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Image: Steve Beech / Music Venue Trust

Could fan-owned venues be the future of live music?

A groundbreaking new scheme could save grassroots music venues across the UK

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

In February 1994, Oasis set off on the UK leg of their Definitely Maybe tour. They started in Gleneagles, Scotland, and toured through the likes of Bedford, Dundee, Stoke-on-Trent, Newport, Derby and London, playing a total of 33 small venues around the country. That wasn’t even 20 years ago, but less than half of those venues are still open today.

The UK is losing its arts spaces at an alarming rate. According to the Music Venue Trust, more than 35 percent of grassroots music venues have closed down in the past 20 years. The decline has been felt in all major cities, but has significantly hit rural locations, with some communities losing their one and only performance space. It’s a bleak picture, and certainly not the image of joyous foot-tapping and head-banging that usually springs to mind when talking about live music. So what went wrong? Decades of cuts to arts funding, noise complaints, gentrification, rising property prices, terminated leases and slashed council budgets, that’s what.

There’s one factor that underpins the majority of these issues: venue ownership. So who better to own music venues than fans themselves? Enter the Music Venue Trust’s Music Venue Properties (MVP) project. Launched in May as a Charitable Community Benefit Society (CCBS), the initiative aims to create a ‘National Trust of music venues’, building a sustainable touring circuit spanning towns and cities all over the UK, with communities taking venues back into their own hands.

Things are only getting worse as the cost of running venues rises due to soaring energy bills. So could fan ownership – as wildly ambitious and utopian as it sounds – be the future of live music?

Glad Cafe
Photograph: Glad Cafe

Based on the same community ownership model that has rescued dozens of rural post offices, pubs and cinemas, the scheme would prevent music venues from being at the mercy of landlords, who usually have no interest in what their space is used for. The MVT would purchase the freehold of properties by raising money through community shares. Fans and investors would buy them up, and in return, they’d receive 3 percent yearly interest on their investment (plus all the bragging rights that come with saying you effectively own your favourite venue).

It’s a pretty sweet deal. Once a venue is purchased, current operators will be offered an immediate rent reduction, help with building repairs and insurance, and most importantly, a secure future with market-resistant rents. It will also give venue operators easier access to government grants and support (during the pandemic, 67 percent of the government’s Culture Recovery Fund was paid directly to third-party landlords, rather than to the venues themselves, according to the MVT). 

‘The scheme has the potential to be an absolute paradigm shift in the way venues like us function,’ says Rory Haye, general manager of The Glad Café, one of the properties identified for the pilot project. Founded in 2012 in Glasgow’s southside, Glad Café is an underground arts space which platforms everything from contemporary jazz to experimental electronic music. Set up as a community interest company (CIC), it also provides access to music education in the local area through its sister Glad Foundation, running projects like samba drumming classes for primary school children and music sessions for young autistic people.

More than 35 percent of grassroots music venues have closed down in the past 20 years

The scheme is being launched at a time when government arts funding is being slashed across the board. Last year, Gavin Williamson cut subsidies for higher education arts courses in England from £36 million to £19 million. And just last week, the Scottish government slipped out the news that funding to the Scottish Youth Music Initiative would be abruptly paused. That all means community work like this has become more vital than ever.

Being an MVP would allow Glad Café to focus more on their outreach mission, rather than scraping any leftover cash to pay repair bills on the property, which they would no longer be liable for. The venue has been dealing with expensive plumbing and flooding issues for decades – a few years ago, Deacon Blue played an intimate gig in the 120-capacity space to help raise money for repairs. ‘It’s been a really alarming time coming out of the pandemic,’ says Haye. ‘Costs are increasing across the board, customer confidence is down. This framework would allow us to actually reinvest any money we make into nurturing artists and fulfilling the community-centre arts purpose we set ourselves.’ 

It’s not just one venue that needs support – it’s a whole network of spaces across the country. The MVT has identified eight other venues for the pilot project, mostly in places where it might be the last remaining music venue in the immediate area: The Ferret in Preston, The Snug in Atherton, Le Pub in Newport, The Hairy Dog in Derby, Sunbird in Darwen, The Polar Bear in Hull, The Palladium in Bideford, and the Bunkhouse in Swansea.

Le Pub
Photograph: Le Pub

Perhaps surprisingly, landlords are open to selling up. ‘There are definitely willing landlords out there,’ says Mark Davyd, CEO and founder of the MVT. ‘That’s partly to do with changing property values, and the level of uncertainty in the market.’ All of the rental income made through the scheme will be reinvested into the MVT portfolio, so that more venues can be identified and secured.

The project comes at a pivotal time. In the last few years, the challenges facing venues have multiplied: the sector has racked up more than £90 million of new debt since the start of the pandemic, and now faces (another) change in government, labour shortages, skyrocketing bills and a cost of living crisis. Some venues have been forced to reduce opening hours or turn to crowdfunding to prevent permanent closure. 

We could do with a period in which there is some certainty for music venues

Last week, the UK government announced the Energy Bill Relief Scheme, a package of short-term support which would provide a discount on gas and electricity unit prices for businesses. While the MVT has welcomed the measures, it’s by no means a long-term solution. ‘It should have been faster,’ says Davyd. ‘Every day our phones have been completely overrun with people who are in a state of panic being told that their energy bills go up by 700, 800, even 1,000 percent. We could do with a period in which there is some certainty for music venues.’ 

The MVP model has the potential to be part of a long-term plan, securing some sort of certainty for the future of live music. ‘[For example], if we had a number of venues within a network, we’d be able to take a broader view about where they get their energy from and negotiate collectively,’ Davyd says. ‘But the main thing is giving security.’

So far, the fundraiser has raised more than £354,000, but it’s still far off the initial target of £3.5 million. The deadline has now been extended until December 31 2022 to allow more people to get on board and help the MVT to buy the first nine venues and launch those community-share offers. They’ve also got a pretty high-profile ambassador – global superstar Ed Sheeran – promoting the scheme.

There’s a long way to go – the end goal is for the MVT to own more than 200 venues within the next ten years – and it’s not going to be achieved with just fan-led investments. It’s going to require serious government backing and external support from ethical investors. But it’s certainly a start. ‘I’m a really big believer that the music community should own our venues,’ says Davyd. ‘There might be different music venue operators, or different bands playing, but we definitely need the spaces.’

You can find out more and donate to the Music Venue Trust’s MVP fundraiser here.

Read more: one of Edinburgh’s most famous theatres could soon be forced to shut.

Plus: is Liverpool getting fed up with Beatles tourism?

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