Figures from the UK grassroots live music scene have spoken to NME about how 2023 was the “worst year for venue closures” – calling upon the upper echelons of the industry to contribute and for the government to introduce a mandatory ticket levy on arena and stadium gigs.
- READ MORE: UK to lose 10 per cent of grassroots venues in 2023, as calls grow for rest of industry to invest
Earlier this year, it was revealed that the UK was set to lose 10 per cent of its grassroots music venues in 2023. An MVT report from January warned that grassroots gig spaces in the UK were “going over a cliff” – shutting off the pipeline of future talent without urgent government action and investment from new large arenas.
The latest stats from the MVT show that this year saw 125 grassroots venues shut down in 2023 – causing a loss of 4,000 jobs, with 14,500 events no longer possible and 193,230 opportunities lost to musicians.
One of the more high-profile gig spaces to shut its doors was Bath Moles. The legendary venue – who hosted early gigs by the likes of Oasis, Radiohead, IDLES, Ed Sheeran, The Cure and The Smiths – announced that it would be closing its doors due to the cost of living crisis earlier this month.
Speaking to NME, owner Tom Maddicott explained how the end of the venue was “quite sudden”.
“Trade has been down,” he said. “We had a good year after the pandemic and then it just dropped off. The end was quite rapid. People just aren’t going out as much and we can’t afford to pay the bills. It’s as simple as that.”
However, Maddicott said that it was “totally possible” for venues like Moles to remain in operation if the music industry adopted the suggested ‘Premier League’ model like UK football does – where the upper echelons pay back and invest in the grassroots.
“If that was in place, then we wouldn’t be in this situation,” he argued. ” n France, it’s compulsory for a 3.5 per cent levy on all arena and above tickets. If that was in place here, then Moles wouldn’t be closed. We wouldn’t be losing money and we’d be able to afford to put new artists on.
“MVT have been asking the industry to sort this out for years, and they haven’t done it. Now is the time. Maybe we need to go to government and get it enforced before we lose any more venues.”
Last year saw a reported £2billion spent on ticket sales in the UK, with summer 2023 seeing a bumper calendar for stadium and outdoor gigs – with 1million people attending live music events in London just in one week along back in July, thanks to huge outdoor shows from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Blur, The 1975, Billy Joel and Lana Del Rey.
Maddicott argued that if some of these profits weren’t reinvested in the grassroots, then the headliners of tomorrow will cease to exist.
“Whilst you have had a record-breaking year, over 120 of the venues that have supplied you with the record-breaking artists have closed down,” he said. “In 10 years time, where are you going to get the artists from to headline your arenas and your stadiums? It’s a pipeline of talent and it starts at the grassroots level. This is where bands hone their craft.
“Now only 10 of the 25 venues that Oasis played on their first tour are left. Ed Sheehan played 350 gigs before he became big, and 150 of those venues are now gone. Where are these people going to play? If they don’t have anywhere to play then they’re not going to form a band or get that recognition. You don’t get festival headliners, arena acts or stadium-fillers from TikTok – it’s just not going to happen.”
Speaking of the profound impact of the loss of a venue like Moles, the owner said: “You just need to look at the artists who have played here when we’ve been a part of their early career: The Cure, The Smiths, Eurythmics, Oasis, Blur, The Killers, Radiohead, Pulp, Bastille, Wolf Alice, IDLES – all these bands start in venues like this. Without them, where do they come from?
“We take risks on new talent. We are the research and development arm of the music industry. In any other sector, research and development is funded. It needs to be funded because it costs money to do. That’s not happening in the music industry, and it’s probably the only sector where it isn’t.”
He continued: “When IDLES played here for the first time, we had 40 people in. When Wolf Alice played we had about 60, and even when The Smiths played it was about 70 people. We’re taking the risks on these band where we’re giving them their first steps on the stage, then hopefully they move up to theatres, academies and arenas. Without us, then what? They’re not going to be able to go straight to a 2,000 capacity venue.
“What do they want us to do? Not take risks? Just stick tribute bands on so we can get 150 people in? If you stick a new band on then you lose money and the industry don’t seem to want to fund that.”
Maddicott ended by arguing that it was time for government and the music industry at large to “step up”.
“The UK’s musical exports are world-renowned,” he added. “It’s one of the things we can be quite proud of in this country, but it’s going to start depleting quite seriously if there’s nowhere for the artists to form and play.
“If the music industry aren’t listening then it’s time for the government to step up and enforce this levy so these venues aren’t lost and our great musical culture can continue.”
Last Tuesday (December 12) saw the LIVE awards celebrate the gig industry with an event at Troxy in London, where The Boileroom in Guildford picked up the Grassroots Champion award and used their acceptance speech to invite members of MVT to the stage wearing Bath Moles t-shirts in a call for action to prevent more venue closures.
“If this award represents anything, it’s the value and imprint that grassroots music venues stamp on every form of life,” said Boileroom operator Char Goodfellow. “Every venue is deserving of this award, considering all of our circumstances. It’s a really tough time out here for grassroots spaces, and we’re here to celebrate all of them.”
She added: “I’d like to mention Moles, an absolute staple point on the culture of the UK – you will not be forgotten.”
Speaking to NME after the awards, Music Venue Trust CEO painted a “very, very bleak picture” that could only be remedied by action and investment from the wider industry.
“It’s been the worst year ever for venue closures,” he said. “The rise of costs and energy is extraordinary and nobody seems to care, the rise in rents is just astonishing with landlords trying to make money back they might have lost during COVID by rapidly increasing rents beyond the possibility of what can be paid…
“The only way that music at a grassroots level can survive and thrive is with outside investment. The money that’s required can’t be made at ground level, unless you bring in the government to halve energy bills, take on the landlords, bring down the costs and radically change loads of little things.”
He continued: “Without that, there will have to be investment from the top of the machine.”
— Andrew Trendell (@AndrewTrendell) December 12, 2023
Davyd argued that a business model obsessed with arena and stadium shows had been paying little mind to the damage being done to the talent pipeline.
“The truth is that this year, the live music industry was so interested in making money but not in the ecosystem,” he said. “125 live music venues have closed and they did nothing at all. They let Bath Moles closed. Anybody in this country who understands live music is absolutely stunned that the industry doesn’t think that matters.
“It may not matter to them, but it matters to people who actually like live music. It matters to artists, it matters to anyone who cares. If you’re too busy making money to pay attention to that and realise that it’s a problem that you need to get involved with, then good luck to you – but it won’t last. People are just fed up.”
The campaigner argued that the crisis has now “gone way beyond the music industry” and “is now about access to live music in our communities”.
“Bath no longer has a place that you can go and play as part of your tour,” said Davyd. “That’s a whole town. We’re not talking about a tiny place, but there are towns all across the UK where bands can’t go and play and fans can’t see them – that’s ridiculous.
“It’s going to hit the talent pipeline, and people are stupid if they don’t see the role that places like Moles play in developing talent. If they think that these things are going to magically appear out of TikTok, then they can go for that and their business can fail.
“Communities across the country are not going to accept that the only places that they can see live music is at an enormo-dome miles away and pay a multi-national company over £100 to get in, and then they feel lucky if they get tickets. That’s not going to stand.”
The demand for a levy on tickets to arena and stadium tickets is growing, with Scotland now “seriously considering” the move for £1 from every ticket sold to be invested back into grassroots music venues. Some critics have argued that it is unfair to the consumer to make already costly tickets more expensive, but Enter Shikari have proven that it can be done with their own scheme coming at no extra cost to fans on their 2024 arena tour.
“That’s always the way – you point out a fault in a system and someone comes back with, ‘Oh, well it’s a complex issue and you can’t just do this’,” frontman Rou Reynolds told NME. “So we just did it, just to shut people up and show how easy it can be.
“We’ve also managed to not place any extra burden on our audience. The ticket prices are the same price as they were always going to be. We were keen to keep them below £40 and £1 from every ticket isn’t really going to effect us.”
He added: “More importantly, this is about getting those big venues to really start supporting this and helping the grassroots sector.”
Responding to criticism of the proposed levy, Davyd replied: “Really? They’re already over £100 a ticket a £25 levy for maintenance or restoration or whatever – and £1 is going to be the point where people say, ‘Oh that’s it, I’m not going’? Don’t be daft.
“By the way, I think it’s great when artists succeed and that artists at that level should try to make as much money as they can – but you can’t have a music industry that consists entirely of 20-30 stadium and arena bands asking people to travel hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of pounds to get in. That’s not what live music is all about.”
Davyd said that MVT had written to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer, but that an easier solution would be for the industry to step in without intervention.
“This argument is politically lost. Now it’s a question of: are the people at the top of the industry going to get serious about this crisis and take action or just sit there and moan while pocketing colossal profits? In the end, the government will make them – whether it’s this government or the next one.”
“This is a £5.5billion industry that can’t work out how to keep Bath Moles open. If they can’t, bring in someone who can.”
In a summary end of year message to music fans, Davyd advised that everyone could help simply by getting out and seeing as many shows in grassroots venues as possible.
“As always, we’d really like to thank NME readers for all of their support this year,” he said. “We’re really sorry if you’ve lost a venue and there are some that are currently in trouble. There are two more Saturdays left of this year – please try and sell them out at your local venue. That would really make a difference.”
He added: “Don’t go and sit in a Wetherspoons and give a multinational corporation more of your money; go down to your local venue this Saturday, see a band, and sell it out. That would help more than anything else.”
MVT said that 80 UK grassroots music venues remain in crisis ahead of their annual report arriving next month. This week they warned that “dozens of venues will close” in Wales if the government’s “unworkable” and “fantasyland” draft budget is adopted.
Back in October, Ticketmaster announced a new plan to allow its customers to contribute directly to the MVT. Independent ticketing company Skiddle also began donating 50p from every ticket sold towards saving grassroots music venues recently. Additionally, the firm pledged to match all funds raised through the levy – effectively doubling each contribution.
Elsewhere, The Piece Hall in Halifax launched an MVT donation scheme while Taxi app FREENOW pledged to give £1 from every journey in an effort to save grassroots music venues.
In October, the MVT bought the first venue under its public ownership scheme. The #OwnOurVenues initiative was first announced in May, following the news that legendary live spaces like North London’s Nambucca and Sheffield’s Leadmill were closing their doors or under threat, respectively.
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