Our Live Music Scene Might Die If We Don't Get Our Shit Together


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Our Live Music Scene Might Die If We Don't Get Our Shit Together

What you can do about the obscure tax that could bankrupt some of the UK's most-loved gig venues.
London, GB

We need to talk about business rates. And we're going to have to talk about planning and licensing as well. Now, I know both sound like subjects you didn't think you'd need to give a shit about until your fifties/ever. But that, my friends, is precisely the problem. Because these things combined, and the tendency for our eyes to glaze over when they come up in conversation, could eventually kill off the UK's live music scene and the small venues that keep it going, while we're not looking.


Let's start with business rates – they're basically like council tax, but for companies. And they're a killer. The rates stretch to tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands of pounds a year. As of 1 April this year, they're going to change for the first time since 2010 – and in cases where they'll soar, that spells bad news for shops, restaurants, and – you guessed it – music venues.

I've just spent the past few weeks researching a story for VICE on this hidden threat to our live music scenes. And for many venues, it wouldn't just be bad news – it could be terminal. When reporting the piece, I spoke to Dr Shain Shapiro, chief executive at music consultancy Sound Diplomacy, who said the changes would be significant. How major? "A very big deal. What will happen for any independent business is their rates could go up significantly – and for our venues, record stores and the like, this will impact their bottom lines." But could that mean the difference between venues staying open or shutting down? "Yeah, that is true," he replied.

To work out how badly music venues could be affected, I ran some numbers. Business rates are worked out based on property prices – what's referred to in these cases as a "rateable value". Looking at more than 70 music venues in London, rateable values are set to rise by an average of 45 percent. That's a huge cost for any independent business to absorb. London venues affected include the Macbeth, the Garage, the 100 Club, Birthdays, Ronnie Scott's, and XOYO. The government has argued that, while some rateable values in London will go up, in many areas they'll be going down. But my analysis found venues including the Fleece in Bristol, the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, Gorilla in Manchester, the Cluny in Newcastle, and the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth are all looking at steep rises as well.


Politicians and music industry heads are now talking about how to try and avoid what could be a devastating development for the live scene. The Greater London Authority has called on central government and councils to grant music venues with an exemption from the planned rise in rates. At this stage, no-one knows if those talks will be successful. As it stands, in six weeks' time, rates are still set to go up.

So, how did we get here? The rise in business rates is really just the latest in a series of existential threats to the music and nightlife scene. In recent years, licensed venues have come under more pressure from all directions. We've seen venues close due to noise complaints. The police have made concerted efforts to have venues shut down. Costs for things like security have spiralled. Even venues that have survived all this can suddenly find themselves bought and suddenly closed down by property developers.

Seen in this context, the battle might seem hopeless. It's not. There are tools to protect nightlife – it's just, most of the time, they're just not being used. London will soon be adopting the 'agent of change' principle, meaning developers will have to take responsibility for soundproofing and protecting venues from the threat of noise complaints when people move into new homes. Last week, the government announced it would be doing the same. If they want to, councils can help defend licensed premises. Wandsworth Council did exactly that last year when it used planning rules to protect 120 pubs from being converted into flats or supermarkets. In London, there are even plans to work with developers to create new music venues.


In contrast to these examples, many councils' approaches to nightlife feel actively hostile. According to a survey carried out in 2013, the average councillor in England is aged over 60. Only one in eight is under 45. Gig venues and clubs should be inclusive, and I'm all for 60-year-olds joining the rave. But it's no secret these tend to be youth-dominated spaces. How is it right that the people in charge of shutting down clubs may not have set foot in one for a good few decades? While we're at it, only one in three councillors are women, and 96 percent are white. That obviously needs to change – but it'll take time.

In the meantime, here are some things we can all do now. Support the Music Venue Trust. Sign up to the mailing list and, if you have some spare cash lying around, donate to the trust's Emergency Response Fund, which helps venues when they find themselves in legal or licensing trouble. Join the Nightlife Matters campaign. Put your name to the petition. Use the campaign website to email your local councillor and tell them your concerns about the future of the live music scene.

Better still, write to your councillor yourself. Ask them what they're doing to protect the local music scene and whether they'll support a business rates exemption for music and nightlife venues. Let them know what losing these spaces would mean. Mark Davyd, chief executive at the Music Venue Trust, puts it this way: "The truth is, most of it is the law of unintended consequences. Nobody actually sat down and said, 'how can we shut down a third of music venues in England'. They didn't think about it at all."

Why are we giving them that excuse?

You can find Mark on Twitter.

(Lead image by Pexels, second image by Cantabrigian7 via Wikimedia)