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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Dave Simpson

‘The whole ecosystem is collapsing’: inside the crisis in Britain’s live music scene

‘Everything is costing more’ … Duvet perform at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds in February.
‘Everything is costing more’ … Duvet perform at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds in February. Photograph: Katy Blackwood/Alamy

It’s Sunday evening at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and business appears to be booming. There is a blues festival in one of the two 400-capacity rooms and the rising US singer-songwriter Sam Evian in the other. The lounge between is packed with students watching Liverpool beat Chelsea on TV. However, the owner-promoter Nathan Clark is nervous: “The picture isn’t as rosy as it seems.”

Yesterday, for instance, he was all set to put on the Australian psych-rockers Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, who had pulled 1,000 people in Manchester the night before. “Then I got a call saying the singer had been bitten by a dog and the show was cancelled,” he says. “We had already installed a projector screen that cost £600, hired tech people and security and bought the band’s food and drink.” All that outlay cannot be recovered. “It’s like playing roulette.”

Putting on live music has always been a gamble, but the climate is particularly perilous for smaller venues, even without angry dogs. At stadium and arena level, concert giants such as Live Nation are hosting more fans than ever. Record-breaking tours from Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and others have swelled that multinational’s revenue to an astonishing $22.7bn (£17.8bn). Meanwhile, at the other end, 125 UK venues abandoned live music in 2023 – more than half of them closing for good – owing to pressures ranging from soaring rent and energy prices to the hangover of Covid.

The esteemed Moles club in Bath shut up shop in December after 45 years; other recent closures include Melodic Distraction in Liverpool and Velvet Music Rooms in Birmingham. The nightclub scene is imperilled – Rekom, which owns the Pryzm chain, is closing half its venues, blaming the cost of living crisis – and a number of major music festivals are postponing events this year or shutting down.

“It’s not just venues,” says Mark Davyd, the founder of the Music Venue Trust, which represents the grassroots sector. “Artists can’t afford to tour or are slashing their tours in half because they can’t afford to lose that amount of money. The whole ecosystem is collapsing.”

Four years ago, just prior to the first UK lockdown, I spent a week at the Brudenell – a former working men’s club built in 1913 – to see how such venues operated, and it’s my first port of call to see how they are coping today. One obvious change is that Clark now has an office, with a signed poster of Johnny Marr (who has described the venue as “a special place”) above him on the wall. “I used to work on a laptop in the bar,” he says, chuckling.

In the past 10 years, they have tried to upgrade the venue whenever they can afford it – because the Brudenell is nonprofit, all the money gets ploughed back in – so the Covid layoff was the perfect opportunity to upgrade the PA system, lights and backstage areas to “put us in a solidified position”. Clark says the 18-month reduction in VAT to 5% for the hospitality industry was crucial: “Without that, we might not be here.”

Over mugs of Yorkshire tea, Clark explains the pressures facing venues up and down the country. “Everything is costing more throughout the process, from artists’ fees and wholesale beer prices for venues to hotels or vans for bands,” he says. Run by a nonprofit community enterprise that owns the venue, the Brudenell is protected from the rocketing rents that have sunk many peers. The flipside is the cost of maintaining the building. “We need a new roof at the moment and that could be up to £100,000.”

Thirty-five miles away in Manchester, Band on the Wall is also in a stronger position than many – it is run by a not-for-profit charity that owns the building – but experiencing a similar rollercoaster. “We had a bumper autumn, but lost £25,000 in January,” says Gavin Sharp, the chief executive. “You can’t project forward many months on those kind of losses.”

Pryzm cited cash-strapped students staying in as the source of its problems. However, Clark says that the rise of mega-gigs shows that the demand for live music is still there – it’s just that the business model no longer seems to work for venues with a capacity below 600. “We’re not on the breadline and it’s not all doom and gloom, but margins have been squeezed,” he says. Everything from pie sales to the pool table and those beer-drinking students support the live side, “which is incredibly difficult”.

Sharp says: “There’s just no money in it for operators, staff or bands. Audiences are generally young and can’t afford a realistic ticket price, so venues often run on youthful enthusiasm and staff barely on minimum wage. People are drinking significantly less and tickets barely cover costs, so propping up that model with bar sales is no longer viable.”

Davyd says venues try to bring in extra cash by promoting bigger gigs elsewhere, or by selling pizza. “A third of people running them now have a second job. Or, rather, they have a first job and running the venue has turned into their second job – they’re using their employment wages to keep the venue going.”

The opposite applies to Clark, who works long hours in the venue previously owned by his late father. “You’re having to put in more time and energy than ever before,” he says. “It’s become more cut-throat and I feel a lot more tired. It’s like a hamster wheel you can’t get off. Even if you’re breaking even now, the minimum wage is about to rise. So people getting very little financial recompense are saying: ‘I can’t do this any more.’”


Near the city centre, I visit the punk, hardcore and metal venue Boom Leeds. With Ramones and Misfits posters decking the walls, five bands on the bill for £7 when I visit, an over-14s policy and a strong sense of community, it’s a special place – “the only one to really focus on this culture,” says pink-haired Nicole, 18, who first attended at 15 and has seen Black Flag and Subhumans here.

“Everyone looks after each other,” says Harry, the 18-year-old guitarist from Narkotyk, a hardcore band playing tonight. “I saw my first gig here. It does something no one else is doing.” However, having been saved by crowdfunding during the pandemic, a lingering £45,000 debt placed Boom Leeds under threat again. The venue has raised £15,000 from benefit gigs, but a deficit remains. “It’s specialist, but that’s where the next Turnstile come from, or the band who go on to headline Slam Dunk,” says Clark.

Grassroots venues’ ability to platform and support future stars is crucial. Band on the Wall has hosted Joy Division and Self Esteem, while acts such as Franz Ferdinand and Sam Fender came up through the Brudenell and similar small venues. It frustrates Clark that these places take the financial risk of showcasing new talent without any reinvestment from record companies, or the giant promoters who later profit from such acts.

The Leeds band Yard Act played their first gig at the Brudenell and have called it their “spiritual home”. They played a residency last May and Clark is promoting their huge – and presumably lucrative – outdoor city-centre show this summer. But such loyalty is rare when grassroots venues are, as he puts it, “effectively the research and development tier of live music”.

Bath Moles going shocked our sector,” says Davyd. “Bands that played there – Oasis, the Cure, Eurythmics – made the music industry millions, if not billions, of pounds. On their last two nights before closing, they were sold out, but still lost £1,100. Allowing that venue to close demonstrates a complete failure by the music industry in research and development.”

Gentrification is another threat. Sharp says venues can set up in a run-down area with cheap rents and drive economic regeneration, only for the landlord to “triple or quadruple the rent. If the venue survives that, it can be subject to noise complaints and shut down later anyway.”

Meanwhile, the gulf between top and bottom is expanding, with a new generation of arenas on the way. Co-op Live, a 23,500-capacity arena in Manchester, opens in April and plans to host 100 music shows a year. The council leader, Bev Craig, has promised the mega-venue will “further mark out Manchester as a must-visit destination for global artists and visitors”. But tickets for Eagles’ June farewell shows start at £87 – and the city already has the 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena.

“We’re in a little golden age where enough legacy rock stars and bands from the 90s and 00s can fill these places,” says Davyd. “There is huge demand for arena and stadium tickets and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. But the unlikeliest acts – Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding and Adele – started in small venues.”

Sharp thinks that there are “too many large arena venues, as local authorities jump to support regeneration. I think we’ll see a collapse in this sector very soon.” Mid-range venues are safer, owing to their economies of scale, but the Guardian recently revealed how the crisis is hitting festivals, with nine cancellations so far this year.

“Lots of my mates have lost their festivals or had to sell them to pay debts,” says Oliver Jones, who runs the family-friendly Deer Shed festival in North Yorkshire. This year’s event, headlined by the Coral and Bombay Bicycle Club, is selling fast, but it has been a precarious few years, he says.

“We survived Covid due to the [government’s] culture recovery fund, but the uncertainty nearly killed us,” says Jones. “We’ve cut costs to the bone, lost tent suppliers to corporate festivals or found acts suddenly unavailable because they’ve signed exclusive contracts with corporates.” He says that after the conglomerates and the cost of living, the biggest threat to smaller festivals is the weather, which can force their cancellation. “Last year, a week after our opening day, we had two inches of rain inside an hour. Seven days earlier and we would have been in trouble.”

Such people are accustomed to living on their wits. Jones loves scouting bands for Deer Shed. He knows full well “the lows of traipsing out on a winter’s night where the beer’s expensive and the band are awful. But, on another night, it might be the most exquisite thing you’ve ever witnessed.”

I find a cheering success story in the 500-capacity Old Woollen, a venue in Farsley, on the outskirts of Leeds. Here, the producer-musician Choque Hosein, the theatre producer Dick Bonham and the community events programmer Howard Bradley put on gigs, talks, comedians and club nights in a beautiful old mill, using the mix-and-match format of 1960s variety clubs.

It’s not exactly heaving when I visit (the punk veterans Eddie and the Hot Rods are playing on a freezing Sunday night), but recent sellouts include Bernard Butler, Nouvelle Vague, the monthly bingo and drag nights and Public Image Ltd. “Initially, they said the venue was too small, but they had a gig fall through and said: ‘We’ll do it,’” says Hosein. He finds it hilarious that he has had “John Lydon and Barry from EastEnders, who does Barrioke, in the same venue”.

The catchment area is large, covering Farsley, Leeds and Bradford; the mill owners want to boost the area and have been generous with the space. Because long-term power contracts were done years ago, Old Woollen is not facing soaring costs.

But everyone agrees that we have reached a tipping point. Clark and Sharp favour government arts support, or a VAT cut for the hospitality industry, which Sharp says would have “a massive impact”. Davyd’s Music Venue Trust is campaigning for a stadium and arena levy that would see a small portion of the ticket price – borne by the venue, the promoter, the agent and the artist, not the fan – go to smaller venues. “On their recent arena tour, Enter Shikari made a £1 contribution per ticket,” Davyd says. “If that had been the model everywhere, we’d have raised as much as £28m and not one venue would have closed.”

Persuading other big artists and mega-promoters to follow suit is a challenge, but Davyd hopes that the government will act if the industry won’t: “Communities are losing access to their venues while they see these large conglomerates announcing they’ve never made so much money. People, and the MPs who represent them, want change, so I think we’ll see a mandatory levy on arena and stadium tickets, like there is in France.” In November, the Conservative MP and former culture secretary John Whittingdale said: “We have no plans to impose a ticket levy.”

Meanwhile, at the Brudenell, Clark finishes his cuppa and pops in to see if Evian’s free-entry gig will herald another future star. “You’re trying to give something back and see people walk out smiling,” he says. “But if the smaller venues die out, there won’t be any talent coming through. So there’ll be nothing left.”

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here

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