The State of Grassroot Music Venues: One Hand Giveth, while the other Taketh it Away


When the 2012 Live Music Act became law, I was encouraged that grassroots music could now be showcased in a venue with a capacity of no more than 200 (recently amended to 500), without the proprietor applying for a license. Although I have seen no concrete data, I am sure this development, instigated by UK Music, has had a big impact on venue owners, now not burdened by bureaucracy, giving grassroots live music a chance. However, in the case of small venue live music, this appears to be an instance of ‘one hand giveth, while the other taketh it away’. The recent spate of closures of music venues in Cardiff’s Womandy Street is an example of how common sense and most importantly the law has not caught up on the cultural significance of this important stream of the live music industry.

In 2011, I wrote a report for the Welsh Music Foundation that outlined the various ways through which  the live music industry in Wales could be developed. This ranged from suggesting ways in which stakeholders could work together, strategies for inward investment, to the Welsh language sector, to training provision needs. The results of this report were outlined at a number of places across Wales, including a session for the Institute of Welsh Affairs in Cardiff. Reflecting on this report six years later, it is really troubling to see that small venues still have significant issues with noise abatement notices. When I wrote the report, probably the most well known venue closure was The Point in Cardiff – an excellent venue that had the misfortune of being positioned too close to a block of flats, which although built after the venue’s establishment, ultimately forced its demise – as the venue owners simply could not afford the required sound proofing. As the time, we discussed that this responsibility should not fall on the venue (who in this case was in residence first) but the INCOMING PARTY – i.e. the block of flats.

The so-called agent of change principle means the person or business responsible for the  change is responsible for managing the impact of the change. This seems common sense to me. So, in the cases of flats being built near established live music venue, it would be the new developer who has to, in law, deal with any resulting issues, not the existing tenants. Although this principle is adopted in Australia and to a certain limited extent in England, it has not been adopted in Wales. Additionally, in London, the Mayor is actively proposing to recognise ‘areas of cultural significance’ for some parts of the capital, but in Wales this term does not appear to be recognised in the current Planning Policy Framework. It seems obvious to me that ‘agent of change’ needs to be adopted in Wales, not just at the level of the developer, but at the level of planning – this is where local councils come in.

My 2011 report stated the importance of Welsh Government, local councils and most importantly stakeholders from the music industry working together to find ways to encourage night time economies. One way to do this would be to work together on a Live Music Strategy for Cardiff. This has already been instigated in cities such as Sunderland in the UK and Ballarat in Austrailia, This would help the city address questions such as how to facilitate grassroots venues to work together both horizontally (with similar venues) but also vertically – with larger venues. It would also enable the city to consider not just the economic (how does Wales keep profits within Wales?), but the cultural significance of grassroots live music, in addition to how this culture relates to the identity of the places it takes place in. I could go on about this, but I think in the first instance, I would encourage anyone with an interest in live music in Wales to sign the petition for an ‘agent of change’ to take place.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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