Live Music Exchange Blog

The Ecology of Live Music: the evolution of an idea – Live Music Exchange editorial team


To mark the publication of our academic article on the live music ecology [open access, via link], the LMX team is publishing our original discussion notes.   These illustrate the origins of the ideas that inform the article but include points that weren’t further developed (and perhaps should have been). We thought it worth making public—particularly in relation to this topic—an aspect of the academic process that is usually hidden.  Here then are the position papers we wrote before developing the article.

Simon Frith

At some stage—I don’t remember when—we started using the term ‘ecology’ to describe the way we were approaching the analysis of live music. We now apply the term routinely and claim that our ecological approach is what makes our work valuable and distinct.   Is this claim justifiable? There are two immediate points to make here. The first is that ‘ecology’ is a buzz term (like ‘creativity’) – it’s obviously a good thing to be ecological, to talk about the ‘ecosphere’, ‘eco-systems’, etc. Presumably there’s more to our use of this term than vague self-congratulation. Second ‘the ecological approach’ already has a distinct meaning in musicology (or, rather, in music psychology). Eric Clarke has pioneered an “ecological approach” to understanding the perception of music, arguing (to quote the blurb for his book) “that the way we hear and understand music is not simply a function of our brain structure or of the musical ‘codes’ given to us by culture, but must be considered within the physical and social contexts of listening.”  Clarke’s argument is certainly relevant to the study of live music, but it is not the reason for our use of ecological language.

Ecology is the scientific study of the relationship between living organisms and their environment; it is a branch of the natural sciences. The only live music organisation to think in these terms is Julie’s Bicycle, which is precisely concerned with the effects of, say, festivals, on the environment in this sense—in terms of carbon emissions, environmental damage, etc. Our perspective is different: we are interested in the relationship between social organisms (groups of people, social institutions, etc) and their cultural environment (social spaces, ideologies, other institutions, etc), i.e. material conditions which are not just physical or biological. These relations have always the central topic of study for both sociologists and social geographers, so what’s the purpose of claiming to be ‘ecological’?

Bear in mind that we are not taking an ecological approach to music (or music institutions) in general. We are using the term to get at the particular conditions of live music making. There is both a positive and a negative impetus here.   The most obvious characteristic of live music is that it has to happen in a particular place, a particular acoustic and geographical setting. The social context for a live music event thus necessarily involves a physical as well as a cultural environment. The ecological approach here (which is probably not that much different from social geography) thus means understanding the relationship between different spaces and how they are mutually sustaining (whether across territories, as in the case of touring, or within urban environments, as in the case of planning ‘zones’). The space-specific nature of live music is thus a positive impetus to develop an ecological approach. (As it was for Clarke in the context of music psychology.)

The negative impetus that shaped our approach was the rejection of ways of thinking about live music that understand the promotional business in straight market terms or else assume that there are clear distinctions between different music worlds. We call our approach ecological because we want to draw attention to the importance of collaboration and mutual dependency between different businesses (even competitive businesses) and to blur the dividing lines usually drawn between different kinds of music-making and music-makers. To put this another way, we want to show that what seems like irrational behaviour in terms of market economics (putting on or playing at a concert which will not bring any financial returns; charging less for tickets than people are willing to pay; trusting a promoter …) can be seen as quite reasonable if understood in terms of its real-life environment (which has to be understood across time as well as space). Live music is interesting to study because it can only be understood by refusing to accept the usual distinctions of music sociology—between state and commercial interests, between amateur and professional players, between high and low music, between big and small promoters, and so forth.   We call this an ecological approach to emphasise that there is a single environment in which all these activities happen (an environment that these activities themselves shape).

Martin Cloonan

I also can’t recall at which point we first used the term ecology but I’m pretty certain that what we meant by it was some sort of holistic approach to understanding live music. So while our initial research focus was on promoters, we soon found that understanding them and their world meant understanding the key relationships in which they are involved – with artists and their agents/managers, with venues (even if they own them), with ticket agents (ditto), with other promoters (including both adversarial and cooperative relationships), with various regulatory authorities and so on and so forth. It meant asking what promoters need to do to continue to make a living or simply to keep promoting for the love of it.

Meanwhile, the fact that live music has to happen somewhere immediately brought to our attention a whole host of relationships involving regulations which simply don’t apply to recorded music. In the general run of things, if I put out a record it doesn’t have health and safety implications but if I put on a gig it does. Understanding live music ecologically means consideration of such things.

Simon betrays his Marxist heritage with his reference to the ‘material conditions’ of live music, but that is indeed what we are talking about. Simon is right that decisions about the promotion of live music often defy crude market logic in the sense that the profit is not always a prime consideration for promoters or even a consideration at all. But the laws of supply and demand hold some sway. A key moment in many promoters’ careers comes when after making money booking a lot of acts that they liked, they find that in order to carry on being they have to book acts that other people like. The logic of the market dictates that any promoter booking only acts that she personally likes is unlikely make a fortune. Much like record companies, promoters second guess public taste–and the best ones do so ecologically, That is, they look at the bigger picture. They are very aware of the wider world and their place in it. Survival is dependent on this.

Competition plays a key role here and it is worth reflecting that across the Western world at least, only two concert promotions companies really matter: AEG and Live Nation. At the top end of the food chain you may not have to deal with one of these companies, but life is much easier if you do. Interestingly they tend to think of themselves as events organisers and so music does not always have to be their focus. Thus DF Concerts (which is co-owned by Live Nation) can put on both Bruce Springsteen at Hampden Park and the Pope at Bellahouston Park. Logistically these events have much in common and to understand live music ecologically means knowing something about the wider entertainment and leisure industries. After all, pubs remain key sites of live music.

There is much to be said about the fact that a great deal of live music (I would suggest the majority) takes place in venues that were not purpose built for music. To think ecologically I would suggest reflecting on your local town/place of residence and consider the various venues, their histories, what music they put on, who owns them and how they survive. Perhaps, following Ruth Finnegan, we might think of live music pathways, for promoters, musicians and audiences. Or we might think about the huge amounts of public money that have been ploughed in to the Arenas which have transformed the concert circuit in the UK and ask where the money made in these places ends up.

For me, then, to think ecologically about live music must involve some consideration of who is controlling the means of production in a situation where for audiences the ‘product’ means so much more than such a term generally implies. To think ecologically is not the same as thinking economically, but to start with the economy might not be a bad way to begin thinking ecologically.

Matt Brennan

In 2011 IASPM Canada held a conference at McGill University on the theme of ‘Music and Environment’. The call for papers noted that ”in recent academic discourse we have observed a turn towards the ecology of sound, which can imply political advocacy of the preservation of an environment’s sonority”. Martin, Emma, and I did a panel session, and my paper was unsubtly titled ‘The ecology of live music in Britain’. What follows are some arguments from that paper with added hindsight.

The term ecology is creeping its way into the discourse of music sociology, and is loosely used to describe the study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment, and how such relationships can operate in a dynamic system – not unlike an ecosystem. Frith, Cloonan, and Williamson touched on this approach without explicitly mentioning the word ‘ecology’ when they argued, 2009, that one of the necessary ingredients for a healthy local musical culture is a diversity of musical spaces: “the variety of places to play, rehearse and see all kinds of music – rooms, venues, clubs, colleges, universities. Variety is the key term here, variety in terms of size, genre, time of opening, kind of audience, etc.’ (Frith et al 2009).

Emma and I then used this notion and the explicit term ‘live music ecology’ in a 2011 article expressing our concern at the increasing consolidated ownership of venues, agents, and promoters by Live Nation, AEG Live, and their subsidiaries, in which we also discussed the impact of the live music sector’s economic structure on the live music environment:

The growth of corporate concert promotion, Live-Nation style, is bound to have effects on the ecology of live music. If the live music sector is to be sustained, new talent must develop, and for this to happen venues are needed for new ‘amateur’ artists as well as for established professionals. Indeed, live music needs an environment in which the amateur and professional spheres overlap and interact. This is why ‘top-down’ organisations such as Live Nation are potentially problematic: if the balance between venues and ownership leans too far in one direction, then the whole ecology is endangered. On the other hand, the fact that live music is inevitably embedded in particular localities with their own unique set of contingencies makes it difficult for a corporate promoter ever to impose a completely standardised network of facilities. It will be interesting to see if the Live Nation model of promotion will continue to grow – it could [just as easily] collapse. (Brennan and Webster 2011, 17-18)

I therefore agree with Simon and Martin that an ecological approach to understanding live music is useful but I want to play devil’s advocate for a moment and interrogate the dangers of using ecology as an analogy. It’s tempting to map concerns about the consolidation of the live music industry onto common narratives of ecological crisis. Consider this familiar idea: creating a monoculture leaves an ecosystem more susceptible to being wiped out by a single disease. The mirror question is ‘if the current live duopoly of Live Nation and AEG Live runs into trouble, will it devastate the British live music ecosystem?’ Armchair science also tells us that different species are linked together in an interdependent chain: if bees become extinct, for instance, it’s not just bad for bees but has serious negative ramifications for the entire ecosystem. The mirror question is ‘if small venues are struggling while large arenas thrive, will the whole system eventually become unsustainable?’

A third ecological narrative is that the introduction of a foreign species into an ecosystem can sometimes wreak havoc on the environment (the negative impact of the North American grey squirrel on British woodlands and native species like the red squirrel is a much cited example). The mirror narrative is that promoters operating at a transnational level may muscle out smaller local promoters with local expertise that has been naturally developed over time.

The question is: do these analogies bear out in practice?  It is easy to leap from an understanding of the fragility of an ecosystem to an equivalent concern for the UK’s live music ecology. But this may be misleading! Our historical research shows us that at the end of the 1950s the music press ran many stories on the decline of the country’s network of variety theatres and dance halls, but we now know this predated one of the most exciting and vibrant periods in the history of British live music. We need to look at evidence without making assumptions and build our theories from the evidence not the other way round.

Emma Webster

The concept of ecology informed my doctoral work, and the term is used liberally within my thesis. My research examined three case study cities – Sheffield, Glasgow, and Bristol – comparing the promotion of live music within each city and exploring how infrastructural factors affect live music culture in each place. Ecology is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment, while an ecosystem is defined as “a biological system composed of all the organisms found in a particular physical environment, interacting with it and with each other [and/or] a complex system resembling this”.

I thought of each locality, then, as a live music ‘ecosystem’ which exists within a wider ecology. Adding to Simon Frith’s formulation of the necessary ingredients for a healthy musical city, I suggested that as well as the physical spaces in which to produce music, a local live music ‘ecosystem’ consists of the networks between people, social groups, and their environment (Webster 2011, 12). A local live music ecosystem thus exists within unique local physical, social, industrial and economic infrastructures, but also within wider regional, national and international frameworks, hence ecologically speaking, the local is inextricably intertwined with a wider ecology. As ex-venue owner Andy Inglis states, “a new venue opening close to an existing one might have no immediate effect in a certain town, for instance, but may have in another, or may take a week, a month, or a year to gradually have an impact, resulting in the existing one closing; it may be the sole factor, or it may be the straw the broke the camel’s back.” (Inglis 2013).

The ethos of the live music project was from the start to research “all kinds of musical event, from orchestral and chamber music concerts to stadium shows and rock festivals, from rap and reggae gigs to acoustic and jazz club nights.” As my research showed, while venues within a local ecosystem are affected by other venues within the local ecosystem and within a wider economic and cultural ecology, the various music worlds may also intertwine within a venue itself (albeit with perhaps little actual overlap at any given event).

My research also found that while venues may be associated with a particular genre, they are by no means tied to it. In one month in 2009, for example, The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, hosted concerts by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Alison Moyet, Runrig, and the East Dunbartonshire Council, the latter featuring 350 school pupils from across East Dunbartonshire singing Christmas carols. In a similar vein, venues may be affiliated with one of the different types of promoters identified by Frith et al (2013) – ‘state’, ‘enthusiast’, and ‘commercial’ – but, again, they are not necessarily restricted to one type (although ‘enthusiast’ promoters are unlikely to promote in very large venues).

Looked at in this way, the discursively separate worlds of classical and pop, folk and jazz, are interlinked via the physical spaces in which they are performed, the audiences who enjoy a range of different genres, and the ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ musicians who perform therein. The Live Music Exchange live music news Twitter feed has taken on this ethos and hence tweets stories about opera, musicals, folk, jazz, pop, rock, electronic dance music – the list goes on. In a similar vein, we publish stories about tiny venues in Bath as well as massive arenas in Nottingham. The Twitter feed includes stories and articles about broader cultural issues, such as music education, the regulation of live music and arts funding (or lack thereof).

That venues and promoters within a local ecosystem are diverse and may share some characteristics but vary widely in others, is part of the reason that each local live music ecosystem is unique. We advocate diversity among the live music ecology because without such variety, as Matt suggests and I have discussed elsewhere (Webster 2011, pp. 237-8), live music in the UK would perhaps be relatively homogenous. As one promoter warned, concerned at the increasing spread of O2 Academies around the UK: ‘It’s like going to, say, West Berlin, and going, “Oh, it’s a Woolworths … Oh, it’s a WH Smiths. Oh, I was expecting something different”’ (Hobson 2008). 

Adam Behr

I come to the use of the term ecology from a slightly different point of origin. Being, as it were, the Ron Wood of the broader live music project I joined the KE project that became LMX, after the conclusion of the initial research project. The term ‘ecology’ was by then a fait accompli so my understanding of it was informed by the outputs of the original project (notably Brennan and Webster: 2011, Frith et al IASPM Journal) and also the proceedings of the Business of Live Music Conference [March – April 2011]

This isn’t to say that I had no preconceptions about how live music operates in a given area. In the very broadest sense – and this allows for all the variants of ‘ecology’, ‘environment’, etc. – it is a system of some sort. It is also a set of relationships – between venues, promoters, artists, agents, local councils and so on, and one way to approach this is to compare the ecological model other ways of conceiving socio-musical systems. The obvious comparators here are Becker’s ‘art worlds’ (1980) and Bourdieu’s ‘fields’ (1993). Becker’s understanding of art as collective activity within a network is clearly relevant to the much touted aspect of ‘interdependence’ within an ecology’, but it’s not clear to me that all of the aspects of an ecological system work to create meaning in the same way as the participants of an ‘art world’.

Bourdieu’s emphasis on competition also has some resonance. A key difference, however, between Bourdieu’s account of cultural fields and our understanding of the live music systems is that not all aspects of the latter are agents. It’s hard to think, for example, of a venue as an agent – notwithstanding that the promoters, musicians, etc. using it are – and yet venues are clearly key nodes in the live music ecology. The point here is that an ecology of live music has a concern for physical space and materiality that ‘cultural field’ and ‘art world’ approaches lack. Further, not even all of the key people who impact and shape the live music ecology are necessarily musical agents (or members of a music world) as such. A local councillor, say, or planning official, don’t have the same relationship to the cultural field as, say, a music critic or awards judge, yet their actions can have crucial and long-lasting consequences ecologically.

All this is to emphasise the material conditions of local music making and to agree that it is impossible to ignore that these conditions are entwined in economic structures. In this way I agree with Martin’s suggestion that we can use economics as a way into thinking about ecology. This means viewing the economic relationships as the system that acts on – and is affected by- the live music ecology, in a manner analogous to, say, the weather and the physical ecology. Politics (local and national) might also be described in this way.

As an addendum, there’s also perhaps a more opportunistic element to all of this. As Simon suggests, ‘ecology’ has become a buzzword in discussions of live music. It’s not just academics using the term but also journalists and, more significantly, policy makers and consultants. Ecological metaphors seem to have become a useful way of explaining academic research into cultural systems to lay readers (part of our required ‘knowledge exchange’ work) and of justifying local and national music investment strategies, whether by state or corporate agencies, to their constituents. It helps that there are, as Matt notes, structural resemblances between the live music ecology and the physical ecology: interdependence, parasitic behaviour, symbiosis an so on.   From this perspective we could say that thinking of live music in terms of ‘ecology’ is also an effect of the material conditions of the people doing the thinking, whether LMX, Edinburgh City Council or UK Music. Such people are, of course, themselves part of the live music ecology, which has the neat result that the concept of ‘ecology’ here is itself ecologically determined!


Becker, H. (1982), Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Cambridge: Polity.

Brennan, M. and Webster, E. (2011) Why concert promoters matter. Scottish Music Review, 2 (1), pp. 1-25

Frith, S., Brennan, M.. Cloonan, M. and Webster, E. (2010), Analysing Live Music in the UK: Findings One Year into a Three-Year Research Project, IASPM Journal,1:1

Frith, S., Brennan, M., Cloonan, M. and Webster, E. (2013) The History of Live Music in Britain, Volume I: 1950-1967. From Dance Hall to the 100 Club. Aldershot; Ashgate Publishing.

Frith, S., Cloonan, M. and Williamson, J.(2009) ‘On music as a creative industry’ in T. Jeffs and A. Pratt ed. Creativity, Innovation and the Culture Economy, London: Routledge, 2009, 74-89.

Hobson, M. (2008) Personal interview, Sheffield with Emma Webster, 21 August.

Inglis, I. (2013) Wanted: nine million affluent gig-goers. Live Music Exchange website. Available from: <> [Accessed 20 March 2014].

Webster, E. (2011) Promoting live music in the UK: a behind-the-scenes ethnography. PhD thesis: University of Glasgow.


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