Business Rates relief and Independent music venues, too little too late?


Wow Machine – Kazimier Winter Ball

With news that government has a plan to slash Business Rates for grassroots venues Getintothis’ Chris Flack looks at the impact of the proposal and wonders if it is enough to save grassroots venues.

Towards the end of January, the Government announced details of a scheme to reduce Business Rates for small and medium-sized grassroots music venues in a move hailed by the Music Venues Trust as a ‘breakthrough’.

The scheme gives local authorities an element of flexibility over the business rates they set for grassroots music venues that are seen to have a ‘positive impact on the local community’.

While that seems arbitrary, and while it isn’t clear who makes the decision on who saves money as part of the scheme, it must be welcomed in a world where a venues budgets are tight and margins razor-thin.

Many beloved venues have been shuttered over the years as budgets broke and outside sources forced venues and licencing agencies re-evaluate their place in towns and cities.

The losses are colossal, not just to the areas where these places stood but to the development of an entire music culture, locally, nationally and internationally; we have no idea how many artists and bands have given up hope of ever making it based on issues beyond their control.

In what appears to be the first instalment of the scheme, the future of London’s 100 Club appears to be settled, at least in the short term, with the announcement of a discount on its bill, which is not to be sniffed at.

The historic central London club has been granted special status by Westminster City Council and the outcome of that decision is that it will receive a 100% discount on its business rates bill.

In order for the agreement to continue the venue has to meet certain criteria, it’s main business must be as a grassroots music venue that is run on a ‘not for profit basis’, we’ll come back to that bit.

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100 Club owner Jeff Horton told the Music Venue Trust that they were; “THRILLED the 100 Club has been granted this new business rates relief. It means we can continue to support the careers of the hundreds of artists who take to our stage each year. This is a game-changing approach from a local authority in supporting grassroots music venues.”

In a statement, London Night Czar Amy Lamé, who helped to develop the rates scheme with the council said this; “This is the first time that special status has been awarded to a grassroots music venue and it is a great example of what can be done to support venues in our city, I urge other local authorities to work with us to support venues in their boroughs and help boost London’s vibrant nightlife”.

The 100 Club is no stranger to perilous news and threats of closure.

Ten years ago its rent and rates came to a heart-stopping £18,000 a month, a campaign was set up to save the venue, Paul McCartney dropped in to play a show and Converse put some money on the table to keep it open.

It should be worth noting that the venue applied for grade II listed status for its building in 2012, an application designed to offer some kind of protection; an application that was later denied by, well, Westminster City Council as it happens, you can make of that what you will.

The new rates scheme comes into effect from April, with a view that small and medium-sized venues will be able to claim a 50% discount on their business rates bill if their councils adopt the measure.

For some venues, their rates bill has almost doubled in recent years as the strains of austerity bite on a local level, it is a significant reason for so many venues closing in the last decade.

Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd had this to say about the reduction, “Other boroughs in London, in Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, Glasgow, Cardiff, now need to follow suit. Our city centres need to keep cultural destinations that drive activity and support the whole night-time economy, and we strongly urge local authorities across the country to look at the example here and consider how they can act”.

The news was quickly followed by the revelation that Welsh venues will be able to apply for funding from Creative Wales to make physical or business improvements to strengthen their operation. Creative Wales identified grassroots venues as a cornerstone where talent can be developed, nurtured and grown. It is another small step on a path that none of us can quite see the end of yet.

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If you’ve come this far you might have a couple of questions, I certainly do, and those questions centre around two aspects of the news so far.  The first is that for Westminister City Council music venues must operate as a not for profit organisation to be considered for the rates reduction.

In this game, if one council does it then you’ll find any number of other councils will copy and paste their policy, and any independent venue that isn’t not for profit, well, they’re out.

At a guess, you could suggest that puts quite a few beyond the pale.

The second issue is the discount on business rates, and how those rates are based on a number of criteria, one of which is the area in which the business is situated.

That calculation has the potential to become a significant problem for places like the Baltic Triangle and Ten Streets, as these neighbourhoods develop the rates will increase, rents will increase and people end up back where they started, that is of course if Liverpool can afford to introduce the reduction and if they can justify it.

It is always difficult to justify supporting one type of business if everything else is getting cut, it is a similar issue when looking at Brexit and open border passports for musicians; if they get them why can’t the salespeople of the world be afforded the same protection?

Given the fact that Liverpool City Council is already looking to make savings all over the place, the idea that they are likely to get into a rates battle with businesses across the city seems unlikely.

But there is a bigger question, is this enough?

The answer is that each business, set aside the not for profit model Westminster are looking at, struggles with ever-increasing bills, ever-decreasing circles of influence and a lack of space to grow.

Between councils allowing mega blocks of flats to pop up beside venues and whole neighbourhoods being sold off to developers right across the country, the arts are in serious trouble and they’re being squeezed, music is in serious trouble and it’s getting squeezed out too; so is a rate relief scheme enough to help?

The short answer is probably no.

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There are huge discrepancies in the way public money for the arts is carved up. I have been writing for years, personally and professionally, about the imbalance in support across the wider arts sphere.  In a recent article, Anna Calvi made a similar point.

She said that Britain’s independent music venues should receive equal reverence and support as ballet or opera, it is a known fact that public spending on the arts comes in at around £70 per head of population in London, and only £4.58 just about everywhere else.  It hardly needs further exploration.

Most of that money ends up on ‘high art’, opera, the National Theatre, The Southbank Centre, the big hitters, while they were asked a year or so ago to apply for three per cent less it is easy to suck up that cost when your grant comes in at 900k.

Parity across art forms, support for different art forms and emerging art forms is crucial, being a ‘new organisation’ and accessing any kind of public support is incredibly difficult if not impossible.

If we don’t nurture artists, if we fail to recognise talent at an earlier point then we lose it, it gets a job in a call centre or stacks shelves in a toy shop somewhere.

How many times have we missed something amazing, how do we ever know we’ve missed the next Beatles, or we’ve lost out on the next Stormzy, or the next Elbow end up stacking shelves at The Entertainer because we valued one art form over the other?

The other major crisis point in independent, grassroots music is the loss of venues to development, developers and new neighbours who seem appalled that the venue they moved beside makes noise when they want an early night, consider The Blind Tiger, read that story and be in awe of new levels of utter stupidity.

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There has been a movement among Berlin’s finest nightclubs to get recognition for the impact they have on the city, they are seeking to be awarded the same cultural status as opera houses and theatres to protect them from the dreaded spread of gentrification and suede loafers.

Around 100 nightclubs have closed in Berlin over the last decade, it is said that currently there are 25 are under serious threat. It has its own word, Clubsterben, literally club death. It is a common theme, venues are closed to make way for condos and new residents file noise complaints.

Que sera sera.

The estimates are rough, but figures suggest that three million tourists make their way to Berlin every year to shake their asses off in sweaty nightclubs, make friends and make memories, the clubs bring something like €1.5bn to the city every year. How much do the Beatles bring to Liverpool every year?

It’s an open door, an ongoing discussion, and it isn’t all doom and gloom.

There are glimmers of hope, The Agent Of Change, Business Rates Relief, and perhaps a change in funding might help, but the issue of giving one of the greatest cultural phenomenons of the last 60 years a place of significance, a considered view, a chance to thrive, is going to rest much more heavily on government shoulders than it does on already struggling city councils.

We need significant, structural change, the infrastructure needs to be reinvented from the ground up, artists need to be guided, advised, they need the right people at the right time and that can only be delivered at a strategic, national level.

Tinkering at the sidelines isn’t going to help.

Images of Liverpool’s Grassroots venues, taken by Getintothis’ photographers