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Supporting Grassroots Venues

Center for Music Ecosystems' Shain Shapiro discusses how we should be leading the change when it comes to supporting small local venues 

06 Oct 2023

Since we emerged from the lockdown, live music has bounced back. However, the majority of growth has been in tickets sold for gigs in arenas, stadiums, and large venues, demonstrating that fans have prioritised music they are already familiar with.

Yet, this growth has not been without its challenges.

Spend on tickets to see grassroots music venues has stagnated. Many artists have reduced or cancelled tours because of the toll it takes on their mental health, while the accelerating climate emergency is causing cancellations and insurance premiums to increase, and higher costs are making it less approachable to tour as a primary source of income.

With all this change, preparing for the future is challenging. And I believe for us, as a sector, to do so to the best of our abilities, one of the best places to start is in our local communities, no matter how large or small.

In order for live music to thrive in the future, it must thrive at the grassroots, in our local communities. While this includes a need for purpose-built arenas and stadiums to facilitate larger, more familiar artists, tackling some of the most existential challenges the sector may face in the future starts in smaller spaces and places and the policies, procedures, and people responsible for governing them. This is why for live music to thrive in the future, it must be better engaged with local government. In doing so, not only can we reap the rewards that are clearly being made at the top of the sector, but we can grow it from its grassroots as a partner and solutions provider to addressing some of the biggest challenges we face in all our communities.

“More local venues could lead to less touring”

More local venues could lead to less touring. Better local permitting and tax frameworks could spur, and sustain, local green investment in venues or festival infrastructure. More educational opportunities and vocational training built into skills policies could help create a future workforce both in the front-and back-of-house. And stronger partnerships, be it with the police, licensing authorities, or planning committees can help reduce decision times and save costs. But all of this starts at home.

This is why I wrote This Must Be The Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better.

The influence first came from getting involved as a volunteer in the Live Music Taskforce, a volunteer committee to address why, at the time, 35% of small-to-medium-sized music venues had closed. I was given the opportunity to contribute to the Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan, which initiated a series of changes in London and later throughout the UK, to strengthen planning laws to – theoretically – better protect music venues. When reflecting on what happened, I realised change can only happen if those responsible for it – in this instance, local planning officers – were aware of what the change was and how to implement it.

Fast-forward nearly a decade and I have been involved in similar conversations in over 100 cities, and everywhere I go has the same problems. Density breeds environmental health challenges, such as sound and noise complaints. Permitting and tax frameworks remain anachronistic. Relationships fray because decisions taken for decades remain, simply because that is the way it has always been.

“Every city that hosted a Taylor Swift concert is lauding the impact of music on tourism and the local economy”

In the book, I propose a different path; if we take an active approach in how our cities, towns, and places are governed, we can foster better conditions not only for ourselves but for everyone. And if we took an active, intentional approach – in all our local councils – to partnership, it would mean less noise complaints, cheaper permits, or more support for, and recognition of, live music over time. And as we face a series of headwinds that will force us to adapt, having this seat at the table – in all our towns and cities – will insulate our business and, over time, improve our bottom lines.

The book contains a blueprint for how to do this. It is not solely about live music – I focus on the wider music ecosystem, which includes education, health, and wellbeing, for example – but it often starts with, and is most influenced by, live music.

In 2018, I co-wrote a report with the UN World Tourism Organization arguing for music tourism to be recognised as a standalone sector. This would mean more analysis, more investment and, I believed, more engagement to support music. It was welcomed but little changed.

Five years later, every city that hosted a Taylor Swift concert is lauding the impact of music on tourism and the local economy. With all live music, large and small, now is our opportunity to increase our value and influence. But we need to work together and recognise that for the future of live music to succeed, we need all our cities, towns, and places to thrive. And we can, and should, lead that change.

Shain Shapiro is director of the Center for Music Ecosystems, and founder and executive chairman of Sound Diplomacy. His new book, This Must Be The Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better, published by Penguin Random House, is available in all good bookstores and through all the usual online retail outlets.


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