The UK’s live music venue crisis is reaching a boiling point – and it could spread to the US

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On this podcast, MBW founder Tim Ingham is joined by Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of the Music Venue Trust, to discuss a crisis that’s rapidly deteriorating the UK live music scene.

The Music Venue Trust is a trade body representing the interests of a vital collective of British live music venues. It’s just released a bunch of shocking statistics in its annual report – including the fact that in 2023, an average of two of the UK’s live music venues were shutting their doors every week.

Amongst the venues that Music Venue Trust represents are what it calls Grassroots Music Venues, or GMVs. It surveyed 835 of these GMVs for its 2023 annual report.

These venues have an average capacity of 309 people, though that can range to a capacity over 650 people. As mentioned, the Music Venue Trust’s latest report shows that two GMVs are shutting down per week in the UK.

But perhaps the most shocking data point in the new report is that 38.5% of GMVs reported an annual financial loss in 2023. To repeat that: Over a third of ‘club’-sized music venues in the UK are currently operating at a loss.

On this podcast, Mark Davyd explains how his organization intends to solve this issue – likely via a levy placed on ticket sales in larger venues like arenas and stadiums.

He also explains why this is a more complicated scenario than merely being the free market in action – and suggests that it’s only a matter of time before the UK’s live music venue crisis reaches a similar point of desperation in the United States.

Read an abridged/edited version of the A&R below, or listen to the podcast above…

These GMVs, or club venues, are an essential research and development home for new artists, some of whom will go on to become the most lucrative and biggest superstars in the global music industry. Just how bad have things gotten with GMVs? And what are the primary factors behind things reaching such a perilous state?

Things are very bad. There’s no point in glossing over that.

There are some positive things in the annual report. There are more people going to live music concerts at this level than there’s ever been before. But the reality is that the cost of putting on new and emerging talent, artists that are trying to find their audience for the first time, maybe their first tour, maybe even their first gig, those are the [shows] that are the least affordable, that are losing the most amount of money.

“We’ve now reached a situation where the simple act of putting on new and emerging artists, is a short route, frankly, to bankruptcy.”

Mark Davyd, Music Venue Trust

Frankly, we’ve now reached a situation where the simple act of putting on new and emerging artists, is a short route, frankly, to bankruptcy.

And the reasons for that are the spiraling costs. It’s nothing to do with audience behavior. It’s much more to do with rents going up by an average of 37.5%, staffing costs accelerating post-pandemic… everything just comes together and you just cannot make that work.

Let’s play free-market absolutist for a moment and say, ‘Surely the free market answer to this is that tickets need to go up to cover all these additional costs. And if the demand isn’t there, then there isn’t a market any longer.’ What’s your view on that take?

Well, ticket prices have gone up, but there is a limit to how much we can expect people to pay at this level to see acts they haven’t seen yet. And so really the question is, do we need there to be acts that are developing? Do we need there to be artists that are coming through from this circuit? I think it’s fairly clear that we do.

I’ve heard some debate from people saying ‘Well, artists are discovered in different ways.’ We don’t see a lot of evidence of that yet. I think people tend to think that streaming platforms only arrived yesterday, but you know, YouTube has been around for nearly 20 years. These are not new methods of artist discovery.

But what we aren’t seeing is artists that don’t have a grounding in live performances progressing to headline festivals, progressing to selling out stadiums. There is a talent pipeline, it does require you to move through it to learn the skills.

The free market argument – okay, but honestly at the moment, the ticket price would need to be £30 ($38). Who’s going to pay £30 to see three acts they don’t really know yet?

It’s not believable and we can’t have this entire sector collapse because [it’s not] economically viable at the point that it’s happening. Even though in the long term, of course, the entire health of the industry is built on this activity.

At the top of the record industry, and at the top of the music rights industry, there’s a lot of chatter about superfans. How do you unlock more spend from superfans? And one key argument here is you’re not going to have superfans unless an artist is able to foster a following and a live following early on in their career.

Even at the top of the industry, the highest earners we have in the world, a huge amount of their income is coming from their live performances.

And yet we seem to be leaning on the concept of a career that perhaps doesn’t include performance. There are models of that – I’m not saying they’re not – but certainly lower down the food chain, [for] these middle bands, the startup artists, there must be a model that just makes it economically affordable for them to have even a low-level career. And at the moment there isn’t.

There certainly are artists that don’t rely on performance. Lauv, for instance – huge streaming numbers, not a massive live act. Streaming almost certainly makes up a large part of what he’s earning in the music industry. However, even on the record side, most executives, most talent developers would acknowledge that if an artist doesn’t have a strong live following, they’re going to struggle to create a brand, they’re going to struggle to make people care about that artist.

I think that’s right, and the issue we see – especially when we look at the artists who have had long, sustainable careers – there has been a progression through a ladder of live performance.

If you go round and you play a 200-capacity venue, it’s quite likely you will meet all the fans that are in the room to see you do that. I know artists who [have] their own merch table at this level. To do 100 of those shows, they’ve met 20,000 people, those 20,000 people are the superfans. They feel personally invested. They will follow that artist for years to come.

In the end, this is still a people industry, and the way that fans feel about an artist is very much shaped by their experience of the live performance.

There’s a bigger question here, which is, what kind of society do we want? Do we want somewhere where these communally joyous occasions can take place and – if the free market economy can’t sustain that, particularly in a cost of living crisis – does there need to be an additional solution? Is that one of the arguments here, that it’s about more than the economics of the thing?

Basically, yes is the answer that question, but the detail on that is, as an industry, we tend to be very insular in the way that we consider things, and a lot of discussion around the failure of these venues has focused on where will we find the next Dua Lipa or Ed Sheeran or any of the other artists that have performed through these venues and gone on to have great careers?

But we have missed an entirely different thing that’s happening. Moles [a nightclub and music venue in Bath, UK] closed down after 45 years. I have never seen a community as angry as the people of Bath are, and neither has their local MP [Member of Parliament]. We’re talking about people losing access to new and original live music in their communities that they really care about.

“We’ve now reached a situation where the simple act of putting on new and emerging artists, is a short route, frankly, to bankruptcy.”

Mark Davyd, Music Venue Trust

And our failure to spot what was going on really moved the political agenda way past where we [the industry] are. We’re still having an insular conversation about ‘Oh, well do we need to do this because it will generate the new artists of the future?’

We launched our report in parliament on Tuesday this week. Most MPs – and there were a lot in the room, 10% of the House of Commons turned up to watch – are concerned that this is reshaping our towns, our smaller cities in ways they don’t like and their voters don’t like… People feel very strongly that live music should be in their communities.

If we don’t get on top of this, we’re going to find there will be a political solution rather than one that we created ourselves.

Do you think this is a situation that is going to translate to other territories, in particular the largest music territory in the world, the United States?

Yes, absolutely it is. We are in contact with NIVA [the National Independent Venue Association] in the United States, which is our equivalent organization there. We speak regularly with Canada Music Live. We have conversations in Australia. This is a worldwide problem.

Let’s just be very practical. The product that we’re asking these venues to sell to the public doesn’t have value yet. It has value for us as an industry in the future. And what we fail to do is connect the dots between the research and development that’s being done in these venues, and the end outcome, which is we will generate multi-million if not billion-streaming artists with incredible careers.

It’s not quite as bad yet in North America, but it’s bad. It’s probably equivalently bad in Australia. We’re seeing venue closures everywhere around the world. Everybody in our sector knows it. And I think the wider industry knows it. Whatever solution we come up with in the UK, and I’m hopeful there will be a solution within the next 12 months, I think we’re going to see that replicated eventually around the world.

You used the phrase ‘research and development.’ If this was research and development of a tech product in the UK, you’d expect some governmental support. Indeed, we’ve seen some governmental support. There was £3.1 million ($3.9 million) of grants and donations that went towards these venues from supporters and funding sources in 2023. But it’s not enough. So where is the rest of the money going to come from? How do you believe that shortfall should be covered?

I’d like to just describe the size of the shortfall so that people get a sense of exactly how bad this is. In 2022, these venues sold £133 million ($168 million) of tickets and spent £212 million, a loss of £79 million pounds on putting on live music. In 2023, they sold £134 million-worth of tickets, so up by a tiny amount. But the costs of doing it went up to £248 million, a loss of nearly £115 million. That size of loss means there’s no way to balance this with any kind of localized solution about ticketing or alcohol price increases. We are going to need external funding to make live music affordable.

The obvious way to do this is to connect the success that we see once an artist reaches a certain level of their career back into the circuit from which they emerged. And our simple way of thinking about that is to think about arena and stadium shows, the number of tickets being sold. And could there be a contribution from every ticket back into a fund that these venues can apply for, specifically around the issue of taking risks with their programming? How can we encourage them to put on more new and emerging artists? How can we make it affordable for them to do that?

So we proposed, starting in 2018 – I’m afraid so that gives you an idea of how slowly we’re getting around to this – what about a £1 contribution from arena and stadium tickets?

“In the end, this is still a people industry, and the way that fans feel about an artist is very much shaped by their experience of the live performance.”

Mark Davyd, Music Venue Trust

I would strongly advocate this should be voluntary, and we should do it ourselves. And the key stakeholders in the industry, our biggest companies, should have a stake in how it’s done and where it goes and what it does and how it supports [live music venues].

The challenge we now have is we are being overtaken by circumstance. I don’t think the incoming British government – whichever shade of politics it is – will tolerate no solution, because local communities are losing access to live music.

The danger here is our failure to act, is [that] we will end up with a mandatory levy, which is what happens in France [where] 3.5% of each ticket goes into a fund managed by the Centre national de la musique. The challenge with that is… a large amount of that money disappears into things that aren’t beneficial to the music industry, don’t support new and emerging talent, that it ends up being carved up by cultural entities much like our public funding is here.

It is much leaner, much more affordable to do it voluntarily. The question is, are we going to do that fast enough or are we going to get overtaken by circumstances?

Speaking frankly, there are two companies in the UK market that you need to convince to do this – Live Nation and AEG. Presumably you’ve been talking to them. What’s the temperature in those talks? How close does your gut tell you are getting to a voluntary solution, versus a government solution?

I think we should praise, first of all… a number of companies who have actually stepped forward and taken some action on this… And oddly I might be the first person that would come on the podcast and say ‘well done Ticketmaster,’ who did actually bring forward a one-month donation scheme from the public and then match-fund that, so that was really impressive.

Skiddle, another ticketing company, have done a great job, and they’re introducing a contribution on each ticket that they’re going to sell in 2024. There are tiny companies – a company like Good Show, a very small ticketing company – that are doing the same thing.

[However,] occasional donations from the public and month-long campaigns [aren’t] really going to do it. We need a proper, structured solution.

“We’re seeing venue closures everywhere around the world. Everybody in our sector knows it. And I think the wider industry knows it.”

Mark Davyd, Music Venue Trust

At the moment, this is like a weird Mexican standoff. It’s like watching the end of Reservoir Dogs, where everybody’s got a loaded gun, but they’re all pointing at each other. Everybody seems to think it’s somebody else’s decision to actually make a voluntary levy happen.

The promoters are pointing at the arenas, who are pointing back at the promoters, who are pointing at the agents, who are pointing at the managers, who are pointing at the artists and the artists are pointing back at everybody else and say[ing], ‘Well, let’s get this done.’

And because of that, there is an inertia around this which is, frankly, unhelpful. I don’t believe that the actual concept of there being a central fund that supports this risk-taking [is] as contentious as people might think it is. Most people in the industry now understand, we can’t let this carry on. It is important to our futures.

How optimistic are you that it is going to happen, and in what timeframe?

I’m super optimistic. I would say the chances of it not happening – either a voluntary or a mandatory levy – are down into single-figures percent, with the political atmosphere around it. It’s a hot issue.

If you can just imagine what an incoming government will think about its ability to take on an industry that’s letting small venues close down, and find a way that they can stop that happening without it having any implications on tax, but actually just bringing companies in order, they’re going to do that and wait for their round of applause.

Really strongly again, please don’t let that happen. A mandatory levy is the second-worst part of this potential outcome. The worst one is that there is no fund and venues continue to close. So regrettably, we are forced into the position – because of the inertia – of talking to politicians about a potential mandatory levy.

The reality is if it is [a levy on tickets], this fund could not… start to have money to give out until January 2026. And that is because of the lead-in time for putting major tickets on sale. 2025 tickets are already on sale. We can’t do it retrospectively, it needs to be planned in advance.

My message to the industry is: Let’s just get this done.

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