2023 was the ‘most challenging’ year yet for grassroots venues. Is there hope for 2024?

With costs up and spending down, our local music venues are being suffocated. How bad is the crisis - and what does the future hold?

The bailiffs arrived at Matchstick Piehouse one day last November. They were demanding £36,000 or for the grassroots music venue to be signed over to the landlord on the spot.

The staff at the Deptford site had the composure to resist signing anything in the moment, and a passionate fundraising campaign followed. Local venues hosted events to drum up support and hundreds of people donated to a crowdfunder appeal.

Despite the best efforts of the community, the organisers were forced to admit defeat in January and bid goodbye to the iconic music space. They cited “increased costs” and “decreasing spend per head” as the pressures that led to the debt with their landlord.

The Matchstick Piehouse’s story is all too familiar. According to the charity Music Venue Trust, last year the number of grassroots music venues plummeted from 960 to 835. These figures represent venues signed up to the charity’s Music Venue Alliance, which is the vast majority in the UK.

Only a few relics and a fading sign now mark the outside of The Matchstick Piehouse. Pic: Aysha Imtiaz

In its most recent annual report the charity said: “Debt and bankruptcy resulting from energy prices, business rates, supply costs, or rent” and “financially unviable trading conditions; reduced footfall and increased operational costs” were the most damaging influences.

The average profit margin for grassroots venues last year was just 0.5 per cent, while 40 per cent of them generated a loss in 2023. This is not sustainable; venues must be able to generate cash if they are to carry on – and this is increasingly difficult. But why is it so important to protect these spaces?

The Matchstick Piehouse, established in Deptford in 2018, was a self-described “anti-capitalist bar, venue and art space”. It hosted a fantastic array of events, such as queer cabaret, video art nights and folk jam sessions, as well as more standard gigs.

Most grassroots venues promote an equally diverse catalogue of events. Owing to this variety, Mark Davyd, CEO of Music Venue Trust, recognises that the importance of these venues is personal to everybody: “Some people want to protect them because they see them as the place where the next Ed Sheeran might start their career. Other people just want the access to the shared experience of live music in our communities that they provide. They are equally valued for their research and development and for the space they provide to socialise, to interact, to be part of something.”

Mark Davy: ‘The premier league of live music venues must do more.’ Pic: MVT

This week alone in the East London Lines boroughs you could experience keyboard-comedy by a trio consisting of two members, rhythmic dance music until 4am from a record label and rave promoter, and the release party for an experimental cellist’s debut EP. Nationwide and across a year, the diversity of events hosted is staggering – and enriching.

As the above examples demonstrate, grassroots venues take risks. The people behind them prioritise discovery over profits, so the venues act as incubators for culture and creativity. “Taking risks with its cultural programme” is part of the Music Venue Trust’s definition of a grassroots venue.

Other vulnerable venues have had more positive outcomes. Alchemy, a grassroots late-night venue in Croydon, came back from the brink of closure in 2021. The club benefitted from a fundraising campaign by the Music Venue Trust called #SaveOurVenues. A “red list” of venues at imminent risk of closure was compiled to guide people on where their donations would have the most impact.

Alchemy bar is a landmark business on St George’s Walk in Croydon. Pic: Ewan Munro

Debbie Ballard, who runs Alchemy, says, “We’ll keep Alchemy going for as long as we can”, although she is “not overly hopeful” about its future. Ballard, too, tells of declining footfall, which she puts down to Croydon’s undue reputation as being “too dangerous”.

Davyd says that while it is “great to see the public responding” to support “a number of crowdfunders [that] have successfully averted the worst closures”, the current course of action “only creates the breathing space we need to get real change”.

Public awareness is vital, but more is needed to remedy the impossible financial situation damaging venues. Davyd says that the “‘premier league’ of live music industry companies” have to recognise “what they need to do to stop the closure of venues”.

Campaigners are also calling on the government for more help. The 75 per cent business rate relief for grassroots venues in the UK has been extended until at least the start of 2025, but Davyd says: “There’s more that can be done.”

One much-called-for measure is a VAT reduction from 20 per cent to 10 per cent on ticket prices. This “would create an additional £2.5 million that could be retained in the sector and used to cover some of the extraordinary additional costs we have seen rise in the last two years”, says Davyd.

It was hoped that the Budget in March would contain some positive news for the industry, but these hopes were unanswered by the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. The Night Time Industries Association expressed its “profound disappointment”, and Jon Collins, CEO of Live (Live music Industry Venues & Entertainment), said the Budget was “yet another missed opportunity to accelerate the growth of the live music sector”.

“2024 is going to be equally difficult”, says Davyd, but he is optimistic that the necessary action will eventually come. “Music Venue Trust is doing everything we can to delay music venue closures beyond the date at which we finally get the action needed to create a long-term solution.”

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