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Are Regional Music Scenes in Decline?

As The Cockpit in Leeds closes down, we look at the shift in live music.

It's impossible to deny now: live music is changing. A decline - or perhaps mere realignment - brought on by complicated laws, expensive licenses and the different ways people are consuming music these days. “Decline? What decline?” the likes of Live Nation will decry, as the gap between arena venue and pub backroom ever widens, one in free-fall and the other with profits that have never been healthier. We’ll leave it to you to guess which is which.

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Yes, the "toilet circuit" - as the nation’s smaller venues are so charmingly termed - is being flushed away; their dank, sweat-condensed walls replaced instead by something far more shiny. Clubs are being turned into gastropubs, open mic venues are fast becoming office blocks, and everywhere we look there's a new luxury apartment complex waiting to be filled with plenty of places to purchase a £12 gourmet burger but nowhere to see a £3 show.

The reasons for the shift are plentiful. Bands garner hype and buzz even before playing a single show; outgrowing smaller haunts before ever frequenting them. Plus, the Licensing Act is making it more costly to house live acts. And then there's noise complaints and planning permissions: a predictable epitaph for haunts up and down the country.

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Things are bad in the capital, with a trend of brand-sponsored, hotel-based showcases making the traditional gig setting redundant in a world of temporary, swanky pop-ups. But outside of London, music fans are suffering even more. The Cockpit in Leeds recently became the latest regional venue to close its doors, announcing its demise just last week. "After 20 great years as an integral pillar of the Leeds music scene we have decided that it is no longer viable to deliver you the level of service you deserve with the building in its current condition," a statement from the venue owner's read. Elsewhere, the past few years have also seen the likes of Bristol’s The Croft, Leeds’ The Duchess Of York, Leicester’s Princess Charlotte and more fold, while such lynchpins as The Boilerroom in Guildford and Night & Day Cafe in Manchester remain threatened.

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"I think independent venues really need to reconsider their value in the market place," says Ade Dovey, who promotes shows at Manchester's TROF, Gorilla, Deaf Institute and more. "Somebody else somewhere is certainly making money and the venues are slowly closing due to this."

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Why is there more worry for the venues up and down the country than in the capital? Due to size and population difference, there’s always going to be less choice on offer. The decline of local regional venues could signal the wider demise of the regional music scene as a whole - which is a concerning scenario.

Regional scenes have always played a major role in the history of music, even shaping our lexicon and the way we talk about bands and genres: “Madchester”, “the Seattle Sound”, “Merseybeat”. You’ll already have a rough idea of a group as soon as their locale of Brooklyn is mentioned. You’re thinking angular guitar fourpiece with a modelling contract. The "internetisation" has already meant that music is more frequently being shaped on genre and the label the band is signed to, rather than where they're from. The increasing lack of smaller venues means less places for local bands to perform, less sense of belonging, and perhaps ultimately a decline of the regional scenes that have long contributed to the country's musical heritage.

The Wytches at Kazimier, Liverpool, shot by Chris Bethell

So what's being done to reverse this? The Music Venue Trust was set up in January 2014 to protect live music in the British isles. They're pushing to "cut red tape" (that is, to update and simplify the already existent laws), implement the "Agent of Change Principle", which would give the right to remain to whichever preceded the other: venue or residential area, and to urge music fans to unite and battle apathy.

The ultimate solution may be a radical one though. Petitions to get blue plaques placed at the site of famous venues won't help, neither will short-lived campaigns that'll soon be forgotten once they drop out of news feeds. The likes of DIY Space For London are aiming to launch alternative venues to help local artists, influenced by community spirit rather than bar prices. Elsewhere there's Wharf Chambers in Leeds, The Cowley Club in Brighton and 1 in 12 Club in Bradford running similar venues. In a music climate where anyone can create and upload music, it's apt that the future of live music should be as self-reliant.

Follow Luke on Twitter: @lkmrgnbrttn