Small venues are under threat, but what does it mean for the music industry?

Pubs and clubs have traditionally been the very beginnings of the music industry eco-system. A place where the festival headliners of tomorrow hone their skills and build up localised fanbases before hitting the big time. So what happens if the very existence of small venues is under threat?

In the UK, it seemed a week didn’t pass by last year without news of another closure. And in mid-July, another one bit the dust. The Troubador in London’s Earls Court has played host to intimate gigs from Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Adele and Ed Sheeran. But soon it will be no more, after being put up for sale because its owners can no longer afford to make a living from live music.

Noise complaints from neighbours didn’t help the case – The Troubador had to close its popular garden area at 9pm from 2012. Meanwhile, Blind Tiger Club in Brighton shut its doors last year after being served with a council notice for noise, and The Roundhouse in Manchester, which has hosted Coldplay, Muse and The White Stripes, closed in May.

Who is to blame?

According to various small venue owners throughout the UK, the reasons for the closures are multiple. They include: noise complaints from neighbours recently moved in to newly erected properties next door, resulting in stringent noise abatement notices, lack of willing from audience members to pay entry for gigs and the inability to pay bands who play thanks to the rising costs associated with running a venue.

Musicians, festivals and bigger promoters haven’t made it easy either. Shaun Jackson, owner of The Railway Inn in Leicestershire, says there is a mentality amongst some young artists that all they need to do is audition for a TV talent show to make their fortune, meaning its harder to find young talent happy to play to the small audiences that attend his pub.

“We have had issues with some young acts who seem unwilling to self promote too,”

“We have had issues with some young acts who seem unwilling to self promote too,” he adds. “We had one guy whose only attempt at plugging his gig was to take a picture of the posters that I’d had printed and post it to his Facebook page with the comment ‘playing here tonight’ when he turned up to get set up.”

Meanwhile, the rise in popularity of music festivals, where you can see “52 bands at once” instead of “52 gigs a year on a Tuesday night” has replaced the gig-going experience of drinking and meeting new people, says Micky Sheehan, owner of The Victoria Inn in Derby.

John Keenan, a veteran promoter in Leeds, has lost his motivation for breaking new talent, thanks to deep-pocketed promoters who come in and sign his acts once they’ve hit a certain level, providing Keenan with no payback for getting them there in the first place. “My main skill was in spotting a uniqueness in an act and building them up through the different levels of venue,” he says.

“The business doesn’t work like that any more. As soon as an act looks like making the grade the money promoters buy up the next tour and the provincial promoters lose out. What is the point of fattening calves if someone else is going to take them to market?”


The domino effect

So what does this mean for the music industry? The results of more small venues closing could be significant. The biggest bands today started their careers playing to modest audiences in pubs and clubs, if the places available to do that diminish, where will the future festival headliners learn their performance skills? If there’s a dearth of fresh live talent, you get festivals that just book the same bands to headline again and again, without giving newcomers a chance.

The statement certainly rings true when analysing the recent history of Glastonbury Festival’s line-up. The Who, Lionel Richie, Paul Weller and Patti Smith all played the Pyramid Stage this year. While Dolly Parton and Metallica were the stars of 2014. And The Rolling Stones played in 2013, alongside Primal Scream and Elvis Costello. There were plenty of contemporary acts on the bill too, of course, but will that remain the case in years to come?

These days, most musicians rely on live income primarily to be able to sustain themselves thanks to the diminishing revenue earned from recorded music in the streaming age. And you can’t go from bedroom to stadium, there’s got to be lots of hard work in-between. As has been proved by Ed Sheeran, Catfish & The Bottlemen, Slaves, Enter Shikari and The 1975 – all acts who’ve relentlessly toured anywhere and everywhere for years before hitting mainstream awareness.

What can we do?

While funding and support from governments would really help to insure the future of small venues, the musicians and audiences who frequent them can do a lot too. Tearing yourself away from the sofa for one evening a week and checking out some live music at your local ??? would be a start. And not complaining when asked to pay for entry (most of that cash, if not all, will be going to the musicians that have played).

For bands, spending time promoting their gigs as much as possible (using social media, flyers, inviting extended family and all their friends), as well as understanding that it takes a long time to build up a decent sized audience are two things that venue owners will hugely appreciate. Most people working in music are struggling to make a living in 2015, whether that be the sound engineer, guitar player, frontman or pub owner. Let’s help each other out.