Sam Dabb, manager and driving force behind Newport’s Le Public Space, reviews the news that grassroots music venues in England and Wales have been granted a potentially venue saving rate relief.
When I was asked to write this piece I started thinking about Wales’s musical history. Google brought me to this sentence: ‘…Wales as land of song began to be popularised in the 19th century with the growth of the movement of “nonconformist singing” and also the development of the Eisteddfodau.’
Nonconformist. That’s exactly it. We don’t conform in Wales. And you won’t make us.
From the wondrous weirdness of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci to the strong political message of the Manic Street Preachers, the Welsh music of my lifetime has always been strongly nonconformist. But the one idea everyone working in music in Wales does conform to is that grassroots music venues are vital to its future.
In the last few years we’ve lost a number of venues across Wales. From Gwdihw in Cardiff to The Tangled Parrot in Carmarthen. We simply cannot afford to lose anymore. This week Music Venue Trust announced they had successfully lobbied the government and had negotiated a 50% rate relief for Grassroots Music Venues across England and Wales. A 50% rate relief would deliver an average reduction of of £7,500 per venue per annum which is financially the difference between a venue going under and closing its doors or surviving for another year. But as venues across England celebrated the news, we in Wales were left questioning if we would see the benefit.
As a devolved nation we can’t be certain that the relief will apply to us, and we won’t get confirmation for at least a month. Music Venue Trust has done amazing things in the five years I’ve been working with them, but the most important thing they’ve done is create a sense of community among those of us running music venues in the UK. If you don’t work in a grassroots music venue it’s difficult to explain how important the rate relief is, but spend a few hours in a room with the people that run them and you may get an idea.
It’s not a business you get into to get rich, and if that is the reason then you quickly get out again. Music venues are closing all over the country and one of the primary reasons is financial. Sometimes because we can’t afford to do maintenance on our buildings, sometimes because we can’t afford the legal fees to fight noise complaints, and sometimes, quite simply because we can’t afford to pay the bills. If implemented in Wales the suggested rate relief will have a huge and lasting impact on Welsh music. Every artist playing an arena today started out in a small room with a dirty floor and run down toilets.
If we lose the small venues we eventually lose our musical identity on every level and we cannot let that happen. For every huge artist that makes a breakthrough, there are thousands of artists who don’t. And they are just as important, if not more so. I’ve watched people meet at gigs, fall in love and have children who now turn up for gigs in the pub to potentially meet the person they’ll fall in love with. I’ve seen bands play 30 gigs to 30 people and then break up. But while playing those gigs they made friends that would last them a lifetime. And they had experiences that gave them funny stories to tell for their rest of their lives.
Grassroots music venues are home to more than music too. Most of us promote comedy, and spoken word, and art, and anything else the people of their community want to see. They are somewhere to just show up and be yourself. Just show up and express yourself. Whoever you are. Chances are, someone else will absolutely love what you do. It’s absolutely essential that the Welsh Assembly get behind Music Venue Trust and implement this relief. Without it we are at serious risk of losing the very heart of our arts scene and communities.