Mar 27, 2024 5 min read

MPs hear about the crisis in grassroots live music - a ticket levy might help, but how would that work?

The crisis in the grassroots live music sector was discussed in Parliament yesterday. A levy charged on tickets for the biggest shows could help address the issues, MPs were told. However, there is disagreement within the industry about how such a levy might work

MPs hear about the crisis in grassroots live music - a ticket levy might help, but how would that work?

The crisis in the grassroots live music sector was in the spotlight yesterday at a hearing of the UK Parliament's Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee, with artists, promoters, managers and various industry organisations giving evidence. 

At the hearing there was a general consensus that there is, indeed, a crisis in the grassroots live music scene. And, while this session is part of a Select Committee inquiry focused on grassroots venues, the entire grassroots music ecosystem needs support. That might, in part at least, come from an industry-led initiative that involves adding a levy on tickets for the biggest shows. However, there wasn’t a consensus on how exactly that levy system might operate. 

The acute challenges facing grassroots music venues are well known within the music industry. Earlier this year the Music Venue Trust revealed that 125 grassroots venues closed down last year, while 38% of those still operating reported a loss despite increased demand for tickets. Asked to discuss the ramifications of those closures at yesterday's hearing, MVT CEO Mark Davyd spoke about the impact on the music industry's talent pipeline, but also on the affected local communities. 

"The first impact we need to recognise is that 125 communities have lost access to live music on their doorstep", he told MPs. "And the impact on those communities, and on the artists who live in those communities, is very dramatic. The closure of spaces like Bath Moles obviously has a huge impact on the pipeline, but it also has a massive impact on Bath as a music city. And so I think we need to recognise that, across the country, we are seeing young people, communities and music fans finding music - live music - further and further away from them". 

"In terms of the short term economic impact", he continued, "those 125 venues will have provided 16% of all the performance opportunities in the UK. So we're talking circa 30,000 performance opportunities for artists. We're talking jobs, roughly 30 people at each venue, so that's about 4000 jobs which have come under threat or have been lost”. 

“I think we should also recognise”, he went on, “that 125 venue operators have lost the space that was an intrinsic part of their life, their careers. And we're not sure we're really what happens to those people. As for the longer term impacts, we are seeing a blockage in the talent pipeline. And I think that is very significant". 

As for the crisis in the wider grassroots music scene, later in the session David Martin from the Featured Artists Coalition was keen to stress that the impact of surging production costs and the cost of living crisis is hitting artists as much as venues. And therefore any solutions to tackle the crisis - whether government or industry-led - need to benefit all the stakeholders. 

"We've got rising costs, which impact artists in two ways”, he said. “The first thing fans stop spending on is potentially going out and leisure. And then the supply chain is very expensive". 

Artists may get a guaranteed fee from a show's promoter, he added, but they have to cover a lot of costs out of that fee, and the people they may need to hire are facing their own financial challenges."One of the artists that we work very closely with at the FAC at the moment has talked about losing her session musicians three times", Martin continued. 

"So she's had to reform the band three times and has eventually given up, because the costs have become so high. Then you add transport, you add accommodation, you add the fact that everybody's day rate is increasing, to the fact that you've got a potential compression in demand for tickets, that is having an impact". 

Mark Davyd also stressed that the challenges facing artists are a key concern. "All of my members will tell you one of their biggest concerns, frankly, is the artists cannot afford to tour", he said. "It's not just [that] the venues aren't there to play in. It's also that venues are standing empty when they could be putting on bands, because bands cannot afford to put on the show". 

So, while the whole grassroots music ecosystem obviously needs support - including venues and promoters - artists need direct support too. And past schemes to support the grassroots music ecosystem have often not been appropriate for or available to artists, the politicians heard. 

"If you look at the past four years", Martin continued, "business rates relief, Culture Recovery Fund, furlough, local authority grants and the Grassroots Music fund - not available to artists". 

There are various ways that the government could help tackle the crisis, by extending existing support like business rates relief and Arts Council funding, or by introducing new measures like the cut in VAT on tickets that many in the live sector have been calling for. 

However, a key focus yesterday was the industry-led solution that has been advocated for by the Music Venue Trust, which would involve a levy being applied to tickets on bigger shows to support those operating at the grassroots of the sector. 

"Our proposal", Davyd explained, "is that one pound per ticket on arena and stadium shows would create a sustainable fund that could be administered by ourselves - by other people concerned for promoters, for artists - and create a fund where everybody can go, so they can take risks with their programming and really give artists the first step on the ladder they need".

There has been much discussion about such a levy within the live music industry in recent months, with LIVE - the organisation that brings together different stakeholders in the live sector, including the biggest promoters and venues - potentially playing a role. 

Its CEO, Jon Collins, also spoke yesterday. "We want to create a LIVE Trust to be a charitable arm of our organisation", he explained, "to be a receiving house for those funds, to be the focal point for those industry efforts, to raise funds and then push that money back out to the experts who know where it needs to be spent and avoid duplication”. 

“And that”, he added, “would include things like the MVT Pipeline Fund, the Music Managers Forum’s Accelerator Programme and the FAC's Step Up programme, just to give three examples".

Which all makes sense. Although, while there is potentially an emerging consensus among the LIVE membership as to how funds generated by a ticket levy might be managed, there clearly remains disagreement as to how the levy would be charged. 

Some of the bigger promoters and venues are now advocating for what is being called the 'Enter Shikari model', where basically arena-level artists can choose to add a levy to their tickets, something Enter Shikari have already done. However, MVT and others believe the levy should apply to all shows at that upper level. 

Davyd explained, "I think we're gonna hear a lot that the artists need to make this decision because we have the example of Enter Shikari. But the reality is that, in our industry, the artist is not always consulted on every levy". 

Promoters and venues, he added, agree on a model that is profitable, but don't necessarily consult artists on every ticketing or transaction fee. "We aren't constantly phoning up Chris Martin from Coldplay and saying, 'Is it alright if we charge a 12% booking fee rather than 10%?' That's not really how our industry works"

To that end, Davyd went on, "What we need is a consensus of consent. We need everybody that you're going to see today to say, yes, we're going to try and make this happen collectively, collaboratively, and we will end up with a charge on every ticket".

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