[FEATURE] Why is there a struggle with small venues when live music is booming?
“If small and independent venues were to disappear completely, where would new bands come from? How will we find the new big thing?”
Sometimes it is down to location, other times it is lack of public interest and other times it is down to the rise in council rent. All along the country independent music venues are closing down, yet live music itself is booming around the country. So, what is it that is making venues close? It’s no secret that independent music venues are struggling to how they were even ten years ago, but a lot of that is down to the economy, smoking bans and the increase of home entertainment and social media. But venues should always remain relevant to the industry as these are the breeding grounds for scenes, and help build creative communities.
Mark Davyd, co-owner of The Tunbridge Wells Forum told The Guardian “The valuation of the Forum as a music venue is about £375,000. If we sell it to be flats, it’s worth about £1.2m.” It’s no surprise that due to gentrification that venue owners are selling up and you can’t blame them for it, however it is what is becoming the death of the independent venues.
In 2014 Leeds saw the closure of one of its longest running independent venues, The Cockpit, due to an inability to afford its upkeep, BBC wrote at the time of the venue’s closure that is was due to a “changed industry” according to Colin Oliver of the venues promotion company, Future Sound. Two years on since the closure of Cockpit, things haven’t really changed for small venues and still venues across the country are having to close and although the UK music industry grosses £3.8 billion a year, the origins of it is being taken away from us.
Although UK live music has been increasing in popularity in recent years, it is mainly commercialism of music venues which is keeping the music industry a billion-pound contribution to the UK economy. The 02 Arena in London, the SSE Arena in Glasgow and the Phones 4U Arena in Manchester are three of the best-selling arenas globally. Most cities within the United Kingdom have an 02 Academy venue, all of which get bookings from international bands which most of the time manage to sell out capacities of 4,500 people or more. Looking at the vast audiences that these venues get and the international reputation that they give our live music industry, how are we meant to look at these venues? As a commercial monster, which is destroying what live music venues once meant? or as pioneers with the money to keep live music venues going strong. London alone has three Academies, one of which is Brixton academy. Although it is not a small venue, it is an historic venue with the 02 franchise being a lifeline, it has kept the venue open and kept live music coming to the borough of Brixton. “I believe the academies provide a substantial amount of live music that cater for a wide range of audiences, and I think they have kept famous venues such as Brixton up and running.”a spokesperson from Brixton 02. “I think the  Academies are good for cities, Yes, the reason is down to the consistent array of gigs and club nights. London has three [Academies] located all around the city meaning there are events almost every night of the week accessible to almost the whole of London”.
An average ticket price for an O2 Academy venue ticket can be over £60 for a standard stalls ticket – take RnB star Ne-Yo’s Brixton show. Tickets are priced at £63 for a standard, no frills entry ticket, with VIP tickets costing almost £180. Now this seems ridiculous in comparison to smaller independent venues which charge half this price. For example, Koko in Camden also sees RnB acts such as Bryson Tiller and Snakehips, without breaking the banks of their fans.
But both the artist and venues are responsible for these high ticket prices. Although Academies tend to price most of their tickets between £20-£40, the odd triple digit price will pop up. However, for independent venues, a ticket priced £20 is seen as expensive. Keeping ticket prices low is what makes independent venues stand out from commercialised venues, but these low ticket prices often means they are unable to book the more popular acts or be able to put on acts every night of the week unlike the 02 academies. “Small venues have always been the grassroots for local artists” states small venue/club owner Mark Page. “In this sense any ticket over £10 is expensive for local music. If small venues can’t charge any more than so [£10] for a ticket, and only have a capacity of no more than 200 people they’re not going to be able to make as much money as an Academy venue which has a capacity of over 4000 and are charging £20 or more for a ticket. With the pressures of the rise of rent, it’s no surprise really that smaller venues are struggling or closing.”
It’s no doubt that the digital age has altered the music industry. The increase of social media users has created a platform that musicians could have only dreamed of before the access of the internet providing a worldwide audience. “Online presence is as important [as performing live], but not more so” says venue owner, promotor and booking agent Mark Page. “Online of course is the greatest marketing tool of the 21st century to performers, but bands still need to play live to hone their skills, and learn their craft. Playing in front of live audiences breeds confidence and can give artists so much more feedback than a like on a Facebook post. If an artist is happy to only hide behind their computer, success can still be achieved but their art becomes too one dimensional.” As much as this may be the case, more and more bands are gaining further popularity using social media rather than playing live. Hertfordshire The Hunna for example managed to get themselves thousands of followers on their social media before they had released any music. By the time they put out their album in October 2015, as terrible as it was, they managed to sell out a UK tour and their album made it into the UK charts. If The Hunna can achieve this without using the support of their local venue, with the music industry one of the hardest to break through in, maybe other bands will do the same and although the quality of music will drop and perhaps this is how the industry will be in the not so distant future.
Perhaps it’s just an end of an era for small venues and we, as a music community, are holding on to what we remember of our first gigs at a small city venue and we don’t want future generations to miss out on what we remember so fondly. If The Hunna are anything to go off the quality of music will drop and will there be anything worth going to see live left? To say the least without small inner city venues the UK music industry would be a shamble, it would be bread without the yeast, a country without a working class, it simply would not work. You can stop this however, get out and go to your local venues, go see local music and if you’re dubious or sceptical you will be pleasantly surprised. If you don’t want to see your local venue die off, do your best to support it. Creativity is what makes cities and without venues it is taking chances away from people. There is a lot of good music that you’ve never heard of out there and some of it will be at your very doorstep. you just have to go find it.
Words By Jonny Page