Music Venues



An International Benchmarking Study

The Madison Square Garden Company has announced plans to bring a large-scale, state-of-the-art, music and entertainment venue to London.

As part of its due diligence, MSG worked with Sound Diplomacy to assess the London venue market and to compare it with other major cities: ParisBerlinMadrid, and New York City.  Like London, these four cities are standard stops on venue tours, offering state-of-the-art venues to acts and music fans. 

By comparing the populations of these cities to how many venues they have, we identified the average population size per venue (ppv). London had the highest ratio, almost 1 million people-per-venue ahead of the next-most densely serviced city (Berlin). New York, the only city listed with a comparable population size, has almost four times as many venues, which means each venue has a quarter of the audience pressure of London’s venues.

The London Venue Market Report is available to download now. For more information about the report, contact us here.

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London’s music venues are recovering – but business rate review could stop them in their tracks

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

Much has been written about the revaluation of business rates and their impact up and down the country. Due to an outcry from a number of sectors and business lobbying groups, not least the CBI, the chancellor is considering measures to relieve those facing the highest increases. (In his recent Budget, indeed, he gave pubs a rebate of up to £1,000, though he did nothing for other sectors.)

Most of the businesses worst affected are in zones 1 and 2 in London, where property has, in some cases, doubled in value since the last valuation was conducted in 2008. And it is the independent retail and commercial sector that will feel these rises the most. A large high street chain can shoulder a rate increase of between 25 and 30 per cent; an independent cafe or restaurant often can't. Such an increase, after all, could mean an extra bill of up to £15,000 for a mid-sized premises. That would be enough to close an independent pizza shop, but allow Pizza Express to survive. 

Of these independent businesses that are most threatened, at the top of the list are our grassroots music venues and nightclubs. Over the past ten years, 50 per cent of London's nightclubs have closed, along with 35 per cent of its music venues.

In fact, there have recently been some signs of recovery in the ecosystem. Last month, the Greater London Authority published a report that found there had been no net loss of venues in 2016, a first since 2007. A few new venues have even opened, including The Soundlounge in Tooting, Sankeys East in Romford and, at the end of March, Soul Store West in Kilburn.

Now this rates rise threatens to derail this progress. And there remains something rotten in the way we value these places: when assessing and calculating their rates, we don’t consider their cultural or economic value. These premises are the incubators of the sector, each investing £500,000 directly into new and emerging talent each year. And yet, unlike community centres and libraries, for example, little relief is offered that recognises the benefits these places and spaces bring to their communities. 

Indeed, instead of recognising this value, we are doing the opposite. Take The Lexington, in Islington. In the past, it's hosted many artists who you wouldn't have heard of at the time, but almost certainly would have now. Yet the value of the land the venue sits on has increased significantly, increasing the value of the property and thus its business rate. (It's a similar system to council tax.)

There's another penalty: rates recategorisation often means an increase in annual alcohol licence fees that can also run into thousands of pounds. Paying for that means selling more alcohol, which puts pressure on the businesses to stop providing the unprofitable live music aspect. And so The Lexington, instead of being a music venue and community asset, becomes a solely alcohol-led premises, similar to a chain pub or bar.

All this is compounded by the way that venues in London are being penalised for their success in regenerating its town centres. Cafe Oto opened at a time when Dalston town centre was not as desirable as it is now. Its contribution to the local community – along with those of many other businesses and entrepreneurs – has led to Dalston changing and becoming more desirable. Yet Cafe Oto and the like have not been recognised as agents of change and arbiters of community cohesion; instead, the work they've done merely means the land they sit on has become more expensive, and so their rates are going up.

There is no standard classification of music venues and nightclubs in the system by which we assess rateable value: they not categorised as a particular type of business, so their floor space is assessed not on its need to welcome an audience, but on its size and its capacity to sell enough alcohol to fill that space. Yes, venues and nightclubs often live or die on their ability to sell alcohol, but without the music – the culture – people wouldn’t be drinking that alcohol in the first place. Yet this is not recognised: their cultural value is ignored, and venues are made to pick up the tab in more ways the one.

It would be best if such places were assessed for what they are, rather than being lumped into a general categorisation that more often than not impacts them negatively. They should all pay business rates – this is the only way core services can be delivered – but increases in those rates should take account of their community benefit, and recognise their cultural value. 

If we don’t take a good hard look at how our classification and rating systems measures music venues and nightclubs – or cultural infrastructure in general – we  will lose these places. The recent spate of good news will disappear, and we’ll be back to hearing about venue closures in London and beyond.  

And the same argument applies to other sectors, too: if we don't recognise the value of independent cafes, there is a danger that rate rises will one day mean that Costa Coffee is the only place that'll sell you a flat white. 


What can music venues learn from betting shops?

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

In March 2015, an amendment to the law altered the way that betting shops, bookies and pawnshops were classified by the planning system. From 23 March of that year, such premises were reclassified from A2 to Sui Generis.

To those unfamiliar with the minutiae of the General Permitted Development Order, A2 includes finance and professional services, including finance and banking, building societies and estate agents. Betting shops inclusion in this use class came out of the 2005 Gambling Act, a heavily lobbied-for set of legislation which regulated the sector.

When a building is classed as A2, permitted development rights mean it could change to A1 (shops), A3 (food and drink), A4 (pubs) and A5 (hot food / takeaway). This doesn’t mean that betting shops became pubs – but it did mean they were able to occupy high streets units (i.e. places that used to be A1, A3, A4 or A5) without planning permission.

Furthermore, as A2, betting shops, bookies and pawnshops were able to argue successfully that their businesses served a banking and financial role in our towns or cities. Such businesses were thus given precedence on our high streets, and there was no tool to reject a change of use from a disused cafe, for example. After all, we all need banks and building societies.

 A decade on, we see the result of such a use change. Merton and Newham councils in London, for example, have faced significant challenge and litigation from the gambling lobby. And across the country local authorities have had to allocate millions of pounds to challenging this use – often by using Article 4 Directions, in which councils can override permitted development rights by appealing directly to the Secretary of State.

Thankfully, now the use has been changed to Sui Generis, meaning "in a class by itself". This class does not permit a change of use: you can no longer simply switch a building A3 (disused cafe) to A2 (new betting shop).

As a result, if one wants to open a bookies now, the application will be treated on its own merits: there’s no longer a clause that allows them to occupy a site without planning consent. All this has made them less probable to spring up on high streets where there are already two or three in place.

So, why does this matter for music venues and nightclubs? Such venues are classed in a complex way. More often than not, they're D2, which is "Assembly and Leisure". Sometimes, they’re A4, pubs. And some are also classed as sui generis – for example, if a cafe is bolted on. This means that where they can be, and how they are classed by Britain’s planning sector, is treated on a case-by-case basis.

Music lessons

But what works now with betting shops does not work for music venues: I propose that we take a lesson from the gambling lobby and do what they managed to do in reverse. We should create a use class for music venues, or at least create more specific planning guidelines for them, to protect and promote their use and value.

By doing this, we can prohibit a change in use. That would mean that, once a venue, it can always be a venue. At least as long as business allows: if a venue closes due to bankruptcy that is one thing. But many close due to change of use, not business reasons. This would address that.

When local and regional authorities map cities and town centres, a number of uses are drawn up and allocated space, according to what is deemed best for the local community. It is top down and not specific, but does prioritise some uses over others. For example, one plot of land may be classified as residential (A1); the plot across the street finance (A2). And over there is a Church (D2), and next to it a café or restaurant (A3).

But through this process, more often than not unintentionally, we deprioritise certain uses because they are more difficult, in planning terms, to administer. This is the challenge facing music venues: they are often left off the map, even though A4 or D2 is prioritised in the part of the National Planning Policy Framework covering town and city centres.

What this does is over-emphasise day-time use, leaving night time use less allocated or thought through. As a result, we are left with reactive licensing conditions to “plan” the night – because it’s trickier than other uses more synonymous with daytime (for example, retail).

Lessons learnt

This lack of a more specific use class for music venues and nightclubs means that their specific characteristics – including the loading in and out, entry and exit of people flow and other matters – are not widely understood and often clash with the local planning framework as it currently stands.

That framework often creates further challenges and conflicts with other uses, such as residential. And no matter how forward thinking a planning consent is, if noise becomes an issue, the problem reverts to a licensing officer, who is rightly not concerned with what use class a building is.

More defined, structured guidance is what is required to mitigate these potential challenges and support all our cities and town centres: it would give music venues and nightclubs a more defined place, in all our places. This is not happening at present, as in London, for example, we are still losing venues, nightclubs and even pubs, due to planning issues.

While we cannot change what has already been planned, across the country, a number of large scale developments are being planned right now. At the same time, local authorities are revisiting their long term visions, from Shoreditch to Leeds city centre. Here we have an opportunity to safeguard our music venues, nightclubs and entertainment premises for the future, while respecting the rights of those to sleep.

And so, I propose we identify and define a specific use for such venues, at least in terms of guidance. I propose a use-class that is less blunt, and focuses on the benefits of music venues and nightclubs, rather than attempting to shoehorn them into a class that may not suit them.

The new categorisation could blend D2, A4 and sui generis, and include all "gatherings of individuals to hear amplified music in a licensed (or teetotal) premises", or something to that effect. If the gambling sector can successfully lobby to be defined as finance, music venues can lobby to be better designated in – and so supported by – planning law.

If we value our town centres, our development areas and our night-time economy, we need to better understand how they respond to, impact and are influenced by our planning law. In the UK, we have very few planning guidelines to govern and support what happens when the sun goes down. Let’s start by copying those clever betting shop lobbyists. Let’s provide a use class for music venues.



This article first appeared in London Essays for Centre For London

Illustration: Lucinda Rogers

Illustration: Lucinda Rogers

A third of London’s music venues have vanished in under 10 years. What can be done to reverse the trend?

London’s venues and studios are disappearing – and nowhere more so than in music, where a third of performance spaces have closed since 2007. Music is currently the third-largest industry in the United Kingdom (thank you, Adele), yet the incubators and talent development portals where artists begin their journeys are being lost. Artists like Ed Sheeran or singer/songwriter Frank Turner would not have had the careers they have had (careers that promote British creativity internationally and provide significant returns to the British exchequer) without these venues.

A lack of smaller, ‘development’ venues has a knock-on effect, leading to fewer big acts to headline festivals, as the promoter Harvey Goldsmith has pointed out: ‘We are not producing a new generation of the kind of acts – the likes of the Rolling Stones, Muse, even Arctic Monkeys – that can headline. It is a big, big problem.’ In 1994, Oasis played 25 venues on their debut UK tour as part of Independent Venue Week. Only 12 of those venues remain. The next Oasis will, it seems, have twice as much work to do.

Six months ago I began working with the Mayor of London’s Music Venues Task Force, which has been created by the GLA and the music industry to address the significant threat to our music ecosystem – the loss of the building blocks that help in creating, sustaining and marketing talent. Some venues will always shut as a side effect of shifting markets, but there was alarm about the rate of the closures, our lack of understanding of the reasons for the very high numbers and of what we might do to respond.

In October, the Task Force produced a report, the Music Venues Rescue Plan. We found it fairly easy to answer the question of why so many venues are closing; the problem is similar to that plaguing other cultural and community-led spaces across the capital. Artists are being turned into cultural commuters, unable to sustain themselves in the capital because of a lack of spaces – adequate housing, studios and rehearsal spaces – and, now, stepping-stone venues. We need more homes, but we also need cultural venues to support those who move into them. Rental and leasehold costs are also increasing, to the point that it is increasingly difficult to sustain a grassroots music venue financially, particularly one of under-500 capacity. When you weigh up the value of a music venue compared to housing or commercial retail on the same site, especially in Zones 1 and 2, the result is unlikely to favour the venue.

At the time of writing, there are five venues under threat in the capital, including The Half Moon in Herne Hill, a once-famous folk club where the Police and Van Morrison honed their craft. The 100 Club in the West End, where Adele and many other world-famous artists played their entry-level shows, has been saved at the eleventh hour by a sponsorship deal with Converse.


Solving issues of land values and housing is difficult, but there are some things that can be done. A number of planning and licensing laws over the past five to 10 years have made it increasingly difficult to run a venue. We need to change mindsets, particularly about the connotations of a venue – which, to me, is not just a place where bands perform but also an innovation hub. A flourishing venue will be supporting a number of secondary and tertiary industries: staging and lighting, hospitality and security, graphic design and ticketing. A venue is a tech incubator. If an average of 20 artists perform across one week, than that’s 80 British (and international) SMEs being supported a month. If one act has a hit, that will have an impact on the entire value chain.

Venues can also support other uses, including daytime activities, from public health initiatives to film screenings, comedy and theatre. And if some of the existing venues are not built to accommodate such uses, we can make sure that new ones are.

We need to look at the way our planning and licensing laws operate across the capital. The words ‘music venue’ or ‘arts venue’ are not mentioned in the London Plan. Licensing is borough-led and often reactive. Licensing restrictions – especially on independent venues with no legal teams to support them – make business difficult. Many councils are restricting the issuing of late licenses, further challenging the competitiveness of the market and increasing the stigma around the night-time economy. Decisions are often not made in the round, pragmatically, but complaint by complaint. Noise complaints often result in enforcements, rather than focusing attention on the need to ensure that buildings are adequately soundproofed and relationships developed between premises and residents. Enforcements are expensive to carry through on all sides, affecting council budgets and costing venues a good deal to appeal.

We are working with licensing authorities to produce new guidance and at all levels of government to address the way that the National Policy Planning Framework on permitted development is inhibiting the ability of venues to survive. Current national planning laws prioritise the financial value of the land over what is housed inside premises, even though venues – across all artforms – are often what drive people to reside in a particular area. We are assembling a music advisory board for London. It will be the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, and London will be the largest city in the world with such a board when it is established in May.

In Concert

Our ambition is to bring together planners, property developers, licensing authorities and the industry to establish supplementary planning guidance for councils and developers on the value of music venues to local areas. We hope to introduce a further basis for licensing on the grounds of protecting local culture and heritage. In addition, if music venues were to be clearly designated in the London Plan, all 33 councils would be helped to manage existing venues and new ones could be encouraged to open. I know of half-a-dozen new venues opening in London in the next year. With a bit of effort behind these initiatives, we could double or even triple that figure.

The challenges to creativity in London are complex. Often, the options for artists are framed as culture-for-culture’s-sake versus content geared specifically toward the mass market. But there is a wealth of content that falls in the middle, involving artists, musicians and other practitioners who are striving for sustainability rather than stardom. And this is the group that London is letting down the most – due, primarily, to the loss of spaces for them to practise, to fail and to refine their work. While we cannot alter the manner in which London’s property market operates, we could think creatively about how to manage it. A non-profit organisation in Canada, for example, purchases land and builds venues with flats above, using the revenue from the latter to support the former. Each building is designed to ensure noise is kept down and the flow of people is regulated. This could happen here on a number of sites across the capital primed for new housing. There’s no reason, with proper planning and a robust approach to how the spaces are used, why venues, arts centres, studios and rehearsal spaces could not be built alongside these new homes. Using music and music policy as one of the tools in our arsenal against the challenges to life in the city will make London a more vibrant, sustainable and outright better place to live.


The Endangered British Music Venue

This article first appeared in CityLab

Image: Shrinkin' Violet

Image: Shrinkin' Violet

A couple of weeks ago, UK Music, the trade association that represents the British music industry, published a study analyzing live music activity in Bristol, a city of 300,000 in the west of the country. Working with Bucks New University, students armed with clipboards and iPads took to the town for a night, cataloguing a single, average night of live music across the city. Extrapolating their results over an entire year, the study estimated that Bristol’s live music industry generates £123 million per year and over 900 full-time jobs. Yet despite this sizable economic impact, of all the venues surveyed, half of them were under threat of closure. One stalwart, The Fleece, is caught in a long-standing battle over noise with the developers of a block of flats built next door.

The owner of The Fleece, Chris Sharp, was one of a group of music venue owners and industry leaders to meet with the U.K.’s Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Brandon Lewis, in January. British recording artists account for one out of every seven recorded music purchases worldwide, according to the British Phonographic Industry, and yet the industry is facing a crisis. It is not a crisis of developing talent or producing high-quality content, but one of spaces and places. These are the smaller venues that have incubated Britain’s future stars for decades, and act as cultural hubs for Britain’s towns, cities and high streets.

We need more homes, but not at the expense of what makes those homes worth living in.

Many of these issues came to a head in 2013 with the introduction of a “permitted development” right in Britain’s planning system, also known as the National Planning Portfolio Framework. In an effort to deregulate and encourage house building in the U.K.’s cities—which is sorely needed across the country—the government removed a requirement that developers and landowners submit planning permission to change certain building uses, such as converting an office building to flats. As a result, a number of uses across the country, from pubs to venues and galleries to theatres, converted to residential to provide more housing. By the end of 2014, Britain was losing 31 pubs a week, and by October 2015, 40 percent of music venues in London had closed, with similar statistics being reported across the country. To compound the issue, the government further deregulated the housing sector, removing requirements for “affordable” housing (“affordable” defined as 80 percent of market rate, which isn’t remotely affordable in many parts of the country) and loosening requirements called Section 106 obligations, which made it simpler for developers to appeal planning decisions in order to avoid cultural or community-based obligations.

We need more homes. But not at the expense of what makes those homes worth living in. The term “worth living in” is both tangible and intangible. We require light, heat and water, but we also require competent public transit, local pubs and bars and approachable culture, much of which is now being stripped from Britain’s high streets. Music venues are one of the most communicable victims, but what’s occurred via this policy is a government mandated de-prioritizing of buildings with cultural uses. And because of this, while Bristol’s music industry employs nearly 1,000 people, half its music venues may close in the next few years.

In short, the building blocks that sustain and support the music ecosystem in the U.K. are being reordered or in some cases, removed entirely. Venues, rehearsal spaces, and studios are all vulnerable. To make matters worse, conversions are often either performed as quickly as possible, creating poorly insulated homes, or aimed at the luxury market, whose flats are too expensive for those who live in the community (or worse still, both). For the music industry, this depreciates the places artists need to incubate, to develop their talent, and even to fail, raising the bar to entry and creating a tilted ecosystem that favors stardom over sustainability. Britain may sell one of every seven records globally, but the number of artists that do so is shrinking. The next Adele may not have a venue to perform in when she’s first starting out, wherever she’s from.


Toronto shows how we can save Britain's music venues – and build more housing at the same time

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty

Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty

Over the last few weeks, four more grassroots music venues in London have been threatened with closure. This is on top of the over 80 that have closed across the capital since 2007; across the country, another 15 to 20 are currently under threat, from The Fleece in Bristol to The Sunflower in Belfast.

The main reasons for this lie in the way our built environment is changing across the country, and our need – perceived and actual – for more homes. But while we do need more housing, we don’t need it at all costs.

One venue in London, for example, is facing eviction because its freehold owner changed – and the new owner would rather sell up to housing developers than retain the venue. To some, this is understandable, but I find it difficult to stomach. It is happening too much and too often.

Whether it's the construction of new housing, or noise complaints resulting in a noise enforcement by the local authority, it is becoming a full-time job to respond to these threats on behalf of each threatened venue.  The problem is that there is only so much that one can do to assuage the problem. Often, planning consent and permissions have been given long before the venue falls into trouble. 

To give just one example, if land in a town centre has been given a certain use designation, an area action plan may prioritise housing over all other uses, even if it contains a historic venue.  As a result, if the planning consent isn’t actively geared towards the venue use, the focus on housing will inevitably gobble up vulnerable venues.

Some venues, as with all businesses, will inevitably fail. Nor should we treat every single situation with the same response. Some venues are cultural incubators, some provide significant economic benefit to the local area and some are of historical significance. But fighting each threat, one-by-one, feel much like spinning a hamster’s wheel.

But being part of the Mayor's Music Venue Task Force, the team tasked with responding to these threats, I’ve wondered if there are other models we could explore that support both housing and our venues and galleries. And I have a solution. It’s not one that will tackle the issues that those venues which already under threat are dealing with – but it is one that I hope will create a stronger, more collaborative atmosphere, that will hopefully reduce such issues five or ten years down the line.

The plan

My solution is at odds with the manner in which land and property is treated in the UK. At present, the value of the land is more important than what occurs inside the building. We must change this. Here’s an example of how.

In Toronto, my hometown, an organisation called Artscape has constructed a theatre and music venue in a former industrial area in the west of the city. Above that venue, it has also constructed a number of housing units, available both at market rate and, for a select number of artists, a subsidised rate. The units are tenanted as normal and Artscape, in this business model, becomes a de-facto housing association. The arts organisation becomes the landlord: the housing and the venue business are interlinked.

With modern noise attenuation technologies and careful people flow and management strategies, this works. A non-profit organisation bought the land, built the venue and the flats above it, and earns profit from both. It assists in programming the venue as well as stewarding the site. Here, you’re not sacrificing the venue for the sake of housing: both uses are treated equally.  

This can happen here.  A significant amount of land is owned across London and the UK by local councils and boroughs. Transport for London owns a substantial amount of land; so does Network Rail. Not all is suitable for our purposes, but enough is to experiment. We have already seen artist housing spring up in an old hotel in Haringey, for example. If a venue, or rehearsal space, or studio, or art gallery was bolted onto such a housing scheme, all sides could, in theory, benefit.

It may be difficult to envisage this working in large-scale, privately-owned developments, but elements of this idea could still be implemented. All developments need to abide by a variety of Section 106 obligations, and all benefit by providing a product geared towards the communities they are working with.

The problem as present is that, when it comes to how our built environment is constructed, we live in an either/or ecosystem: it is either profit or affordable housing, either commercial high footfall retail or leisure.

The government introduced an amendment in planning law called “permitted development”, which allows offices or pubs to be changed into housing (or vice-versa) with minimal consent. But this has only exacerbated the problem: uses are changed more quickly, making them even more singularly focused. That office is now housing, and only housing.

So I am on the lookout for land and buildings – both public and privately owned – where we can explore such a project. And I need partners and allies, because we need more suitable, community focused housing as well as more venues. Why not have both in the same location? We can increase density. We can contribute to town centre development. And we can make our built environment more environmentally and culturally friendly.

Because there are only so many venues we can save, and there is only so much time to respond to threats one-by-one. These closures will continue to happen – but we need new venues, fit for all purposes, from live music to yoga, theatre to comedy, to replace them.

And if we think our cultural spaces are as beneficial to society as assuaging our housing crisis, we need to make alternative models less alternative.


This year, the future of Britain's music venues was placed firmly on the political agenda

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

In early December, the opposition proposed an amendment to UK planning law. In addition, the Liberal Democrat Lord Clement Jones raised a debate in the House of Lords, focused on music venues.

The amendment was defeated. But its appearance in parliament – in both the Commons and the Lords – concludes a landmark year in understanding and dealing with the threats facing Britain’s grassroots music venues, and our music ecosystem as a whole.

First, we had to recognise a problem: Britain’s music venues are in trouble. And this trouble affects much more than the music staged in them. It impacts the cultural makeup of our cities, and moves our conception of value away from what happens inside a building, and onto how much the bricks and mortar are worth.

The debate concerning the profitability and viability of music venues has been going on since the birth of amplified music, of course. But 2015 was the year this debate crossed the bench from a music issue to a quality of life issue. A year ago, a debate on music venues in Parliament – a recognition of the value they represent in our cities – would have been unheard of.

It began with an audit conducted by the Music Venue Trust, who concluded that London – just London – saw a third of its venues disappearing in between 2007 and 2015. Other parts of the country, from Glasgow to Leeds, Cardiff to Newcastle, were seeing venues closures as well. A number of factors contributed to this, including noise issues, regeneration, management and the housing crisis.

At the same time, a number of club and restaurant owners in London formed the Night Time Industries Association, to speak against increasingly restrictive licensing on (mainly) independent venues. Together, a lobbying group was created to speak for music venues and nightclubs, similarly to the manner CAMRA campaigns for pubs. The panic button was activated.

We must understand the value our music venues and nightclubs have to our local economy. Each building is in and of itself an incubator, supporting as many businesses a tech startup hub. A successful establishment has bars, staging, lights, food, drink, security, and talent. Each of those is its own industry sector. Losing our venues meant losing our business as a whole.

Panic led to action, and action led to the identification of a culprit – Britain’s planning and licensing system. Amendments to planning law had emphasised housing over anything else, including music venues. Licensing restrictions crippled independent businesses. The cost of land – including rent, rates and tax – had made running a venue unviable. The venue, as we know it, became a market failure, despite it amplifying and supporting many other markets. Something needed to be done.

In London, with the help of UK Music, the industry trade body, the Music Venue Trust and the Greater London Authority created a task force to investigate venue closures. At the same time, Sheffield City Council commissioned a report on its music ecosystem. Similar debates began in Sunderland, Brighton and Cardiff.

To assist in communicating with policymakers, the Music Venue Trust defined what a “Grassroots Music Venue” is, compiling over 30 factors as to why they are, en masse, struggling. Now, that term meant something for policymakers – and a dialogue could be established to prove its value. A venue had been defined and communicated as a business hub, an IP incubator and a network developer. The language had changed.

Fast forward to October 2015. In less than a year, two parliamentary debates had recognised and discussed this issue. Two events were established to further the debate, Venues Day and the Music Cities Convention. A landmark report, the Rescue Plan for Live Music Venues in London, was released; its recommendations are now being debated and planned. And the role of our music venues have been debated at the Planning Officers Society and licensing authorities, and in council chambers up and down the country.

To understand all this, we must know how our cities are being planned. In the UK, the value of the land is more important than what happens inside the building – because planning law is written in such a way to favour private return over public good. Our city centres are emptying of artists, creating a generation of commuter-creators, who cannot afford to live in the areas that most demand their skills. The value of a venue as housing is significantly higher than it is as a place for staging bands or DJs.

Today, all levels of government are debating this issue. But venues are still threatened. Currently, eight face enforcement over noise, much of it coming via new developments built in close proximity.

The amendment proposed by Labour would adopt a guidance called the “Agent of Change” principle, which would shift responsibility to the developer, as long as the venue stays within its license. At the same time, a number of new venues are being planned across the country, from Denmark Street in the London’s West End, to the Royal Docks, to the MAC Quarter in Sunderland. London’s “Night Mayor”, a recommendation in the rescue plan, is likely to be announced soon; the night tube, an indicator of a shift towards an economy that operates around the clock, will create safer routes for people to get to and from where they want to go.

So as we look to 2016, we have a lot to be pleased about, but a lot of work still to do. For those like me who value our cities because of what’s in them, rather than how much each building is worth, we must continue to learn and speak the language needed to support our music venues and clubs.

Because the UK is a world leader in both our music and our cities. It is about time we put the two together.


Are music venues as valuable as houses – and can we prove it?

This article was first published in CityMetric

It is well documented that London has lost over a third of its grassroots music venues since 2007. One of the reasons given for this phenomenon is that, in our current economic climate and planning framework, venues are market failures.

What that means is that the value of a venue in London simply isn't comparable to that of the flats that could be built on its site. A venue worth £300,000 could be converted into 6 or 8 flats, each worth as much as the venue itself.

For a landowner in these circumstances, it is difficult to provide an economic argument to retain the venue (or art gallery, or rehearsal space, or comedy club, or...). And with our planning system prioritising housing over everything else, those flats are easy to develop, sell and profit from.

And yet, our councils, government and property developers all know that the cultural value of a grassroots music venue – or independent theatre, or cinema, or art gallery for that matter – can make an area desirable. One of the key reasons Hackney is one of London's fastest growing boroughs is its night time offer.

We can take this argument further. What if a venue was as valuable to the landowner as the aforementioned flats? What if, when a venue was supported, those businesses and residences around it would benefit economically? Land value would increase; more traders would open.

To argue this case, over a few cups of coffee a colleague of mine and I dissected his venue in Dalston.  Here’s our take.

Running the numbers

This venue sees 234 people go through its doors each day, each spending an average of £10 per head on entry fees, alcohol and food. It’s open seven days a week, and has a capacity of 250.

Let’s argue that, of these people, 60 per cent live locally. Half of those walked or cycled, while the other half took public transport to get to and from this venue, at a cost of £2.30 each way. The other 40 per cent commuted from other parts of the city. Of these, we estimate that 80 per cent took the tube and 20 per cent took taxis at a cost of £15 per ride.

Let's assume that one-third of these 234 people ate out, either before or after visiting this venue, each spending another £15 per head. On top of this, this venue contributes £64,000 each year in PAYE, alcohol duty, license costs and business rates to the exchequer. In addition, it pays £5,000 per month rent to the landowner, or £60,000 per year.

Using our iPhone calculators, we tallied up that his venue contributes £694,000 to the local economy each year, outside of its independent takings as a business. Include those, and the amount rises to £1.3m.

Furthermore, this venue employs 12 people at the London living wage. In total, this venue is worth, theoretically speaking, as much as £2m a year to the local and national economy.

And this is one venue. On Kingsland High Street in Dalston, there are half a dozen of these. Across Hackney, there are dozens.

Let’s compare this with the value of one flat in a local development in Dalston. A two-bed is retailing at £450,000, a price the developer will earn once. Council taxes and other fees on such a property, on average, add a further £2,500 to £4,000 to the local economy, not to mention another £4,000 to £6,000 in ancillary costs like utilities and other services.

The space this venue inhabits could accommodate perhaps four new properties, which would net a developer around £2m on the sales. That, though, is a one off return, not something that will be pumped into the economy year after year.

Our calculations are inevitably rough – but they merit further investigation. What they show is that the term "value" has different definitions, depending on the party doing the valuing. To a developer, building and then exiting a project is of more value that renting out equal space to a leaser to open a venue, regardless of art form.

But what if this venue, or all six on the High Street, closed? We would lose secondary and tertiary value: the service providers supporting the venue, its rate and PAYE bill, the value of the music (or art, or theatre) being incubated and of course, the space’s cultural value. What's more, the saleability of the flats would be impacted, because there would be fewer things to do in Dalston.

And with business rates returning to councils now, it is in local authorities’ best interests to understand and capitalise on the economies businesses create, both inside and outside their doors.

So when we look at that value of our grassroots music venues, our nightclubs – our music incubators, as they should be referred to – let’s value them both culturally and economically. If we measure their value properly, they are worth their weight in pounds and pence.


In Britain, planning stops when the sun goes down – and it's hurting our night-time venues

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Darrell Berry

Image: Darrell Berry

London has never been a 24 hour city. We’ve all experienced the difficulty of getting something to eat that’s even marginally healthy after 11pm.

There is a reason for this, and it is not cultural, but legislative. Our planning system is designed to guide uses from sunrise to sunset, not sunset to sunrise.

That’s because it is much simpler to govern daytime activities than those that happen after dark: most shops keep pretty regular trading hours. But pubs, nightclubs and other businesses that trade after dark are more variable, and more difficult to standardise.

As a result, Britain’s national planning laws are more suitable to what happens during the day. This leaves a much more variable, piecemeal system to manage the night time.

Our National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has been deprioritised by our current government. But it nonetheless offers detailed guidance concerning standard building practices, retail trading hours, transport systems and so on: there is one system that informs all activities during the day.

At night, this system is replaced by an altogether different system that we call “licensing”, which differs from council to council. It is this system of licensing, and what it is doing to how we treat our night time economy, that needs to change.  

Britain is one of the most restrictive developed nations in its licensing policies. When councils develop such policies, they design them to be relevant to the local needs of the residents and businesses. However, they’re answerable to voters – and those who are mostly likely to vote are often not the people most likely to go to bars, pubs and nightclubs.

The result is a patchwork of restrictions that make little sense. Some nightclubs claim they have to satisfy over 70 licensing restrictions to operate: licensing covers everything from health and safety, to nuisance prevention, to the right to serve alcohol. But it does so without a framework of guidance.

One must regulate what can and cannot happen at night; but the regulations being proposed fundamentally ignore the fact that there is an economic ecosystem at night, just as there is during the day. Yet there’s no structured planning guidance to account for this for this. Planning is calculated, prescribed and didactic; licensing is individualistic and reactionary.

By way of example, consider the noise complaints made about commercial venues. Such complaints are common, and have resulted in a number of music venues and nightclubs being threatened with closure. Ministry of Sound spent nearly £1m fighting such issues; The Fleece in Bristol is embroiled in complaints right now.

Tackling such complains through licensing is clearly not working. In the Ministry of Sound case, a planning decision settled the challenge: the developer agreeed to a “Deed of Easement” notice, meaning those who buy the flats have to accept the club and its activities, as long as it does not breach its regulations. But it took a fortune and much fighting to reach that conclusion, and a licensing problem was solved only through common sense planning law. The Fleece’s situation still remains precarious.

Both situations are the result of a lack of night time planning structure in the UK. We use licensing conditions to solve issues that should have pre-arranged solutions in the NPPF.

There are other options. Some cities have night mayors (Amsterdam, Rotterdam). Others have night time entertainment commissions (San Francisco). But in London, we don’t have a planning framework to support our nightlife: policy assumes that most of us go home by 10pm, and those that don’t are considered a nuisance.

The night-time economy isn’t disappearing. It’s growing, and our cities are better for it. At some point, London will welcome the 24 hour tube. It’s time we noticed that and began planning to make it even better, for those who go out – and those who stay in.