”, Ritchie said that Night & Day were inspired by “a great community behind us” and the fact that “we’re still able to do this well, as we have done for the last 31 years”.
“We’re in the cultural hub of the Northern Quarter and we are a constantly rotating cycle of art,” he said. “People come here to share ideas and make things happen. The philosophy behind everything we do at Night & Day is just to put on the best possible show that night.
“The argument that these venues need saving because they create the next Ed Sheeran and the next Elbow is an important factor, but each show that happens here is incredible in its own way because everyone – from the band to the staff to the sound engineers to the promoters, the PRs and the fans themselves – they want the best from every show.
“It’s not just a chance to see the next ‘big thing’, it’s the best place to see art right now. And usually for less than £15!”
Night & Day is one of many taking part in Independent Venue Week. IVW 2023 runs through February 5 and will mark the initiative’s 10th anniversary. More than 300 UK venues will host hundreds of gigs and events this week to celebrate and support the country’s independent live music spaces, as well as the people that own, run and work in them.
Ritchie argued that for music fans more used to gigs in arenas, theatres or academies, trying a smaller grassroots would serve them well as it’s “where you’re going to see the most groundbreaking stuff”.
“Independent grassroots music venues are the first and often the only people willing to take a risk on something new and something different,” he said. “That’s worth watching whether the act reaches theatres or arenas or not.”
He added: “If you feel like you want to explore your music tastes a bit more and try something a bit different, then independent venues are super accessible. Some people are super hesitant to spend £40 on a show at Victoria Warehouse or Academy 1 to see something new.
“If you’re not sure if you like post-punk live or want to get into a moshpit, then a grassroots music venue is the best way to get in touch and get involved. It would be great to see more people get into that from the ground up.”
Another venue taking part in IVW 2023 is Clwb Ifor Bach in Cardiff. Owner and promoter Guto Brychan told NME how some of his highlights of his 30-plus years of working there included The Strokes playing there on their first UK tour, Coldplay playing around the release of breakthrough single ‘Yellow’, Self Esteem graduating from the smaller to larger space at the venue on consecutive tours, and “watching the local bands come along to learn their craft before seeing them flourish and grow beyond what we can provide for them”.
“At the heart of it, a grassroots venue is an asset for that community and we want as many local people as possible to think of it as an opportunity to perform there or get involved,” he said. “It’s not just about performers – people become sound engineers or reps or agents. People start their music industry journey here and that engagement resets the course of their life.”
Brychan said that Clwb Ifor Bach was in a lucky position of having more shows booked for 2023 than they did at this point in 2019, but a rocky road still lay ahead.
“The challenge now is that for the level of artists who would play a venue like ours, the cost of touring, accommodation, petrol, food and such has made it more expensive to put the shows on,” he said. “Now it’s about ensuring that the artists are able to afford to come and play the venue while also ensuring that the ticket price doesn’t get to a point where it’s too expensive for the customer.”
Ultimately, Brychan said that a space like Clwb Ifor Bach offered something that larger venues just never could.
“I feel, especially for a younger audience, that these are the places you should be having your formative experiences for watching live music,” he argued. “There’s something about seeing an artist perform at a small venue where you’re really close them, they look more like you, they’re really approachable, and you can imagine yourself on stage. Whereas if you go to a big arena-type space, there’s a lot of distance between the audience and the band – physically and mentally. It becomes a bit more unobtainable.
“These are the spaces that encourage people to go, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give that a go’.”
The Music Venue Trust also made a number of demands of the government as it launched its report. It asked for a reduction in VAT applied to venue ticket sales, which is currently the second-highest in Europe, one of the highest in the world and far above the level of most major music-producing nations.
It also called for an end to “excessive and anti-competitive” business rates, which are “crippling” these cultural spaces, and that the DCMS pressure the Chancellor for a suitable and urgent extension or expansion of the Energy Relief Scheme that is workable for venues.
Additionally, the MVT urged that it be afforded the same privileges as the Theatre Trust regarding being approached when planning applications are submitted from neighbouring developments. This move helps to prevent developments coming about and noise complaints potentially shutting down existing venues.
Responding to the MVT’s demands, a DCMS spokesperson did not touch on the majority of their comments but told NME: “We know this is a difficult time for music venues and we remain firmly on their side. The government has delivered an £18billion package of support for organisations through the Energy Bill Relief Scheme, which includes arts venues and businesses, through the winter.
“The scheme will continue to provide valuable assistance to organisations until the end of March before the new Energy Bills Discount Scheme comes into effect to provide additional assistance for the following year.”
The MVT’s annual report was first shared during an event attended by NME at the Houses Of Parliament, with a sobering speech from the MVT laying out the action required from the government as well as calling on new large UK arenas to “contribute to the security of the wider music ecosystem by investing a percentage of every ticket they sell into the grassroots music ecosystem”.
When approached by NME, a number of the eight new large venues responded and claimed they would be looking to support new and emerging talent.
Last year, MVT also launched its ‘Own Our Venues’ campaign aimed at providing ownership to grassroots music venues across the country.
The scheme, which was backed recently by Ed Sheeran, aims to secure the long-term futures of these venues by directly tackling the issue of ownership. The scheme has been likened to “The National Trust, but for venues”.
As part of Independent Venue Week, patron Philip Selway told NME how small gig spaces helped shape Radiohead (and what the future holds for the band), while rising noise punks Benefits told us how “independent venues are not ‘stepping stones’ – for many bands this is our Wembley”.
Beabadoobee, who is also an ambassador for IVW 2023, recently spoke to NME about what grassroots venues mean to her and her upcoming shows with Taylor Swift. You can find out more about this year’s Independent Venue Week here.