Live Music Exchange Blog

Ten things learned at Venues Day 2017 – Emma Webster and Adam Behr


2017 saw the fourth instalment of the (hopefully) now annual Venues Day, which gathered over 300 venues from across the UK in one room. The day was kicked off by an impassioned introductory speech by BBC Radio 1’s Steve Lamacq in which told the assembled venues and promoters that ‘We must never stop telling people how important you are’ and spoke of the thousands of music fans who have had their lives changed by going to grassroots music venues, while appealing for every town to have somewhere ‘independent of thought and spirit’.

Here are the ten things we learned at this year’s event:

  1. The situation seems to be starting to improve for the grassroots music venue sector. Albeit a slightly more compact affair than last year’s Venues Day at the Roundhouse, this year’s event felt more optimistic than previous years and there was a sense this year that the situation is starting to change for the sector. We were told by Music Venue Trust (MVT) trustee Sarah Thirtle that the number of venue closures dropped dramatically last year, partly as a result of Music Venue Trust’s Emergency Response Team working with 40 venues in the last year to try to save them from closure.
  2. Efforts to introduce the Agent of Change principle into UK planning law continue apace, with Labour MP John Spellar planning to introduce a 10 Minute Rule Private Member’s Bill in Parliament in January 2018. Spellar’s take on the issue is that the loss of venues impacts not only on working musicians but also on the very fabric of the UK’s towns and cities. He was also concerned that the live music sector was starting to look too much to its past and not developing the talent pipeline: ‘mining rather than farming our musical heritage’. Spellar set out a persuasive case that as well as opera, ballet and sports, live music venues and nightlife all contribute towards the whole ambience of living in a multinational city. With Brexit looming large, then, live music venues have their part to play in making Britain an attractive place for the UK’s international workforce and tourists of the future. Michael Dugher, CEO of UK Music and ex-Labour MP pointed out that the Labour Party included the Agent of Change principle in its 2017 election manifesto and so suggested that any venues facing property development issues should contact local Labour MPs or councillors for support. Discussion of Agent of Change is also gathering pace around the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales.
  3. Sound levelsPlanning obligations, or Section 106 agreements, may also be a useful tool for venues facing threats from property development. Shain Shapiro of Sound Diplomacy pointed out that planning obligations—what he calls the ‘statue in a roundabout’ clause—could enable venues to extract funds from developers for improvements to their venues, which could lessen the potential for aggravation between the venue and any new neighbours. The obligations, part of The Town & Country Planning Act (1990), are a mechanism which make a development proposal acceptable in planning terms that would otherwise be unacceptable, so have been used by planners to get developers to pay towards building schools, for example, or to include affordable housing in their developments.  Shapiro suggested that venues could use the obligations to mitigate any changes as a result of property development such as flats being built next to the existing venue; building an acoustic lobby, for example, to lessen any noise made by patrons entering/leaving the venue. In tandem with the Agent of Change, which puts the onus on the developer to pay for changes such as double glazing in their new apartment blocks, use of the planning obligations could help to protect venues even in the face of city centre development.
  4. Song Music pledgeVenues are ‘the R&D arm of the music industries’, according to Mark Davyd, CEO of MVT. As he suggests, the grassroots sector is where new talent is developed and spotted and could therefore be seen as the R&D (research and development) branch of the entire music industries. To this end, Davyd wants the recording, publishing, and live music industries to recognise that their R&D branch is ‘haemorrhaging money’ and wants companies like Live Nation to ‘get their bloody cheque books out’ to put some money back in. It is worth noting that Sony Music have now come out in support of the work of the MVT in terms which appear to suggest that the message is getting through.
  5. Data about the sector is the ‘currency for getting anything done’, according to UK Music’s Head of Research, Natalie Williams. This year’s Venues Day featured a panel on the importance of facts in changing opinions, during which Live Music Exchange’s own Adam Behr and Emma Webster were able to give an overview of the Edinburgh Live Music Census and ongoing UK Live Music Census, the report for which which will be published in February 2018.
  6. Public opinion matters. In the ‘facts matter’ panel, Nick Stewart of Edinburgh’s Sneaky Pete’s pointed out the importance of public consultation and public opinion in affecting council decisions. He cited the example of the Music Is Audible campaign in Edinburgh as a good example of how the licensing board were forced to take into account the strong public support for amending the Council’s inaudibility clause. On this point, Shain Shapiro also noted that collective voices can be brought to bear on local authorities through voting, especially where majorities are small enough that the numbers concerned about an issue could potentially tip an election.Schedule
  7. Artists and venues reported ongoing concerns with PRS processes. In a heated debate about money and funding, panellists suggested that PRS were providing a poor service to both artists and venues. Artist Rhoda Dakar made the point that the PRS do not process setlist data themselves but instead ‘farm it out’ to an external agency, who she claims are inefficient and apparently keep rejecting her DJ sets. Nathan Clarke of Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club was critical of the fact that PRS does not yet offer an online system to venues for registering setlists and that it is apparently not possible for venues and promoters to get a list of PRS artists to check their PRS invoices against. Clarke went on to say that while venues want to support artists and are happy to pay a fair amount of PRS money to artists, he believes that the ‘one-way system’ is unfair to venues who he says don’t have any say in how the money is distributed.
  8. The small venue economic model needs to be rethought. In the same panel, Nathan Clarke made an impassioned case that that the general assumption about venues being the winners when the money ‘pie’ is shared out, is wrong. While musicians and promoters are generally seen to be the risk-takers in the equation, Clarke pointed out that venues risk losing their licence, their insurance, and their reputation every time they open the doors. Furthermore, it had earlier been pointed out that younger audiences aren’t drinking as much which is a worrying trend for venues which rely on alcohol sales rather than ticket sales or car parking. Suggestions for improving venues’ finances included: charging people when they leave via a ‘pay what you want’ model rather than people paying upfront; adding venues’ electricity costs and other overheads to costings sheets; applying for arts council funding; and establishing a ticket levy which feeds back in to the grassroots sector (for more on this final point, see #10 Ten Things Learned at Venues Day 2015).
  9. Even though event staff are ‘at the vanguard of counter-terrorism’, according to the Minister of State for Security, best practice for safety at smaller music venues is still in its infancy. In a panel on safety at gigs which ranged from gender-fluid toilets to terrorism, it became clear that best practice (a la the widely-used ‘Purple Guide’ to large-scale music gigs and festival safety) does not yet exist. To help venues better tackle terrorism, venues should:
  • be vigilant in keeping for people ‘casing’ the venue to help prevent an attack in the first place;
  • make people aware in advance the fact that they will be carrying out searches at the gigs as this will also help to put off would-be trouble-makers; and
  • ask the Counter Terrorism Unit for staff training, which has been made available to other kinds of cultural venue.

It was also suggested that guidelines should be drawn up for what musicians should do or say to the audience in the event of a terrorist incident. (For more on developments in event safety, see this article on the inaugural Event Safety & Security Summit.)

  1. There is still much to be done to address sexual harassment and assault at gigs. Tracey Wise, founder of Safe Gigs for Women, noted that they are working on a set of guidelines for venues and pointed out the festivals, for instance, can be clear about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour from the outside. Frank Turner, on the same panel, said that artists can use their platform to do likewise. Measures that venues can take to help women feel safe at gigs include:
  • Angelaput up posters for the Ask for Angela initiative and make staff aware of the initiative;
  • security staff should be trained to look for people who look as if they have been spiked or who are upset;
  • make sure that security staff are not being aggressive or making inappropriate comments; and
  • ensure that there is at least one female member of security staff so that there’s at least one female for women to speak to in case of any issues.

(On a related but different point, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, it is also worth noting that figures in the music industries have also suggested that abuse is common in music too, notably Sir Tom Jones and artist manager Sarah Bowden.)

We look forward to next year’s fifth anniversary event!


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