Live Music: Let’s Talk About What’s Going On With UK’s Small Venues

Kavina Kumar
Kavina Kumar

Grassroots music venues have always been the glue that holds our music ecosystem together. After the COVID-19 pandemic put the spotlight on the harsh realities of an already declining small venue sector, longstanding issues with rising rates, encroaching property development, and a lack of funding are some of the reasons why one in five UK venues has shut its doors. 

If you’ve ever wondered where we would be without David Bowie and the Beatles, you have to consider this: where would they be without the small music venues that gave them their first shot? Multimillion-dollar industry aside, the small venue sector provides thousands of jobs, houses our artists in their most crucial development period, and is the pillar and absolute joy of our cultural scene. 

Sometimes you need to check where you’ve been so you can see where you’re headed, so let’s get frank about the real issues that small venues are facing right now.

Open doors, thriving music communities, and our most valuable players on the field, live music venues!  

Despite setbacks, small venues continue to GIVE

live music venues
Image credit: This Is Music 2021 Report

The music industry contributes £5.8 billion annually to the UK economy (pre-COVID) but faced a 46% decrease from 2019 to 2020. In 2019 music was thriving, fuelled by British citizens collectively listening to over 60 million hours of music a year and an unrelenting trajectory! 

While the easy conclusion is that contributing mammoth figures are from the 45% of large-scale concert and festival events that make up the live music sector, that still leaves over 50% to the efforts of small venues, which managed to support a pandemic economy while facing its own lack of aid.

Live music is a journey, and our small venues are THE destination

According to the 2021 This Is Music survey conducted by UK Music (you’ll see a few enlightening UK MUSIC stats throughout this article), 78% of respondents have visited live music venues in the past 12 months, 74% of whom visited pubs and bars. 

Music makes up a large part of our everyday lives, and having exposure to events on a smaller scale is more akin to recurring necessity, like our weekly trips to the supermarket. Taverns and pubs are the gathering halls that promise us a good time and a place to gather or relax, and music plays a big part in making those venues feel like an oasis.

Hospo venues are opening while MUSIC venues are shutting down 

Despite a rise in hospitality business registration in 2019, it seems to have gone the other way for nightlife and music venues. The Night Time Industries Association recently reported that one in five nightclubs have now shut, dropping to just 1030 venues in all of Great Britain. 

The hottest music hubs in Central England and Wales were the areas with the most significant decline due to lack of attendance and being unable to maintain expensive rent costs. A 2017 report about the impact of business rates on grassroots venues commissioned by Mayor Sadiq Kahn found that small venues contributed £91.8m in GVA to the London economy, with Glasgow seeing £36m GVA. Yet, due to business rates continuing to increase, 33% of venues won’t survive the next few years. 

Music venues fuel music-tourism 

With 33 million live music attendees across the UK, and numbers growing by 11% per year before COVID, the annual music spend for consumers was £4.7 billion in 2019. Music tourism has provided over 45000 jobs and attracted a steady stream of visitors from across the globe to experience the UK culture prevalent at some of our world-best festivals and local music scene.

Live music has also been a great incentive for local travel, with over 52% of audiences travelling more than 20 miles for a live gig. The community members aren’t the only ones who agree on this either, as artists like Manchester rapper Aitch have stepped up to the plate to give out ‘free-ride’ train vouchers for under 25year olds, to help them get to new live music events across the way.

While we’re all willing to travel to hear good beats, musicians also relocate every day to gain access to the industry and develop connections that are scarce in their hometowns. Cultural centres like London, Manchester, and Glasgow are where it’s at, with 31% of artists moving to these major cities to pursue professional careers.  

Grassroots venues provide thousands of jobs, but where is the stability?

On a good day, the small venue sector provides over 200,000 jobs to UK citizens, but COVID has spotlighted the lack of stable employment in the music industry. Pre-pandemic, 70% of industry workers were self-employed, compared to 15% of the overall working population, so when things stopped, many were left in the cold with no safety net. 

With the loss of one-in-three music industry jobs, we confronted the resulting mental and economic impacts on over 72 000 artists, backline, and hospitality workers, and the reality that 70% of music venues and theatres faced the threat of closure. Organisations like the Music Venue Trust(MVT), who have been prevalent in the fight to #saveourvenues, finally had their bid answered to help over 800 grassroots venues that were struggling under the deceptive guise of music and good times.

Small music venues are the bread and butter of aspiring musicians

music venues

As we cleared 2019, those who suffered the most were artists, who lost between 65 to 100% of their income, mostly earned from live performances in grassroots venues. 

Over 80% of new artists will play their first gig in a small venue, getting their humble beginnings and honing their craft onstage amongst their peers. No matter who our favourite artists are, from Radiohead to Dua Lipa(if you must), none of the most incredible performers of our time would have made it without their local. 

Yet 65% of artists reported struggling to find opportunities and suitable venues to play music, stating that having fewer venues in the scene has been the largest contributing factor to their career development and exposure. Research conducted by the UK Music Managers Forum confirmed that live performance might be the only way for artists(especially those without a recorded catalogue) to be heard.

Music promoters aren’t benefiting from rising ticket prices 

There’s no more exciting relationship than between a music venue and the promoters who bring brilliant and fresh acts to the table, introducing venues to all types of new crowds. But the rising cost of ticket prices to offset production costs and $$ to run a venue have made it a struggle for promoters to turn a profit on gigs they can put on. Artists like Fourtet and Slowthai have sold out pre-sale tickets for £5 to combat rising ticket prices, while rappers Russ and Aitch insist on putting a cap on big venue ticket prices, but at the end of the day, this becomes a problem for the promoters to solve if they want to continue to be in business with rising stars.

In a time when event attendance is already at an all-time low, hiked ticket prices and rising cost of living frustrations have certainly tried morale. The shortage of sound production and backend workers may be due to Brexit and the number of industry pros that have left the business due to COVID, but venues and promoters are the ones wearing the added cost of putting on a show to preserve audience loyalty. 

Also, considering ongoing delays with product transportation vs. a decline in alcohol purchase by 52% means that promoters and venues have to get creative with what else they can offer customers, from merch to more diverse live experiences. 

Promoters are also calling for more live music venues

46% of promoters have voiced the need for more music venues to fill the empty space in the music scene. As new artists emerge alongside the demand for immersive live experiences, venues and promoters feel the emerging competition over big-name artists for a sure payday. There will also be limited space for breakthrough artists and a diverse music roster. 

If the spaces don’t exist, performance slots don’t get filled, and cities may miss out on hot acts altogether, pushing fresh talent to go elsewhere. New artists will miss out on connecting with broader audiences, and existing artist relationships will deteriorate if future production needs can’t be met. (**cough cough, Adele in Vegas).  

Community-controlled, NOT privately owned spaces

Sir Paul McCartney recently did it again with his Glasto pre-gig at the not-for-profit, member-owned venue: the Cheese and Grain, which legendarily fill jobs for locals by training them in the hospo industry! 

And why was his venue choice so important? The time for structural change to “ethically owned” small businesses has come after rising rental costs are forcing venues out of their rightfully earned space in the community. While the government has helped to keep venues afloat for a limited period, 67% of the money funded for COVID ended up in the pockets of private landlords and supporting new development. And yes, we’re all still upset about the plans to turn the London Printworks into office space.

Community interest business models make sense to the UK small venue sector because of its long-growing roots in every neighbourhood. To achieve this, establishments structure their business models as charitable-status social enterprises, such as Bristol’s Exchange listing as a Community Benefit Society. The community-controlled movement appears to be picking up steam and has grown by 28% since its initiation, according to the MVT charity’s CEO, Mark Davyd.

To combat private landlords and rising rent issues, the MVT also launched music venue properties as community-owned businesses to enlist the public to buy shares, participate in ownership and raise £2.5m. By putting venue ownership in the hands of those who care about these institutions most, the aim is to save nine other grassroots venues as well. – Genius. 

UK small venues
Image credit: Powel Bukowski on Unsplash

The government has finally bankrolled(a bit) 

The beacon was lit after the pandemic-induced industry breakdown, and the government responded, though as Mayor Sadiq Khan put it: “in an effort that will barely touch the sides.” The ongoing £2 billion Culture Recovery Fund has already awarded over £333 million to music venues in the hopes of helping them stay open and get back to thriving. On top of supporting further cultural activities and issuing venue protection, it has helped with VAT fee reductions, bounceback loans, job retention, and self-employment income support. The Arts Council England(ACE) issued £88 million to 362 organisations on its behalf in hopes of stabilising the music sector through grant and support payments, plus £55 million in kickstart funding. 

Additionally, the introduction of £700 million by the Live Events Reinsurance Scheme will help event organisers continue putting on gigs instead of taking the gamble and resulting loss during the pandemic years. Now with conscionable action toward the struggle of grassroots venues, especially as attendance is still not what it used to be, there are tools to help artists and venues do what they love best. 

The Agent of Change, and then some

Promoters and venue owners have long rallied for an Agent of Change principle to safeguard venues from closure due to property developments in prominent music hubs. Before its implementation in 2018, venues had a closure rate of 35% spanning the decade because of poor consideration for how new residential development and gentrification plans would impact the pre-existing venues. Iconic cultural institutions woven into the fabric of UK music culture: the Ministry of Sound, Fleece, Thekla, and 100 Club were some of the venues under threat at the time.

The Agent of Change campaign garnered a heap of support from 100 politicians and some true OGs of pop culture: Sir Paul McCartney and Brian Eno, as both took a stand alongside many musicians to support music venues. Now the onus for adequate soundproofing plus other measures lies with the new properties, with more consideration regarding noise complaints, rising rent, and policing issues common to grassroots venues. 

So what do we do with all this? 

Well, it appears that change is upon us, and just like things come down, they can also go up. As our music economy stabilises and venues find their feet, the demand for live music will present more opportunities for hospitality venues to transition to live music and get involved. 

Government aid and public support have started funnelling to long-neglected issues, such as the right of venue ownership. After facing indefinite cancellation, the haunting absence of live music facilitated some hard truths coming to light. 

Our dream predictions go to community-controlled live music spaces(vibe), more Agent of Change protections for cultural hubs (so they don’t become random office spaces), and more initiatives that value live music experiences over a profit margin. All of which will hopefully be led by our good Sir Paul McCartney.

And then you have your good mates at Muso. We’re big believers in injecting live music systems into budding hospitality spaces and making them run like clockwork so that we can create more opportunities for venues and artists alike. – You feel us? 



If you’re new to live gigs and unsure where to start, check out our venue resources, like the Live Music Rundown on the Muso Blog.


Related Content

👋 Our website use cookies. By continuing navigating, we assume your permission to deploy cookies as detailed in our Privacy Policy.