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December 14, 2015updated 29 Jul 2021 10:32am

This year, the future of Britain's music venues was placed firmly on the political agenda

By Shain Shapiro

In early December, the opposition proposed an amendment to UK planning law. In addition, the Liberal Democrat Lord Clement Jones raised a debate in the House of Lords, focused on music venues.

The amendment was defeated. But its appearance in parliament – in both the Commons and the Lords – concludes a landmark year in understanding and dealing with the threats facing Britain’s grassroots music venues, and our music ecosystem as a whole.

First, we had to recognise a problem: Britain’s music venues are in trouble. And this trouble affects much more than the music staged in them. It impacts the cultural makeup of our cities, and moves our conception of value away from what happens inside a building, and onto how much the bricks and mortar are worth.

The debate concerning the profitability and viability of music venues has been going on since the birth of amplified music, of course. But 2015 was the year this debate crossed the bench from a music issue to a quality of life issue. A year ago, a debate on music venues in Parliament – a recognition of the value they represent in our cities – would have been unheard of.

It began with an audit conducted by the Music Venue Trust, who concluded that London – just London – saw a third of its venues disappearing in between 2007 and 2015. Other parts of the country, from Glasgow to Leeds, Cardiff to Newcastle, were seeing venues closures as well. A number of factors contributed to this, including noise issues, regeneration, management and the housing crisis.

At the same time, a number of club and restaurant owners in London formed the Night Time Industries Association, to speak against increasingly restrictive licensing on (mainly) independent venues. Together, a lobbying group was created to speak for music venues and nightclubs, similarly to the manner CAMRA campaigns for pubs. The panic button was activated.

We must understand the value our music venues and nightclubs have to our local economy. Each building is in and of itself an incubator, supporting as many businesses a tech startup hub. A successful establishment has bars, staging, lights, food, drink, security, and talent. Each of those is its own industry sector. Losing our venues meant losing our business as a whole.

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Panic led to action, and action led to the identification of a culprit – Britain’s planning and licensing system. Amendments to planning law had emphasised housing over anything else, including music venues. Licensing restrictions crippled independent businesses. The cost of land – including rent, rates and tax – had made running a venue unviable. The venue, as we know it, became a market failure, despite it amplifying and supporting many other markets. Something needed to be done.

In London, with the help of UK Music, the industry trade body, the Music Venue Trust and the Greater London Authority created a task force to investigate venue closures. At the same time, Sheffield City Council commissioned a report on its music ecosystem. Similar debates began in Sunderland, Brighton and Cardiff.

To assist in communicating with policymakers, the Music Venue Trust defined what a “Grassroots Music Venue” is, compiling over 30 factors as to why they are, en masse, struggling. Now, that term meant something for policymakers – and a dialogue could be established to prove its value. A venue had been defined and communicated as a business hub, an IP incubator and a network developer. The language had changed.

Fast forward to October 2015. In less than a year, two parliamentary debates had recognised and discussed this issue. Two events were established to further the debate, Venues Day and the Music Cities Convention. A landmark report, the Rescue Plan for Live Music Venues in London, was released; its recommendations are now being debated and planned. And the role of our music venues have been debated at the Planning Officers Society and licensing authorities, and in council chambers up and down the country.

To understand all this, we must know how our cities are being planned. In the UK, the value of the land is more important than what happens inside the building – because planning law is written in such a way to favour private return over public good. Our city centres are emptying of artists, creating a generation of commuter-creators, who cannot afford to live in the areas that most demand their skills. The value of a venue as housing is significantly higher than it is as a place for staging bands or DJs.

Today, all levels of government are debating this issue. But venues are still threatened. Currently, eight face enforcement over noise, much of it coming via new developments built in close proximity.

The amendment proposed by Labour would adopt a guidance called the “Agent of Change” principle, which would shift responsibility to the developer, as long as the venue stays within its license. At the same time, a number of new venues are being planned across the country, from Denmark Street in the London’s West End, to the Royal Docks, to the MAC Quarter in Sunderland. London’s “Night Mayor”, a recommendation in the rescue plan, is likely to be announced soon; the night tube, an indicator of a shift towards an economy that operates around the clock, will create safer routes for people to get to and from where they want to go.

So as we look to 2016, we have a lot to be pleased about, but a lot of work still to do. For those like me who value our cities because of what’s in them, rather than how much each building is worth, we must continue to learn and speak the language needed to support our music venues and clubs.

Because the UK is a world leader in both our music and our cities. It is about time we put the two together.

Shain Shapiro is the managing director of Sound Diplomacy, a consultancy specialising in music cities and market development, and the founder of the Music Cities Convention.

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