Britain’s independent music venues should receive the same reverence and support as the ballet or opera, according to the musician Anna Calvi and the organisers behind a week-long initiative to promote the UK’s smaller concert halls.
Calvi, a three-time Mercury music prize nominee, told the Guardian that venues which predominantly focus on live music – and helped contribute £1.1bn to the UK economy in 2018 – need to be protected at a time when a third of smaller venues report they are struggling.
She said: “Just because it’s music that is played with guitars, why is it any different to a place like the ballet or opera? Other areas of the creative industry might have slowed down, but people are still going to gigs.”
Calvi, who is an ambassador for Independent Venue Week, added that investment in venues should be seen as a long-term project, which allows talent to develop. “There might only be 150 people in the room at the time at those early gigs, but those artists could go anywhere from there,” she said. “Playing smaller venues was instrumental for me to becoming the artist I am now.”
In February 2018, the UK’s first ever music venue census found that a third of Britain’s small venues outside London were struggling, with respondents identifying rampant property development and soaring business rates as main issues. The value of Britain’s live music sector hit a record £1.1bn in the same year, with 11.2 million music tourists – those travelling from overseas or within the UK to get to live events.
Research by the mayor of London’s office released in July 2019 suggested that the trend for venue closures in the capital had been reversed. It found that between 2007 and 2016, more than a third of grassroots venues shut down, but since 2016 there had been a 6% increase in venues.
The founder of Independent Venue Week, Sybil Bell, said small gig venues had been “taken for granted” and that although things had improved recently in some locations, the sector in general needed more assistance from government.
“People have sat up and said we need to support venues,” she said. “They’re being squeezed by increased business rates, while rents are spiralling out of control and are unrealistic for many.”
Bell added that despite challenges there were also “green shoots” and “innovative venues”, with concert halls diversifying and providing community activities such as mental health services and spoken-word nights. She said: “There’s a misconception that a lot of venues are dark and dingy, and it’s really not the case – a lot has happened on a local level.”
Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons has warned that the UK’s music industry risks falling behind its European competitors unless action is taken to support smaller venues. “When you go to Sweden it’s not like those artists are doing it without the support of public and private investment,” he told the Guardian in November. “The infrastructure is really strong. If we do all those things we could have many more artists like Skepta and Stormzy.”