How can London stop the slide and better protect its music venues? That was the question grappled with by the APPG for London’s Planning and Built Environment earlier this week as they debated how to arrest a 35% loss of vital grassroots music venues in the last 10 years.
Chair of the group Rupa Huq, MP Ealing Central and Acton said that the music industry contributes some £4bn to the economy and that venues have a key role in communities – but there had been a marked contraction in the number of smaller venues. What measures should be implemented to protect them? How could the planning system respond to pressures, and how do licensing and business rates fit into the equation?
John Spellar MP said music was part of the UK’s ‘cultural offer to the world’ and part of why people come to the country to live – ‘and it makes towns and cities liveable’. But it should be seen as creating an interactive environment that attracts people, with a sense of variety to attract people, and small venues provide starting points to the stars of tomorrow. ‘If you don’t have that kind of substructure, we will lose that pipeline’, he said.
Some of the bigger developers like Grosvenor Estates understand that they need to maintain the balance, but too many were ‘smash and grab’, said Spellar, not in it for the long term. In many older industrial areas with redundant factory buildings or office blocks, applications for residential development to transform them, next to existing music venues led to problems of noise, putting ‘completely unreasonable requirements’ on the music venues. So the Agent of Change principle sought to protect that, putting the onus on the new developers, with ministers signing up to it and ultimately getting it incorporated into planning legislation.
However, councils need to be aware of the powers they have, said Spellar, and the public should beware of developers wanting to do their own rather than independent sound surveys. Indeed, are developers notifying buyers of existing music venues and potential noise issues? ‘It does require local vigilance, and it does require campaigning’, said Spellar.
For Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of Music Venue Trust, it was also important that developers themselves need to appreciate that the attitude around music venues has changed, and that they are now more highly valued parts of the infrastructure of our cities. Neither is this just because of angry people signing petitions, but because they are important ‘start-up engines’ in social, cultural and economic terms – as well as places in which to meet prospective life partners. ‘My argument for protecting music venues is the survival of the species’, he joked.
‘Can somebody please get a grip on business rates?’ he added - one venue in Bristol had a rise of 600% in rates in one year, against a national average of 27%, in a ‘fragile economy’. ‘They don’t have the money’. Discretionary rate reliefs of the kind accorded to pubs should also apply to music venues, Davyd suggested, while licensing should also have ‘cultural parity’. ‘Going to a live event is good for you!’, he added. Every live venue loss represents the potential loss of ‘an Ed Sheeran’, a significant tax producer for the country.
Robert Salmons, Director, Ealing Club Community Interest Company and Artistic Director of Ealing Blues Festival, said one of the factors in the decline of live music venues was that grassroots in contemporary music were not seen as part of the ‘cultural consciousness’ of many people in organisations with influence – including English Heritage. ‘Blue plaques’ bring leverage, and a sense of heritage is important to people – the US seems to do this better than we do in the UK, Salmons added.
Paul Broadhurst, Head of 24 Hour London, Greater London Authority said rates and rents were other big factors affecting music venues but the GLA was working ‘steadily’ to change perceptions, even of the three words ‘night time economy’. These tended to make people immediately think of alcohol, which leads to anti-social behaviour, to crime. ‘We’re trying to move away from the language of the past and to a much more inclusive approach to how we think of our city, London, at night’. Calling these ‘grass roots music venues’ helped to change the game, emphasising their social and cultural value.
The GLA has also engaged with campaigners and councils and especially licensing officers to try and change their mindsets on how they might deal with venues, while the new London Plan mentions music venues in terms of their contributions to town centres and economies. London has a shortage of arena-sized venues, however, despite MSG’s plans for Stratford, said Broadhurst; we also need medium and small venues to allow for artist progression. But the music industry itself must also address the issue, funnelling profits back into grass roots venues to stop them closing, especially, added Spellar, given the ‘attractor’ they represent for international employers in the city and as anchors to other businesses in the locality – parking problems notwithstanding.