Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield
Culture War

The UK's culture war continues, with record nightclub closures and visa hikes for touring musicians causing further alarm

The government remains in a state of inertia, despite a 31% increase in venues shutting for good and a proposed 120% jump in US visa fees for international artists.

C11 A0551

Finnish singer-songwriter Erja Lyytinen performing at Sheffield's Academy in 2019.

Adamkennedy1979 on Wikimedia Commons.

The inertia of our government in presiding over the decline of UK nightlife is continuing apace, as reflected by a Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) report which found that 31% of UK nightclubs were forced to close between March 2020 and December 2023.

In October 2022, Sheffield venue Code on Eyre Street closed its doors. The venue blamed a 500% hike in electricity costs and fewer students in the city for the decision, and so a space that had hosted 1,657 events and had 1.7m customers pass through its doors was thought to be lost forever (it has since announced plans to re-open for a second time).

The NTIA has always been active in pressing the government for engagement, recognition and progressive action to support the industry, a call echoed by the Music Venue Trust (MVT), who announced that a tenth of the country’s grassroots live venues had closed in 2023, shrinking the pipeline for up-and-coming bands and artists.

Sadly, there has been minimal (if no) engagement from the government – an industry plea for VAT on tickets to be reduced to 10% to aid restrictive overheads was side-lined at the recent March budget by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

Brace yourself for some alarming statistics from the MVT: in 2023, 125 grassroots venues shut down. 4,000 jobs were lost. 14,500 events no longer took place. 193,230 opportunities were lost to musicians.

So what can – and should – the government do to protect and support the industry?

Well, aside from recognition of the issues – something seemingly beyond the hapless parade of Culture, Media and Sports Ministers that have included Nadine Dorries and the incumbent, Lucy Frazer – engagement is urgently required to explore proposals the industry itself is keen to put forward.

These include calls for government-backed legislation to force the upper echelons of the industry to bring in mandatory ticket levies on arena and stadium gigs, allowing funds to be recycled back to grassroots venues to ensure the steady flow of new bands and artists.

A radical proposal is to mirror the Premier League football model of creating top-level wealth, while passing down much needed grassroots support to ensure a healthy ‘pyramid’ – nurturing and growing the ecology of the music business.

France has a compulsory 3.5% levy on all arena tickets to help address a similar situation, action that hasn't gone unnoticed on these shores by the likes of Tom Maddicott, the owner of now closed Bath Moles venue, who told the NME: "If that was in place [here] we wouldn't be in this situation, Moles wouldn't be closed, we wouldn't be losing money and we'd be able to put new artists on.”

The MVT haven't just been active in keeping up public awareness – they recently announced £2.1m of investment into nine grassroots venues, with support from the likes of indie legend Steve Lamacq, who along with fellow DJ Huw Stephens has been active in publicising small venues along with up-and-coming live acts such as New Dad on his 6Music shows.

As Maddicott argues: "MVT have been asking the industry to sort this out for years, and they haven't done it. Now is the time. Maybe we need to go to government and get it enforced before we lose any more venues."

For MVT CEO Mark Davyd, the only option left is for the industry itself to step up without support from the government. "The argument is politically lost,” he told NME. “Now it's a question of are the people at the top of the industry going to get serious about this crisis and take action or just sit there and moan while pocketing colossal profits?”

1024px Merriweather Post Pavilion

Visa costs could make it harder for UK bands to play US venues like Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Reality truth on Wikimedia Commons.

He continues "In the end, the government will make them, whether it's this government or the next one. This is a £5.5bn industry that can't work out how to keep Bath Moles open. If they can't, bring in someone who can.”

Compounding the UK government’s inaction is the looming presence of the US government. This writer published an article in March 2023 highlighting the proposed imposition (and thankfully at that time, a postponement) of visa fees for touring international artists.

Fast-forward 12 months, and the IRS bogeyman is back in town. From 1 April, fees for international musicians requiring ‘O’ and ‘P’ visas will surpass $1,000 (£797) for the first time.

Some US visa info for you fact-fans. ‘O’ visas apply to those deemed "extraordinary talent", and enable applicants to work in the US for up to three years. Costs are due to rise by 129% from $460 (£366) to $1,055 (£841).

‘P’ visas, allowing work for a shorter timeframe, will increase by 121% from $460 (£366) to $1,105 (£809), a price hike UK bands and artists may baulk at in their quest to crack the American market. Indeed, we saw the band Easy Life and DJ and Primal Scream bassist Simone Marie Butler cancel US tours for exactly that reason.

Sounds bad? Well, initial proposals were for an even higher 250% rise – a financial burden that would seriously impact well-known bands, let alone fledgling artists.

The NME reports that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services have (again) faced widespread condemnation from bodies such as the National Independent Venue Association, but they in turn have defended their position stating that there have been no fee increases since 2016.

So, a year on the industry once more faces a two-pronged attack, one through soporific inaction by the UK government, the other through seemingly US hostile intent. Either way, there are options for legislation that could safeguard grassroots venues and the development of fledgling bands and artists if the will is there.

An additional avenue of hope comes in the shape of PM-in-waiting Keir Starmer, who appeared on LBC's Lewis Goodall show with not only a strong, knowledgeable grasp of restrictive touring visa costs, but also a pledge to address the issue and support the industry with practical help as soon as Labour gain power.

But there’s two ways you can help right now.

One, write to your local MP and implore them to engage with industry stalwarts such as MVT and the NTIA. If that person is a Labour MP, remind them of Keir's commitment too.

Two, support local Sheffield venues and artists, and maybe forgo that mega-gig once in a while.

One thing is for sure: at the grassroots level, Sheffield’s musicians and venues need all the help they can get.

Previously from Culture War

More Culture War

More Arts & Culture

More Arts & Culture