26 October 2017 | CommunityLive

Sinking the good ship: Why grassroots music venues need to be protected

Small live venues are still under threat as The Good Ship in Kilburn is closed by license review

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Written by Vibe Tickets

Kilburn’s last live music venue, The Good Ship, will shut its doors for the final time on October 29th.

The grassroots music venue in north-west London, not far from Abbey Road Studios, was a much-loved gigging spot for developing artists, that assisted Adele, Kate Nash and The XX during the early stages of their careers.

The closure is particularly devastating for the area, following on from the area’s two other live venues, The Luminaire and Power’s Bar also shutting down in recent years.

“For those watching or those performing it's a massive loss to the area” says Sam Bowcher, The Good Ship’s Booking Manager.

“It has always been a space to go to that offers something interesting and fun."  

Opening on 2nd September 2005, The Good Ship has provided the area with live music, club nights and comedy for over a decade. The grassroots music venue was severely impacted by the reduction of its opening hours from 4am to 3am last year. “Those late nights at the weekend when the venue is packed and the bar is doing really well are vital in helping keep the place afloat,” Sam explains. “It's extremely valuable income.”

“We put on a lot of gigs and while we strive to make them all really busy, naturally there’s going to be the odd quiet show - even if it's a great lineup.

“I think it has just become impossible to afford to keep it running.”

Sadly, The Good Ship’s misfortune is not unique. Research carried out by the London Assembly, found that of the capital’s 430 live music venues that operated between 2007 and 2015, only 245 are still open for business.

This epidemic is not limited to London. Recent years have seen the loss of the Sheffield Boardwalk, Cockpit Theatre in Leeds, and The Owl sanctuary in Norwich. The Music Venue Trust describes three key ongoing threats to venues: development, residents, and cultural parity.

In 2016 the prolonged battle to reinstate the license of London’s iconic nightclub Fabric, sparked mainstream conversation about the preservation of the city’s venues, and renewed efforts are now being made to protect London’s night time economy. The Mayor of London and newly appointed Night Czar are leading an initiative to protect more grassroot venues from closure. A report commissioned by the Mayor of London and published in April 2017 identified 94 grassroot music venues in London and pointed to these venues as the foundation of the UK's world-leading music industry. The report also noted that “Grassroots music venues generate over 2,260 jobs, £50.8m in labor income and £91.8m in GVA for London’s economy.”

Grassroot music venues are built on a number of key criteria: putting music first, taking risks with their cultural programming (frequently at the risk of profit), and playing an active role in cultivating the local community by providing musicians, artists, and fans with a space to meet and perform. To prevent more closures like that of The Good Ship, the way that these venues are perceived needs to change. Outside of the supportive community of artists, fans and enablers, grassroot music venues need wider recognition for the vital role they play as platforms for artists and local culture to thrive, rather than just being seen as bars/clubs selling alcohol that just happen to also put on performance from time to time.

As shown by The Good Ship, these spaces are at risk. Of the 94 grassroots music venues detailed in the report, 21 are immediately at risk of closure due to business rates increasing. The report details that “the increased costs from the business rates revaluation will put venues at risk of cutting the number of emerging artists they showcase, changing operations or closing altogether.” Hackney, Westminster, Camden and Islington are named as the most likely boroughs to be affected.

The British music scene is built on small venues that provide the first platform for new artists to find their voice and hone their talent. Sam notes one of the most rewarding aspects of his job booking acts for The Good Ship was “helping artists put together a tour and securing them a London date which they really appreciated.” Without a stable circuit of small venues to play at, emerging artists are unable to build a fanbase. As web streaming music has undermined record sales for small and emerging artists, full-time musicians become increasingly dependent on the income that they can make from live shows.

“I think everyone has to support each other,” Sam concludes. “Venues, artists, fans, managers, agents etc. From the performance to the business side of things, most people work in music because they are passionate about it and want the same things.”

“No one wants to see these venues close. A lot of people attend small gigs but then, even more, people don't. I know so many keen music fans who rarely go to shows at grassroots venues. Changing that approach somehow would be key. There's so much listening and watching to be done at home these days, it's making sure people still get out and support too.”

…and what can we do to help?

“Go to shows, go to shows, go to shows! Listen online as well,  share and all that, but go to shows, and if you can afford it, buy a couple of beers!”

Written by Chris Evans