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The slow death of independent music venues in our cities

We are at risk of losing a key institution in the UK's music scene
27.01.2016

We are in Independent Venues Week. While John Harris has previously chronicled the decline of the ‘toilet circuit’, it is to be hoped that Independent Venues Week does for small music venues what Record Store Day has done for vinyl sales. We now speak of the ‘vinyl revival’ but sadly, the toilet, as it were, remains far from re-circuited.

It has been reported - via figures from the Music Venues Trust - that 40 per cent of London’s live music venues have closed over the past seven years. It’s not just a problem in the capital. Demand for housing in inner-city areas is rising across the country. Among a variety of factors that are raising economic pressure on small venues, this increase in inner-city living is driving more noise complaints against them from property developers and residents. This can lead to closures, especially where local authorities inflexibly interpret their licensing and planning responsibilities.

Last Friday, the Creative Industries Federation held an event in Birmingham Town Hall on place-making. Whatever places we are making across the UK, it seems that small music venues will increasingly not feature. If, however, people want to live in city centres to breath a richer cultural air, they imperil their oxygen supply if this heightened demand for inner-city living contributes to the demise of cultural amenities. Happy coexistence of these amenities and increased inner-city residential units is vital to successful place-making.

At the Creative Industries Federation event, a representative of an organisation that receives funding from both Arts Council England and their local authority praised the theatre tax credit. They, therefore, receive public funding from sources that a small music venue would struggle to access, while benefitting from tax support for which a small music venue would be ineligible.

“Heritage should engage every different community in our country,” Ed Vaizey, an arts minister of Olympian duration, told the Creative Industries Federation. The heritage of small music venues now, however, risks withering. And with it, the engagement with the arts that these venues are better placed than elsewhere to catalyse.

Independent Venues Week is an opportune moment to sound the alarm and begin to chart a different course. Re-circuiting the toilet shouldn’t be an afterthought to the rush to increase residential units in inner-cities. Weaving cultural preservation and cultivation, our heritage’s lifeblood, into residential developments is integral to having them retain the vibrancy that is drawing people to live in the inner-cities.

There would be no better way to soak up this urban energy than going to a gig in a small venue. The relative dearth of public funding and tax support enjoyed by these venues is all the more reason for us to view attendance as a civic duty during Independent Venues Week.

- Jonathan Todd, Chief Economist