Long Read \\ The sober truth about small venues – and what needs to be done

22nd May 2019

Tina Edwards explores the challenges – and solutions – facing small venues in the UK

The UK’s small venues need alternative models for survival.

In a recent Supreme Standards podcast, Alexis Blondel, founder of Total Refreshment Centre and Church of Sound shared a short story. He recounted what the manager of an unnamed 700 capacity venue had said to him recently, when he approached them as a promoter with a line-up: “Pay us a deposit of £1000 and if the bar spend doesn’t reach £14,000, then we’ll keep the £1000 to make up for the loss”.

With stories like these echoing across London and the rest of the UK, it’s easy for the music industry to feel depressed. If promoters need sure-fire bets – in other words, bands they know will sell 400 tickets and be likely to make several thousands of pounds on the bar – then opportunities for emerging, risk-taking and progressive artists are getting fewer.

Mayor Sadiq Kahn has given hope in the shape of someone that cares enough to commission a report; ‘The Impact of Business Rates Revaluation on Grassroots Music Venues in London‘. The most recent update, in April 2017, stated that “Grassroots music venues generate over 2,260 jobs, £50.8m in labour income and £91.8m in GVA [Gross Value Added] for London’s economy”. Despite how lucrative live music is to the UK economy, small venues face daily battles including high business rates, noise restrictions and negative impacts of nearby property development.

In 2018, music journalist Laura Snapes referenced a live music census in The Guardian, claiming that 33% of small venues in the UK are struggling to survive due to increasing business rates. Also adding salt to the wound for small venues – rather than the margarita glass – is that young people are drinking less. In fact, a third of people in the UK between 16-24 are teetotal.

Typically, venues make money from bar sales and hire fees. Promoters pay hire fees and will sometimes be requested to secure a deposit on the bar, which the venue will keep if drinks sales aren’t high enough for the evening. The promoter will take an income from the ticket sales, once they’ve paid off the overheads. Here’s the problem; venues are financially reliant on gig goers spending at the bar – and we are drinking less. We need to find alternate ways for venues to make money and new methods of giving artists spaces to perform in that don’t heed financial pressures and unrealistic expectations. On the triangular relationship of promoter, venue and artist, it seems one is always vulnerable.

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Sometimes, “musicians are servants of the alcohol-selling businesses”, says Adam Zanolini of Chicago arts venue, Elastic. Opened in 2016, it’s non-profit and part funded by the American government, private foundations and generous individuals. “When I hear something like a venue requiring a promoter to guarantee £14k for one night”, says Adam, “I can tell we’re operating in very different universes”.

elastic chicago venues survival

Elastic, Chicago

Expanding on his perspective about musicians as servants, Adam reflects on Chicago’s past and present; “that’s part of why they started the AACM here in 1965. Black people were blazing trails at the pinnacle of music but getting treated like the help. The club and bar owners didn’t care about our music. They cared about selling alcohol, and the musicians were just an attraction. So if installing a pool table, or having a magic show brought more drinkers, they’d do that.” Elastic take admirable risks to make the music they programme accessible to as many audiences as possible, including families; Elastic have no liquor license.

Earlier this month in Dublin, The Virgin Mary Bar opened, claiming to be “Ireland’s first alcohol free bar”. Whilst not strictly a venue, the Virgin Mary Bar is a signifier of where the meeting point between hospitality and entertainment could find enlightenment. “There is a need for more choice in venues for socialising in the evening”, says Marketing Director, Nicola Connolly. “We want to provide an environment that looks and feels like a bar and serves great tasting drinks, just minus the alcohol”.

Virgin Mary bar venues survival

Bar manager Anna Walsh serves a Bloody Mary in The Virgin Mary Bar, Dublin

Think about the last time you went to a venue for live music. How many people were drinking booze, in comparison to those drinking water or nothing at all? Perhaps the notion of keeping our hands busy with a bevvy has been replaced by our phone, which provides opt-in isolation from the strangers around us – God forbid we lock eyes with someone we don’t know.

As a generation influenced by Instagram, wellness and clean eating, as well as the prisoners of extortionate rent and impossibly high rungs on the property ladder, is it any surprise that many of us are making the choice between a gig ticket and drinks on the night?

If you make the decision to treat yourself to a soft drink or two, you’ll be faced with a selection of high sugar sodas, one alcohol free beer (probably the one that you don’t like) and cold water in plastic bottles. Where are the music venues selling non-alcoholic craft beers, fresh juice mocktails, iced teas and 0% alcohol spirits? Drinks chain Joe and the Juice have become increasingly popular, despite a small juice being the same price as a pint of beer. Where are the freshly squeezed treats at our favourite venues? Where are the loyalty cards that we are so used to using in our favourite coffee shops?

Amy Brookes, a banker based between London and Hong Kong, is partial to a tipple, but chooses to ditch it at gigs: “I generally drink wine and the wine at venues is often not that good”. Work-ethic also plays a part, with Amy choosing to not “drink during the week”. 

I turned to my personal Facebook page last week to ask the ether, “Is there anyone reading this that goes to gigs but normally drinks water or nothing at all?”. I received an overwhelming number of comments in quick succession, ranging from “Water is best if you want to dance and really be ‘sparked’ by the music” through to “Fizzy water is champagne with no alcohol or grapes”. Simply put, many of the people who expressed that they don’t drink at live shows, were those who attend them more frequently than most. 

Adam from Elastic in Chicago’s Logan Square district, took inspiration for his alcohol-free venue from elders in the city. Referencing artists including Phil Cohran, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, and Steve McCall, Adam explains that many musicians in the 60s decided not to play in venues that sold alcohol. “They started performing at universities and performing arts centres, and more often finding unusual spaces to present their music like day care centers that were unused at night and such”.

“I’m proud we don’t use our culture’s great achievements to peddle liquor. It’s not that I don’t enjoy drinking”, says Adam. “It’s great to relax, to get together in a spot and chill, forget about work and stress, dance, meet folks, get loose, hook up, and feel cool. But in the African tradition, musicians are a special class of people who carry knowledge forward through generations. They gather and concentrate the lessons learned over thousands of generations. We’re not here to stupefy, to inebriate, to addict or afflict the liver, or to distract people from what’s going on around us. We were sent here to do the opposite – to enlighten, to inspire, to focus, to heal and help people come together to overcome a whirlwind of evil we find ourselves swept up in”.

The Matchstick Theatre in Deptford presents new theatre, music, exhibitions and cabaret. The multi-purpose space appeals to Steam Down, who now hold their hugely successful residency at the venue every Wednesday. Dominic Gerrett, a founding member of the venue, has seen the trend first hand of people increasingly dismissing alcoholic beverage; “People are drinking less, true, however people also don’t mind paying for pricier soft drinks, or paying a door fee to contribute. The Kombucha at Matchstick Piehouse is locally made and sells incredibly well. People are really open to consuming less alcohol and still enjoying their nights – it’s a positive thing in the long run. People will just have to adapt”.

Whilst the Matchstick Theatre is being savvy about drink trends, this isn’t the only thing that makes them stand out. “The Piehouse is an artist led venue”, explains Dominic. “Everyone is a volunteer from top to bottom and everyone has ‘rent payer’ jobs”. Finding like-minded music lovers who want to volunteer isn’t always possible – especially in times of austerity. As for government-funding, the luck of the stars for a successful application doesn’t always fall into the laps of the ambitiously progressive.

Perhaps then, we could revisit what Elastic’s Adam told us, via the actions of local music heroes; Chicago musicians such as Phil Cohran decided to actively favour spaces such as “day-care centres” over ones that sold alcohol. So here’s an idea, that raises another burning yet ignored issue by the UK’s distracted parliament. As of July 2018, spending on youth services in England has fallen by £737m (62%) since 2010, and between 2012 and 2016, 140,000 places for young people were removed from communities across the country, according to research made by the YMCA. Let’s look at the facts with another painful statistic: during this time, 600 youth centres have closed.

Youth centres provide a safe space for children when their parents are unable to pick them up from school, or when there is little to go home for. They are primarily daytime spaces, with occasional evening events and activities. Why can’t we utilise our local youth centres to provide a safe space for children and teenagers in the daytime, broadening to all ages in the evenings for live music? The Basement Door in Richmond, West London, provides such a space, with regular live gigs, as well as training for young people in sound engineering and barista qualifications. To witness musicians warming up and to see a team of people working together towards a live event, sounds like a motivational and stimulating environment for any young person to be in. Perhaps it’s for the grown-ups to remove any snobbery or apprehension about the repurposing of spaces such as these, for a greater good. 

Meanwhile, events such as Church of Sound utilise St James the Great Church in Clapton, East London. As Emma Warren, broadcaster and author of ‘Make Some Space’ says in our recent podcast on TRC: “Very little church happens on a Friday night”.

Emma warren author make some space

Emma Warren is the author of ‘Make Some Space’

How about we demand our politicians ignite a little more trust in us with our public spaces; if we must prove that public resources such as youth centres and libraries need justification to avoid closures, why don’t we find multiple purposes for them?

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In exploring ways to increase the longevity and success of a venue’s life – without putting too much pressure on promoters or bar sales – we should consider its ‘cultural collateral’. What is the space providing that wasn’t there before it? Perhaps there is space for local artists to exhibit their work on the walls for a small fee, or maybe street food merchants are able to present their under-celebrated national dish to gig-goers? Perhaps the venue presents a safe and inviting space for people who feel like they struggle to find a warm welcome elsewhere. A venue with this level of consciousness will develop a bespoke reputation, and may be cared for by those who have found its treasure. Think about Royal Vauxhall Tavern who provided a stage for London’s burgeoning drag and cabaret scene and Fabric who created a mark of prestige for EDM DJs around the world. In fact, many of the long-lasting venues you can name will have made a name for themselves in connection with a scene, cause or community support. To any venue owners reading this, you may be thinking “this isn’t the reality, the numbers need to add up”: well, if this isn’t on your mind, why did you want to run a venue in the first place?

Whilst this holistic approach is no guarantee of financial success, it is no surprise that something has a better chance of succeeding when there is a shared vision, whether that be in the form of its programming, menu or set of values. Why should the appreciation of these values within a shared space be limited to the evening? Cafe Oto in Dalston is a great example of a small multi-purpose venue with cultural collateral. Sonic Youth guitarist and vocalist Thurston Moore once described Cafe Oto as “a crown jewel,” adding that “it’s by far the most critical listening room in London”. They’re known for booking experimental and avant-garde artists, becoming a favourite London tour stop for many bands, including iconic acts such as The Art Ensemble of Chicago. In the daytime, the site is a bustling cafe and online, there is access to exclusive exclusive digital recordings and radio shows.

cafe oto small venues survival

Founded in 2008, Cafe Oto in Dalston is busy day and night.

Something else that makes Cafe Oto distinctive is their membership programme, offering discounts across tickets, records, books and more, alongside access to ‘member only’ events. Memberships create loyalty. It makes us feel like we are being gifted something. An endless amount of purposes can be found for a setting with four walls and a ceiling, and many venues are missing a trick by opening their doors at 7PM. Cafe Oto is not one of them.

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It’s clear that the music industry on the ground needs to change to help our venues survive and promoters thrive; they are both our much needed gateway to live music. Perhaps it’s a wider choice of soft drinks, perhaps it’s a loyalty system (attend nine gigs in a year and get your tenth ticket free)? Maybe it’s about serving food so that we can break bread with our friends whilst enjoying the music. As for rising business rates and town planning issues, these problems have a Goliath presence, there is no ignoring it. Let’s be resourceful wherever possible, because some of the greatest music venues have been just four walls and a modest sound system. Space in London is precious. Let’s not restrict it to being used for five hours a day – if the gear is there, why can’t the space be hired in the daytime for rehearsals, workshops or music tuition? On another note, where are the daytime dances at? Gilles Peterson‘s’ bi-annual ‘Another Sunday at Dingwalls’ is a brilliant template that benefits the triangle of promoter, venue and artist. If people are swapping pints for soft drinks, more high profile daytime gigs on the weekend doesn’t sound like such an absurd idea.

The music industry is an ecosystem; when one element is suffering, the knock-on effects are felt throughout the entire industry. What has worked before isn’t working now. It’s broke, so let’s take a radical look at it. Let’s fix it.

Do you have ideas on how small venues can better thrive? Leave a comment on our Facebook post. 

Get tickets for Supreme Standards’ next show with Szun Waves and Kayla Painter at Five Miles

Main photo credit: James Clothier

Words: Tina Edwards

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