Case for £1 ticket levy on all arena gigs made to government

Artists and figures from the live music industry headed to Parliament to make the case to the UK government that there should be a mandatory £1 ticket levy on all gigs arena-sized and above, in order to secure the future of grassroots venues and artists.

Earlier this year, the Music Venue Trust delivered their full report into the state of the sector for 2023, showing the “disaster” facing live music with venues closing at a rate of around two per week. Presented at Westminster, the MVT echoed their calls for a levy on tickets on gigs at arena size and above and for major labels and such to pay back into the grassroots scene, arguing that “the big companies are now going to have to answer for this”.

The Featured Artists Coalition  – a trade union body representing the needs of musicians and artists in the UK – then wrote to NME to argue that while the survival of venues is “essential”, any kind of ‘Premier League’ model to be adopted by the industry needs to take into account keeping creators in pocket and being able to exist, as well as ways to open up the world of music to different genres, backgrounds and audiences.

“What good is it keeping venues open if artists can’t afford to perform in them?” asked FAC CEO David Martin.

Now the debate has been taken to the UK government, after last Tuesday (March 26) saw the Culture Media & Sport Committee hold evidence sessions with figures from across the industry to see what can be done.

“The first impact we need to realise is that is 125 communities that have lost access to live music on their doorstep,” Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd told the hearing. “The impact on those communities and the artists that live in those communities is very dramatic. The closure of a space like Bath Moles obviously has a huge impact on the pipeline, but it also has a huge impact on Bath as a music city. We need to recognise that across the country, we are seeing young people, communities of music fans, finding new music and live music further and further away from them.”

The economic impact of losing 125 music venues means that artists have lost around 16 per cent of all opportunities to perform across the UK (around 30,000 shows) – as well a loss of around 4000 jobs in total. However, Davyd argued that there was a “very significant blockage” in the talent pipeline as a result – leading to the “concern about whether the UK is going to continue to bring up the exceptional talent that we’ve dominated the world with for the last seven decades.”

“We’re a huge net exporter of music – where does that all start? It all starts at a grassroots music venue,” argued Davyd. “Even if your career didn’t start there, then your inspiration and aspiration started there because you lived in a community with music. If you take that away, then we’re taking away the starter motor of our entire industry. We need to really think about that and plan for the future because we do not have a plan at the moment.”

As well as arguing that the vast majority of the government’s music funding goes to the high arts (with more than 80 per cent reportedly going to opera and classical music), Davyd argued that the least the government could do was bring in business rate relief and VAT reduction to give venues a fighting chance, before calling for a ticket levy based on the model adopted in France in which 3.5 per cent of the gross value of tickets sold goes back to a grassroots fund which artists, promoters and venues can apply for.

He stated that “the French model works because no venues have closed”.

“Our proposal in the UK is that £1 per ticket on arena and stadium shows would create a sustainable fund that could be administered by ourselves, by other people concerned for promoters and artists – to create a fund where everyone can go and take risks with their programming and really give artists the first step they need with getting their foot on the ladder,” said Davyd.

“One of their biggest concerns is that frankly, artists cannot afford to tour. It’s just that the venues aren’t there to play in, it’s also that venues are standing empty when they could be putting on bands because bands cannot afford to put on the show.”

He added: “We have the healthiest grassroots music scene in the world, and that’s one of the reasons we’re on of the three net-exporting nations. We have an almost unique, organic petri dish of research, development and experimentation that happens in our communities almost by accident.

“We have a long history of experimentation, of taking cultural risks, of our artists being supported at grassroots level by people who just believe in music in their communities.

Davyd argued that the UK’s arenas “almost have to not object to it as much as they have to campaign for it”, and pointed to Enter Shikari who introduced a levy of their own at no extra cost to gig-goers. However, he said that any levy would have to be incorporated into the ticket price automatically rather than on a voluntary basis by the artist.

“The reality is in our industry is that the artist is not always consulted on every levy,” he said. “The reality is that in fact, promoters and venues frequently try and construct a model that is profitable around a tour in which the artist does not know about the fees and charges.

“What we need is a consensus of consent – we need everybody to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to try and make this happen collectively and collaboratively, and we will end up with a charge on every [arena] ticket.”

The loss of grassroots music venues is despite record-breaking billions being spent on ticket sales in the UK, with summer 2023 seeing a bumper calendar for stadium and outdoor gigs – including 1million people attending live music events in London just in one week alone back in July, thanks to huge outdoor shows from the likes of Bruce SpringsteenBlur, The 1975, Billy Joel and Lana Del Rey.

As a result of this, many have argued that it should be the larger arenas and stadiums and ticketing companies who would take on the levy, considering many tickets already come with a booking, facility and transaction fee.

John Drury, the Chair of the National Arenas Association and Vice-President and General Manager at OVO Arena Wembley, however, argued that the larger venues should not be made to foot the levy rather than artists opting in or out.

“We’re an ecosystem,” Drury told the hearing. “The recent posters showing the line-ups of Glastonbury and Reading with all of the artists [who came from grassroots music venues] taken out really speak volumes – not to the arenas so much but also the academy circuit and those venues further down the line that very much will rely on that grassroots circuit to build their career.”

He continued: “The reality of £1 per ticket for us, given the nature of many of our venues being managed by private landlords, city councils and charitable organisations, [is that] the impact would be something like a up to 20 per cent cut [in profits for the year].

“It’s not a few grains of sand – it’s significant. Our angle is more that this is a problem for the ecosystem, the industry as a whole, and that it goes right through at a live level to artists, managers, agents, crew, promoters, venues, and anyone associated with that system. We’re all very interdependent. It’s not for the venues or the promoters to pay; it’s an industry solution that we need to find.”

English Teacher at Reading 2023. Credit: Andy Ford
English Teacher at Reading 2023. Credit: Andy Ford

English Teacher frontwoman Lily Fontaine, who had previously spoken to NME about the importance of grassroots music venues as essential cultural hubs, also told the hearing about how artists are facing “a crisis in terms of funding” and being able to support themselves.

“There is a lack of funding for musicians to create music,” said Fontaine. “That is the foundation of the rest of the ecosystem for the music industry. In a sense, we’re employing everybody else.”

Giving a long list of outgoing expenses faced by artists, Fontaine mentioned studio time, rehearsal space, tour managers, engineers, van hire, musicians, non-artist fees, driver fees, accommodation, travel, carnets, visas, insurance, equipment, food, drink and photography to name a few.

“To maintain a level of professionalism in this industry, you have to have all of the those things in place,” she said. “There really isn’t any money coming in to fund that. You get record labels that give you an advance that has to be split between a number of people. At the end of the day, you’re left with zero profit.”

As well as arguing that “grassroots music venues bring joy and creativity to communities that need it and “without them, it would be grey”, Fontaine said that if the UK didn’t tackle the financial burden facing musicians now then “the knock-on effect of that could be incredibly severe”.

“If you can’t support artists who are signed to a major label and you can’t support artists at a lower level, then how is anyone without money or from a regional area where they don’t have access to venues going to have an opportunity to create music and tour it? That leads to a homogenous music industry which leads to less diverse music scenes. If there are less diverse music scenes, then music as one of our biggest exports, is then diminished.”

Asked, even as an acclaimed band about to release their debut album ‘This Could Be Texas’ on a major record label this month, if English Teacher had ever made any money, she replied: “No. In real terms, we don’t expect to make any profit from our tours. As a band we’ve been going for around four years. Currently, we’re working as artists over 40 hours a week.

“We’re working full-time but earning less than minimum wage. That’s not legal, but it’s the way that the industry works and the way it is now for us. If we do make money, it’s a little bit because our label has chucked us some money to make things even. We make a little bit of money from selling merch, but the bigger capacity venues can take a cut of that.”

As well as pointing out how many people in the music industry are working for free, Fontaine stated that being unable to afford the essentials like rent and basic bills meant that many were unable to allow themselves time to be creative.

“I was sofa-surfing whilst writing our first album and signed to a major label with a full team,” she said. “That’s hard, because I’m a 26-year-old person and to have worked on my career for so long and to be struggling [is tough], but it’s also hard to work on the creativity. You can’t focus on writing the music if you’re trying to get by every day.

“That’s why it’s important that the levy and whatever relief is provided to the artist.”

The frontwoman went on to agree that a compulsory ticket levy “seems more appropriate” on behalf of venues and large live music companies, as “it’s not very often that conversations like this are put to artists”.

“It’s no secret that within the industry, artists aren’t always consulted or brought into the room when it’s topics about money,” she said. “Trying to put it down to each individual artist for this would make it unsustainable as it would fluctuate depending on how much the artist knows about the levy. If we are going to bring this in, it needs to be sustainable so that people can distribute it fairly.”

FAC CEO David Martin agreed, highlighting that “this whole industry is based on the relationship between artist and fan”.

“We need to fund artists and we need to fund activity,” he began. “Yes, the ecosystem is essential – but it’s that activity that drives the ecosystem. That relationship is ultimately the problem that is solved in the live music industry. We need to put funding in the hands of artists; they’re the tastemakers, they’re the music creators, and they’re audience developers.”

Martin said that “too frequently, artists and music makers are not supported”, pointing out that recent government help with business rates relief, the Cultural Recovery Fund, furlough, local authority grants, and the grassroots music fund was not available to artists.

When the recent NME article pointing to a “cost of touring crisis” for artists was put to them, Martin said as a country, “We don’t fund the arts fantastically well”.

“We’ve got rising costs which impacts artists in two ways: the first thing that fans stop spending on is potentially going out and leisure, and the supply chain is very expensive,” he said. “The artist might take a fee, but they have to pay a lot of people and those costs have all gone up.

While agreeing that not enough government funding goes to commercial music instead of the high arts – pointing out that it’s “very burdensome to apply” especially to “artists surviving on a shoestring”, Martin said that the economic strain on musicians was compounded by the impact of Brexit leading to a “74 per cent decline in artists getting out to tour in Europe”.

As a result, Martin said that a levy was essential but should not fall upon the artist to face any extra financial burden.

“It would need to be on top of the ticket fee and can’t be a downward pressure on artists or a voluntary thing,” he added.

Meanwhile, Vice Chair of the Music Managers Forum Kwame Kwaten said that the grassroots music arena levy was “a great initiative” but needed to be “able to be accessed by artists and managers”.

“Even if you look at the BRITs recently, where we are now is where we’ve moved very far from major label culture into independent culture,” he argued. “RAYE is an independent artist, Stormzy started out and was playing Glastonbury as an independent artist, Skepta is an independent artist – these are independent artists that are earning our country millions of pounds and feeding it back in through tax.

“This whole thing of supporting the level of one person in a show up to a thousand is absolutely crucial. You don’t get to Ed Sheeran playing two shows at The O2, unless he played The Bedford in Balham, unless he played The Queen Of Hoxton. You don’t reach that without investment at this level. Unless artists and managers are supported from 0-1000 people venues, then you won’t reach that level.”

Highlighting how live music leads to benefits for hotels, restaurants, pubs, the high street, transport services, local media, songwriters, producers, and beyond, Kwaten concluded that the fact that 1000 people entering a music venue meant £1milllion to the local economy should push the government to enforce an compulsory ticket levy. That’s aside from the £6.7billion that the UK music industry is worth to the economy in general.

Without urgent help, he argued, the number of regional towns missing out on tour stops would only increase – leading to knock-on effects for venues and local business and empty high streets across the UK.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee will now consider the evidence, with results and policy advice expected in the months ahead. This comes with a general election rumoured to take place in the UK in October.

Meanwhile, Green Party London Mayoral candidate Zoë Garbett has since announced a policy that would place a levy on the biggest stadiums and venues in London, to be redistributed to London’s grassroots venues, including local bars, music venues and arts spaces.


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