2007 - 2020

Support the Grassroots Live Music Scene

Experienced promoter Paul Cardow on why the grassroots music scene must be supported as the nurturing grounds of new talent.

It would have been hard to have missed the recent announcement that £97 million will be allocated to help culture in Scotland recover after the Covid pandemic closures but it is too early to celebrate. We have yet to hear how those funds will be distributed and what areas will be covered. Currently the area under most threat is the grassroots and although it has been mentioned a lot, there needs to be some explanation of what that is and why it is important.

Grassroots covers venues and promoters who help developing artists. That may seem small but it is the starting point of all culture. BBC’s showing of David Bowie’s Glastonbury appearance has been widely and rightfully applauded as a high point of British music but he was an artist who took 4 albums before hitting his stride and 5 albums to start having proper hits – without that commitment the world would have missed arguably the most influential artist of the 70s and 80s. Now, in the days of streaming and reduced record sales, it is the grassroots live scene where those artists are building their audience and learning their craft. Ed Sheeran played our Stag & Dagger festival twice before making a mark. He went around the country several times before a single radio play or record was sold and it is not just artists, every sound engineer mixing an arena, every tour or production manger putting together a stadium show started in one of these venues.

Most of these venues survive on incredibly tight margins and are generally run by enthusiasts, who will hopefully continue to work with emerging artists when they play larger rooms. These venues may be small but employ a large amount of staff. They still need engineers, bar staff, stewards, front of house, managers, bookers – often more bookers than bigger venues, as smaller size means they need more events to keep the cash coming in, but, being outside the usual cultural circles means they are not in the funding queue when it comes to grants. Edinburgh Festival will receive millions when it is running and probably top-ups when it is cancelled, as will our grander theatres – but the grassroots has been ignored.

The recent pivotal funding pretty much left the grassroots without a payout, because they are not a big enough concern or worse, the business model is not viewed as being a financially sound enough one in the eyes of the decision makers. These bodies do not have enough experience to see that, without that part of the circuit, there will be no one to play or staff the Barrowland, Academy, Usher Hall, Royal Concert Hall or Hydro in a few years time. So while tourism organisations boasts of the amount of new hotels being built to house the city’s visitors, it does not see that the future is bleak when we do not have artist and music industry talent development.

So what needs to be done?

PRS are the organisation that collects royalties on behalf of songwriters. Previously small venues paid a license fee for playing music; larger ones paid 3% of their ticket sales – recently that has risen to 4.2%. Not only is it too expensive for small venues, it is unfair. Grassroots venues cannot afford to pay someone to collect details of every artist on the background music or dj playlist, though it tends to be smaller less mainstream bands. Also the live acts will often be newer acts who are not set up to organise the paper work for collection so if PRS collects 4.2% without knowing exactly what was heard then that money will be allocated to the ‘Black Box’ – a fund split between the bigger artists. While all due respect goes to The Boss, Elton and Ed, the breeding ground for new talent is not playing their catalogue. This is money that would be better used paying the venue’s bills and the new talent’s petrol costs. PRS need to agree to move venues under a certain size to a basic license fee and return the fees they collected during lockdown. It has often been said that PRS are the final straw that closes more venues than any other factor. It is time for them to show support.

This week the chancellor announced a VAT reduction on hospitality but not alcohol, reducing the rate from 20% to 5%. On first look, 15% savings seems great but it is not enough – it is barely even a start. It will only help on ticket sales and only on tickets sold between 15th July and 12th January, which, while we face uncertainty about when shows can start again, will not be many. Of the very few tickets sold, PRS will take 4.2% and the artist 80% of what is left meaning the venue and promoter share 2.9% between them. Clearly this is not the help that is needed. Venue rents need to be reduced but for this to happen, the government need to arrange support for commercial landlords, which they have not done.

Insurance companies have refused to pay out on the very expensive policies that venues and promoters have been paying for years and the government have not stepped in to mediate.

So we are left with the funds the government announced. Who will distribute and decide how they are spent? The commercial music industry is pushing to see that it is a new body set up to distribute these funds. Creative Scotland do a great job but they do not know how to deal with commercial, cultural enterprises. They know how to fund opera or huge theatre productions and it is important we protect our heritage but the next Bowie is not learning their craft in those rooms and theatres – they are playing Sneaky Pete’s, Nice ’n’ Sleazy’s, Broadcast, Hunter S Thompsons, Tunnels, Beat Generator and venues like those around the UK. We need a body that can recognise the difference between a Zombie company, one that can not stand on its own during normal trading without funds or pheonixing the company and other venues / promoters that may not look like an investors dream but are at least normally self sustaining while benefiting the artistic community. This is why the future of the music industry needs to see those funds earmarked for the businesses that are not eligible for the usual grants.

The negative cultural, social and economic impact that ignoring these issues will have is evident. The government needs to take notice and act now to protect grassroots cultural businesses across the UK and the future of British talent.

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    How much should we care that COVID-19 is stepping on the hose of celebrity gush-forth? What happened to necessity being the mother of invention? Some of the greatest (influential) creations have come from the privation of prison cells. Artists starving in garrets. Survival of the fittest and all that. Artists have either on balance helped create the modern world with all its evils and deceptions (from global environmental disaster to the shadows thrown on Plato’s cave walls that engage and misinform the public); or on balance have failed to prevent it coming about. Surely we should seize this opportunity to try something different?

    By the way, terrible argument from a single case. You have not shown what artists the past decades of status quo depressed, and failed even to prove that the success of a single artist depended on the relevant factor (or in fact that their influence was objectively positive or lasting). And the world has changed. Artists can self-publish like in no other time before, and collaborate with people round the globe in the blink of an eye.

    Or here is another idea. Use Ben Goldacre’s (of Bad Science) concept of blind, randomized controls in public policy. Take all the reasonable funding options including nane-at-a’ and apply them all in parallel, then track the artistic results. It is not like artists should starve in the worst case. Artistically speaking, it is always the least-provided-for offspring who does best in fairy tales, so we can test that hypothesis.

    1. Jim Bevington says:

      I’m afraid this doesn’t make any sense to me.

      The idea that adversity breeds creativity is both naive and romantic. If you are struggling to earn enough money to eat or pay the rent, you will have less time to be creative, and will also be stressed, making it harder to be creative when you do have time.

      As austerity, rising further education costs and the expansion of low wage work has reduced social mobility, the creative industries have become more and more dominated by middle class kids who have the money to buy gear and to spend time honing their craft. You can see this at every level from the BBC Live at the Apollo to half empty gigs at your local toilet venue.

      Having no money does not lead to great art. Neither does the pricing out of working class people.

      Also, while you are right that artists can self publish easier than ever before, you should note that gigs are where musicians earn most of the income. For the most part, recorded music is not profitable. Rather it creates an audience to buy tickets to your shows.

      Finally, the article points out that live music also supports a vast number of technicians, promoters and hospitality staff who do massively useful work and are largely self- or casually-employed and precarious. Pulling the rug from under such people with specialised skill sets will have wider consequences than just gigs that don’t happen

      1. SleepingDog says:

        When I wrote “adversity breeds creativity” I did not realise I was paraphrasing Disney’s Mulan, but far from “naive and romantic”, this is evidenced time and again throughout history, and some moments of rational thought will indicate that (if you associate creativity with problem-solving, as I do) then adversity creates both problems and motivation that call for solutions. My first thought was Al-Kindi creating the science of optics in his prison cell, but there are many, many other examples. Creative responses to adversity were after all how the Vietnamese won their struggle against their powerful and deranged USAmerican Imperialist invaders, and you cannot get much harder-headed than that. There is also ample anecdotal evidence that artists have produced some of their best work after experiencing adversity.

        What evidence on the other hand do you have that subsidies drive creativity? How likely is it for recipients to (artistically speaking) bite the hand that feeds them? Patronage hasn’t worked out so well for the arts (it has taken a long time for the fightback against fossil-fuel public-relations art-funding to gain ground).

        Not that structural deprivation necessarily makes good art. I was listening to George the Poet’s podcasts where he describes music of varying quality being the voice of oppressed young black Londoners, but however authentic it was, how well it expressed emotion and reflected the reality of hard lives, it did not generally offer the prospect of changing anything (if I understood him correctly). Perhaps there are sociological elements and philosophical concerns, and different income streams/business models to consider.

        My point is generally: why should artists as a class be treated better than ordinary non-subsides people who are or become unemployed? I have said I have a problem with the (elitist?) sub-classification of artist versus non-artist. In that I possibly follow the thinking of William Morris expressed in his essays on Art and Society. How many people were able/willing to make their own face-masks, for example? And what is the benefit that artists bring to society to merit this? The comparison with farmers has been made: but even there, not all farmers produce the food we need to live (some produce crops like biofuels, tobacco, opium, textile-ingredients and so forth). Farmers can grow ‘bad’ (that is, in some way damaging) crops. Artists can create ‘bad’ (damaging) art.

        If we did have a universal basic income instead of specific support for artists and their support workers, would that be acceptable? It does occur to me that if we had UBI before lockdown, then the case for paying percentages of previous salaries during furloughs would be weakened. UBI would set a ‘survival level’ that everyone should be expected to live on for extended periods in emergencies. Why pay a useless manager several times more than a useless worker when both are suspended from productivity?

        On the other thing about artists honing their craft. Director Peter Watkins was quite critical about what institutionalisation does to artists. He wrote about the deadening nature of the Monoform. And content-wise, artists may largely be supporting the dominant ideological propaganda model. A more anarchistic approach to artistic creativity may be more useful for the social, economic and political transformations we (and the Planet) need. There are some interesting examples in Verso’s collection Book of Dissent. And nary a subsidy in site, is my guess.

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