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Live And Kicking

Small venue fightback begins as MVT raise £2.1m for nine grassroots music venues

The Music Venues Trust's Own Our Venues campaign confirmed first phase purchases of gig spaces around the UK last month – a positive step for a beleaguered and battered industry.

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The past few years have seen the music industry beset by fiscal and logistical issues. Initially Covid, then Brexit related 90/180 Visa hurdles and, most recently, a 260% price hike to purchase all-crew touring permits in the US have all contributed to a decline in the UK's global market share and reduced opportunities for mid-range and fledgling UK artists to get an airing overseas.

To that list we can also add the decline of gig spaces and venues in the UK – some 35% of grassroots music venues have closed in the past 20 years, according to the Music Venues Trust.

We don't have to look far to see the scenario facing the iconic Sheffield venue The Leadmill and the rise of corporate venture capitalist investors keen to secure live clubs and venues for hard-nosed commercial purposes, cloaked in a familiarly flimsy wrapper of "retaining integrity".

In response, the Music Venues Trust have been running their Own Our Venues campaign, a fundraising drive that has brought in £2.1m of its £2.5m target to secure nine grassroots music venues.

Mark Davyd, chief executive of MVT, which represents almost 1,000 UK venues, said 93% of grassroots music venues were tenants with on average 18 months left on their tenancies. "The people who own the buildings in which music is played and enjoyed are committed more to profitability than supporting the sector."

Highlighting the irresistible lure of real-estate opportunism, Davyd continues: "Unfair rent rises can make previously viable venues suddenly unstainable, while venues in property hotspots find themselves turfed out to make way for conversion to flats. Short leases hamper those venues which want to raise funds to improve facilities and make the possibility of government support less likely."

The MVT's solution is to put ownership of music venues back into the hands of people who love live music, which Davyd describes as "a project so radical it hasn't been tried anywhere else in the world.

"We're going to prove that this type of ownership can provide real long-term benefits to artists, audiences and local communities."

Patronage and high-profile investment have been provided by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Frank Turner and musician and venue owner Ben Lovett. Industry behemoths Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music have thrown their weight behind the initiative, along with a £500k grant from Arts Council England. Perhaps most impressively, in excess of 1,000 private investors have stumped up hard cash.

Government inertia in resolving costly UK/EU Visa issues, coupled with a lack of engagement in creating a legal framework for fair distribution of streaming income for musicians across all spheres, has provided a protracted backdrop of seeping decay for the industry as a whole. So it's refreshingly positive to see that the campaign has acted inordinately quickly.

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The Music Venue Trust's Mark Davyd

Katie Frost Photography

The NME reports that Music Venue Properties is writing to all investors this month with a clear plan to start the purchase of venues, with the first batch scheduled before summer 2023.

And what of the chosen venues themselves? There are nine in total, all outside London and in areas of high deprivation, whose landlords are willing to sell their freehold to the MVT charity. So far, the list includes The Ferret in Preston, The Snug in Atherton, Le Pub in Newport, The Glad Cafe in Glasgow and The Hairy Dog in Derby.

Indie luminary, small venue supporter and BBC 6Music icon Steve Lamacq is a patron of MVT. Lamacq rather neatly sums up the ambition of the campaign: "We'll buy nine venues, then 90, then 900. We're going to save as many of these venues, vital to our cultural and community heritage, as possible.

"These venues have played a crucial role in the development of British music over the last 40 years. They have nurtured local talent, providing a platform for artists to build their careers and develop their music and performance skills."

In recent years, the UK's music industry has taken a battering, with most of the wounds being dealt by a government unaware of the successful structure and unrivalled legacy platform UK venues provide for future artists and bands, now sadly augmented by commercial opportunism seeking to take rampant advantage with sky-high rents. MVT's highly praiseworthy initiative signals the first steps in redressing the balance. The fightback begins here.

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