The live music scene in Britain is facing a crisis, with the entire ecosystem on the brink of collapse. This is a situation that has caused great concern and is being closely monitored by many individuals and organizations.

Estimated read time 13 min read


It is the end of the weekend at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, and the place is bustling. In one room, there is a blues festival, while in the other, rising American musician Sam Evian is performing for a capacity of 400 people. The lounge area is filled with students who are watching the Liverpool vs. Chelsea game on television. However, Nathan Clark, the owner and promoter, is feeling anxious as the situation is not as positive as it appears.

For example, he was fully prepared to showcase the Australian psychedelic rock band Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, who had a successful performance in Manchester the previous night drawing in 1,000 attendees. However, he received a call informing him that the lead singer had been bitten by a dog and the show had to be cancelled. He explains, “We had already set up a projector screen that cost £600, hired technicians and security, and provided food and drinks for the band.” Unfortunately, all of these expenses cannot be reimbursed. He likens the situation to playing a game of chance.

Presenting live performances has always been a risky endeavor, but the current situation poses even greater challenges for smaller music venues, without the added complication of aggressive canines. Large-scale concerts at stadiums and arenas, organized by companies like Live Nation, are experiencing unprecedented success with record attendance from top artists such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, contributing to the company’s staggering revenue of $22.7 billion. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, 125 live music venues in the UK were forced to shut down in 2023, more than half of which permanently, due to mounting financial pressures including escalating rent and energy costs, as well as the ongoing effects of the Covid pandemic.

The esteemed Moles club in Bath permanently closed its doors in December after operating for 45 years. Other recent closures include Melodic Distraction in Liverpool and Velvet Music Rooms in Birmingham. The nightclub scene is facing challenges as Rekom, the owner of the Pryzm chain, is shutting down half of its venues due to the high cost of living. Several major music festivals are also either postponing events or ending altogether this year.

Mark Davyd, the creator of the Music Venue Trust, which advocates for the grassroots industry, acknowledges that it’s not solely venues that are affected. According to him, artists are also struggling with the financial burden of touring, leading some to cancel or shorten their tours. This has created a ripple effect, causing the entire system to crumble.

Four years ago, right before the initial UK lockdown, I stayed at the Brudenell – a former establishment for working men constructed in 1913 – to observe the operations of such locations. Today, it is my primary destination to check on their current state. One notable alteration is Clark now has an office, adorned with a signed poster of Johnny Marr (who has praised the venue as “a unique place”) on the wall above him. “I used to work on a laptop at the bar,” he laughs.

Over the last decade, the organization has made efforts to improve the venue whenever they have the means to do so. Since the Brudenell is a nonprofit, all funds are reinvested into the venue. The interruption caused by Covid provided an ideal chance to upgrade the PA system, lighting, and backstage spaces, putting them in a more stable position. Clark acknowledges the importance of the 18-month reduction in VAT to 5% for the hospitality industry, stating that without it, the venue may not have survived.

During a conversation over cups of Yorkshire tea, Clark discusses the challenges that venues across the country are currently facing. He mentions that expenses have increased in all aspects, including artists’ fees, wholesale beer prices for venues, and transportation and accommodation for bands. Unlike many of its counterparts, the Brudenell is run by a non-profit community enterprise and owned by the venue itself, which protects it from the steep rent increases that have caused the downfall of other venues. However, this also means that the responsibility of maintaining the building falls on the Brudenell, including the potential cost of a new roof, which could be as high as £100,000.

Craig Charles at Band on the Wall in 2022.

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In Manchester, Band on the Wall is better off compared to others, as it is operated by a non-profit organization that owns the venue. However, they are also facing ups and downs. According to Gavin Sharp, the chief executive, they had a successful fall but suffered a loss of £25,000 in January, making it difficult to predict future earnings with such significant losses.

Pryzm attributed its issues to financially struggling students opting to stay in instead of going out. However, Clark argues that the popularity of large-scale concerts proves that there is still a demand for live music. The problem lies in the fact that the business model no longer seems viable for venues with a capacity of less than 600. According to Clark, they are not in dire straits, but their profits have been significantly reduced. This is evidenced by decreases in revenue from activities such as selling pies, using the pool table, and catering to beer-drinking students, which all contribute to supporting the live music aspect of the business. However, this aspect is particularly challenging to sustain.

Sharp claims that the current model of venues is financially unsustainable for operators, staff, and bands. Due to the young age of the audience, ticket prices are often too high for them to afford, leading to venues relying on enthusiastic young staff who are paid minimum wage. Additionally, with a decrease in alcohol consumption, relying on bar sales to fund the model is no longer feasible.

Davyd notes that some venues attempt to increase revenue by organizing larger events at different locations or by offering pizza for sale. He also mentions that a significant number of venue owners now hold another job, with the venue management becoming a secondary source of income. They often use their earnings from their main job to sustain the venue.

Clark, on the other hand, faces a different situation. He puts in long hours at the venue that his deceased father used to own. “I’m having to work harder and longer than ever,” he explains. “It’s a more competitive environment and I feel exhausted. It’s like being stuck on a never-ending cycle. And even if I manage to break even, the upcoming increase in minimum wage will make it even tougher. Some individuals who are barely making enough money are saying they can’t continue like this.”


Near the downtown area, I frequent a venue called Boom Leeds that caters to the punk, hardcore, and metal scene. The walls are adorned with posters of Ramones and Misfits, and during my visit, there were five bands playing for only £7. The venue has an age limit of 14 and above, but it also fosters a strong sense of community. According to 18-year-old Nicole, who has been coming here since she was 15 and has seen performances by Black Flag and Subhumans, it is a special place that is the only one of its kind to truly support this culture.

Harry, the 18-year-old guitarist from Narkotyk, a hardcore band performing tonight, expresses how the members of the music community support each other. He recalls his first experience performing in this venue, which he believes offers something unique that cannot be found elsewhere. Despite being saved by crowdfunding during the pandemic, Boom Leeds is still facing a financial burden of £45,000. The venue has been able to raise £15,000 through benefit gigs, but there is still a shortfall. Clark acknowledges that the venue caters to a specific niche, but it has the potential to nurture emerging talent like Turnstile or even future headline acts for Slam Dunk.

Small music venues play a significant role in launching and nurturing emerging artists. Prominent bands like Joy Division and Self Esteem have performed at Band on the Wall, and others like Franz Ferdinand and Sam Fender got their start at Brudenell and similar venues. It is disappointing to Clark that these places put in the effort and resources to showcase new talent, but receive no financial support from record labels or major promoters who reap the benefits of these acts later on.

Yard Act, a band from Leeds, held their debut performance at the Brudenell and consider it their “spiritual home”. They had a series of shows in May and Clark is promoting their highly anticipated outdoor concert in the city center this summer, which is expected to be lucrative. However, this level of dedication is not common in the music industry, where small venues serve as the “research and development” stage for live music.

“Bath Moles going shocked our sector,” says Davyd. “Bands that played there – Oasis, the Cure, Eurythmics – made the music industry millions, if not billions, of pounds. On their last two nights before closing, they were sold out, but still lost £1,100. Allowing that venue to close demonstrates a complete failure by the music industry in research and development.”

Renovation of neighborhoods is a potential issue. Sharp explains that establishments may establish themselves in a dilapidated district with lower housing costs, stimulating economic revival, but then the property owner raises the rent significantly. Even if the venue manages to survive, it may still face complaints about noise and potentially be forced to close.

Deer Shed festival 2023.

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In recent times, the divide between the wealthiest and poorest has been growing larger, as evidenced by the development of new arenas. One of these is Co-op Live, which can accommodate 23,500 spectators and is set to open in Manchester this upcoming April. The city council’s head, Bev Craig, guarantees that the massive venue will solidify Manchester’s reputation as a prime location for renowned musicians and tourists alike, as it plans to host 100 music events annually. However, tickets for the Eagles’ final shows in June start at £87, despite the already existing Manchester Arena with a capacity of 21,000.

According to Davyd, we are currently experiencing a favorable period where there are plenty of veteran rock stars and bands from the 90s and 00s who are able to attract large crowds. This has resulted in high demand for arena and stadium tickets, which is not a negative development. Interestingly, even unlikely performers such as Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, and Adele began their careers in smaller venues.

According to Sharp, there is an overabundance of large arena spaces due to local officials prioritizing regeneration efforts. They predict that this sector will soon experience a decline. However, mid-sized venues are more secure due to their cost efficiency. Despite this, the Guardian reported on the impact of the crisis on festivals, with nine cancellations already occurring this year.

According to Oliver Jones, organizer of the family-friendly Deer Shed festival in North Yorkshire, many of his friends have either lost their festivals or had to sell them in order to settle debts. This year’s festival, featuring headliners The Coral and Bombay Bicycle Club, is selling quickly. However, Jones mentions that the past few years have been uncertain for the festival.

Jones explains that the [government’s] funding for cultural revival played a key role in helping their team successfully navigate the challenges brought on by Covid. However, the constant uncertainty surrounding the pandemic put a strain on the festival’s survival. In order to mitigate potential losses, they had to make significant cuts across the board and also faced difficulties in securing suppliers and acts due to corporate events and exclusive contracts. Jones also points out that in addition to dealing with big corporations and the rising cost of living, the unpredictable weather remains a major threat for smaller festivals as it can lead to last-minute cancellations. He cites an incident from the previous year where heavy rainfall forced them to cancel the festival just days after it had opened, highlighting the impact that bad weather can have on their operations.

Such people are accustomed to living on their wits. Jones loves scouting bands for Deer Shed. He knows full well “the lows of traipsing out on a winter’s night where the beer’s expensive and the band are awful. But, on another night, it might be the most exquisite thing you’ve ever witnessed.”

Howard Bradley, Choque Hosein and Dick Bonham, the founders of Old Wollen in FarsleyView image in fullscreen

I have discovered a heartwarming tale of achievement at the Old Woollen, a 500-person capacity venue located in Farsley, on the outskirts of Leeds. The trio of Choque Hosein, a producer and musician, Dick Bonham, a theatre producer, and Howard Bradley, a community events programmer, collaborate to curate shows, presentations, and entertainment nights at a charming old mill, utilizing the diverse styles of 1960s variety clubs.

When I stopped by, the punk band Eddie and the Hot Rods were playing on a cold Sunday night, but the place wasn’t overly crowded. However, past events such as performances by Bernard Butler, Nouvelle Vague, and Public Image Ltd, as well as the popular monthly bingo and drag nights, have sold out. According to Hosein, the venue was initially deemed too small for certain acts, but they ended up booking a gig when another one fell through. He chuckles at the fact that he’s had both John Lydon and Barry from EastEnders, who does a type of karaoke called Barrioke, perform at the same venue.

The scope of the region is broad, encompassing Farsley, Leeds, and Bradford; the proprietors of the mill desire to enhance the area and have been gracious in allocating space. Due to power agreements made in the past, Old Woollen is not currently experiencing a rise in expenses.

The general consensus is that we have reached a crucial turning point. Clark and Sharp advocate for government support of the arts, or a reduction in VAT for the hospitality industry, which Sharp believes would have a significant impact. Davyd of the Music Venue Trust is campaigning for a stadium and arena tax that would allocate a small portion of ticket prices to smaller venues, paid for by the venue, promoter, agent, and artist rather than the fans. According to Davyd, if all concerts followed the example of Enter Shikari, who donated £1 per ticket for their arena tour, the campaign could potentially raise up to £28 million and prevent any venues from closing.

Encouraging other prominent musicians and major promoters to follow Davyd’s example is difficult, but he remains hopeful that the government will intervene if the industry does not take action. He believes that communities are suffering from a lack of access to their venues, while seeing large conglomerates announce record profits. Both the general public and their representatives in Parliament are calling for change, leading Davyd to predict that a mandatory levy on arena and stadium tickets, similar to the system in France, will be implemented. In November, former culture secretary and current Conservative MP John Whittingdale stated that there are currently no plans to impose such a ticket levy.

At the Brudenell venue, Clark finishes enjoying his beverage and stops by to check if Evian’s concert with no admission fee will showcase a new rising artist. He expresses, “I am hoping to both give back and witness people leave with smiles on their faces.” He adds, “However, if smaller venues continue to disappear, there will be a lack of new talent emerging. And that would be unfortunate.”


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