In the Reeperbahn district in Hamburg, Germany, there’s a sign that reads “Dear (future) neighbours, please keep in mind: this area has been dedicated to culture, arts and music for many years. The sounds belong here and are appreciated by thousands of people. Please take this into account before buying or renting spaces around. Thank You!”
This quote sets the stage for the big question, “Why are small venues closing down?”
Small venues are essential for the survival of a city’s grassroots scene from which legends emerge. However, factors such as gentrification, higher rents, taxes, housing monopolies, lack of supports by governments, and, most recently Covid-19, have all made it difficult for small venues to survive in the face of massive challenges.
The effects of gentrification
According to Oxford Languages, gentrification is the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, often displacing current inhabitants in the process.
The reasons behind gentrification include an increase in real estate prices, multi-nationals setting up HQs in that area, an increase in property taxes, urban redevelopment, a decrease in local crime and perceived “trendiness” brought about by pop culture.
But in what ways does gentrification affect small venue owners, artists and musicians?
Real-estate businesses view small venues as abandoned spaces, old factory buildings and dingy bars. They view the space’s market potential, and not its contribution to the arts.
When an area becomes popular, landlords increase rents and small venue owners cannot afford to pay the rent anymore. Moreover, when more people move into an area, there are increased noise complaints which lead to warnings, and ultimately, forced closure.
Gentrification and the complex legal requirements that venues have to adhere to may be the reason why music industry players are now more likely to invest in setting up festivals than a venue.
Around 33 per cent of small venue owners say that an increase in the business rate has a direct effect on the continued existence of their business. 29 per cent of owners claim that property development in the area leads to more noise complaints and legal issues. [Source: The Overtake]
Without small venues, emerging artists don’t have the opportunity to hone their craft and build a loyal fanbase. Bigger venues and arenas have the backing of multi-million dollar companies and the resources to survive. However, artists cannot reach that level without cutting their teeth at small venues.
COVID-19 and its impact on grassroots venues
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be disastrous for small venues all across the world.
Individual countries and counties’ decisions have impacted the continued existence of small venues and the owners’ experiences during the past year or so.
In Denmark, companies without revenues received compensation packages. In Germany, a cancellation insurance scheme was put in place. In the U.S., $15 billion set aside for venues, Broadway theatres, movie theatres, talent agencies and museums.
In the UK, last-minute changes, as well as communication gaps between the government and the Music Venue Trust, has led to an estimated £36 million incurred in extra costs – in addition to the debts and challenges that grassroots venue owners are facing because of the pandemic.
The Music Venue Trust has been crucial in promoting the importance of saving these venues. The #SaveOurVenues campaign alone has highlighted that “only 17% of them (venues), equating to just 114, are currently secure for the next eight weeks. The other 556 are at imminent risk of being permanently closed down.”
The Agent of Change principle
The agent of change principle is a positive step towards the survival of grassroots music venues. A change agent is an individual or a company that assumes the responsibility and the costs associated with change. In other words, the individual responsible for that change must also mitigate the consequences of that change.
In the UK, the Agent of Change principle is implemented by the Music Venue Trust. This means that the person that’s responsible for the change in an area needs to pay for the costs. Therefore, if an apartment block is built right next to an already-established venue, the contractor has to pay for soundproofing the apartments.
Smaller venues have proved to be essential for emerging artists and the surrounding communities. Therefore, governments, people in power as well as music fans should now do their utmost to safeguard the spaces that have been a lifeline for artists and a cultural force for society as a whole.