Without Small Venues, the UK Doesn't Have a Music Industry
How many more have to be railroaded by rent hikes and property developers before we lose our grassroots scenes completely?
Photo: Jake Lewis
Most people enter music the same way, and that way is usually: a space either above, below or adjacent to a pub. As a musician, some of the best gigs of my life have been in the smallest rooms. The Harrison in King’s Cross was one of my first London headline shows, and was frequently attended by a brilliant, diverse community of folk musicians, songwriters and music fans. The first time I sold out a gig was at Green Note in Camden, which has a capacity of 60. I’ve played in the corner of The Spirit Store in Dundalk, welcomed warmly and openly in a place I had never been by people who had never heard of me. All of which is to say: unless your parents are particularly well connected, everyone in music begins in small, independently run venues.
But these venues are also the most vulnerable. Last year, the UK’s first live music census surveyed 200 small venues across the country and reported that a third had experienced problems with rising rates, property developers or both. In recent years we’ve lost London’s 12 Bar Club and Mean Fiddler to Crossrail (not to mention the Astoria). Leeds has lost The Cockpit, Sheffield has lost The Boardwalk and Manchester has lost The Roadhouse. There have also been narrow escapes for The Boiler Room in Guildford and Manchester’s Night and Day. Last year, the UK government introduced the Agent of Change bill, which aims to safeguard venues against threats of noise complaints, but in order to apply for the licence the venue needs to have not received any previous noise complaints. In December, just days before Christmas, a rep for the Treasury responded to a letter from the Music Venue Trust asking the government to confirm whether or not music venues would benefit from Phillip Hammond's promised cuts to rates paid by small businesses on the high street. The answer was, unsurprisingly, "no".
Most recently, two small successful independent venues – Leith Depot in Edinburgh and Gwdihŵ in Cardiff – have come to a similar crossroads. The final decision on Leith Depot will be made as to whether the street the venue is part of – the main artery that links Edinburgh city to the port area of Leith – is to be demolished and eventually replaced by, among other things, student housing. As for Gwdihŵ, the landlord’s decision not to renew the venue’s lease means they’ll have to move out at the end of the month. With Cardiff also losing Buffalo Bar this month because of a dramatic rent increase, the news comes as more than just a kick in the teeth.
This has, sadly, become a common narrative: small, multi-genre venues serving broad communities – while occasionally also playing host to more intimate sets from bigger acts – having the rug pulled from beneath them in the name of financial gain. When the owners of the row Leith Depot occupies went into administration in 2016, the site was acquired by Drum Property Group – whose first action was to go into the venue, say hello and then declare their intention to demolish it. In Cardiff, the Rapport family – who own the properties on Guildford Crescent, home to Gwdihŵ and several other local businesses – submitted an application for prior notification to demolish the premises in December, marking the land as up for redevelopment while being very cagey about what that redevelopment would actually entail.
"[Gwdihŵ] is one of the most important venues in the city," says Toby Hay, whose last album The Longest Day was shortlisted for the Welsh Music Prize in 2018. "As a musician starting out, or as a musician not from Cardiff, who is looking to perform in the city for the first time, Gwdihŵ is the venue most likely to give you a chance. Cardiff needs these smaller venues for the wider music scene to thrive. Without them it really will struggle."
Carys Eleri, who played the venue with Welsh-language electro-pop group Clinigol, and also appears in Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon, agrees: "The atmosphere was always warm – like a perpetual mini-festival. I met some of my best friends there. It attracted the kind, the fabulous and the most wonderful artists in the city and beyond."
Campaign leader for Save Gwdihŵ and Guildford Crescent, Daniel Minty, doesn’t see the timing of the decision as coincidental. He explains to me over the phone: "What’s going on is, in June of this year, [Cardiff] council have gone, 'Oh, bloody hell, we’ve got this Victorian crescent in our city centre and it’s not protected. Probably one of the most vulnerable pieces of land in our entire city, we should do something about this!' So they drafted a conservation area appraisal. The landlord got wind of the fact they were doing that and went, 'Oh, OK then, we’ll just put an application in to demolish.'"
Had the crescent been designated a conservation area, demolition wouldn’t be possible, hence the lobbying now to ratify the conservation area request before the end of January. "It’s calculated," Minty added. "They know the value of the land – in excess of three or four million. They know what they’re doing." Incidentally, when I called the Rapport family to comment for this piece, I was told to put my request in writing and then was promptly hung up on.
Confusingly, Leith Depot has existed within a conservation area since 2002. However, Scotland takes a different view to Wales on whether that protects buildings for demolition. If the buildings themselves aren’t listed, they’re vulnerable. Even if Edinburgh council listens to the voices of the local community and blocks the demolition, recent history – the closure of The Picture House on Lothian Road and Studio 24 on Calton Road despite significant public opposition – suggests that that won’t be the end of the story. This is partly in thanks to a precedent set when Donald Trump wanted to build his golf course in Aberdeen.
Leith Depot’s owner Paddy Starr, who's now resigned to the venue closing in October and is focused on saving the building, explained to me: "It goes back to [Alex] Salmond and Trump in Aberdeen. Aberdeen council refused planning permission for Trump’s golf course, and the Scottish government overturned it. Even if the council do refuse or object to their plans, Drum Property Group can appeal to the Scottish Reporter in the government. He overturns something like 60 percent of council decisions, because he doesn’t take any campaign or community action into account."
Edinburgh singer/songwriter Kat Healy played her first gig at Leith Depot soon after it opened, and has been a pretty regular performer and promoter there ever since. "This was my first experience of having a local venue, and it was really exciting, because they were really diverse. They put folk nights on, or metal nights, and it was being run by musicians." There is now another small venue on Leith Walk, but the area been historically underrepresented in terms of venues, as well as being far removed from the activity of the Edinburgh Festival. "That’s one of the things the Depot has done really well – not just that they’ve welcomed in every style of music, but we’ve been able to either make it a free night, or make it a tenner, and it’s definitely been for the local, surrounding community."
That community engagement is replicated in Wales’ capital city too. At the time of writing, a petition to save Gwdihŵ and Guildford Crescent is just shy of 20,000 signatures, and nearly 700 objections have been made to the planning application. In addition, a march is planned for the 19th of January. Save Leith Walk, the overarching protest movement that Leith Depot has found itself at the centre of, garnered 15,800 signatures on its petition. Both cities have recent histories of fighting similar campaigns. Edinburgh has lost several high profile music venues in recent years – you can add Electric Circus to Studio 24 and The Picture House. More recently, a sole noise complaint meant that Edinburgh arts venue Summerhall had to move a planned outdoor all-day festival – the culmination of a week of gigs in partnership with the National Museum of Scotland’s "Rip It Up" exhibition, celebrating the history of Scottish pop – indoors, under threat of a loss of licence. Cardiff had better luck with the "Save Womanby Street" campaign at the beginning of 2018, which blocked the development of luxury flats and hotels from the street that’s home to venues like Clwb Ifor Bach, The Moon, and Fuel Rock Club – an area Minty describes as "the aorta of Cardiff’s music scene".
In effect, music has become a lens through which to look at the wider issue of who’s in charge of our cities. "This isn’t about a music venue or a bar," Paddy says. "When you’ve got respected institutions being involved with developers, you have to ask, 'What’s going on here?' Developers are just doing their job. They acquire sites, knock them down, make money and move onto the next one. That’s what they do. It’s up to our councils and our elected representatives to challenge that."
There’s a multi-story, student-housing shaped elephant in the room here, too. Nearly 3,000 extra student beds were in development in Cardiff last year across eight separate developments. Edinburgh began work on its 27th private student housing development at the beginning of 2018 (at the expense of the student nightclub Silk). The blame is often placed at the feet of offshore developers here – a recent Guardian investigation revealed that offshore companies have been collecting millions in rental income while sometimes paying as little as £10,000 in income tax, owing to student flats not having to pay business rates in the same way that hotels do. However, universities never seem to receive the same criticism. They are the institutions increasingly going to private developers to build their accommodation, and they have a vested interest in increasing student housing provisions in their cities as they increasingly tap foreign markets for prospective students. Cardiff University declined to make a comment on any private accommodation being built in the city.
I have played Leith Depot half a dozen times in the past two years, as well as promoting shows there for other people. I also have a show in the calendar at Gwdihŵ for later in the year. If you’re an up and coming musician, you can’t bowl into a new town and go straight into playing hundred-plus capacity venues. But the smaller rooms with low-to-no hire fees, run by people who’ve invested in decent sound systems – who don’t care about what genre you fit into; who reach out to their local communities; who work with fledgling promoters – are one of the last remaining lifelines. You can start there. More to the point, these are venues where ticket prices remain on the lower end of the scale, usually not more than a tenner. There’s value in that too. Live music needs to be accessible to everyone, and price is a huge barrier to entry.
So how is the music industry looking? Well, it’s hard to tell. Music consumption is at a four-year high, and yet HMV is circling the drain. Major labels are literally making billions of dollars from streaming, but artists are complaining about this money not trickling down to them. At the end of January, Independent Venue Week returns with high-profile gigs in small venues across the country, but the live music sector still feels incredibly vulnerable.
We need to have a broader understanding of what the British music industry is. It isn’t just the Mercury nominees or the BBC Sound Of list. It’s not just what’s being played in clubs or who’s headlining Glastonbury. The music industry is tribute bands and session players, cover singers, buskers, people doing weird shit that has a limited reach. For a large section of the music industry these small venues aren’t stepping stones, they’re the pinnacle. We need spaces for all of it, as well as spaces for the people who go on to become huge, so you can tell your mates you were there from day one. If these venues close, we lose so much, gain very little, and the music industry will categorically not be in good shape. It’s all well and good saying you can grow a fanbase online or record music in your bedroom, but everyone has to begin in small venues. Without them, you don’t have a music industry.