When the doors of Passing Clouds were forced shut for the last time in 2016, the London underground mourned the loss of such a unique music venue like a member of the family. As anyone with an affinity to a grassroots venue will tell you, it’s more than bricks and mortar. It’s often the centre of the music lover’s social universe. A place where friendship, ideas and culture can flourish unfettered by the sturm und drang of city life and where music communities/scenes/networks are fostered, nurtured and cemented.
Over recent years, UK venues have been falling like flies as a myriad of socio-economic pressures have taken their toll. A staggering 35% of them have closed over the past decade, despite music tourism contributing £4 billion to the economy, and over 30 million people attending live shows in 2016 (source). The first ever national live music census, a weighty 140-page tome of raw information and statistics, was released this year and, while providing vital evidence that can be utilised to drive change, it paints a sombre picture of the current state of affairs. Without live music venues, the infrastructure would surely collapse.
So why are these venues being systematically picked off? The main culprit is, unsurprisingly, property development. Many venue owners are either being bought out or squeezed out by urban developers. A growth in demand for property in city centres has led to soaring rents, with some landlords deciding to sell up rather than struggle to stay afloat. Not to mention the mounting business rates and insurance costs that can cripple cash-flow and inhibit investment in vital equipment. The financial pressures on grassroots venue owners in particular can leave them with difficult choices to make and often leaves them vulnerable to the whims of a stacked planning system.
But it’s not just an inner-city problem. The Random Arms and Energy Room was part of a bespoke cluster of Napoleonic-era buildings nestled atop Maker Heights, Cornwall that served as a bar, venue and popular festival site. The community organisation have recently lost their battle against a particularly belligerent team of developers who went to great lengths (deploying a pack of masked bailiffs for a dawn raid) to stake their claim and intimidate protesters into submission.
When the city council are the developers, the venues are simply airbrushed out with not so much as an apology. In Plymouth, the White Rabbit was the proverbial jewel in the crown, hosting hundreds of touring bands from around the globe, and establishing itself as a solid 400-capacity contender on the national circuit. But Plymouth City Council’s ongoing redesign of the town centre sounded the death knell in 2015, not only for the venue, but also for lauded independent record shop, Last Shop Standing, and well-loved club, Tramps (later Maggie’s) who were all housed in the Bretonside bus station site. In their place will be a £53 million mega-complex featuring a 12-screen cinema, 15 restaurants, a 'sky bar' with views of the city and a 420-space car park. Music, it appears, is firmly off the agenda.
There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. In January, John Spellar MP proposed a Bill that would provide greater protections for venues under threat from nearby development. After a successful campaign which garnered support from the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, the Bill was picked up by the Government before reaching its second reading, who pledged to adopt the principles into planning law. So what does that mean? The Agent of Change principle states that the person or business responsible for the change is responsible for managing the impact of the change, and now the government have stepped in, this will be on a statutory basis. Simply put, if a developer builds near to an existing music venue, the onus is on the developer, not the venue, to soundproof their property and deal with the fallout of any noise complaints from residents within their buildings.
With cross-party support, and backing from music industry associations, artists and grassroots campaigners, the addition of this vital provision to planning policy could be signed off by the summer. The biggest concern now is that the final draft doesn’t end up as a watered down irrelevancy that completely misses the point. The latest draft (page 51) is currently under public consultation, so the more people get in touch or complete the survey in favour of the Agent of Change amendment, the more chance the people have of finally providing some sensible protections for the music venues that are still standing strong.
Of course, this will not have any bearing on other aforementioned issues facing music venues, soaring business rate and ground rents are responsible for plenty of closures in recent years too, especially in major cities. What this legislation can do though is embolden communities who are fighting to save their local pubs and venues from closure, and through campaigning and/or collective ownership initiatives, provide them with little ammunition that may turn the tide in the favour. It’s a small step, but a small step in the right direction.
Whatever happens, whatever our successes and failures, we need to be ready and able to adapt. Music has thrived in other imaginative spaces for many decades – libraries, cafés, village halls, community centres, colleges, school gyms, bookshops, churches, parks, streets, homes, garages – often out of geographical necessity. If this is what it takes while established venues are in limbo, so be it. Culture is defined by people not property, by commonality not careerism, by purpose not politics. So, while we need to defend our beloved venues by any means necessary we also need to challenge nostalgia and sentimentality, and start seeking new avenues for creativity that side-step conventional mores.