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Rethinking grass roots musicians and the small venue “crisis”. Chris Adams

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Last year’s LMX intern Chris Adams (aka self described failed music-maker Piet Haag ), adds to the ongoing discussion over the small venue crisis with an alternative and musician focused perspective.

Reading the recent LMX Ten Things Learned blog, it appears Venues Day 2015 was marked by a sense of “crisis” (Webster, 2015). Small, typically independently owned and operated venue businesses face an accumulating range of existential threats: declining and ageing audiences, the unloved PRS Tariff LP, property developers, unsympathetic local authority over-regulation and more. Straight away I’d like to emphasise and empathise: there is an everyday and distinctly painful human aspect involved. When a small venue business fails, workers lose their jobs and entrepreneurs lose their investment. Music fans lose a source of live music and musicians lose an outlet for their music-making. Yet small businesses fail all the time, with the statistic of up to 50% in the first five years of trading widely touted as the casualty rate. Notably, over 25% of those surveyed in the MVT Understanding Small Venues report (2015) are in their first five years of operation, suggesting we should expect many of them not to survive their infancy. In the process, they can be assumed to be competing against, and perhaps undermining the survival chances of other hard pressed, and sometimes iconic small venues. To only slightly misuse a favourite Frithism, “failure is the norm” (2001).

With headline terms like music, industry, independence, culture and cultural value framing the “crisis”, it is easy to forget the humdrum stuff that underpins running a small venue. And that it may also be a nightclub, restaurant or cafe. To have any prospect of surviving, the venue owner/s must at minimum be capable of handling the plethora of everyday tasks common to businesses throughout the highly regulated, licensed hospitality sector. Staff must be recruited, trained, managed, scheduled and paid for their labour. Reliable suppliers of drinks (and often food) must be sourced and selected with timely delivery effected alongside efficient stock control systems. Specialised equipment is necessary to safely store, prepare and dispense food and drinks. Even more specialised equipment is needed to amplify and illuminate live music. These assets have to be chosen from many available in the marketplace, and purchased, loaned or leased, safely installed and maintained. Employers, public liability, building and contents insurance are essential as are robust health and safety, security and fire alarm systems. Cash flow needs to be consistent. The business may be dependent on overdraft provided by a bank, which may also have charge over a mortgage for the venue property. Potentially substantial sums of money must be accounted for and declared along with VAT and other business taxes paid to HMRC. All of this, which is a far from exhaustive list, comes with the need for the small venue owner/s to have had the entrepreneurial nous to find and develop a viable niche, and get their small venue up and running in the first place.

This said, I’d like to suggest where small venues, and by association grass roots musicians and their music are concerned, consideration of the “crisis”, has to be understood in some part from the perspective of the economic term perfect substitutes. That is, on average it doesn’t really matter who is on stage in the small venue, or what it sounds like. Where grass roots musicians are concerned, the demand for their music, along with the audience, is generally self supplied. As such, with competition absent from an oversaturated marketplace, small venues either don’t need to pay grass roots musicians anything; pay well below the minimum wage; or to the same effect do ticket splits. This isn’t a case of bare faced exploitation though: it’s sensible business. If you took all the grass roots musicians on a standard evening’s bill at a typical small venue and paid them the UK minimum wage from load in to load out, said venue would be bankrupt in no time at all. So instead what we have is a central co-productive segment of the small venue business model. Grass roots musicians, whose primary motivation is the experience of live music-making, bring audiences, often composed of family and social circle, who consume products which small venues can exchange money for: tickets, food and drink. It is an arrangement which suits both parties, but it relies on significant “information asymmetry” (Jones, 2012). While the individual act and its members will be absorbed in their own art, uniqueness and prospects, the venue owner has different, broader priorities. He or she understands that to stay in business, the live music segment of their operation will require an average of X locally sourced grass roots acts per gig night to generate Y audience members, who each spend Z £. In other words, perfect substitutes.

This can be illustrated by the way the threat of failure and closure to businesses in the small venue sector is projected as a “crisis” while the near inevitable failure of the perfect substitutes who grace their stages is taken for granted. In fact, it is a structural  requirement for the small venue business model to function effectively. Attracting real fans is difficult, and novelty for the non-committed family-and-friends category of music fan wears off quickly. A constant aggregate supply of new acts is thus needed to replenish the “breeding grounds” which small venues represent (see Galloway, 2015, Trubridge, 2015). While the term suggests that what is taking place is some kind of natural selection as popular music culture and industry organically converge to create the next big thing,  this is rampantly self serving survivor bias. When we think of a small venue and remember fondly that such-and-such-a-nowadays-festival-headlining-act played here before they were big, we are forgetting all the individual grass roots musicians who didn’t get anywhere at all. In effect, focusing on the statistically insignificant number of “successful” musicians masks what actually takes place in small venues on a massive scale: deselection. Unknown self supporting grass roots musicians engage with small venue businesses and in fruitless expectation, the wider music-industrial structures they are notionally part of. From this perspective, small venues are just one set of exploitative cogs in a bigger and even more exploitative machine which remorselessly chews up grass roots musicians and spits them out (see also Albini, 1994).

While in terms of the “crisis” this might sound like I’m suggesting a clear cut case of small venues living and perishing by the sword, there is, I believe, a compelling flip side to the argument, though it requires some reconsideration of how we view grass roots musicians. To come back to the idea of perfect substitutes, and the scenarios outlined above, another way to think of this is musicians as consumers. The idea of buying a guitar, paying for tuition or hiring a recording studio is easy enough to grasp as straightforward consumption. Money in exchange for goods or services. When musicians appear to be subject to some form of external selection, like a gig, tour, professional management, booking agent, record or publishing deal this would seem to break down. However, to draw upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1986, 1993) they are in fact still engaged in consumption: the means of exchange widen and shift from solely financial towards social and cultural forms of capital. For example, to “purchase” a gig at a local small venue, grass roots musicians have to possess some amount of financial and cultural capital – instruments, equipment and a demonstrable commitment to being heard making music. More critically, they also need exchangeable social capital – a network of friends and family who will come to the gig as a cash endowed audience. Social capital (aka initial novelty) can deplete quickly, so local venues restrict exchange by limiting how often they’ll “sell” performance slots to an act. Similarly, if the grass roots musicians try and book somewhere out of their home town, unless they can demonstrate exchangeable social capital in their target area they won’t get far. For those who possess some coveted combination of sufficient financial, social and cultural capital, the hometown limitation can be overcome by purchasing a wide range of support services in exchange for rights to time share in the prospect of future income.

Unfortunately as already noted, only a very tiny proportion of grass roots musicians have this rare mixture of capital that enables them to progressively consume their way to bigger stages and viable careers. The vast majority don’t, yet their interaction with small venues is still defined by the industrial and ideological narratives of those who do. The trajectory of their relationship inverts as musician is turned from consumer to consumed, from the employer of a service, to employed by it. Grass roots gigging isn’t a form of leisure, it is a type of work, ”a platform for artists to build their careers” (Music Venue Trust, 2015). Even the MU gets in on the act. The grass roots music making which takes place in small venues is labour to be “proportionately rewarded” (Musicians’ Union, n.d.), ironically putting grass roots musicians to work for free in service and preservation of the union’s principles. Over all hangs the comfortable rhetoric of cultural value and participation, which serves to atomise “artists” while mitigating the effects of their aggregation. Individuality does not sit well with being one amongst millions of perfect substitutes producing “culture” at a scale which renders it meaningless. Or at least on the terms by which it is usually understood. Perhaps most pernicious of all is the label I have used throughout this blog: grass roots musicians. At once, it conjures the suggestion of something organic, growing, authentic, local and productive. Yet out in the field, season to season, one seed, root or blade of grass is indistinguishable from the next: the embodiment of the perfect substitute.

Rethinking musicians instead as consumers, and music, by extension, as the performance of their consumption yields an alternative and pragmatic perspective on small venues and the “crisis” in three key respects. Firstly, it highlights their role and operating model as experiential service businesses. Small venues fulfil grass roots musicians’ demand for the affordable, accessible means to engage locally with the live dimension of music-making. Secondly, it allows us to (re)locate small venues within a broader field of high risk, high churn enterprises based around monetising their local grass roots music-making through its large scale perfect substitutes participative appeal. This is a business sector in which “crisis” is the status quo. Survivor bias and the quantitive unknown coalesce as invitation to those with time, effort and money sinkable or sunk to blindly join the competitive free for all. Most, one way or another, at some point, will fail. Thirdly, it challenges the orthodox view that small venues are somehow a foundational element in a hierarchically constructed “music industry” which has a “bottom” (small local business) connected to a “top” (big multinational business). Returning to the Ten Things blog (Webster, 2015), makes clear that this is little more than wishful reification. If anything, as the “toilet circuit” for entry level touring acts trying to achieve economy of scale, small venues function as exit nodes for precious locally derived live music expenditure. Operating on tight margins, this reduces already limited scope to reinvest and build the resilience to adapt to an extremely challenging business environment.

To finish, set aside the cultural, industrial and economic rhetoric which frames the small venue “crisis” and what is left are local music communities, often comprised of the kind of people who, if you’re reading this, might well be you, your friends, family or work colleagues. Many have already lost jobs, businesses and local outlets for live music-making, and more are at risk. This human misfortune does not arise from a “crisis” for culture, but rather that the culture itself is “crisis”. It is a structural feature which big music business has evolved to survive and even thrive on. The argument here, at the level of the local, where small venues and grass roots musicians live, is surely, that there is little point in perpetuating a model of industrial culture which is neither humane or locally sustainable. Instead of looking up to politicians, quangos or industry for salvation, perhaps it would make more sense to look to the primary consumers of the local small venue service: musicians.

Chris Adams

References

Albini, S., 1994. The Problem With Music [online] Available at: http://www.negativland.com/albini.html

Bourdieu, P., 1986. The Forms of Capital. In: Biggart, N.W. ed. 2002. Readings in Economic Sociology. Malden. Blackwell Publishers Inc

Bourdieu, P., 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Frith, S., 2001. The Popular Music Industry. In: Frith, S., Straw, W. & Street, J. eds. 2001. The Cambridge Companion To Pop And Rock. 2001. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. pp. 26-52.

Galloway, V., 2015. Small Live Venues Nurture The Stadium Stars of Tomorrow. [online] Available at: http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts_ents/13200669.Small_live_venues_nurture_the_stadium_stars_of_tomorrow/

Jones, M., 2012. The Music Industries. From Conception to Consumption. Basingstoke. Palgrave MacMillan

Music Venue Trust, 2015. Understanding Small Music Venues. [online] Available at: http://www.musicvenuetrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/music_venue_trust_Report_V5-1.pdf.

Musicians Union, n.d. Fair Play Guide. [online] Available at: http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Files/Guides/Playing-Live/Fair-Play-Guide

Trubridge, H., 2015. Throwing a Lifeline to Grass Roots Music Venues. [Online] Available at: http://livemusicexchange.org/blog/throwing-a-lifeline-to-grass-roots-music-venues-horace-trubridge/

Webster, E., 2015. Ten Things Learned at Venues Day 2015. [online] Available at: http://livemusicexchange.org/blog/ten-things-learned-at-venues-day-2015-emma-webster/

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