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Politicians urged to save UK grassroots music venues and libraries, by urgently investing in the arts

‘There comes a point where there’s no fat left to trim.’

Ahead of the general election, politicians from all parties are being urged to take action to help save the UK’s music and library sectors from a deepening crisis.

Small music venues are being decimated in Britain. In 2023, 125 venues abandoned live music, and more than half shut entirely due to financial pressure. Soaring utility bills and an average 37.5 percent hike in rent have put the surviving 835 venues at risk. During the same period, remaining venues typically secured profits of just 0.5 percent.  

These alarming figures were gathered by the Music Venues Trust (MVT), a charity which represents Grassroots Music Venues (GMVs) across the UK. Its latest annual report found that the grassroots scene remains “significantly underfunded compared to other areas of culture”, despite contributing over £500m to the economy and employing almost 30,000 people.

Separate figures from the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) show that the UK has lost five nightclubs “every week” in 2024 so far.

Ahead of the forthcoming general election, the MVT has launched a ‘Manifesto for Grassroots Music,’ setting out steps that need to be taken to stop the closure of more GMVs, which are currently running at one per week.

The report calls for the abolition of VAT on GMV tickets and a review of the business rates paid by venues in the sector. It is also asking for a £1 grassroots investment contribution from every arena and stadium ticket sold to support grassroots music, venues, artists and promoters. The £1 levy from every arena and stadium ticket sold for events over a 5,000 capacity was suggested by the recent Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee recommendations as a potential solution to the UK’s dwindling number of small-scale music venues.

The move would mimic the French system where there is a centralised pot of about €200m (£172m) that venues, artists, and promoters can apply for, which is funded by a levy on the gross value of tickets sold at big venues.

Urging politicians to act now, Sophie Brownlee, External Affairs Manager at Music Venue Trust, said:  

“The Manifesto is being delivered to every prospective MP in the country with the request that they come out in support of it as part of their campaign to be elected.

“Music communities across the country will also be asking the candidates where they stand on the future of live music in our towns and cities. The time to act is now.” 

The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham has spoken out in support of the proposed plan, including the £1 levy and the VAT cut.

“Music Venue Trust has been instrumental in supporting UK grassroots venues. I’ve seen many of my favourite bands in some of these spaces, and they play a key role in the night-time economy and music scene of Greater Manchester and the wider UK.

“I fully support the recommendations published by the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee including the introduction of a levy and a targeted VAT cut to halt the rising tide of closures. However, it’s clear that urgent action is needed to support venues and the talented artists playing them,” he added.

Alongside music venues, the fate of Britain’s libraries has also been raised as we approach the general election. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, council budgets have been increasingly stretched, with successive central governments cutting grant funding. Since the onset of austerity, council spending on libraries, culture, heritage and tourism, has reduced by almost £500m, as the latest review from County Councils Network (CCN) found. Facing increased financial pressure, local authorities have regularly seen libraries as an easy place to make savings. In the last 14 years, spending on libraries has fallen by almost half (47.9%) since 2010. 

“For the last 10 years libraries have had to do more with less,” says James Gray, marketing and advocacy manager for the charity Libraries Connected. “There comes a point where there’s no fat left to trim.”

The challenges UK libraries face was highlighted at the Manchester City of Literature’s Festival of Libraries 2024. The annual event celebrates Greater Manchester’s 133 libraries. The five-day programme of arts, culture, information and technology is supported by Arts Council England and includes a series of talks with high-profile advocates of libraries and literacy.

Actor Christopher Eccleston was among the speakers. Addressing an audience at Stockport Central Library on June 13, Eccleston shared his passion for libraries and books and highlighted some of the challenges libraries face, including funding cuts. He noted how Britian needs to proper arts funding system in place like the French and he hoped that there will be more change of getting arts on the agenda with the new government.

“As an actor, words are the tools of my trade. When I was growing up in Salford the local library provided a vibrant lifeline to the wider world. Libraries feed people’s interests and passions and provide access leading to connections being forged,” said Eccleston.

Caroline Kelly, the festival’s Creative Director, said the objective of the festival is to let people know that libraries are free and for the people. She told Left Foot Forward:

“These vital community spaces offer so much more than just books. They provide free internet and anything from music gigs, poetry nights, drama classes, yoga sessions, murder mystery, history, business advice and access to the arts. Libraries are such an essential service that should not be cut or underfunded, especially in these times.

“Maxine Peake and Chris Eccleston, who both spoke at the festival, said they would not be where they are now with their local library whilst growing up.”

Actors Imelda Staunton and Olivia Colman have also called for urgent political support for the arts in light of research by Equity suggesting funding in the UK has dropped by 16 percent since 2017.

“I want to see all parties promising much more on the arts. They are not just a ‘nice to have’, they are essential to the thriving, confident country we all want to live in,” said Staunton.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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