Can community ownership save our struggling grassroots music venues?

‘The heart of it all is the community aspect. Giving people a chance to be part of something and witness exciting things together’

In schools, “the arts are the first to go when the budget axe falls,” wrote stage and screen actress and director Julie Andrews in 2017. The same is true today on a national – and international – scale.

Museums, art galleries and theatres are all under threat in the UK as the economy continues to decline, and the cost of living crisis affects the amount the public spends – and where they spend it. At the sharp end are the country’s grassroots music venues (GMVs).

The UK has 19 indoor music arenas with a 7,000+ capacity (alongside several stadiums capable of hosting megastars) with another eight – including Manchester’s Co-op Live, sponsored by the Co-op Group – in the pipeline.

With two grassroots music venues closing down per week, where are the future stars capable of filling these spaces going to cut their teeth?

According to the Music Venues Trust (MVT), the charity which acts to protect, secure and improve these spaces, the UK has lost more than 35% of all small concert spaces over the last 20 years. Today there are just 835. 

In 2021, to help tackle this decline, MVT announced plans to raise finance to buy the freeholds of nine grassroots venues and rent them to operators at a reduced rate whilst making contributions towards repairs and insurance. In May 2022, Music Venue Properties (MVP) – a charitable community benefit society set up by MVT – launched a community share offer.

Matt Otridge

“Through that, I learnt a lot about different types of ownership. The Croft was leased in an area – Stokes Croft – which is closely linked to the community shares story,” he says. “The area also went through a lot of gentrification; we were just a music venue putting on the bands we wanted to put on, while flats started to be built around us and rents started going up.”

A decade later, he witnessed the same kind of gentrification happening around the Exchange: “But at least this time, the building was purchased, which gave us some assurance.”

Related: Newcastle’s Jazz Co-op celebrates Globe venue’s tenth anniversary

In 2018, the Exchange ran a community shares campaign to safeguard the long-term future of the venue. £300k was raised from over 400 investors, and the Exchange became Bristol’s first community-owned live music venue.

Fast forward to 2020: During Covid-19, MVT needed to expand its team quickly to deal with the effects of the pandemic. Otridge was brought on as one of 11 regional co-ordinators, representing the South West, to support venue operators in the area “and help them survive that really difficult period”. 

The pandemic brought into sharp relief the competing priorities of commercial landlords and the community operators, who wanted to spend money on things like soundproofing and solar panels. “But these things cost a great deal of money,” says Otridge. 

“The average amount of time a venue has left on their lease is about 18 months. So how can operators plan for the future? Why would you spend 10s of 1,000s of pounds on insulating your building, when essentially you would be making the building better for a landlord who, at the end of the day, could turn around and sell it on?

“This was identified as an issue early on, but [during the pandemic] there was so much other firefighting to do – as well as a need to build up industry confidence. Later I said, well, why don’t we take the community shares model and apply it on a grander scale now that we’ve got this platform that we’ve built in the pandemic?

As a charity, MVT couldn’t run a community shares campaign, and so Music Venue Properties was born, with its own board and own priorities – and launched a share offer, which allowed music fans and ethical investors to purchase community shares.

In March 2023, the share offer closed with almost £2.35m raised via a mix of community shares (over £1m invested through almost 1,250 individuals), grants (£500k from Arts Council England), loans (£650k from Arts & Culture Impact Fund and Preston City Council) and donations (including donations from the likes of Sony, Warner, and Amazon Music). Members receive interest (“we’re looking to pay up to 4% each year”), voting rights and the ability to put themselves forward to become a director.

Over the next few months, Otridge and colleagues visited venues, creating the necessary frameworks for purchases, seeking and securing more grant funding, and creating the cultural lease that will be used with its future operators. 

“The cultural lease is, essentially, one where we’ve taken out a lot of the clauses that would generally benefit the landlords,” he says. “It’s also based on a 15-year lease, with a 10 year add-on at the discretion of the operator. This longevity is important when it comes to this kind of grant funding, because a lot of grant funders won’t give out money that will be put into a building that may then be sold on for private gain. It also commits the tenants to putting on a certain amount of live music events a year; commits them to MVP’s best practice – around things such as environmental impact, diversity, accessibility – and commits them to remaining a member of the Music Venues Alliance.”

In October 2023, MVP purchased the Snug in Atherton, which was at risk of closure when the building’s owner began looking to retire.  It was the first purchase to come off, partially because it ended up being a relatively straightforward transaction.

Otridge recognises the resilience of the co-op model, and through the process, MVP is encouraging operators to look at co-operative and not-for-profit models. 

He himself grew up on the fast American punk of the late 90s, and is clearly passionate about keeping these spaces safe for future generations of gig-goers. Why should preserving and conserving these spaces matter to others?

“I think they’re important focal points for communities, and give a space where people can belong,” he says. “These are places kids can go, where relationships can be formed, where like-minded people feel less isolated in that space. That was definitely me when I was young, I sometimes felt like nobody was interested in the things I was interested in and suddenly you find a venue that opens up this new world and you’re just like, oh, wow.

“I mean, you can draw a scenario about how much money they’ve created on the back of being the spaces that today’s megastars grew from and the amount they pay in taxes for the economy. But actually? The heart of it all is the community aspect. Giving people a chance to be part of something and witness exciting things together.”