The Model for Live Music is Not Fit for Purpose. Let’s Make a New One.

Today the Music Venues Trust (MVT) came to Cardiff to talk to small independent venues in Wales. Since they formed, MVT have done good work in raising awareness about the plight of small venues, in particular addressing issues around planning, noise abatement and rising rents. But, in my opinion, the greatest opportunity to release the chokehold on independent venues is in the hands of the live music industry itself.

MVT regularly roll out a graph that illustrates how long it takes a band to go from starting out to reaching Festival Headliner status. It takes years of releasing records; building a fanbase and getting good at playing live to get to that level, and few make it that far. Those early years all take place in — and rely on — small, independent venues.

Many bands, of course, don’t get to festival headliner status, but many do get to the size where they can play Academy venues or their equivalent — maybe 1000 / 2000 / 3000 tickets in your town. Some jump to Arenas too — 5,000–10,000 people. Again, they all start out in small, independent venues. So how come there’s no money trickling down from the top to the bottom to relieve the pressure? What happens as they jump to bigger spaces?

It’s here, at the jump, where some problems lie.

Let me walk you through a real example that got me here today.

So a while ago I was thinking about the band Foals. Most of you will have heard of Foals. If you don’t know them, they’re a band from Oxford, who this year got announced as the co-headliners for this summer’s Reading & Leeds Festivals. Reading Festival is, after Glastonbury, the biggest music festival in the UK. About 90,000 people can stand and watch the headliners. So Foals have become a pretty big deal.

I first saw Foals play in Clwb Ifor Bach, here in Cardiff. It was nearly a decade ago. It was on Nov 26th 2007. There was between 20 and 30 people at that show.

You might not know, but at small venues some shows might be put on by the actual venue; some by promoters who hire the venue. This Foals show was actually put on by Richard, also known as ‘Chill’, who works at Clwb Ifor Bach. He’d seen the band play in Oxford, and so offered them a show in Cardiff. He can’t recall exactly, but he paid them between £100 and £150. He says they had no agent at that time, no manager, no label, so he just dealt with the band directly.

As you can imagine, 20 or 30 people watching a band at £6 or £7 a head doesn’t make anybody any money. You have to take off VAT. You have to pay PRS at 3% of the door receipts, you pay the band their fee, you pay the venue hire, the sound person, you pay the door person, you pay to design the poster and pay for some promotion. You buy the band some meals and some drinks. You give the two support acts a little money. You are out of pocket. You’ve done all that work, and not only have you not been paid, but you’re walking to the cashpoint to make sure everyone else does.

Of course, sometimes it goes the other way. You expect 20 or 30 people, and 200 turn up. You pay everyone, and you have money left over for you. But trust me. I speak from experience. I’ve put on hundreds of shows at this level over the past few years, and at the end of the day, you lose as much as you make.

So why do we local promoters and venues do it? Well because we love music. Because we want to go to gigs. Because we want great bands to play here. Because we want to give those bands places to play. We love Cardiff. It’s where we live or it’s where we work. It’s our city, so we want it to be full of great music, and we actually give a shit about whether it’s a good place to live or not. So we put our hands in our pocket and lose money on putting on great bands.

Great bands.

So I was thinking about Foals. They’re a great band. They were a great band when I saw them with 20 or 30 people, a great band on the four other occasions they played in Clwb Ifor Bach after that show in the next three years, including the last time when when I went to see them again in 2010 — this time with 200 or so people to a full house. But now, today, everyone knows they’re a great band. They’re headlining Reading. They’re huge.

And something struck me.

Foals, a band from Oxford, less than two hours away, who’d been given these early shows by Clwb Ifor Bach, had not been back to Wales since.

To be as precise as I can, between June 2010 and last November, in 2015, Foals played 81 shows in England and Scotland before returning to play Wales. Five years and five months between visits to Wales.

Why is that? It’s because as a band starts to show signs of being successful or making money then if they haven’t already, they get taken up by a manager, an agent and, perhaps most importantly, a national promoter. These national promoters hold great sway on where the band plays. And in this case, that meant across the UK, but not in Wales. So who plays in the city is now decided by national promoters who live in London. That they can step out and see all the bands they want in their city – in London – but we can’t because they’re choosing where the bands go.

That’s not fair.

And what about the money? The profit from the now successful shows that can be reinvested in more local shows? The local promoter gets shut out. The local venue who took a chance on a new band, gets nothing.

Thats not fair.

It’s not fair that the local promoters and venues putting on these small shows, barely breaking even, who are vital to developing new acts, get shut out the moment a band shows signs of making money.

That’s not fair and its suffocating live music.

Its not the National Promoters fault that we’re here. (Nor is it the fault of Foals – they were just the band that popped in to my head). It’s the model. It’s a model we’ve inherited from an age when labels subsidised tours as a way to sell records. But that’s no longer the case. This model is no longer fit for purpose.

So how about this.

How about agents, managers and national promoters stop cutting local promoters out when bands become successful. How about the industry adopts a new model that keeps local promoters involved as half of the show as a band becomes bigger. How about the industry as a whole stops pushing percentage deals at the top in a race to the bottom. Instead, that financial ‘trickle down’ – that return on a local promoter’s many shows and investment – will enable local promoters to flourish; to book more shows; develop more artists; to support more small venues; to grow the music offer in your town and ensure that the pretty shitty deal a band got on its long way up isn’t even more shitty – or worse still non-existent – for your next favourite band coming along.

The Music Venue Trust, (and Independent Venue Week), have been pivotal in bringing discussion about this part of the sector to the fore. Now it’s over to the music industry. The economics of the industry is broken, and the industry can fix it. Here’s a step.