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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Dave Simpson

‘It’s no good if gigs become the preserve of the posh’ – the crisis facing live music in Britain

One of the few emerging arena stars … Burna Boy.
One of the few emerging arena stars … Burna Boy. Photograph: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Why is Britain building so many new arenas?

Eight new purpose-built arenas – in London, Manchester, Gateshead, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Bristol, Sunderland and Dundee – are currently in various stages of completion or planning. Some, such as Bristol’s, are proposed for areas that have long been underserved. Meanwhile, in December, when Manchester gets the £365m, 23,500-capacity Co-op Live, it will join London and Birmingham as a two-arena city, its other being the refurbished 21,000-capacity AO Arena. But is there really a demand for all these vast venues?

“Yes,” says Neil Warnock, global head of touring at United Talent Agency, who represents 250 artists. “Audiences aren’t quite what they were pre-pandemic. But look at the tickets sold for huge shows this summer by Guns N’ Roses, Bruce Springsteen, Pink and Harry Styles – and for festivals. Even in these tough times, people still want to be entertained.”

Equally, the generation of arenas built in the 1980s and 90s are showing signs of age. Modern facilities, with better sound and sight-lines, would be welcome. And the new projects will be more sustainable, using permanent stages and sound systems instead of each new band hauling in their set-up on trucks.

Two’s company … Manchester’s second arena, due in December and costing £365m.
Two’s company … Manchester’s second arena, due in December and costing £365m. Photograph: Oak View Group/PA

“We will be fully electric and use local produce,” says Andrew Billingham, head of Bristol YTL Arena, conceived as the most carbon-neutral venue in Europe. “So those efficiencies will be passed on to the customer in ticket price.” The proposed 19,000-capacity arena will house three venues, rehearsal and TV production rooms, education programmes and community stages for local bands. Billingham is “very excited for the area”, although others express caution.

“I’ll be surprised if all eight British arenas get built owing to the vast sums involved,” says Stuart Galbraith, boss of Kilimanjaro Live and vice chair of the Concert Promoters Association. “On the other hand, London desperately needs a third arena. There’s been a huge proliferation of music with the internet – more people want to see it live.”

Are rocketing ticket prices just simple economics?

Arena prices have been edging up due to rising production costs and the demand for ever more visual spectacles. There has always been unofficial touting: on eBay Taylor Swift US tour tickets have reached over $22,500 a pair. However, the industry-sanctioned practice of “dynamic pricing” (algorithm-controlled systems that make prices rocket to match high demand) has sent official ticket costs soaring. Seats for Swift, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna or Beyoncé can reach anything from £1,000 to £4,000.

“Dynamic pricing has been around since the stone age,” says Warnock, pointing to the longstanding practice in the airline industry that meant he recently paid £9,000 for a flight to Nashville that had cost him £4,000 four weeks previously. “It’s no different from the price of children’s holidays going up in half-term. If Mr and Mrs Very Rich want to sit in the front row to watch Harry Styles, they’re going to pay the price.”

Visual spectacle is pricey … Pink at Wembley Stadium.
Visual spectacle is pricey … Pink at Wembley Stadium. Photograph: Jo Hale/Redferns

Ticketmaster introduced dynamic pricing to pop gigs in 2011 at the behest of artists, but concern has risen recently. “If Bruce Springsteen is charging £400 a ticket, it’s because he wants to,” explains Anton Lockwood, director of live at promoters DHP. “Springsteen and his manager argue that if they don’t, then secondary ticketing sites will anyway. So this way at least the artist gets the money.”

This defence hasn’t stopped a backlash: Springsteen fanzine Backstreets recently closed in protest after 43 years in print. However, without legislation across various industries, dynamic pricing is, says Lockwood, “economic reality. The best way to avoid inflated ticket prices is to refuse to pay them. I’m putting on an amazing band called American Aquarium. Tickets are £18 and they’re a bit like Springsteen. See them instead.”

Why not £400 for the front, £10 for the back?

With higher overheads such as power supply, transport and labour costs, ticket prices are rising across the board, not just at the top. Booking agent Warnock notes that many promoters have been unable to raise prices this year, as they were “locked in” before the cost-of-living crisis. So he expects a hike in standard prices next year. With cash tight, people are becoming more picky, too, which effects smaller artists. “If people are going to choose one gig,” says Lockwood, “it’s going to be someone they’ve got five albums by, not a new band on a Monday that a mate said might be good.”

Mark Davyd, boss of the Music Venue Trust (MVT), remembers being 16 in the 1980s, and being able to afford tickets for post-punk band the Sound at the 100 Club in London. “It was a life-changing experience: standing in a gig realising there were people like me.” But he fears that such experiences are less accessible to younger or poorer music fans today and that, for many families, gigs may become a very occasional treat. “A couple of nights in London, see Abba Voyage, make a holiday of it. And that will be their pop experience that year.”

Lockwood would favour a “greater scaling of seat prices – from £400 at the front to £10 at the back”. Such economic segregation would at least mean most people could afford shows. Youth Music is an organisation that supports young creatives from lower income backgrounds. Matt Griffiths, its boss, argues for “bold and significant ticketing schemes, particularly targeted at young people or families” – like European schemes that give young people money to spend on culture.

He would also like to see deductions for students or unemployed people, which were widespread in the 1980s. “That would maximise the audience,” he says. “It’s no good if music becomes the preserve of the posh. It’s got to be accessible for everybody, because ultimately everything depends on keeping people excited about it.”

Do bands still make money touring?

In the streaming era, tours have become the main source of cash as sales of recorded music have plummeted. However, a recent study by the Help Musicians charity found that an astonishing 98% are struggling to make a living. Arena or festival headliners are highly paid but, says Lockwood, even musicians at, say, the 2,000-capacity Nottingham Rock City level can still be working day jobs. “I know one guitarist whose band have finally made a major breakthrough, but he’s 41 and has been at it for 18 years. It’s one thing struggling when you’re 19, quite another when you’re 41 with a mortgage.”

As costs rise (by as much as 40% according to the Music Managers Forum), some mid-range acts are simply scaling down. David Farrow, who runs promoters DMF Music with his wife Laura, recently did this to a tour by Top 40 fiddler Seth Lakeman, when a full band and crew became unaffordable. Conversely, Farrow recently promoted a “very successful” tour by folkies Bellowhead with 24 people on the road. “We sold 31,000 tickets because they had re-formed. But one reason they split up in the first place was that they couldn’t make a living.”

When 4AD general manager Jason White started promoting in 1996, the average fee for a support band was £50. “And it still is,” he sighs. White manages Manchester’s Julie Campbell, AKA LoneLady. She is signed to Warp, has been on Later With Jools Holland, and has played 10,000-capacity shows with New Order. Yet she is augmenting her meagre income by selling merch at gigs and music on Bandcamp.

Youth Music’s Griffiths sympathises, arguing that other countries support pop musicians in the way the UK does opera. “Low pay,” he says, “is another thing making music the preserve of the better-off.” White agrees. “If you’re 25,” he says, “you’ll earn more working in a supermarket than most musicians do. It’s a reflection of society. You’re either the superstar or you’re scraping away.”

What happens when the headliners disappear?

Big-ticket item … Harry Styles.
Big-ticket item … Harry Styles. Photograph: David M Benett/Max Cisotti/Dave Benett/Getty Images

The Rolling Stones recently celebrated their 60th anniversary but they won’t be here for ever. Elton John and Kiss play their final tours this year. Will younger artists take their place? “People have been signalling the end for at least two decades,” says Galbraith. “But the biggest artist in the world is Ed Sheeran, who started in 2008. Then you’ve got Harry Styles, Beyoncé. Muse are playing stadiums and you never can predict who will blow up next. I think we’re OK.”

Warnock says the Stones are “probably a one-off”, but points to South Korean pop stars Blackpink and Nigerian singer Burna Boy, who are emerging as arena stars as “people look for different things. It fascinates me how bands come back. When we brought back Steps, they did phenomenal business. We’re going to lose some major artists but I’m confident we’ll fill those holes.”

The picture might be less rosy in metal, where Farrow notes that only Bring Me the Horizon have stepped up to arenas lately, and in indie. “If you go and watch Wet Leg, a hot guitar band, there’s nobody under 40 at the gig.”

In his promoter days, MVT’s Davyd put Adele on as a support act in Cambridge, playing to 22 people. He told me “We’ve been doing this work for nine years, When we started there was probably 1400, 1500 of these venues, at the ground level. Now there are less than a thousand.” It threatens, Davyd says, the longer-term ability to produce future arena-fillers. “All new arenas should make a financial contribution towards helping struggling venues and developing artists at grassroots level,” he says, suggesting a 50p levy on every ticket. “If they get it right, they won’t make a penny less. If we collectively get it wrong, we’ll lose a whole lot more.”

Talking to experts about these issues, it’s startling how the problems are interlinked. Can we be optimistic? “Sometimes, when people’s backs are against the well, they do their best,” says Farrow, whose acts are all still making money. “There are major challenges, but it’s not all doom and gloom.”

• Youth Music’s Give a Gig Week, supporting new artists, is live from 27 March

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