Edinburgh University embarks on a nationwide census of UK gig venues in the same week that an overhaul of commercial property rates in the Chancellor's budget spells trouble for the UK's independent music scene
Are small venues in the UK in crisis? It certainly looks that way. Over the last few years we’ve seen some of the country's best loved venues shut up shop, including The Arches in Glasgow, The Roadhouse in Manchester, The Picture House in Edinburgh, The Cockpit in Leeds and The Kazimier in Liverpool. And just last week we reported that Edinburgh’s Electric Circus will close its doors for the final time in March following a four-decade run. The reasons for these closures are myriad, but it’s clear times have rarely been tougher for grassroots music venues.
A recent report from Edinburgh University suggests times are going to get a lot tougher before they get better, with an upcoming tax increase on gig joints likely to exacerbate the already precarious live music scene in the UK and put some venues under major threat.
New tax set to hit indie venues
This future tax burden is the result of a major overhaul of commercial property rates – the details of which will be revealed by the Chancellor in Wednesday's Budget. Dr Matt Brennan of the University of Edinburgh, who’s leading Britain's first live music census, which starts at midday on 9 March, suggests these tax changes could amount to a huge rise in costs and force many venues to close.
“Venues around the country have been telling us that they already operate on thin margins,” says Brennan, “so proposed increases in rateable values of up to 55% in some cases will have a significant impact.” Venues operating at grassroots level, says Brennan, are particularly vulnerable.
The first census of the UK's music scene
The UK Live Music Census proposed by Brennan and his team – which includes other academics from the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music, in collaboration with Newcastle University’s International Centre for Music Studies and the University of Glasgow’s School of Culture and Creative Arts – will help in identifying the challenges that the industry faces. “It will give us a detailed picture of what exactly it means to be a venue owner, a musician, and a live music lover in 2017,” says Brennan. “Our hope is that the census will be a vital tool in strengthening a much-loved part of the UK’s culture.”
Dubbed “Springwatch for live music”, the census will run for 24hr from noon on Thursday 9 March. Music lovers from around the UK will track performances in their respective cities – from lone buskers to massed choirs, from dancefloors to stadium concerts – and report back their findings.
“There will be coordinated censuses in Glasgow, Newcastle, Oxford, Leeds, Southampton and Brighton,” reads the statement from the University of Edinburgh. “Volunteers will attend live music events including Olly Murs at Leeds Arena, Nicola Benedetti at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, R&B in Oxford, and jazz in Newcastle.”
New survey of musicians, venues, promoters and audiences
In addition, a nationwide online survey of musicians, venues, promoters and audiences will also go live on 9 March and will be open until 8 May. Music fans, musicians, venues and promoters across all genres and at all levels are asked to fill in the survey at the official website: www.uklivemusiccensus.org
The census is a world’s first. The hope is it will help quantify, for the first time, “the nationwide challenges the industry is facing and inform policy to help it flourish.” It’s expected that the reported potential rise in taxes will feature strongly in the feedback.
“The findings for each of the six cities will inform academics, entrepreneurs and music fans alike,” says Jo Dipple, chief executive of UK Music, one of the census’s industry partners. “It will help organisations like UK Music to understand better the pressures on music businesses and venues so we can lobby for the most effective policies in each area.
“For example, we know that a disproportionate hike in business rates could pose a serious threat to qualifying music SMEs and grassroots venues. The more we are able to identify threats, the more effective our lobbying for policy change in that area will be.”
'Census will help us protect live music going into the future'
Organisations like the Music Venue Trust, a relatively new charity representing grassroots music venues across the UK, will be able to use information gathered from the census to help build the case for their clients. “Anecdotal evidence only goes so far when lobbying or profile-raising around the challenges our venues face, so partnerships which generate data are hugely powerful for us,” said Beverley Whitrick, strategic director of Music Venue Trust, “The more towns and cities we have research for, the more accurately we are able to represent the national picture.”
The census has been welcomed by people in the Government, with Lord Clement Jones, the Liberal Democrat peer and spokesman for the creative industries in the House of Lords, saying that The UK Live Music Census “will provide rich data about local live music activity from those who make it and those who enjoy it. Live music is facing a number of challenges at the moment, from venues closing down to the threat of increased business rates. However, data about the sector has so far been relatively scarce and mostly anecdotal, and so the much needed data collected by UK Live Music Census will help us protect live music going into the future."
The census also aims to capture data in issues such as the diversity of musical genres, audience demographics, ticket prices, live music’s economic and cultural value, and attitudes towards ticket touts.
Will the Census help small venues? The signs are positive. The project team ran a mini pilot version two years ago, with a live music census of Edinburgh’s music scene. Its findings went on to inform the city council’s decision to change its policies about noise levels to the benefit of performers. Small venues are the lifeblood of the British music scene. Any help they can get is welcome.
The UK Live Music Census takes place 9 Mar. More information at uklivemusiccensus.org
To take part in the survey, go to uklivemusiccensus.org