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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Robert Dex

London's grassroots music venues are in crisis – how do we save them?

Sticky floors, precariously thin plastic pint glasses, and decidedly DIY stage sets; London's smallest venues have a unique, loveable charm. Though they're world away from the capital's flashiest stadium shows, appearances can be deceiving – London's independent venues form a vital part of the UK music scene, transforming once-neglected old boozers and low-ceilinged basements into incubators for the next wave of music talent.

From Brixton's cult spot The Windmill –  birthplace of The Last Dinner Party, The Big Moon, Black Country, New Road, Goat Girl, Squid, black midi, and countless others – to the glimmering gold ceilings of Hackney's Moth Club, these small stages are the places where punters can catch a first glimpse of tomorrow's festival headliners, right at the start of their careers.

It's where almost everybody starts out – from a baby-faced Ed Sheeran playing a very early gig at Nunhead's The Ivy House to Lorde performing at the now-closed Madame Jojo's as she teetered on the brink of global fame, these smaller independent venues form a crucial part of the creative ecosystem.

The UK music industry pumped £6.7 billion into the country’s economy in 2022, but London’s smallest venues are in crisis.

Last year was the worst for venue closures in a decade according to the Music Venues Trust, who have just published their 2023 Annual report. It makes for incredibly gloomy reading, painting a stark picture of the challenges facing some of our most important live music spots as they battle rent hikes, incoming developers, noise complaints, and a reduction in footfall amid the cost of living crisis.

Across the UK as a whole last year, two venues closed down every single week ‒ that’s 125 lost in total. While grassroots venues contribute well over £501m to the UK economy, and provide over 28,000 jobs, their profit margin last year was just 0.5 per cent. Though those at the very top of the live sector continue to rake in record-busting profits, 38 per cent of grassroot venues made a loss in 2023.

“Enough is enough, this report speaks for itself and we will not allow this to continue,” said MVT’s CEO Mark Davyd.

The city that produced acts from Stormzy and Adele to David Bowie and the Rolling Stones is now struggling to support the places that nurture the next generation of stars. But what can be done about it?

Sir Elton John ended his final UK tour with a landmark show at Glastonbury. Between the Pyramid crowds and those watching on TV at home, he reached an audience of 7 million people. It’s a long way from his first ever gig in a run-down northwest London pub – but the star has never forgotten it.

Writing in his memoir Me, he described how dodging the flying fists and pint glasses flung in his direction when fights broke out in the Northwood Hills Hotel made him a “fearless” performer.

Speaking to the Standard, he is just as passionate about the need to protect small venues. “It is so necessary for small music venues to exist because that’s where we all started out playing,” he says. “It gives you great experience carrying your equipment up the stairs and doing whatever and playing to small crowds of people.

“The more venues we have for young musicians to play in, the better. Unfortunately that’s not the case sometimes. More venues are closing than opening  and it’s sad, it’s really sad because it’s necessary.”

Evening Standard Theatre Awards, 2023 (Lucy Young)

Elton John added that “the government has to step up and do something” and there are signs Westminster is listening – Dame Caroline Dinenage, who chairs the DCMS Select Committee, has ordered a “full review” of grassroots music venues with round table events where the industry can have its say, and witnesses are expected to start giving evidence to MPs in spring before a full report is prepared. That report could make for pretty depressing reading.

MVT’s chief executive, Mark Davyd, says that the grassroots scene largely survived the pandemic thanks to emergency funding from the mayor and the government, and then enjoyed a brief boom as London emerged from lockdown with a vengeance. 

Now, though, boom has given way to bust and debts built up by live music spaces in a bid to survive the pandemic are now being called in. For venues surviving on thin margins already, this can prove devastating.

“In the last six months we’ve started to see a very large number of venues suffering huge external pressures,” Davyd tells the Standard. “Those pressures come from demands for rent that wasn’t paid during the pandemic period, the pressure of loans taken out to survive the pandemic, those loans now attracting higher rates of interest, and a kind of expectation because of that live music bubble that everything was back to normal and in fact it wasn’t.”

The cost of living crisis has also hit venues with a double whammy, driving bills up and taking money out of the pockets of their audience. Punters have less money to spend on gigs now, while high rents also make it challenging for venues to absorb financial blows.

For grassroots spaces, 2023 was a bleak year. In Lambeth, the non-profit community venue Iklectik will close at the end of January; despite months of campaigning, they are being evicted, and the venue will be demolished to make way for a new development.

Though the capital is facing a full-scale crisis, it's the same story nationwide. On December 5, Moles in Bath announced it was closing after 45 years, during which it hosted gigs by acts from Radiohead and Oasis to Ed Sheeran. Its owners said “huge rent rates along with massively increased costs” were all factors.

Meanwhile in Deptford, Matchstick Piehouse announced its closure on January 4. Despite huge community support and a fundraising push before Christmas, the beloved grassroots venue wrote that a number of issues including “Covid-related rent arrears”, “wider trading conditions” and “increased costs and decreasing spend” had forced them to make the “very difficult decision”. 

(Matchstick Piehouse)

Marcus Harris, who promotes gigs at the 200-capacity Lexington in north London, says he has seen “a decline in footfall” in recent months despite his venue, like many others, diversifying to offer club nights and food as well as traditional gigs.

He said: “People have got less money to spend and certainly their wages are not going up, their bills are going up, the price of food is through the roof and they don’t have the money to go out two or three times a week.”

Harris has seen ticket prices for smaller gigs starting to climb up to the £15 mark as venues struggle to survive, but says the “biggest issue” facing smaller venues is not what they charge, but what festivals and arenas charge.

“The price of large scale festivals or arena tickets is now massive. With people having so little to spend… if you’re paying £120 to go and see a big act at an arena, that is probably someone’s spending money on going out for the week,” he said. “People are really tightening their belts and they’re not going out and they’ve not got any money to spend.”

Some people want to turn that problem into a solution by bringing in a levy on arena ticket sales that can be passed back down the chain to smaller venues that Harris describes as “doing all of the research and development that gets an artist to that level in the first place”.

The idea is gaining political traction with cross-party support from figures including Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine and Conservative MP Damien Green, who said a levy would “help the small venues produce the superstars of tomorrow”. Creative Industries Minister Julia Lopez said the government was “supporting talks between different parts of that industry” to try to find a solution.

MVP’s Mark Davyd said the grassroots scene is not “sustainable” without some kind of help from the big hitters, and points to other countries such as France who have already introduced a similar policy.

He said: “In France they pay 3.5 per cent on every ticket they sell, which goes into a fund to support French venues and French artists at the grassroots.

“Personally I find it absurd that a British registered company will promote a British artist at a show in France and raise money so that French artists and French venues have a future, but will not do the same in Britain.”

It is an idea that is gaining traction in the industry with rock band Enter Shikari giving £1 from every ticket sold on their tour next year to the MVT’s investment fund.

Enter Shikari now donate £1 per ticket to the Music Venues Trust (PR Handout)

Frontman Rou Reynolds said the band decided to act because smaller venues are “under existential threat”.

“Bigger venues that benefit from the productive pipeline that grassroots venues provide need to support these smaller venues, as do the artists that have come up through them,” he says.

Another idea whose time may have come is community ownership – London’s Night Czar Amy Lame is a fan. “The government urgently needs to step up action to protect our grassroots music venues – from enabling community ownership of venues in London, to dealing with sky-high energy bills and landlords charging astronomical rents,” she says.

The idea of not-for-profit local groups opening up their own venues has already taken hold in one patch of south-east London.

Founded in 2018, Sister Midnight was originally a grassroots venue in Deptford that went under during the pandemic. Following the closure, founders Lenny Watson, Sophie Farrell, and Goat Girl's Lottie Pendlebury began hunting for a new, community-owned home. Initially, they tried to buy a pub in Lewisham, and enlisted about 800 music lovers who committed to help fund the deal in return for community shares.

Sister Midnight's founders Lenny Watson, Sophie Farrell, and Lottie Pendlebury (Sister Midnight)

That plan fell through, but they were left with a hard core of supporters willing to invest when Lewisham council offered them the run-down shell of an old-working men’s club in Catford.

One of the trio, Lenny Watson, says: “They said, ‘Well we’ve got this working men’s club, it’s really run down, it needs a lot of work and I don’t think you’re going to like it’. We went for a look around and we all just fell in love, and thought, 'This is the spot.'”

They have agreed a 10-year rent free lease but will foot the bill for renovation which currently comes in at more than £450,000, which Watson says “is a substantial amount but still cheaper than paying rent for 10 years”.

She said: “This is something that flips that dynamic, that puts local people in control of their cultural infrastructure, it gives them a voice and it empowers them to really shape that space and it protect it.”

The plan is to open next September with a 300-capacity venue as well as a bar, community garden, rehearsal room and recording studio.

Watson adds: “I really believe this is important. I love music, and I’ve seen first-hand how important it is to other people, and how it builds communities, strengthens communities, and brings people together.

“If we can pull this venue off it will be worth every tough moment and sleepless night and stressful day.”

There's still a way to go for Sister Midnight, but here's hoping they make it the whole way; their alternative model could pave a way forward for countless other grassroots venues to secure a safer future.

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