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Throwing A Lifeline To Grass Roots Music Venues – Horace Trubridge


Throwing A Lifeline To Grass Roots Music Venues – Horace Trubridge

Horace Trubridge, Assistant General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union reflects on his experience of music venues and the increasingly challenging environment in which they operate. He suggests that if a healthy grass roots live scene is key to the emergence of the talent which fuels the music industry, shouldn’t the industry be doing more to help?

One of the first things I did when I came to work for the MU some twenty five years ago was to write an article for our in-house magazine about how difficult it had become to attract audiences to grass roots gigs. The article was entitled ‘Is Gigging Crap?’ Apart from the predictable letters of outrage at the use of the term ‘crap’ from some areas of our membership, there was general agreement that the massive phenomena that was dance music and clubbing at that time, coupled with competing leisure activities, in particular, video gaming, made it very difficult for music venue owners to attract a decent crowd to a grass roots music gig. Twenty five years on, is it any easier to run a music venue and make money?

I went to a gig in Brighton recently (no names, no pack drill) and it was a good night out. The two bands on the bill were bands that I had heard on 6 Music and one of them is going out to showcase at SXSW in March. I go every year to SXSW but there are so many bands on the bill you can only hope to catch a fraction of them and so I thought I’d take a look at this band on home soil and if I liked them I would go and see their showcase. As it happens I thought they were very good so I will take the trouble to seek them out in Austin. Anyway, I digress, two bands on the bill, both worth seeing and yet there was no charge for entry, provided that you ordered the tickets online in advance of the gig the tickets were free! So I sat there sipping my very cheap drink and tried to figure out how the venue could afford to keep its doors open and balance the books? OK, there were a few punters spending money over the bar but just as many were sipping a coke or a water and making it last. When the bands went on stage, the bar area was deserted and I noticed that most of the audience weren’t even holding drinks.

When I was playing in bands and working the pub and club circuit back in the 1970’s (yes, I am that old) the kids who came to the gigs liked to drink. In fact they probably liked a drink more than they should have back then but my, how times have changed. I don’t know if it’s just that today’s gig goers don’t have a lot of money or whether it’s more of a cultural thing but when I go out to gigs these days I don’t see a lot of drinking going on. So how the hell does the venue survive? The cruel facts are that there really isn’t much money in running a grass roots music venue. As we saw at the Music Venues Day held at the Southbank last year, the people who run these venues do so because they love live music. None of them have any illusions about getting rich by offering a stage to local bands and almost all of them are financing their band nights with other activities like club nights.

Paradoxically, I think the runaway success of the arena circuit and the festivals has partly contributed to the problems that the grass roots music scene is experiencing. Music lovers seem to be happy to pay hundreds of pounds to go and see an act at the O2 or the Manchester Arena. Glastonbury, Download, Reading and Sonisphere are as popular as ever, but most of the people who go to these enormous events would probably turn up their noses at going to a gig to see a band that they have never heard of in a little club in their town.

Relaxed planning laws, high business rates, noise abatement notices, form 696, rising alcohol costs and ambitious property developers are just some of the pressures that the people who run music venues have to contend with.

The situation in London is critical, venues are closing every month and it’s possible that it is now simply not economically viable to run a grass roots music venue in the West End of London. The London mayor has recognised the problem and in response has set up a music venue taskforce to see what can be done to improve things. Also, we should all acknowledge and be thankful for the energy and commitment of the people behind the Music Venues Alliance who in a relatively short period of time have raised the profile of the crisis that our precious music venues currently face. Politicians are talking about tax-breaks for live music venues and any move to give the venues a helping hand should be applauded, but a tax break is only useful if you are making money that you have to pay tax on. If you can’t even break even then a tax-break will not help you.

Anyway, is that enough? Personally, I don’t think it is. It strikes me that this vital component of the fragile infrastructure that is the breeding ground for tomorrow’s talent is going to need more than hand-wringing and sympathetic noises from politicians. Quite simply, what these venues need is hard cash, but where will that come from I hear you say. Well, who benefits most from a healthy live music venue circuit? I would argue that it is the record companies and publishers, the agents, managers and promoters who are the direct beneficiaries of the nursery slopes of our industry. Everyone knows that Adele, Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, Ed Sheeran and all the other acts that have emerged over the last ten years started off playing in a tiny venue to twenty or thirty people. If that venue goes to the wall how will the talent of tomorrow cut its teeth?

The music industry is quite capable of setting up a charitable trust to help live music venues survive through the difficult times, money they can use to upgrade their facilities, set up a marketing budget and attract more people through the doors. It’s not rocket science but it is good housekeeping. So come on BPI, MPA, the Agents Association and others, remember, the ecology of our industry depends upon a healthy and thriving grass roots music venue circuit and the talent flow that your companies depend on will soon dry up without it.

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  1. ‘It is now simply not economically viable to run a grass roots music venue in the West End of London’ – true, but it would not be economically viable to run many types of small independent businesses in West London. For most ordinary people it wouldn’t be economically viable to live there either…

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