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‘Things are on the up and up’: UK Music CEO Michael Dugher talks progress in the battle to save grassroots music venues

Since taking over as CEO of UK Music in 2017, Michael Dugher has been tirelessly campaigning for better protection of the country’s grassroot music venues and banging the drum for the huge contribution live music makes to the UK economy

It’s been a little over two years since former Labour MP Michael Dugher took the helm of music industry trade association UK Music, and approximately 12 months since PSNEurope sat down with him to mull over the state of the nation’s live music sector. From the moment he was appointed CEO, taking over from the outgoing Jo Dipple (now SVP public affairs at Live Nation Entertainment), his mission statement was clear: to protect and nurture grassroots music venues up and down the country, and to ensure that the UK’s thriving live music sector continues to flourish. Key to succeeding on this front is his ability to communicate the message that, while the UK’s live music business is booming, its grassroots venues have been taking a walloping for the past decade. And if serious measures aren’t taken to protect them, the ripple effect could destroy the excellent work being done across the sector as a whole.

To contextualise the stark contrast between the grassroots scene and the rest of the live music market, let’s take a look at some enlightening figures. A 2017 UK Music report found that live music contributes around £1 billion in GVA to the UK economy, generates exports of £80 million and employs 28,659 people. On top of that, live music GVA has grown by 50 per cent since 2012, while three of the top four most popular music arenas in the world are in the UK. However, it also revealed that 35 per cent of the UK’s grassroots venues have closed during the past decade, in most cases due to severe hikes in business rates (the 2017 revaluation has amounted to a 31 per cent increase in payable business rates at grassroots music venues with rateable values growing by 25 per cent).

Another key factor in the plight of so many grassroots venues is – or, rather, was – nonsensical planning regulations which dictated that should a developer decide to build new residential properties in close proximity to a live music venue, the onus would be on the pre-existing venue to foot the (often devastatingly expensive) bill for any sound-proofing or volume control measures deemed necessary. This issue has thankfully been remedied by the introduction of the Agent Of Change bill that passed through government last year, which was spearheaded by UK Music, among other prominent voices from across the music industry. “Things are on the up and up,” Dugher tells PSNEurope as we settle in for our conversation at UK Music’s London HQ. “[Live music] is an incredibly fast growing part of the music industry; there’s been a 50 per cent increase in its contribution to the economy since 2012 and that fits with what we’re seeing anecdotally. Not only are the big festivals going from strength to strength but also the new ones that seem to be popping up every five minutes in towns and cities.

“The thing that concerns me, and has done for the past 12 months, is the pressures and challenges still being faced by grassroots venues; they are the engine room for the entire music industry, so that’s something we’ve continued to campaign very hard on. Last year, we won important victories in terms of changing the planning laws; we went to see the Chancellor recently with a proposal to enable small, grassroots music venues to get rebates on business rates, because the business rate hikes – some in three digit percentages – are really crippling grassroots venues. The government’s official guidance says that grassroots music venues are not similar in nature to pubs and clubs, which is complete nonsense, and if they just made that tiny adjustment to the guidance it would offer some of the most hard-pressed venues a lifeline.”

In addition to Dugher’s vocal, often outspoken stance on grassroots venues, he is keen to highlight the importance of UK Music’s research and data in putting a compelling case to those in power, that more needs to be done to preserve the longevity of the UK’s successful live music sector.

He explains: “Many people in parliament go to lots of gigs and support grassroots venues, but equally, there are many who may not have been to a small venue for a while, so we need to constantly be making the case to policy makers about the real plight facing such venues and to give them a balanced picture – to show we are doing well but also to tell them what they need to do if they want to protect the industry, nurture it and see it grow in the future.

“Approximately 35 per cent of grassroots venues have closed over the past decade. In the old days you would get occasional closures but you’d see new ones opening up, so there was a churn. If you look at the early tours for bands like Oasis, or more recently for musicians like Ed Sheeran, and then reveal just how many of those venues have since closed, that is key. Every musician needs somewhere to start, to learn their craft and build their audience. All of them will talk with great passion about certain venues where they made their starts. Every act headlining the biggest festivals in the world this summer will have that story and be able to reference a time when they were playing to a small number of people. We have to protect that if we want to have such headliners in the future.”

As for the impact being made by the introduction of Agent Of Change last year, Dugher believes it could take some time before it fully reveals itself, although he is quietly confident that it is already making a difference.

“I sincerely believe it will make a difference in the long-term,” he says. “However, we have had issues since Agent Of Change was introduced with venues facing the threat of closure, and some have closed. Our first position, along with the Music Venues Trust, is always to say, ‘If this is a planning issue, there has been a change in the law, and you’ve got to make sure that local authorities are reminded of that; that those protections we campaigned so hard for are actually being enacted at a local level’. The fact I’m not hearing about lots of closures to do with planning is a good indication, though. Frankly, it’s also not just about the small venues. I was chatting to a really big promoter recently who said it’s also been a big problem for huge venues.”

A key development in the complexion of London’s live music scene since Dugher’s arrival at UK Music was the appointment of the capital’s first ever Night Czar in the form of performer, writer, promoter and venue manager Amy Lamé. Selected by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Lamé’s role over the past two and a half years has been to help boost the city’s night time economy, protect its venues and generally improve the state of London’s nightlife. According to Dugher, her appointment is not only paying dividends, but also paving the way for similar work to be done across the country.

“I think she’s done a brilliant job,” he states. “We’ve seen huge differences, like the Tube running through the night [on the weekend]. What we’ve tried to do over the past two years is roll out that agenda to other parts of the country.

“We’ve gone from a couple of years ago having only the London Mayor to having city region mayors in a number of areas across the country, and we’ve been working closely with them to set up music boards to do precisely what we’ve done in London. And that is to get everyone around a table to support the night time economy, support the music industry and support venues. We’ve set up a music board in Sheffield city region, in Liverpool city region and we did a report for Greater Manchester, where one of the recommendations is setting up a music board. So that’s something we’d like to see in even more parts of the country.

“In the last year, we’ve helped Bristol set up what it calls a night time economy advisory panel,” he continues. “We launched that with them and it’s very much about music being part of the night time economy there, where they have had many venue closures. We’re taking the success we’ve had in London and looking at what lessons can be learnt for the rest of the country, and that’s been a huge amount of work for UK Music over the past 12 months, but it will really bear fruit in the long-term.”

As the clock winds down on our interview, conversation lurches inevitably to Brexit and the potentially catastrophic shockwaves a ‘no deal’ exit could send through the industry.

“Our relationship with the European Union is mission critical – to have the ability to get European musicians to come and play in our venues and festivals and also for UK acts to go and tour parts of the EU without the cost bureaucracy that would make touring unviable for so many artists,” he warns. “Our biggest concern is a ‘no deal’ Brexit. In truth, there is no such thing as a ‘no deal’, because if we do crash out then we have to put a visa regime in place to deal with touring musicians. That will involve the UK coming to an arrangement with the EU and other member states, but throwing ourselves off a cliff, which is what a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be. It would be disastrous for the UK.

“There has been a practical problem as well in that it has hoovered up everybody’s energy and focus,” he adds. “We’ve been frustrated in recent months, especially in the run up to the end of March, where the vast majority of DCMS officials were all working on nothing other than Brexit. That means that all of our other really important work, whether that’s on rehearsal spaces or music in education, is just a lower priority and it grinds the system to a halt.

“Our national story at the moment is really dismal. I think the rest of the world looks at the UK and thinks we’ve had a collective nervous breakdown. We’ve got to find, as a country, the glue that holds us together, the things that make the country strong. And I think our arts and culture are part of that story. In terms of our soft power, the fact that Britain punches far above its weight as a genuine global leader in music ought to be a good part of our national story.”

As we prepare to part ways, Dugher is keen to leave us on a more positive note; a rallying call that outlines the real, practical impact UK Music can have on the live music business.

He concludes: “One of the announcements we welcomed recently was from the Arts Council England to bring in ring fenced funding to protect grassroots music venues. It was something we’ve been campaigning on for a long time. I think this change is further evidence of the positive difference UK Music can make, and I hope that the funding will make a real difference. But these things don’t happen by accident, so the industry has to support UK Music if it wants to deliver the kinds of changes the industry needs.”

You can also find out more about how UK Music has progressed for the last 12 months from last year’s interview with Dugher.