A few years ago, i flew over to USA to see friends in California. But also, to go see one of my friends bands, called Cock Sparrer. As we drove down from LA to The Great American Music hall in San Fransisco, listening to the car radio, it really struck me, how important British music is to the world. Here i was heading down to a sell out show, by an obscure punk band, in the cool capital of the world. The average British person, would have never heard of this band.
Everywhere you go, you will find it playing. its not only The Rolling Stones, Beatles and Elton John, or Oasis, but Punk Rock, Indie, 70’s, 80’s and every other decade of popular music. The same in Argentina, Brazil, Scandinavia, all across western Europe and beyond. Gone are the days that Britain is known for military, or railways. Whatever Governments have come and gone, British music has found its way to every corner of the Globe. A major export, not only for financial benefit, but for British cultural benefit. The welcome you get as a British person, in so many countries, is due to the love affair many nations have to our, British Music. Many of those music fans making a pilgrimage to the UK, to see where it all began.
But before it reaches those places, it is a seed in a kids garage, then a local pub. if they get lucky, they step up to the next town or city, playing their songs, working, promoting, and slogging away. One in a thousand, then get a bit of radio play, a larger gig, a record deal. One in 20.000 get BBC acknowledgment. A hard , hard career to follow. With no support from the UK Government. There are many reasons why live music, is in such a bad state. No more Top of the pops, no financial support, a lack of imagination with record labels. But the extremely high price of beer, is killing pubs at a rapid rate. Every town, is being raped, of the grass roots venues. Venues being sold off for development, for a fast profit.
Independent venues are more than just places to see bands – they’re at the heart of their communities. But if the music industry doesn’t step in soon, we’ll be writing even more obituaries for these vital outposts of culture
What makes a great venue? From the perspective of musicians, it’s when owners realise that good customer service is at the core of everything they do. Give the musicians the basics so they are able to do their job. That includes a comfortable and warm backstage room, plenty of time for a sound check, a respectful crew and a good sound system. Most of these things can be achieved with common sense more than money. But can owners of venues really raise the bar if all they offer is a fridge stuffed with Red Bull? Sadly the lack of resources is keeping standards too low for independent music venues in the UK, compared with, say, the rest of Europe.
Often, venues don’t feel like an artist’s home any more. They’re treated as normal, independent businesses rather than being valued as centres of culture in their communities. Venue owners are often former musicians and they are passionate about live music. But even the best of them are forced into dark alleys to survive, making compromises and potentially killing their passion for the music as it’s dragged down into the shit with them.
Last week, I was a panelist at Venues Day, a conference that was organised by the Music Venue Trust and Independent Venue Week about the future of independent music venues in the UK. I was asked to represent the point of view of the artist, discussing what makes a good venue great.
Mindofalion Live and raw in 2014. The grass roots of music, which becomes a worldwide export
Placards outside Madame Jojo’s nightclub in London. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
The event took place at the Purcell Room, in London. It was the first time I’d taken part in a conference. Venue owners from all around the UK had filled the room, and someone had told me the participants were “very angry”. I had no idea what to expect, although I knew very well that many small, independent music venues have been in crisis for a long time.
I got involved with the issue the day my favourite venue in London, the Luminaire, shut down in 2009. That day, I lost more than just a place to see live music – I lost my second home. As I walked into the Purcell Room, it was even more clear to me that the owners of such venues need help. They need money, and they need it now, or more of the hundreds of venues that are essential to the culture of the UK and the music business in particular, will follow the fate of Madame Jojo’s and the Buffalo Bar in London, which are each soon to become extinct.
“This has to be addressed at the very top of Government, Live music venues are the training ground for one of Britain’s largest exports, and Icon of pride, which excludes, no class, age or race“
The disastrous financial situation of independent music venues has direct consequences for everyone, including musicians. Take branding. No artist should have to play with a Jack Daniel’s logo on the stage if they don’t want to, or a Vodafone sticker on their monitors if they don’t want to. Artists should not become vehicles for advertising if that’s not how they choose to run their business. Don’t get me wrong, I am not 100% against branding; I understand the need to raise money. But the stage is a sacred place, and if a venue makes a deal with a beer company, it should not involve the musicians.
Let’s take another example: during Venues Day, many owners acknowledged that club nights are how they’re able to survive these days, which means they book two events in one night. Who can blame them? They need money. But what does it mean for the artists? Well, it means that even if they sell out a show, the promoter might book a club night to start after you finish. They eject you, your crew and your fans at 10pm, then a DJ comes in and a whole new crowd invades the premises. Instead of playing at 10pm, your show needs to start at 8.30, which means support bands have to play at a painful 7.30pm. Obviously, there is no time after the gig to sell your merch or to meet your audience. Not only does it kill the band’s small chance of making extra money, but it also kills guitar music. Who wants to see rock’n’roll at 8.30 at night?
Another iconic Music venue, the 12 Bar, on Denmark Street, London. Right in the heart of Britains world famous Tin Pan Alley. Been handed the death sentence, at the end of 2014, by Westminster council, In favour of commercial short term property speculators.
It is urgent that we find solutions to finance independent music venues which respect the spirit of live music and musicians. Artists are their customers, too, and we know that branding and club nights are not enough to keep some of our venues afloat.
How can we achieve this? One solution became apparent during the conference, where owners were joined by promoters and booking agents. Let’s do the maths: the venue owners need money and the large agents need to make a healthy profit. Got it? The last panel of the day, entitled What’s Next?, was supposed to address solutions available to venue owners. I took the mic to suggest that the industry itself should fund small venues. Agents, big promoters and venue groups should reinvest part of their annual profits into small venues. This is an idea my friend Andy Inglis, who used to co-run the Luminaire, has been talking about for years. After all, they belong to the same industry, don’t they? Just because small venues are the grassroots of the industry, that doesn’t have to mean they can’t benefit from the profits the others make.
I was surprised by the audience’s lack of response. The Music Venue Trust cautiously expressed its intention to create a charity system to support small independent venues, but I didn’t get the feeling it would pick up the funding idea and make it a priority. From what I understood, the two main ideas taken from the day were the need for tax cuts for small venues and an online resource for venues to share ideas and advice. Although it is important to begin with a couple of rallying points and get recognition from government, I still believe that music industry support is essential for the survival of independent venues.
At this point in the conference, I didn’t get a sense of much anger or desperation in the room. I could only assume people were too scared to speak up. Or maybe I’m totally wrong and most venues don’t want funding to come from the industry. I believe the idea is more popular among professionals than we think, but maybe it demands a bigger effort – or someone, a hero, to fight for it.
Next January, The band Savages and I will settle in New York City for three weeks to play a series of club shows. Sold out all nine shows in just one hour, which has never happened to us so fast before. Could this become a new model? Audiences love to see live music in small venues. Let’s hope they survive before we realise how much we needed them.
Find more information about Venues Day 2014, the speakers and partners on venues-day.com