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23 May 2022

Inside the new venue ownership scheme hoping to save live music

The Music Venue Trust’s “friendly landlord” initiative hopes to buy nine grassroots music venues across the UK, and ensure they keep their doors open.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On Friday 13 May Frank Turner played the last ever show at Nambucca. The 300-capacity venue on Holloway Road in north London had hosted early gigs by artists including the Libertines, Wolf Alice, Florence + the Machine, Laura Marling and Turner himself. “If it hadn’t been there, I don’t know where we would have got our start,” the singer-songwriter, whose recent ninth album topped the UK charts, told the New Statesman.

The operators of the venue cited “the reality of the past few years” – the pandemic – as the reason for its closure, which follows recent uncertainty surrounding the future of the Sheffield venue the Leadmill. The Music Venue Trust (MVT), a charity that works to protect UK grassroots music venues, saw other causes, too: “Gentrification, development, noise, rent demands, excessive charges, poor working conditions, there are so many challenges. However, everything Music Venue Trust deals with eventually comes back to the same core problem. That problem is ownership.”

At present 93 per cent of grassroots music venues in the UK are tenants. (The MVT defines a grassroots venue as a “small- to medium-scale venue which has a model of operation focused on the development and presentation of new live music to audiences”.) What’s more, the average operator has just 18 months left on their tenancy. “That leaves them in a precarious position,” said Mark Davyd, the MVT’s CEO. He believes that lack of ownership is the core reason that 35 per cent of UK grassroots music venues have closed in the past 20 years. The same percentage of London venues closed between 2007 and 2016 – even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new initiative, launched by the MVT, aims to solve this problem. Music Venue Properties (MVP) is a community benefit society that is raising funds to buy music venues in a scheme they hope will change the fortunes of the grassroots music industry. From today, 23 May, investors can buy shares in the society. If MVP reaches its target of £3.5 million it will purchase nine venues that have been selected for the scheme. As the new “friendly landlord” of these properties, MVP – which will be run by an elected directorial board – promises to lower rents for venue operators and, crucially, offer them the security that will allow them to invest in new talent without fear of being priced out of their buildings.

“The new leases that will be given to venue operators by MVP will be secured against their will to put on live music,” Davyd explained. “If somebody puts on live music, they will be able to enjoy an incredibly secure tenancy.” 

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In recent years pubs have been the subjects of a similar trend for community ownership. But such schemes tend to mean one community coming together to save their local building. Such a method tends to be most successful in affluent areas where there is just one pub left, the others already having closed. “We’re saying that it is important for there to be a touring sector,” said Davyd, pointing out that one band travelling between the nine venues on the pilot scheme – from the Palladium in Bideford, north Devon, to the Glad Cafe in Glasgow – “would make a nice little tour”. “Saving one venue wouldn’t work for us.”

The pandemic has threatened the security of many live music venues, but it was a crisis that magnified pre-existing problems rather than creating new ones. The government invested in a Culture Recovery Fund of £1.57bn, but within the music industry 67 per cent of that grant money was paid to landlords, who rarely contribute towards building insurance or repair costs, according to data from the MVT.

“Where does the money go?” is a crucial question for Davyd. “When somebody arrives at a venue and pays £10 at the door to see a band they want to support, where does that money go? The answer is that too much of it is going into the hands of private landlords who aren’t particularly interested in what happens in the building. What we want to do is try and keep as much of that £10 inside the sector as possible.”

“It wasn’t just Covid, it was corporate greed” that threatened the Polar Bear Music Club in Hull, according to its operator, Mark Hall. In July 2020 the venue went into administration but was saved following a crowdfunding campaign that allowed the owners to negotiate with their landlord. 

The historic Polar Bear is one of the nine venues the MVP will buy if it reaches its investment goal. “We’re hoping for a more kindly relationship with the landlord, rather than us just being a cash cow for some faceless capitalist somewhere,” Hall said. “It’s not just a line on a balance sheet; this is crucial to our lives.”

The promise of MVP is a beacon of hope too for Jordan McGuire, the owner and director of the Bunkhouse in Swansea, which opened just five years ago, and which has also been selected for the pilot scheme. McGuire’s current landlord has told him he will be “thrown out” after the four years that remain on the building’s tenancy. “That would be the end of this building as a music venue,” he said.

But MVP’s offer would give McGuire and his team the security that the Bunkhouse will remain a music venue indefinitely, while a lower rent offers them the chance to invest in the space to improve it as a social hub for the “many people in this community who rely on this venue”.

Anyone can invest in MVP, with a minimum share value of £100. Davyd knows he will be able to count on the “enormous enthusiasm of the gig-going community” to do their bit – he saw the power they had in saving their local venues over countless crowd-funding campaigns during the pandemic. But he and the MVT are also looking to the industry for financial backing.

“Everybody involved in the music industry has a financial interest in the survival of these venues,” he said. “They are the ignition engine of the music industry. All of our most successful acts started in these venues. When we look at companies like Spotify, Universal, Warner, Sony, Amazon Music, Apple – these are companies that need a constant flow of talent.”

He mentioned Ed Sheeran, one of the UK’s most successful artists. Between 2006 and 2011, as Sheeran was building his career, he played 366 shows at grassroots venues. Today he would be able to play just 216 of those gigs, 150 of them having taken place at venues that have since closed.

Supporting grassroots venues is “an investment in the future”, Turner said. “If we want to have more bands coming up, then we need to make sure these places exist.”

[See also: Liam Gallagher's new album is a soporific wade through the swampy waste of Britpop]

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