The decline in grassroots venues & audience trends?

What is a “grassroots venue?”

A grassroots venue is described as “a venue with less than 350 capacity.”

Such venues are traditionally for entry level musicians, some limited activity in established acts. Many such acts develop their craft in such places, before moving onto playing to larger audiences. Some of my most memorable and most loved music evenings have been at grassroots venues. These include seeing Joss Stone early in her career in Manchester and The Notting Hillbillies at The Astoria in Leeds which had a capacity of just 150 attendees.

67 grassroots venues closed this year already

“The UK is set to lose 10 per cent of its grassroots music venues in 2023 – with calls growing for the “major leagues” of the music industry and larger venues to do more to pay into the ecosystem and save them.

The Music Venue Trust have revealed to NME that 67 venues have closed so far this year, with 90 currently working with MVT’s Emergency Response. Roughly half of those are likely to close in 2023 – giving a total of around 100 grassroots music being lost from the UK in 2023; that’s 10 per cent of the number of independent gig spaces in the country.”

The increasing gap between stadiums and grassroots venues

My own observations are that in this post covid and tougher economic era, its harder than ever for grassroots venues to get capacity audiences. I noticed that one local arts centre that used to have regular events, had huge gaps in the diary. This is a well located venue and has a tradition of regular acoustic nights, currently all under threat. Many major artists from the Leeds area started out in local grassroots venues and the ongoing decline of such venues will in my view massively affect the future of bringing great music to the public. These kinds of venues are the life blood for new music and their loss will create a big gap for audiences wanting new creative content, as opposed to tribute bands and open mics. Both of those are welcome, but without the emmergence of new music, we may all be left with a world with far less creativity and joy.

I’m also noticing that in these tougher economic times, there is a trend towards nostalgia and the major acts from 70s, 80s and 90s are in many instances doing really well. Other more recent mainstream artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran are attracting massive crowds. Of course its personal choice but when I watched the most recent Glastonbury, I was really underwhelmed by what I saw and heard. To my ears it was all pretty predictable and dull. When I see a performed on a main stage at that festival performing to backing tapes in my 100% biased opinion I think its not a great sign of new creativity. Of course many may and are welcome to disagree.

I set up Green Eyed Records to encourage discussion about bring music to a wider audience and to support creative artist development. This continues to be a fascinating project and has given me a new insight into “the music business” and how a lot of what happens in this industry is in my opinion pretty crazy. Artists find it harded and harder to make any kind of living out of music, especially with the advent of streaming that’s killed a lot of income from products.

Is there public apathy towards supporting live music?

Joni Mitchell once commented “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone…” Ultimately if people don’t go out to see live music, such music will increasingly disappear. Of course its up to the promoters and artists to work together to keep live music viable. I have massive respect for any music promoter as its a ton of work, often with not a great deal of thanks and not the best financial reward. The phrases any promoter hates to hear include – “Will it be on video to watch later?” and “I can’t make this one, but can you keep me posted about future events?” Of course sometimes the second question is genuine, but often the suggested intention never translates into any actual action.

My observations are that post covid, people are less motivated to go out to local events. Some of this is for health concerns and a lot of this behaviour is due to economic considerations. As one seasoned tour promoter commented recently – “People are skint Nick, they literally have no money for such outings”

Price is simply a filter

I’ve been watching great artists for five decades, from the original Pink Floyd Dark side of the moon tour to much smaller gigs. The size of the venue and audience numbers are a big factor in determining the audience experience. Pricing is also a filter for attracting audiences. Some of the best music I have ever seen has been at the NYC Village Vanguard with 125 capacity and $35 a ticket. Doors are at 7.30 pm, arrive 7pm and you can be assured to be in the first two rows! Another great venue is The Beacon theatre also in New York with a 2600 capacity. For many years I saw The Allman Brothers play there. Over the years they played there 230 times with terrific guests. Tickets were massively in demand and I’d expect to pay around $160 for a ticket for an amazing 3 hour show and it was worth every dollar. It was a great seated venue and the sound was always excellent. I saw them play with Eric Clapton for $97 in the middle range seats.

Of course in the UK prices will massively vary from local venues to arenas and its all down to personal preferences. If I am hosting artists, the range is usually 12 – 20 pounds for a ticket. Often the pricing can make no difference to audience turnout for known artists, but my philosophy is to always make music affordable for music lovers. This is why I will always agree fees with artists and band members ahead of live events and everyone is assured of being paid regardless of audience numbers. I have massive respect for any artistic promoters as you need nerves of steel when it can be tough to get past that break even point.

How on the ball is the music venue?

Sometimes the actual venue where the music takes place is not really on the ball. I’ve many instances of thinking “WTF are they doing?” in terms of making really basic business mistakes. These include having broken links for people trying to book tickets, not replying to e-mails and phone calls and generally presenting a “the customer is bothering me” attitude. In recent times after an event I contacted a venue to book another evening, only to be told “Person X is too busy to talk to you!” I mentioned that I only wanted 5 minutes of this person’s time but was told that the admin person wasn’t taking any calls all day long! This was the third time I had booked space with them and most of the events had sold out previously. When a business ignores core customers, its not going to last long.

This specific venue is mostly run by volunteers and already has massively fewer live events than in years gone by. No surprises why…

Time to develop a new model of working?

I’m currently exploring a new way of running live events that rewards those who take the time to support live artists.In my view those who vote with their feet should get the best access and the best value from artists. I’m genuinely concerned that in this streaming era, artists have less earning opportunities which translates into less ability to fund creative creation. When this is coupled with a downturn in grassroot venues and the effect of brexit on reducing artist earning opportunities, its looking like a pretty bleak future for music.

The new model will roll out for Music for the head and heart/GER events in 2024. Those who have attended and supported events to date will find that they are going to get the best opportunities for future events. I think our world is a better place for music and if we all invest just a small amount of time and energy in support grassroots venues and emerging artists, life will be a lot rosier.