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23 October 2023

Landlordism is killing culture

Music venues, pubs and cinemas are struggling to survive under rentier capitalism.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In 2014, when Rachael Flaszczak opened her grass-roots music venue the Snug, the landlord had rented the building to her without knowing what she planned to do with it. “He didn’t care,” Flaszczak said. “He just wanted the rent at the end of the month.” 

Flaszczak signed an initial three-year lease, investing her own money in renovating the building in Atherton, Greater Manchester, so that it was fit for use. She runs the 100-capacity venue – one of the few live music spots in the area – as a coffee shop in the daytime, turning the space into a gig room at weekends. That itself is a compromise. Flaszczak first fell in love with live music when she saw the Manchester indie rock band James – with support from Radiohead – in 1993. She started the Snug to support Manchester’s music scene and her local community, with income from the coffee shop supporting the venue’s live shows, as well as funding community groups for people experiencing homelessness, and locals trying to return to work. But the financial situation has been “difficult”, Flaszczak said. “We just get by each week.” 

Last year the Snug risked closure when Flaszczak learned that her landlord was looking to sell the property. She considered buying the building herself and looked into applying for a commercial mortgage, but the impact of Covid-19 on the venue’s accounts meant that wasn’t possible. Having seen numerous local commercial properties bought up and turned into flats – specifically into houses in multiple occupation, which are often more profitable for landlords – Flaszczak worried that her venue would go the same way. The future of the Snug now depended on the whims of its new landlord.

The profiteering of private landlords is clearly a major contributor to the housing crisis. Less discussed is the way in which rentier capitalism is killing the UK cultural scene. In music, more than 35 per cent of grass-roots music venues (small to-medium-sized venues that focus on showcasing new music) have closed in the last 20 years, according to data from the Music Venue Trust (MVT). Ninety-three per cent of those are tenants, with the typical operator having just 18 months left on its tenancy. The pandemic, during which time many venues were shut for a year or more, only made the crisis worse: during the pandemic the grass-roots music sector acquired over £90m of new debt, yet 67 per cent of the government’s Culture Recovery Fund was paid directly to landlords.

Live music is not the only sector of the arts suffocating under the grip of private landlords. The Mayfair branch of the arthouse cinema brand Curzon is under threat because the landlord, the Jersey-based holding company 38 Curzon Lease, plans to end Curzon’s lease in order to renovate the building. The cinema wouldn’t otherwise close: it is financially viable, and is particularly popular for events and premieres. It’s a historic venue. Curzon opened a cinema on the site in 1934 before that building was replaced with the current one in the 1960s. The landlord intends to renovate the building to open its own cinema, pushing out a brand that has been there for 90 years in order to better profit from the building. “We are passionate about preserving this unique building, with the cinema at its heart,” Dan Zaum, who runs 38 Curzon Lease, told Time Out earlier this year. “We will bring the Mayfair Cinema back to life, restoring its beautiful original features and giving it the very latest technology.”

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[See also: Bridget St John and the power of folk memory]

The impact of landlordism is felt in every creative sector. In the theatre world, many buildings are owned by local authorities, so “the picture is more complicated”, explained Jon Morgan, the director of the Theatres Trust. But for those owned by private landlords, the problem persists. In recent years in Greater London alone, the Greenwich Playhouse and the Twickenham Theatre have had to close due to landlords terminating their leases.

Like other parts of Britain’s economy, the cultural sector is suffering from the practice of rentier capitalism, which, as the political economist Brett Christophers has observed, has accelerated dramatically over the last pour decades. From Margaret Thatcher’s premiership onwards, neoliberal policy reforms such as the offshoring of manufacturing and the removal of trade barriers reshaped Britain into a services economy. Ownership, rather than production, has become the primary source of income, and wealth is built upon by charging economic rents on scarce assets, be they land, natural resources, intellectual property – or your local arts venue. This is part of an international trend in which the labour share – the proportion of the national income paid to workers – has been falling globally since the 1980s.

Landlords received a further boost after the 2008 crash, when the Bank of England reduced interest rates to the lowest levels in its history. This created a debt-fuelled asset bubble, in which cheap borrowing could be used to buy property and profit from a rising real estate market. Now, after 15 years, the cost of borrowing is rising again, which may help explain why landlords are more inclined to get out of the market before their asset loses too much value, or find more lucrative tenants to cover their increased interest payments.

A growing number of organisations are seeking to escape this cycle through community ownership. Last year the MVT launched Music Venue Properties, a community benefit society that is raising funds to buy music venues. This month it was announced that the Snug, Rachael Flaszczak’s Atherton venue, is the first building to be bought as part of the project. The venue now has permanent protected status, with a lease ensuring that as long as the Snug operates as a grass-roots live music venue it can enjoy the use of the building. For Flaszczak, “it means we feel secure”. Her building is now owned by people who care about what she does with it.

Opening the community benefit society, a type of cooperative that is owned and run by its members, has been “life-affirming”, said Mark Davyd, the CEO of the Music Venue Trust. Investors – who include music-loving individuals, as well as brands such as Sony, Amazon and Warner – have so far bought more than £2.35m worth of shares in the society. Davyd is confident that in time they will have the money to buy all nine venues in the original bid that launched last year, including the Glad Cafe in Glasgow and the Bunkhouse in Swansea.

“Ownership is the heart of the crisis facing our cultural institutions right now,” said Lenny Watson, a co-founding director of Sister Midnight, a community benefit society working to set up a music venue in the London Borough of Lewisham. “To have ownership of property and land is to have power, and at the moment that power is held by private interests.” When operators are “being squeezed for profit by their landlord, and subsequently they’re having to squeeze their patrons and artists for profit, it creates a cycle where there’s no space for culture to breathe, and everyone is just scrambling to survive”.

There are many ways to approach community ownership, and the concept doesn’t only apply to the arts. The Campaign for Real Ale estimates that there are more than 150 pubs in the UK that are community-owned, stating on its website that “to date, they have a 100 per cent success rate”. One such establishment is the Ivy House in Nunhead, south London, which in 2012 was closed and sold to a property developer who planned to gut the building (including its 1930s music hall) and turn it into flats. A group of regulars applied to English Heritage to get the building Grade II-listed status and then to have it categorised as an “asset of community value”, which protects a building from immediate sale. The group fundraised and managed to buy the pub from the owners before it could be sold to a developer. In the summer of 2013 the Ivy House reopened as a community-owned, community-run pub. A decade on, its doors remain open.

At the Music Venue Trust, Mark Davyd has had numerous organisations in other sectors seek his advice on the community ownership model. He is energised by the interest. “If we felt that we owned our towns and cities in a really real way, I think we would take a lot more interest in what’s happening in them. Whose city is this? What’s the city for? Is it for massive investment firms to build luxury flats, or do we want homes that we can all live in?

“It’s a really interesting breakthrough point on this community ownership model. Our community has said: ‘We want there to be music venues. We’re going to buy them so that they’ll always be there.’ You could apply that right the way across the arts, you could apply that in sports. I think it’s revolutionary.” 

[See also: It’s time to scrap the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]

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