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“What good is it keeping venues open if artists can’t afford to perform in them?” ask the FAC

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As calls grow for the upper echelons of the music industry to pay back into the grassroots, the Featured Artists Coalition’s CEO David Martin has spoken of why this also needs to tend to artists and new audiences – as well as music venues.

Last month saw the Music Venue Trust deliver a new and full report into the state of the sector for 2023, showing the “disaster” facing live music with venues closing at a rate of around two per week. Presented at Westminster, the MVT echoed their calls for a levy on tickets on gigs at arena size and above and for major labels and such to pay back into the grassroots scene, arguing that “the big companies are now going to have to answer for this”.

Now, David Martin of the FAC – a trade union body representing the needs of musicians and artists in the UK – has written to the NME to argue that while he agrees with the “essential” battle to save venues, any kind of ‘Premier League’ model to be adopted by the industry needs to take into account keeping creators in pocket and able to exist, as well as ways to open up the world of music to different genres, backgrounds and audiences.

Read Martin’s full message below:

Featured Artists Coalition CEO, David Martin:

“On the evening of December 14, 2023, I witnessed one of the most incredible live music shows of my life, and without doubt, the most ambitious.

“In terms of production, sound, imagination, scale, creativity and talent, SAULT’s astonishing performance at London’s Drumsheds changed the game. From announcement to execution, this hugely talented collective of artists somehow delivered a seamless three hour show of music, art, fashion and dance that was simultaneously celebratory, immersive and mysterious.

“Even now I’m not quite sure how they pulled it off. And while the ticket price (£99) initially drew criticisms – in some quarters, at least – I don’t think many are complaining now. Especially those lucky few thousand in attendance.

“On reflection, and putting on my FAC hat for a minute, the more pertinent question is less how SAULT and the team at Forever Living Originals pulled off a show of such enormity – incorporating five stages, a full orchestra and a choir – it’s how they did it on such a seemingly modest budget.

“In itself, that leads to an even bigger question: how does any artist these days make live touring commercially viable? Especially those beneath the top of the pyramid. For while the wider world endures a cost of living crisis, many artists are also facing a cost of touring crisis.

“Even those playing to relatively modest audiences have to bear substantial costs to tour the UK – from transportation, accommodation and rehearsals to paying the salaries of musicians, crew, production, agents and managers. That’s on top of recording, and the increasing demands of promotion – all activities which create the demand for shows in the first place.

“These too are also shouldered by artists. Against some harsh economic headwinds, it’s no wonder some are starting to buckle.

“Across the FAC’s artist community, there is growing discontentment about this issue – and the lack of acknowledgement from the wider industry. There are many artists who have built significant fanbases for their recorded music, but who cannot make the economics of domestic touring stack up. They either have to scale back the ambitions of their live shows, or rely on favours just to cover costs. These decisions are often occurring at the most crucial moment, when artists are just breaking through and building ‘momentum’. It leaves them snookered, and struggling to pay musicians to present their music properly in a live setting.

“As well as stifling the development of new talent, it also stunts the development of new audiences – an essential factor to the future success of the UK’s live music sector.

“At the FAC’s End of Year party, this situation was perfectly summarised by Murray Matravers from the band formerly known as Easy Life, during an interview with NME‘s Andrew Trendell.”

NME’s Andrew Trendell interviews Murray Matravers of the band FKA Easy Life, Sam Duckworth of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, Cherise and LVRA at the 2023 FAC AGM. Credit: Jeremy Strong

“Easy Life had already cancelled shows in Europe and the US for financial reasons, but, despite headlining Alexandra Palace in 2023, Murray revealed the band were also having to reconsider the approach to UK touring. ‘We’re having to think about a whole new way of touring [because it] just isn’t financially sustainable at all,’ he concluded.

“Artists are the biggest employers in live music, live is at the core of most artist’s businesses. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods rest on their shoulders. If artists cannot tour sustainably then our entire sector is placed in jeopardy.

“For me, there should be a root-and-branch approach to addressing this challenge, and a complete reevaluation of certain industry practices.

“Most obviously the unjustifiable way in which ‘unallocated’ recorded and songwriting revenues are redistributed – such as the unclaimed pots of money residing in the black boxes of collecting societies, which are eventually divided up according to ‘market share’.

“The bulk of this revenue, inevitably, goes to the biggest rights holders. But surely a greater sum could be redirected towards the grassroots, to an upcoming generation of talent who are struggling to tour?

Spotify logo displayed on a smartphone
Spotify logo displayed on a smartphone CREDIT Illustration by Mateusz SlodkowskiSOPA ImagesLightRocket via Getty Images

“A similar case could be made about Spotify and Universal’s recently announced changes to streaming payment models. In the case of Spotify, it means that no royalties will now be paid to artists accumulating less than 1,000 streams per year. Instead, this revenue – which reportedly amounted to more than $40million in 2022 – will be redistributed by (again) ‘market share’.

“This feels both self-perpetuating and unjustifiable. $40million is pretty much what the three major labels accrue from streaming – from the plays of their own artists’ music – in a single day.

“It is the most powerful music companies that determine such inequitable policies, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

“As we’ve seen with the success of the FAC’s 100% Venues campaign, where hundreds of venues and organisations have taken a stand against onerous merchandise commissions, it is possible to deliver change. Even a company like Academy Music Group, majority-owned by Live Nation, has made significant reductions to their in-house commission rates.

“We need more action like this from the biggest players. To complement this, I also see an overwhelming case for dedicated Government support.

“Last November, DCMS announced a new £5million fund for grassroots music spaces; with eligibility later expanded to include studios and promoters. This was hugely welcome, of course. Thanks to the work of the Music Venues Trust, everyone is aware of the ongoing challenges at the grassroots of live music. It is essential these spaces exist.

“However, there is also an incontrovertible case for the direct funding of developing artists, so they can get out and perform on those venues’ stages. Effectively, a UK Live Touring Fund. After all, what good is it keeping venues open if artists can’t afford to perform in them?

“Ultimately, we are talking about an investment; an investment in the artist’s career, an investment in the music industry’s future and an investment in the UK public purse.

“Imminently, we’re expecting the Culture Media & Sport Select Committee to announce finer details of their much-anticipated inquiry into the grassroots live music sector. This is a hugely important discussion, and I also believe there is a unique opportunity to ensure that music spaces – and especially grassroots music spaces – are open to all.”

Katherine Parlour of Picture Parlour performs at EartH Hackney (Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns)
Katherine Parlour of Picture Parlour performs at EartH Hackney Photo by Lorne ThomsonRedferns

“We need to ensure that all our community’s music makers have equal access to what are effectively the playing fields of music, regardless of genre or background.  The same goes for audiences. In policy circles, we regularly hear about the importance of ‘the talent pipeline’ (i.e. investment in upcoming artists, songwriters, musicians and producers) but what about the “audience pipeline”?

“Most young people have relatively easy access to online culture and sports, but live music is often both prohibitively expensive or – due to licensing conditions – prohibitive full stop. While football clubs do everything in their power to get kids through the turnstiles, there are significant barriers to under 18s getting past the door at live venues. Are we really doing enough to build audiences of the future and are we nurturing the diversity of genres we see in recorded music in the live sphere?

“Understandably, since the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a long overdue and very necessary conversation about artist-friendly reforms of streaming. However, that conversation cannot take place in isolation. Most artists build their business around live music and recordings – the two are indelibly linked and, ideally, form something of a virtuous circle. They should feed and nourish each other.

“By the same token, it means we’ve only been having half of the conversation we need to. Yes, reforms of streaming are important. Yes, we need to see an end to outdated recorded contracts and the application of minimum digital royalty rates, but we also need to review and reevaluate the economics of touring. For the sake of artists, we need to talk about live music.”

At the FAC AGM at the end of 2023, artists told an NME-chaired panel about their ongoing battles with the prohibitive costs of touring, making money from streaming, as well as how how issues around payment, fairness, race, education and venues closing needed fixing for the year ahead.

The demand for a levy on tickets to arena and stadium tickets is growing, with Scotland now “seriously considering” the move for £1 from every ticket sold to be invested back into grassroots music venues. Some critics have argued that it is unfair to the consumer to make already costly tickets more expensive, but Enter Shikari have proven that it can be done with their own scheme coming at no extra cost to fans on their 2024 arena tour.

Back in October, Ticketmaster announced a new plan to allow its customers to contribute directly to the MVT.  Independent ticketing company Skiddle also began donating 50p from every ticket sold towards saving grassroots music venues, The Piece Hall in Halifax launched an MVT donation scheme while Taxi app FREENOW pledged to give £1 from every journey in an effort to save grassroots music venues.

With an increasing number of UK independent festivals being either cancelled or postponed, the AIF has argued that the scene is at a “critical point” if they don’t receive a VAT reduction from the government.

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