Friday, 21 October 2016

Music Venue Trust’s ‘Venues Day 2016’ - review

In July this year, The George Tavern in London’s east end won a historic case in a legal battle to prevent a block of flats being built next door. The case was significant not only because it was fought out in the High Court (supported by a host of celebrities from Kate Moss to Justin Timberlake), but because it proved a rare victory in the battle to save grassroots music venues from closure. 

The case rested on the premise that residential flats and music venues don’t often make great bedfellows. A single noise complaint can result in a venue’s license being revoked, spelling the end to centres of creativity that have been cultivated over decades.

Over the past 10 years it has been estimated that 40% of small venues have closed, a depressing figure which is born out across the UK; this despite live music being the fastest growing sector in the music industry, contributing over £3bn to the economy each year.

Why is this the case? The Music Venue Trust’s ‘Venues Day 2016’ set out to explore the issues surrounding grassroots music venues: why are they declining? What can be done not only to stop the decline but, as Mark Davyd (Founder of the MVT) asked in the opening panel, encourage new venues to open?

Over 2,500 delegates from across the UK packed into London’s Roundhouse - one of the city’s most iconic venues - for a day of panels, each focussing on different areas of concern: how to build a grassroots community; fundraising; relationships between venues, agents and promoters; legal issues etc.

Everything Everything headlining the Fightback gig after Venues Day at The Roundhouse

Sitting in on several of the panels, it was fair to assume that everyone present was there under a common banner: all agreed that grassroots venues are absolutely instrumental not only to nurturing new talent, but are also epicentres of communities. With this basic plank of agreement dealt with in the opening session, often to rapturous applause from the audience, I had assumed that the sessions would delve into the problem and work out solutions. 

But there seemed to be a disconnect between big and smaller players, who pulled against each other. A panel on promoters and venues, for example, was dominated by large promoters and small venues. Both extolled often overlapping merits of their systems: big promoters argued they supported gigs in small venues with a view of growing talent a reaping the rewards later; smaller venues believed it was that precise nurturing that was key to a growing music industry. Yet it was how the spoils of this nurturing were distributed that proved a point of friction. The big promoters said they would loss-lead on the smaller gigs, while the small venues believed they were squeezed to such a degree that they also lost money. Surely that can’t be sustainable?

Another hot point of discussion was around the relationship between independent venues, royalty collection (via the PRS) and public money (Arts Council England). How could independent venues access grants? How can we renegotiate the terms of royalty collection to give smaller venues a better deal? These are absolutely key questions and ones that the Music Venue Trust has worked tirelessly to highlight and challenge, with some brilliant results. But as Mark Davyd declared, more needs to be done. Given the vagaries of public funding, what happens to a venue the face of spending cuts? Should they put themselves in a postion in which they become dependent on these grants?

At times, as I walked around Venues Day, it felt like I was in an echo chamber. There was broad consensus about the headline issues, but then panels often got bogged down into arguments over how to cut up the cake with the tools we have.

I went to check out a panel on social media, in which representatives from Twitter, Facebook and Google gave a masterclass on how to make the most of their platforms to reach more people. It was perhaps instructive that this was the quietest session I attended, outside and in an open, windy marquee: literally and figuratively on the periphery of the debate.

Technology seemed to be absent from many of the discussions, yet surely this is where ground can be made. How can new technology build audiences, engage with fans, sell tickets? With so much innovation and data out there, how can venues and artists be brought together in a more efficient way that results in more of the revenue being directed to them?

This is, really, at the heart of everything we do at Tigmus - using technology to boil gigs back down to their core components: venues, artists and fans. We’ve proven that by harnessing artist and venue data in an efficient way, we can increase revenue for both parties while creating magical experiences for the fans. Economically the results are so clear and yet we constantly come up against an intransigent industry.

Forums like Venues Day can only help to improve things for venues and artists, but only if issues turn into debates which turn into action. My hope is that, over the coming year, new technologies like Tigmus can not only help venues make more money, but allow them to stand on their own feet as successful business, without recourse to grants and public money.

The enthusiasm and expertise is clearly there. Time to harness all that energy and redraw the map.

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