UK Venues Finally Have a Real Chance at Being Protected

Some 35 percent of live spaces have closed in the past decade, which parliament can rectify with a proposed bill tomorrow.

Tshepo Mokoena

Adam Green stage-diving over a bunch of people in Nottingham (Photo via Flickr)

In a Brighton venue with a performance area about the size of a front room and blocked very aggressively by a massive pillar, I watched Tune-Yards’ frontwoman Merrill Garbus stun an otherwise chatty crowd into silence. It was probably 2009. We were right in the thick of that alt-pop explosion that followed the rise of the Dirty Projectors. Garbus’s voice, thick like paint, bounced off the walls when she sang from deep in her belly and harmonised with herself using a loop pedal. She was accompanied only by a drummer, standing. This was her first UK tour, promoting propulsive debut album Bird-Brains, and one of those gigs that has stuck with me for years.

It did so not just because her scrappy and off-kilter pop sounded like little else I’d seen that year (non-twee ukelele!), or because she played with an exuberance that made the facepaint melt in sweaty rivulets off her face. But it’s become one of so many gigs I run through in my head because I now categorise it as ‘excellent show in a place that no longer exists.’ The Freebutt, the venue that hosted Tune-Yards that night, ran both a bar upstairs – the Penthouse – and its main gig room. And thanks to noise level restrictions imposed by Brighton and Hove council after someone lodged a complaint, the venue had to stop putting on gigs that used amplifiers or drum kits. Essentially, it had to go all-acoustic, and officially shuttered in August 2010 when it became clear that was no way to run a live music business (the bar upstairs hobbled on for a bit longer).

I say all of this because I hope to all hell that a new proposal on protecting venues, which goes to the House of Commons in UK parliament tomorrow, is successful. The idea is for the legislation, if passed, to put the onus on property developers, and not the owners of already-functioning venues, to assess the impact of any new ventures started near a live music venue. At the moment, that burden tends to fall on the venue owners, who are often given really short deadlines to meet new decibel level limits (as happened with the Freebutt or Bristol’s Surrey Vaults). As we’ve already reported on this site, more than one-third of venues across the UK have shut over the past decade. So Labour MP John Spellar, with support from organisation UK Music and a bunch of musicians including Chrissie Hynde, Paul McCartney, Nadine Shah and Craig David, is essentially trying to get the UK government to make something called the Agent of Change bill a thing.

In December, as the momentum on the bill picked up, Beverley Whitrick – strategic director at charity Music Venue Trust – put it this way: “At the moment, UK law says that whoever is making a nuisance is always responsible for that nuisance. If a noise exists, you can deliberately move next to it and demand it be turned off and UK law will support you. This is unfair and unreasonable. John Spellar’s Bill will stop it, and that’s why we are reaching out across the music industry, cultural sector and politics to ask parliament to act and make Agent of Change the law.”

Spellar has also been keen to point out broader, more birds-eye view on the ripple effect caused by venue closures. “Fewer venues means less work,” he said in a statement, “less opportunity to develop talent or even find out that you are not going to make it in the industry, but also to move up from amateur to part-time, to full-time, to national or even international stardom. If the present situation does not change, we are in danger of taking away the ladder that has served individual musicians and the music industry so well for so long.”

Traditionally speaking, he’s right. Because yes, while being able to discover new acts from their Youtube covers or Instagram accounts is one model, you don’t know whether someone has the charisma and ability to be a performer in front of a live audience until you see them up on a stage, holding their own. And you can’t get to that stage if the only venues left are arenas, mid-size spaces run by O2 or rented out by footwear brands for a few days of heavily hashtagged events. The Agent of Change law is one of our better options for keeping venues going when faced with the reality of how much (and how quickly) property development changes the landscape of the cities in which music has staked out its scenes.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve banged on about it before. Back in March 2016, we heralded the implementation of a new planning law that was set to protect live venues. At the time, we noted that it didn’t go as far as the Agent of Change law, which would explicitly force developers to account for how their new venture would impact the businesses and structures that already exist. So now is the chance for the House of Commons to make a real difference. Across the UK music press, we've all been writing about and protesting against the closure of venues – LGBTQ ones in particular – for years, but ultimately we need the support of government to keep these spaces open. There’s every chance that this proposal will bomb tomorrow, or not be considered a priority at a time when British politicians inevitably are enjoying many a harrowing night's sleep mulling over Brexit.

My hope instead is that some combination of logic like 'come on m8, the UK needs music to help it make money,' 'live music builds community' and 'do you hate fun? do you hate live music and fun??' will help MPs see the sense in this on Wednesday morning. They can even take Chrissie Hynde's word for it instead: “When I heard of the impending threat to small venues, my heart skipped a beat," she said. “It isn’t talent shows on television or theatre schools that propagate great music, it’s small venues. They’re the setting of everything great that's come out of the music scene in this country, from the Beatles to Oasis and beyond. England has long led the world of popular music; the rest of the world follow England. If small venues shut down, so will England's unique creative output." So there.

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