‘We don’t want the money going to private owners’: UK concert halls are turning to community ownership | Music
JJust 24 hours before performing in front of one of the biggest audiences on the planet, Paul McCartney could be found blasting Hey Jude into a hall of just 850 screaming fans in Frome, Somerset. His Glastonbury warm-up show was held at Cheese and Grain, a member-owned non-profit venue.
“He gave an incredibly wonderful performance,” said venue manager Steve Macarthur. “One of his considerations for selecting us was that he liked the fact that we were a community-controlled, non-profit organization with a commitment to training local people for jobs.”
The venue has had this structure for over 20 years, but recently there has been an increase in the number of venues looking to adopt community-based business models – whether it’s social enterprises with charitable status like the Cheese and Grain or the Tees Music Alliance in Stockton-on-Tees, the Model Community Interest Company (CIC) of Birkenhead’s Future Yard, or a model Community Interest Company (CBS) adopted by venues such as the Exchange at Bristol and The Hive in Cheshire. Although these models vary slightly in their structure, all are largely underpinned by placing power and control in the hands of the local community.
“Something radical is happening,” says Mark Davyd, chief executive of the charity Music Venue Trust. “When we started in 2014, 3% of sites nationwide had a nonprofit structure and now it’s 26%. A combination of dire and grim scenarios for venues around noise complaints, rent increases, evictions and redevelopment – plans to transform the 6,000 capacity London nightclub Printworks, one of the most iconic venues in the UK, in offices just approved – has resulted in many in precarious situations. More than a third of popular venues have closed in the last 20 years, almost all of them are tenants (the average operator only having 18 months of rental left) and although the Culture Recovery Fund has helped some during the pandemic, in 67% of cases, the money went to the owners.
MVT launched Music Venue Properties as CBS and currently offers community shares – members of the public can invest to become co-owners – to help raise £2.5million to buy the freeholds of nine popular music venues in the UK. “Who is the best person to own a room to ensure it becomes a permanent music space?” David asks. “The community itself. We don’t want the money going to private owners, we want it in the cultural economy because that’s how we generate more great artists and give more people the opportunity to get involved in music.
The Ferret, a sticky-ground old-school venue in Preston visited by Ed Sheeran and Idles on their way to fame, is being sold and would be a ‘hammer blow’ loss, says Davyd. It has been deemed an asset of community value by Preston Council, creating a six-month window for the community to buy it, which Music Venue Properties will do if its campaign is successful.
Nudge Community Builders, a CBS in Plymouth, has purchased the Millennium Building, a former cinema and nightclub, and will turn it into a music venue, “a brilliant vehicle for locking down an asset for the community”, says co-director Wendy Hart . “Then, the local communities can imagine finding jobs there, they can imagine that their children perform there; people are empowered to truly dream differently. We want to harness people’s enthusiasm, because it’s not our journey, it’s everyone’s journey – everyone can have a piece of it.
Site operators feel little incentive to invest in a rented property when doing so will only increase its value and make it a more attractive sales prospect for landlords. Community business models, however, open up places to funding and grants that they would not have access to as a limited liability company, and because they must use their assets for the benefit of the community, this can accelerate the improvement of infrastructure.
“It’s been game-changing for us,” says Matthew Otridge of Bristol’s Exchange, which adopted the CBS model in 2018 and has more than 400 community investors. “We can look at things in terms of decades whereas most sites can only look at things in terms of years.” The money raised through community actions and grants enabled the site to set up, in a second stage, new ventilation and to build accessible toilets.
When Sister Midnight had to leave Deptford, she set up a CBS and raised nearly £300,000 in community action to take over the Ravensbourne Arms in Lewisham to create an ‘accessible, affordable and inclusive’ venue and pub. That purchase fell through, but it is currently close to finalizing negotiations to take over another nearby venue, with unanimous support from those who invested in the Ravensbourne Arms purchase.
So what is driving this change? “People don’t know patterns, they aren’t taught,” says Sister Midnight co-founder Lenny Watson. “It’s a growing movement as more and more people learn about these democratic ways of working.” In times of crisis in the cost of living, they are also desperately needed, believes Watson. “Creating wealth in communities is vital: there is such an obvious need to redistribute wealth and power and this is a business model that does just that.” Macarthur adds: “If you have an asset, sweat it; if you have something that is useful to the local community, let the local community use it.
Independent Venue Week is also harnessing the potential of venues as thriving community hubs, launching a new initiative, Independent Venue Community, which will encourage hundreds of smaller venues across the UK to open their doors during the day to host community programs.
Education, training, apprenticeships and access to an industry that may seem out of reach for people are often key priorities for these community venues, with places like Future Yard and the Cheese and Grain training young people in everything from sound engineering to marketing. “We try to create jobs for local people,” says Macarthur. “Our goals are to make life better and improve life chances for as many people in Frome as possible.”
The hope is that this creates a loop of mutual support. “There is pride in ownership,” says Otridge. “Our stakeholders feel like they have a stake in the success of the venue, so they get involved by coming to more gigs or telling friends about gigs. We also use their skills and expertise, from accounting advice to materials for cheap construction.All this makes the operation of the room much more efficient.
For Davyd however, the successful end point of it all is when his work no longer exists. “All good charities should plan for their own extinction,” he says. “So let’s fix the problem instead of continuing to stick band-aids on it.” It’s an incredibly solid model that could really make a big difference.