Live Music Exchange Blog

Connecting research on cultural value and the ecology of live music – Matt Brennan


This week’s blog post is by Live Music Exchange’s own Matt Brennan, this time writing in his capacity as part of an AHRC project investigating the cultural value of live music. In this post, he connects recently completed work on live music at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, to a new research project on the ecology of live music venues throughout the UK.

Whether it’s the new Leeds Arena or the Glasgow Hydro, city councils seem agreed that bigger is better when it comes to building new venues for live events. Giant venues grab more attention in the press, command juicier corporate sponsorship, achieve economies of scale for the promoter, drive more traffic into surrounding local businesses, and attract live acts with the star power to fill otherwise oppressive grey (they’re usually grey) sheds. All of this investment is based on the premise, of course, that the supply of arena-filling acts won’t run out anytime soon. But further down the live music food chain, what kind of support exists for the smaller venues in which artists develop before they’re ready to make the big time?

Let’s take the case of Edinburgh. Throughout our research on the cultural value of live music with the Queen’s Hall as a case study, our research team had to keep in mind the relation of the venue to the wider ecology of live music venues in the city. During the festival season each August, Edinburgh is saturated with buzzing venues for live entertainment – many of them are temporary and makeshift spaces, while others operate all year round. The Queen’s Hall, a 900-capacity former church, falls into the latter category. It receives some subsidy from Edinburgh City Council and is the home of the Scottish Government-funded Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO), but also relies on commercial income from venue hire by amateur and semi-professional artists, and by the Edinburgh International Festival as well as by Scotland’s biggest commercial promoters.

Outside of August, Edinburgh has sometimes struggled to sustain small and mid-level live music venues. The most recent example of this is the December 2013 closure of the 1500-capacity Picture House venue. The venue, formerly owned by the HMV Group, was sold to Wetherspoons with a view to converting the space into one of its chain pubs – all of which, to add insult to injury for Edinburgh gig goers, have a strict ‘no live music’ policy. When venues like this close and fail to be replaced, it raises a few questions: is it the case that this was simply a commercial failure (i.e. that not enough people like going to gigs in Edinburgh to support such a venue) or just an unfortunate consequence of the struggling HMV Group trying to sell off any assets to balance its books, and is there anything that could be done by either commercial investors or the city to maintain a sustainable and healthy ecology of live venues of different sizes?

In the UK’s current climate of austerity, neither commercial investors nor local authorities are likely to take risks on new ventures in live music provision. However, perhaps there is another way to address the problem. Certain localities in the UK enjoy reputations as live music hotspots, such as Glasgow, and Leeds, and parts of London such as Camden; perhaps we can learn something by figuring out the ingredients to healthy live music cultures such as these. How does local authority policy in different areas – licensing, approaches to noise complaints, planning, and culture – encourage or discourage live music from happening? How do council-owned venues work alongside commercial venues to provide a range of spaces and sizes of venue where music can happen? How do we define ‘investment’ in live music: are there practices which don’t involve direct injections of capital but nevertheless contribute to a culture of music making and gig going? Do public bodies and commercial investors value live music – if so how, if not why not?

These questions exist against a backdrop of pressure on the public purse being felt nationally and locally, from larger institutions – orchestras, opera companies, etc. – to the grassroots as direct funding dries up due to cuts. Furthermore, although live music continues to be trotted out as a key source of revenue in the 21st century music industries, there is growing concern that just because profits are up from sell-out large-scale festivals, arena, and stadium tours, it doesn’t necessarily follow that wealth is trickling down to the grassroots live music economy of small capacity venues, promoters, and developing artists – anecdotal evidence of this comes from recent press reports on the plight of the so-called ‘toilet circuit’ in the UK and the establishment of the Music Venues Trust to champion and defend small venues from closure.

Today’s stadium acts started in the pubs and local hotspots that are now struggling – in other words, an ecological model. We need to think more carefully about how this ecology works, which includes consideration of how issues that are, on the surface at least, removed from music policy (e.g. transport infrastructure, sensitive or draconian local licensing regimes, zoning and health and safety policies) may affect local live music ecologies just as much as direct investment from state, municipality or commerce.

We are therefore announcing a second AHRC Cultural Value project, which runs from March to July 2014, in which we hope to shed light on such interactions by examining them in context and practice in three case study localities across the UK – the London Borough of Camden, Leeds and Glasgow. We’ll be working with PRS for Music, UK Music, and the Musicians’ Union, as well as interviewing local and national policy makers, council officers, and venue operators to investigate how the public and private stakeholders in a city’s venues value – in theory and in practice – the live music venue ecology. Watch this space for a report to be published at the end of July 2014 with the findings from this new project.

Matt Brennan

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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