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'We haven't done enough': Why arenas need to step up and support grassroots music venues

As those at the top of the music industry make huge profits, pressure is growing on them to share the wealth with at-risk grassroots venues

A band onstage at a grassroots music venue

As the biggest acts, promoters and venues rake in hundreds of millions in the biggest year ever for live music, it may seem time for gig-goers to celebrate. Yet at the other end of the live ecosystem, grassroots venues are facing unprecedented challenges. Few make any money; many are operating at a loss. And in the last 12 months the UK lost 16% of its most important spaces for music discovery. Across the music industry and in the corridors of parliament, the question is increasingly being asked: what do those making the biggest profits owe the rest?

For grassroots venue advocates, like Music Venue Trust (MVT) CEO Mark Davyd, the logic is clear – without the talent pipeline that comes through the smaller venues across the UK, there are no future arena headliners. “It’s completely unacceptable that our music industry is letting music collapse underneath it while it’s making the maximum amount of money it’s ever made in the history of music.”

The crisis facing grassroots music venues is why we launched our Venue Watch campaign. At recent industry events we’ve been joining the debate on how best to secure a future for these vital cultural and community spaces. At Beyond The Music – Manchester’s new change-making music festival and conference – The Big Issue brought together a panel representing venues, from the very biggest in Europe to Atherton’s tiny spot for up-and-coming artists, The Snug, to challenge the status quo.

“I don’t think that large scale arenas have done enough to support grassroots venues. I think that we have probably sat quite arrogantly on the periphery,” admitted Gemma Vaughan, director of sales and marketing at AO Arena in Manchester, Europe’s biggest indoor venue. “Do we need to support grassroots venues? Absolutely, yes. Yes, we do.

“There are only a number of artists that can headline festival stages. So whilst that’s kind of a selfish point, we have to support grassroots venues and musicians to help to feed our talent pipeline. We need to make sure that that kind of music economy continues to recycle itself.”

AO Arena is, Vaughan says, close to announcing new plans to support the local grassroots in Manchester. She assured The Big Issue they will report back to the Venue Watch campaign soon.

In recent weeks some have already taken that leap. Halifax’s Piece Hall became the first venue to offer a donation option for all ticket buyers to support MVT. It was followed by Swansea Arena, which aims to raise £20,000 this year to support grassroots music venues.

Ticketing companies have also got involved. At MVT’s Venues Day on 17 October, Ticketmaster launched a month-long campaign to offer a charity upsell option on all tickets, so members of the public can donate to the charity. Importantly, the ticketing behemoth will be matching all the funds raised. Independent ticketing platform Skiddle has also pledged 50p for every ticket sold to MVT. And FREENOW, the ‘mobility super app’, launched its ‘Ride for Music’ initiative, pledging £1 to MVT for every taxi ride booked through its platform.  

It’s a promising beginning, but only scratching the surface. Why can’t all large venues step up?

“It’s complicated,” Gary Roden told The Big Issue’s Beyond the Music panel. Roden is the executive director and general manager of Co-op Live, the Manchester super venue that will overtake the AO Arena as Europe’s biggest indoor music venue when it opens in April 2024. While Roden said “the conversation and the planning around how we support the ecosystem has started” he cautioned they have a wide range of interests to balance.

“The reality is, the ecosystem at that level has got a lot of different stakeholders and where the money goes is complex,” he said. “The ecosystem is not just ourselves, obviously, it’s the promoters, the artists and other things connected.” He also said they couldn’t add a pound to the ticket price for every charity that asks, and emphasised that they do have an ongoing commitment to give £1 million to the Co-op Foundation.

Six people sitting talking onstage at the Beyond the Music conference
Who’s feeding the grassroots? The panel chaired by The Big Issue at Beyond the Music. Photo: Omar Balaa

Davyd said he’s been having these conversations with promoters, venues, ticket companies and artists and – for the most part – “everyone’s pointing at everyone else”. It’s a “Mexican stand-off” he said. But it can be broken when people take the initiative.

Rock band Enter Shikari became the first artists to break the stalemate. They’ve pledged £1 from every ticket sold for their 2024 UK arena tour to support grassroots music venues via MVT’s Pipeline Investment Fund, at no extra cost to the concert goers. “Grassroots venues are a breeding ground for new and exciting, niche and inventive music. A breeding ground for genuine community and for organic creativity. The grassroots music circuit is a petri dish that teams with life, life that all popular music then goes on to spawn from,” said Enter Shikari’s Rou Reynolds in the band’s opening address to Venues Day.

Among artists at Beyond the Music there was some envy for the French system. In 2020, the French government stepped in to implement a tax of 3.5% on all concert tickets, with the money raised used to fund musical creation, innovation, the green transition and the export of French music. Both artists and venues get subsidies.

Davyd said that something similar is bound to be on its way in the UK if the industry doesn’t act, as more and more grassroots venues – small businesses – complain to their MPs. “If we don’t sort this out, it will be sorted out for us. Simple as that,” he said. “We’ll end up in the same position they’re in in France, where 3.5% of the gross value of tickets goes into a fund administered by the government to stop venues from closing down, to support artists to tour, to keep French music available for French audiences.

“How insane are we? How much have we lost control of the situation that we will let Coldplay go and play in the south of France to 54,000 people, promoted by a British-based company, and 3.5% of that is going to support the next wave of French artists to make sure that we don’t go there again in the future. That is mad.”

Manchester mayor and former culture secretary Andy Burnham said the music industry should look to mirror football. The Premier League now makes a significant voluntary contribution to grassroots football. The music industry “has to get better at working out the relationship between its big players and its little players, in the way football redistributes funds and looks after the health of the whole”.

“Music doesn’t do that. As far as I can see, it really doesn’t work in that way. But it should work in that way,” he added. “Funds should be redistributed in a structured way to keep the health of the overall industry, which is one of Britain’s greatest-ever exports.”

Andy Burnham talking to a panel, discussing live music at Beyond The Music
Andy Burnham joins a panel to discuss live music at Beyond The Music. Photo: Ella Peck

At Venues Day, Dame Caroline Dinenage – Conservative MP for Gosport and former minister for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – echoed the suggestion. “There’s parallels between music and football,” she said. Dinenage, who is also the current chair of the cross-party Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee announced they were launching a hearing and review into the current crisis facing grassroots music venues and will produce a full report of its findings in 2024. They will be making recommendations “not just to the government, but also to the industry and recommendations for local authorities,” she added.

The select committee hearings will, no doubt, continue to increase the pressure on the big players to spread the wealth. But for now, Rachael Flaszczak, director of The Snug, says she’d just like a bit of understanding from the arenas about what the grassroots contributes to the live music ecosystem – and what that demands of the people who keep those places open. “They need to know just how difficult it is on the ground level is. Our job is the hardest because we’re finding these new acts and getting people to come out and see them,” she said. “We’ve never seen anybody from the big arenas come into our venue and spend time. I’d like them to see what it’s like.”

Sign up to join The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign and get regular updates here.

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