In December of 1980, Rock City opened its doors for the first time in Nottingham, UK. The 2400 capacity music venue’s first ever gig featured Orange Juice supporting the legendary Undertones and since then has hosted some of the biggest bands in the world. Praised for its intimacy and “indie feeling”, Rock City has won numerous awards, including Kerrang magazine’s Venue of the Year ten years in a row.
I speak passionately about Rock City because it’s my local venue and has given me hundreds of great gigs and club nights. If however, you require a smaller venue for your less established acts, a venue called the Rescue Rooms is just around the corner. It has a great vibe, great drinks, and has a very decent sound for such a small venue.
The thing these two venues have in common is that they are independent, small live music venues. They have their own unique feel and their own styles. Above all else they are simply called Rock City and Rescue Rooms and those are the names above their respective doors.
Unfortunately, some venues don’t have this luxury. Nowadays it’s hard to book tickets to a gig without seeing the message of “congratulations on your booking at the O2 Academy!” or “Here’s your booking confirmation for the show at the Tampax Arena.”
What I’m talking about is the growing level of corporate sponsorship of music venues, an issue that is causing the slow, creeping death of many recognised establishments.
Of the sixteen recognised music arenas in the UK, three are sponsored by the car supermarket Motorpoint. The rest are sponsored by an array of major corporations including Metro, Genting, O2, and First Direct. Moving to smaller indoor venues, a further NINETEEN are sponsored by O2.
The main issue with these O2 owned venues, an example being the O2 Academy in Birmingham, is that they are all exactly the same.
Soulless chasms with sub par sound systems, overpriced drinks, bland decor, and less atmosphere than at your great uncle’s wake.
I’ve had the misfortune of attending shows at a few different Academies and I am definitely speaking from experience. The only way to tell you’re in a different one is by getting out your phone and checking your location settings.
These academies all sprang up some time around 2009 and it seems to be around then that independent venues started to truly suffer. Now I’m not saying corporation ownership is solely to blame, but it is a huge factor. These beautiful spaces with character and tales to tell seemed to gradually diminish, leaving empty vacuums in their wake.
Another reason for the gradual death of venues is the persistence by both councils and housing planners to build housing in areas around venues. Some of the UK’s most treasured venues have been hit by closure because of this issue in the last ten or so years – JB’s in Dudley, The Cockpit in Leeds, Sheffield’s Boardwalk, and Leicester’s Princess Charlotte to name a few.
Building excess housing around these venues causes a chain reaction – first the housing, then the residents occupy said housing and finally these residents lodge noise complaints with their respective councils because quelle fucking surprise they live twenty feet from a live music venue. The complaints pile up and eventually are too costly for small venues to deal with.
A report released in 2015 stated that from 2007 the number of live music venues in London dropped from 430 to 245, a drop of nearly 50%.
A drop of that magnitude is outrageous. nearly 200 venues dead in the water, and that is just London. The figure including the rest of the UK must be closer to a thousand. And it represents a growing threat to an industry that is believed to be worth an estimated £1.6bn per year to the UK.
One of the biggest stories of potential venue closure in recent years has surrounded a club in Bristol called The Fleece. This venue has a rich musical history dating back over thirty years and has hosted acts such as Oasis, Radiohead, and The White Stripes. But for the last few years it has been in big danger of closure due to a housing project planned just twenty metres away from the venue.
This issue sparked a petition signed by over 35000 people and as recently as this year has made its way into a parliament debate about potential law changes. These changes will affect how planning permission is granted to housing developers, putting more impetus on them to considers all facets of the surrounding area and will aim to protect venues such as The Fleece from potential closure.
Finally, I can’t talk about grassroots venues without mentioning an amazing charity called the Music Venue Trust, which safeguards and provides funding for the smaller live music venues and effectively keeps them alive. The trust has usually received a cut of the estimated £1.6bn assigned to the arts organisations, thought to be around £360m, which helps small venues thrive by way of renovation and general upkeep.
However, last year this funding was completely stopped with the next round of funding not due in 2022.
The Trust’s Director Beverley Whitrick has said she could not “even begin to guess” how many venues will close in the next four years.
The reason for the budget cut is due to the funding being completely designated to the “high arts,” essentially funding for opera and classical music establishments. While all this is well and good, before the cut they already received well over £1.2bn in funding. Surely the £360m will be infinitely more helpful to the grassroots circuit as opposed to the high end arts. This is a breakdown of exactly where the funding is assigned to:-
£96m Royal Opera House
£73m Southbank Centre
£67m National Theatre
£59m Royal Shakespeare Company
£41.5m Opera North
£24.5m Welsh National Opera
£14m North Music Trust
£12.5m Northern Ballet
£8.8m London Symphony Orchestra
£8.2m London Philharmonic Orchestra
It’s a travesty in a growing list of what I can only describe as kicks in the teeth for the small, independent music scene.
What this all points to is that as time goes on and more and more of these venues face closure, the independent music scene suffers exponentionally.
The kids that want to grow up and be a musician, picking up a guitar and forming a band with their friends, will find it extremely difficult to make any headway. After all, the idea of a transition from bedroom artist to O2 Academy without any small venue acting as middle ground is ludicrous. A complete lack of insight from housing developers, funding cuts, and the growing dominance of corporate ownership will only serve to put the UK’s live music scene into an early grave.