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Live And Kicking

It's time for the new Labour government to honour its commitment to supporting the music industry

After years of arts austerity, Labour’s assurances now need to be turned into concrete actions to drive investment in grassroots venues and protect a £6.7bn industry.

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The Estevans performing at The Horn at the Half Moon, Bishop's Stortford.

Maxwell Hunt on Unsplash.

I’ve already written extensively for Now Then about the existential crisis (that's not hyperbole) facing the UK’s music industry.

From the impact of Covid to a seemingly endless roster of hapless Culture, Media & Sport ministers who made a political decision that inertia was the best option (Nadine Dorries, anyone?), industry bodies like the Music Venues Trust (MVT) and the Musicians’ Union have faced an uphill battle to get their voices heard. They’ve also struggled to get the government to recognise that action is needed urgently, with 30% of venues closing between 2021 and 2023 and 67 more so far this year.

Against that stark backdrop there has – thankfully – been some marked progress, especially in the last six months. This is worth assessing in light of Labour’s accession to government last week. Firstly, a House of Commons Select Committee met in May to discuss grassroots venues. This was attended by industry heavyweights, as well as Lily Fontaine from rising Leeds-based indie stars English Teacher.

The evidence provided was extensive, including ideas like reducing VAT for events and venues to 5% (known as the ‘French model’, given its success on the other side of the channel) as well as proposals to improve artists’ profit share of merchandise (which becomes increasingly punitive to bands as they graduate to larger venues). They also explored the ‘Enter Shikari initiative’ – a levy on arena tickets with the proceeds channelled to grassroots venues.

Disappointingly (but not surprisingly), practical hurdles arising from Brexit that have caused negative effects ranging from levies to EU visa restrictions, resulting in either reduced or cancelled tours, failed to be discussed. But that's a charge that can be applied to political parties of all hues, as politicians continue to bury their collective heads in the sand about the UK imposing economic sanctions on itself.

That aside, the overriding sense of the meeting was positive. Committee members and industry representatives were seemingly as one, both in terms of recognising the need for intervention and in ensuring that one of the UK's most prestigious exports, worth £6.7 billion per year, is supported practically.

The resulting report came up with three proposals that will lay the foundation for further, hopefully speedy, discussion.

Misunderstood and undervalued

The first is a recognition that grassroots music is in crisis, that the sector is in decline, and that current government support is insufficient. The proposal suggests a government-backed, fan-led review of live music starting this summer, which would bring all parts of the ecosystem together to produce a detailed report.

The second is that the music industry accelerates the development of detailed plans for an arena ticket levy, to be published no later than September. The report also proposed that the government publish their own assessment of the progress of this model within twelve months.

The third conclusion covers VAT and business rates relief, with a proposal for a targeted and temporary cut in VAT on ticket sales for grassroots venues, to help reduce the financial risk for promoters and in-house programmers.

Whilst these represent a positive step, the industry still struggles to achieve recognition from the government. But this could all change with the election of an administration who are already on record as being committed to addressing current practical pitfalls: Keir Starmer himself recently spoke at length on LBC about grassroots venues and EU touring restrictions.

Some optimism has already been expressed by Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, who told the NME: "The real work begins now. Our industry faces serious challenges and needs urgent attention to recover from years of neglect through the cost of living crisis and the pandemic.”

Describing 2023 as the "worst year for venue closures", and with a whole host of festival cancellations, Kill said that the industry needs to "rebuild trust with the new government after years of being misunderstood and undervalued."

War on culture

That rather neatly brings us round full circle to the critical issues that the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, Lisa Nandy, will hopefully be prioritising as her department gets to grips with the broader impacts of Tory austerity and the politically-motivated strangulation of the arts, recently laid bare with the announcement that Birmingham was to see its arts funding cut to virtually zero as a result of grants being withdrawn by central government.

The big question now is whether Nandy and Starmer manage to align the unquestionable need for industry support with some serious financial backing – a task made all the more difficult by Labour’s stark fiscal limitations and the UK’s glacial forecasted growth. But in March this year, Starmer spoke at a Labour Creatives Conference and assured the audience that under his government “the war on culture will end.”

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In France, arena gigs are subject to a small levy to help support grassroots venues.

Yvette de Wit.

“We know our job is to create the conditions for you to take risks and thrive, not tell you what to create,” he said. “We will work together, hand in glove with our creative industries. No more sticking plaster policies."

The signs for Lisa Nandy’s appointment are welcome too, with her telling Times Radio in 2022 that "every single town has lost a nightclub they feel very strongly about that was part of our history and heritage. In Wigan, we had northern soul and we miss all of that greatly".

She continued: "Live music venues that used to sustain bands like The Verve who come from Wigan, who could gig and play around Wigan, now have to travel to Manchester to do it. Those things have disappeared in the last couple of decades."

Labour’s rhetoric so far has certainly demonstrated understanding, commitment and a passion for supporting the arts. But the challenge now is to turn that rhetoric into tangible actions that provide hope, security and the fiscal incentives for the lifeblood of the UK's music industry to thrive.

It's time for Labour to honour those pledges and take immediate steps to rebuild and reinforce the very foundations of the music industry and repair the damage of 14 years of austerity and inertia.

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