Shain Shapiro is the founder and managing director of Sound Diplomacy, a leading global advisor on music cities and market development.
As U.K. cities have rushed to build new housing, cultural institutions are increasingly at risk.
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.
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.
The good news is that the industry has woken up to this and is fighting back. And things are changing. A charity called the Music Venue Trust argues for venue rights and is one of the only organizations of its kind worldwide. Music venues have recently been debated at the highest levels of government and currently, the mayor of London is assembling a Music Board, to look at reforming policies around planning, licensing, and taxation. Last week, the government amended its permitted development right in the new iteration of the Planning Bill, ultimately ending the practice of new developments being responsible for closing existing venues. Now, when buildings are converted, landowners must do noise assessments to ensure tenants are not adversely affected by existing licensed premises. Before that, one noise complaint could create a lengthy enforcement process that could lead to a venue closing. This is what The Fleece in Bristol is faced with.
There is reason for optimism. A number of property developers are also working on solutions, including new venues with structured, forward-thinking licensing policies governing them. So while over 10 venues in London are currently under threat, half a dozen are under renovation or being built. It’s not one for one, but it’s a start.
Other than supporting live music and going to gigs, we all have to look at the kind of cities we want to live in; in London, policies that have led to cultural sanitization are finally being unearthed, and what’s left in their wake is city planning that all too often ignores why we live in cities in the first place. We don’t need venues and clubs on every corner, but if music and other cultural forms disappeared from our streets entirely, we would be left with homes, but nothing to do outside of them.