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Independent Venue Week 2024: Without grassroots music venues, there'd be no Madonna

Small venues are where artists cut their teeth before going on to bigger things. Without them, where will the next generation of musical talent come from?

English Teacher play at McChuills, Glasgow in October. Image: ELLIOT HETHERTON

Heavily tipped to be one of the bands of 2024, Leeds alt-rockers English Teacher have been feted across the music press and BBC 6 Music. They’ve signed to Island Records, performed on Later… With Jools Holland, been handpicked to support Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Paolo Nutini, and captivated crowds at Glastonbury, SXSW and Reading and Leeds. 

But none of this would have happened, they say, without independent grassroots music venues. 

Independent Venue Week ambassadors English Teacher. Image: Tatiana Pozuelo

“We literally wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing now without independent, small venues,” affirms guitarist Lewis Whiting. English Teacher are the artist ambassadors for this year’s Independent Venue Week (IVW), which sees more than 200 UK venues join together to hail the power of the grassroots to break new music from diverse artists, build community and lift local economies. 

“I talk a lot about my home town,” says singer Lily Fontaine, who grew up in the Lancashire market town of Colne and has written about her conflicted feelings about it in songs like “The World’s Biggest Paving Slab”. “The best bit about it was the grassroots music scene and how it supported kids. 

“I was 14 when I started doing open mic. It gives you something to do in an evening or on a weekend – to make music. And without that, you don’t do the next step.” 

Thousands of music fans will mark IVW this week by enjoying gigs in intimate and exciting venues, but the celebration comes just days after a shocking new report revealed a sector on the very brink. Music Venue Trust’s (MVT) annual report shows 2023 was the worst year for closures since their records began ten years ago. The UK lost grassroots music venues at a rate of two a week.  

In the midst of a cost of living crisis that continues to pummel individuals and businesses, the grassroots sector as a whole operated on a profit margin of just 0.5% in 2023. For context – 5% is usually considered a low profit margin, 10% healthy. Less than 1% is undeniably precarious, particularly considering the rents paid by small venues have increased by 37.5% in the last year. Despite an increased demand for tickets, 38% of venues reported a loss in 2023. 

“If you take away the small regional venues, then you’re only going to get certain places where you can be a musician, and then you’re only going to get a certain type of musician,” says Fontaine. “Which is boring and also not fair.” 

In October last year, The Big Issue launched our Venue Watch campaign to champion grassroots music venues. Every week we shine a light on one of the UK’s amazing gig spaces, many of them nominated for inclusion by our readers, who’ve joined us in the fight for these vital cultural institutions.  

Sadly, in the months since the campaign started, we’ve already lost two of our profiled venues. Moles – the place that hosted early gigs by Oasis, Radiohead, Eurythmics and Pulp among many others – was forced to close in December after 45 years of bringing new music to the people of Bath. Though a groundswell of local support saw community-orientated independent venue and arts space Matchstick Piehouse in London crowdfund more than £35,000 in a little over a week to cover rent debts, it wasn’t enough. They still couldn’t find a way forward with their landlords and have shut up shop. 

Punk band Split Dogs perform at Luna in East London. Image: Daniel F Say

Grassroots music venues have an important economic impact. They draw people to the high street, where they then spend in other businesses – particularly the struggling hospitality sector. Since they act as the research and development wing of UK live music, MVT calculates small venues subsidised the hospitality industry to the tune of £114,814,162 in 2023. They also employed more than 28,000 workers, offering opportunity to people in all parts of the country to follow their dreams in the music industry.  

As Declan Walsh, the boss of East London’s Luna – probably the UK’s busiest music venue but currently crowdfunding to secure their survival – says, many of his sound techs, marketing people and photographers might otherwise be working in Wetherspoons. “For so many people, the grassroots is their first step into their passion.” 

Last year saw record-breaking profits for the live music industry, with massive, big-money tours from Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Madonna and Elton John. In November, Live Nation Entertainment – the mega-promoter that also owns Ticketmaster – posted its best ever quarter with $8.2 billion (£6.4bn) in global revenue.  

In many ways it’s a great time to be a music lover. But if we don’t retain a healthy grassroots ecosystem, many worry where tomorrow’s headliners will come from. “Where’s the next Madonna? Where’s the next Adele? Where’s the next Amy Winehouse? They need to start somewhere,” says Walsh. 

Independent Venue Week: Pulp play at Moles in Bath, 1992

With that in mind, MVT is calling for better redistribution to “prevent the annihilation of our sector”. They are campaigning for a small levy to be added on gigs at bigger venues – where ticket prices are frequently in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds – and funnelled back to the grassroots. “We must either find a way to act collectively to get these venues and the artists who rely on them the financial support they need to survive or we will seek legislation to compel it,” says CEO Mark Davyd.  

There’s little doubt that the UK would be both economically and culturally poorer without grassroots music venues, but there is also a tonne of less easily quantifiable reasons to celebrate them. We shouldn’t forget their role in bringing joy and meaning to people’s lives, says Nick Stewart, the owner-manager of successful and beloved Edinburgh venue Sneaky Pete’s. “For the price of a pizza, you can have a life-changing experience,” he says. “There are not many types of buildings in the world where that can happen.” 

Independent Venue Week runs until 4 February. English Teacher’s new single “Albert Road” is out now. Their debut album This Could Be Texas is out on 12 April on Island Records. Read the full Music Venue Trust annual report here.

Sign up to join The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign here.  

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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