Music

2023 was brutal for UK music venues with at least one closing per week. We must fight to save them

Grassroots music venues are under threat. But collective action can – and does – make a difference. That's why Big Issue launched our Venue Watch campaign

Idles singer Joe Talbot performs at grassroots music venue Moles

Idles performing at Moles in 2016. The Bath venues is just one of 125 to close in 2023. Photo: Soul Media

Last year was the biggest ever for live music. Huge global tours from Beyoncé, Madonna, Elton John and Ed Sheeran brought in millions. Next year looks set to be another huge hitter – the luckiest of you may already be looking ahead to Taylor Swift, and speculation is rife that Adele will announce rare UK live dates.

Yet all over the UK, 2023 was brutal for grassroots music venues. We’ve lost at least 125 of these vital cultural institutions in the last 12 months – that’s at least one every single week.

Just a few weeks back, the iconic Moles in Bath – a stage that’s helped launched dozens of bands’ careers over the last 45 years, from Eurythmics to Oasis to Ed Sheeran – closed its doors for the last time. It was another gut punch in a year of devastation.

The Big Issue launched our Venue Watch campaign to fight for these spaces – the powerhouse of the music industry’s research and development. As Moles’ operations and programme manager Liam Baker told us: “Without us, there are no big venues, there are no big tours, there are no artists. They all started at places like this. We helped them hone their craft and build their skill.”

“I don’t think that large scale arenas have done enough to support grassroots venues,” Gemma Vaughan, director of sales and marketing at AO Arena in Manchester, Europe’s biggest indoor venue, admitted when challenged during The Big Issue’s panel at the Beyond the Music conference in Manchester back in October. “We have to support grassroots venues and musicians to help to feed our talent pipeline.”

In the last year, there have been some moves towards redistribution within live music. Halifax’s Piece Hall and Swansea Arena both launched schemes to support Music Venue Trust, the charity that represents and protects the sector – as did Ticketmaster and independent ticketing platform Skiddle. But it’s piecemeal.

Among activists there’s cautious hope that useful recommendations will come from the upcoming select committee hearing into crisis facing grassroots music venues. The cross-party Culture, Media and Sport Committee is due to produce a full report of its findings in 2024.

The future of UK music depends on a resolution. But even more than that, it’s about the broader economic impact of grassroots venues – which act as catalysts for surrounding businesses, bringing people back to high streets all over the country. And you cannot put a price on what they do for their communities.

The social and cultural value of grassroots music venues is increasingly understood, as academics and activists quantify how these creative spaces build vibrant communities and increase social cohesion. The story of Scottish teenager Isabel Headon absolutely drives that message home. Headon didn’t see why her disability should be a barrier to her love of music. MacArts allowed her to be part of a gig-going community on her doorstep in Galashiels. It mattered so much to her that when she died, her family asked to have her funeral at the venue.

For now, there’s still a network across the country that offers opportunity for anyone, regardless of background, means or even musical ability, to get onstage and start on a path to potential greatness. But it’s desperately precarious.

Rising bills, the cost of living crisis, landlord disputes, noise complaints and gentrification are just some of the issues facing independent venues. In the last few weeks, we’ve spoken to one London venue that faces closure after their landlords refused to back down over charging them the full rent for the entire period they were closed during lockdown. The Harrison folk club is at risk from the £99,000 bill. Their landlords are the fourth wealthiest family in the UK.

Hull’s hidden gem The Adelphi – the place DJ and Venue Watch supporter Steve Lamacq told us was his favourite grassroots venue – revealed that their energy bills had quadrupled in the last year. It’s a constant struggle to keep the doors open and the music playing, said manager Paul John Sarel. “It’s a joy but also you can put yourself at quite a lot of risk with your health if you’re not careful,” he added. “You’re constantly thinking of it and you don’t sleep well.”

Despite a rough year, Venue Watch has also brought you rays of light… reminders that collective action can – and does – make a difference.

There’s The Snug in Atherton – its future secured by Music Venue Trust’s first community buy-out. In Bangor, Northern Ireland, The Court House was opened thanks to community support and is bringing a faded seaside town back from the dead. After being profiled for Venue Watch, they went on to win the public vote to be named National Lottery Project of the Year. There are the big bands who came back to support The Windmill in London in their hour of need, or the community that came together in the former mining village of Newstead to turn a sports pavilion into an intimate space for live music.

These moments of hope only happen with your support. Click here to join our newsletter list and get updates about what you can do.

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