Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd provides his perspective on what’s needed in order for the grassroots venue sector to fully recover from the impact of the pandemic
So that’s it then, crisis over. We can all go back to exactly how we were before, gigs are back, work is back, audiences are back, and everything just carries on exactly as it should be. Except for that little blip in the middle where you could only be 6ft away from a trombonist provided you were seated and holding a scotch egg.
Except it isn’t really all over. A tsunami of cancellations, a barely functioning international touring network, low audience confidence, and an incredibly challenging staffing crisis are just some of the many issues facing the grassroots music venue sector as we emerge blinking into the post-Covid dawn. Venue operators are struggling to keep the shows in the diary, especially US/European acts, grappling with customers reluctant to buy tickets for shows they’ve lost all trust will be delivered. And if they finally do manage to get the doors open, they are picking through the wreckage of a staff roster that saw over 35% of all workers decide to permanently leave the sector during the pandemic.
In total, grassroots venues have accrued an additional £110 million in debt, a crippling sum for a sector with an average turnover per annum in the last five years circa £350m and a profit margin that hovers, even in the best MVTof years, around the low single digits. Having dealt with the crisis of the pandemic, the UK’s grassroots music venues, and the whole ecosystem that relies on them being open, faces a second crisis: The Recovery.
“There’s been a lot of talk about ‘building back better’, but in reality what does that actually mean?”
How to recover from this body blow is the question vexing venue operators, staff, promoters, artists, managers, and agents active at a grassroots level. There’s been a lot of talk about ‘building back better’, but in reality what does that actually mean? To bounce back from the Covid years, we need to consider exactly why so many of our grassroots music venues were under an excessive level of threat of permanent closure. Where were their reserves, their financial resilience? Why could so few people working in this sector access the government support offered elsewhere?
Music Venue Trust has been working on a core concept for the last few years which we call The Grassroots Pound. It asks the question, “what happens to every pound spent on a ticket to see an artist at grassroots level?’ We’ve been tracking and auditing that investment made by audiences, assessing how much of it achieves the purpose for which they spent it; to support their favourite new artists, local facility and people who deliver live music in their community.
The moment £1 is handed over, 16.6p of it is claimed by the Treasury in VAT. A further 7p disappears in local taxation, on Business Rates and levies. 14.8p is then sucked out of the ecosystem by landlords – 93% of UK grassroots music venues are tenants. Nobody has turned on a light or taken a guitar out of a case, and there’s already only 61.6p left. This is one of the highest rates of taxation and premises costs in the world, completely out of synch with our competing music nations’ approach to developing new talent and supporting local live music communities.
If we are serious about the desire to ‘Build Back Better’, we need to start right here. We need an ownership and taxation model that invests in the grassroots, not feeds off it. We need to reimagine grassroots music venues and touring to create a financial sustainable model for everyone involved, with reasonable conditions and practices that support this circuit to create the next wave of British talent. We need radical change from the industry that is matched by action from the government.
If we want this crisis to be over, we need to put our house in order. Time for change.