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‘Every day is a challenge for grassroots venues’

The Sugarmill’s head promoter Dannii Brownsill on why live venues must be protected

In January, Government backed the Agent Of Change bill, which says that property developers must consider – and foot the bill for – any necessary soundproofing measures required when setting up next to a venue. Danni Brownsill, head promoter at independent Stoke-on-Trent venue The Sugarmill, tells us why the bill is so essential to the survival of the live music industry…

The Sugarmill has played a key role in developing so many artists over the years. How essential is it that such venues are protected by Agent Of Change?

It’s really important. Our cities and towns are changing and developing all the time, and I don’t think you’ll find that anyone at a grassroots music venue will have any issue with their towns improving. However, we need to make sure that development doesn’t mean the death of small venues due to noise complaints. It’s absurd that a venue could have existed in the same location for 20-plus years, but could face the threat of closure, sometimes just from as little as one new resident making a complaint. That’s the reality some venues are currently facing. The government need to appreciate the cultural and social value of these venues, and the responsibility for adequate soundproofing needs to be with the new developments, not on the venue. If the venue was there first, it should have legal protection.

What have been the biggest challenges the venue has faced over the past few years?

The recession has been tricky for us to navigate, as it was for any small business. Tuition fees rising, and students not having as much disposable income has been a challenge too. However over the past 18 months, we’re starting to see business getting back to where it was before. Part of that is to do with us diversifying what we offer, but it’s also because people are sick of austerity and want to go out and have a good time again.

What are the biggest challenges ahead?
Every day is a challenge for a small independent venue. The UK music industry is one of the richest in the world, but the grassroots venues see very little of its profits. Once we’ve built the artist and they start selling shows out, the bands tend to move on and aren’t playing our rooms anymore and are working with the bigger national promoters. It’s a strange business. The best way I heard it described is that grassroots venues are the research and development stage, and one company pays for that, but then another swoops in and takes the work you’ve done and makes a profit on it. The other company needs you to do the work, but they won’t pay you for it. We provide an essential service to the wider industry, but ultimately it ends up being a labour of love.

How confident are you that Agent of Change will become enshrined in law?

I think common sense must prevail here. Agent of Change isn’t just to protect music venues; it will help things like farms, factories and all manner of existing business. Current planning law is archaic.

What difference would it make to your venue?

We’re lucky to have not had any real problems with new developments, but Stoke is on the rise and developers are looking at the city. We have had to raise issues with proposed new developments in the past, so this law would stop us having to look over our shoulder and allow us to get on with the business of being a venue.

What does the venue bring to the local area?

As a grassroots venue, supporting bands on their way up and serving our community, we really don’t mind a bit of hard work, especially if it means we’ll be here for another 23 years. Most recently, we’ve been instrumental in shaping the music aspect of Stoke-on-Trent’s bid for City of Culture 2021, and have used the bidding process as a way of bringing the whole music scene in the city – from other venues, promoters, bands and recording studios – together and strengthening and reinforcing the value of what we’ve got as a city.

And how big an impact would it have on the community if the venue wasn’t there?

A lot of people wouldn’t have access to live music, as they wouldn’t be able to afford to travel to other cities to see shows. The local bands would have nowhere to play, and Stoke would lose a massive cultural asset.