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Small music venues are part of music’s heritage – we need to support them

Radiohead live at Glastonbury in June 2017. EPA/Nigel Roddis

Small music venues are part of music’s heritage – we need to support them

Radiohead live at Glastonbury in June 2017. EPA/Nigel Roddis

This year’s Glastonbury Festival saw a closing set to rival the very best. For two hours on a June evening, Radiohead seduced and energised a vast and adoring crowd before delivering a brilliant finale. Thom Yorke’s vocals hung over the English landscape like evening mist, clearing as a choir of 50,000 voices echoed the refrain, joined no doubt by a TV and online audience of millions. For a minute there, we lost ourselves – and it was brilliant.

Yet that Radiohead moment was only made possible through the existence of small music venues such as those on the so-called “Toilet Circuit”. Such small venues, located in provincial towns and city centres across the UK, are where bands such as Radiohead learned their craft, built experience, gained a fan base, and earned money that makes everything else possible.

These venues form an essential part of a cultural ecosystem that extends from clubs to theatres, pubs to opera houses. Like my earlier study of Berlin techno, these venues are also part of our heritage – and interestingly, Zurich’s techno scene has recently gained UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status.

It is an ecosystem that has evolved over hundreds of years. But the Toilet Circuit, alongside other smaller venues such as pubs, is under immediate threat. Venues are closing at an alarming rate and this is threatening the whole ecosystem. The Jericho Tavern in Oxford, where Radiohead played their first gig – and which was a key venue in the 1980s and 1990s – has long since ceased to host live music.

Unless they become commercially successful, musicians make little from recorded music. Instead, most of their income is from touring – and that requires venues. The vast majority of live performances take place in smaller venues involving unsigned bands or those on small independent labels, playing to smaller audiences who enjoy a combination of the music and the environment in which it is performed.

Seedy aesthetic

In a recent paper in the journal Heritage & Society, Dan Miller and I presented three examples which together highlight the significance of Toilet Circuit venues to their audiences: The Bull & Gate (London), the Forum (Tunbridge Wells, Kent) and the Duchess of York (Leeds). Of these, only The Forum survives.

The Toilet Circuit is aptly named, and bands and audience appreciate the “seedy aesthetic”, a characteristic that has shaped mythologies and heritage of the circuit, unlike the shiny corporate environs of bespoke arenas. Audiences enjoy the close interaction with musicians, the rituals of the moshpit and wall-of-death, the stage diving. They enjoy the intimacy, meeting the band afterwards, and buying a CD at the merchandise stall. Such things are unique to smaller venues, such as those on the Toilet Circuit.

Pavement playing live at the Duchess of York in Leeds in the 1990s. Greg Neate, CC BY

Most such venues are in town and city centres, where noise controls have led to curfews and complaints. Rents have also increased, threatening the sustainability of venues that exist on a shoestring. Thank goodness therefore for organisations such as Arts Council England (ACE) and the Music Venue Trust, which exists to support such venues and promote the values and significance of venues that many still regard as “low arts” and not worthy of cultural support.

Yet in ACE’s recent round of funding, £367m went to the music sector, but 85% of this was allocated to opera and classical music. Of course, one cannot fund everything, and each part of this vital ecosystem can make a legitimate claim.

Animals as Leaders playing live at The Forum in Tunbridge Wells in 2011. Pseudo98, CC BY

As the ACE Chief Executive has explained:

We are acutely aware of the challenges faced by music venues across the country and will continue to look at ways to work strategically with the sector to address them.

But the need is urgent, and this part of the ecosystem is unique for its formative role in developing talent for an important industry. According to the Music Venue Trust’s strategic director, Beverley Whitrick:

If these venues were commercial, they wouldn’t be dropping like flies … They are the bit at the bottom of the industry that doesn’t make money and helps develop the talent that then gets taken away from them once the artists start being more successful.

Support your local venue

Beyond encouraging more people to attend local live music events, there are practical things that can be done to help secure these venues, through funding and planning controls, for example. As with any heritage decisions, understanding cultural significance and value comes first. If we value something we are more likely to find sustainable ways to safeguard it.

But unlike many heritage assets, it may not be the actual venue that matters so much as there being a venue at all. Venues such as those mentioned above are iconic and steeped in the history and mythology of individual performances and associations. But this is largely an intangible heritage, and for us it is the cultural activity that matters most.

The Bull & Gate in Kentish Town, London. Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA

Radiohead’s encore was not the only Glastonbury highlight from 2017. Another involved a politician. Many of the voices later supporting Radiohead deliver their magnificent encore had earlier joined in an unprecedented refrain, chanting the name “Jeremy Corbyn” as he came on stage.

This was the politician who, in his recent election campaign, highlighted the need to support music venues – not the massive corporate arenas where Radiohead now perform, but the smaller local venues where they and thousands of musicians like them began their careers. The sceptical voter might have considered this a blatant attempt to appeal to younger voters. Yet the message is in character – and he is right.