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‘We won’t shy away from a fight’: UK Music CEO Michael Dugher on the challenges facing the live music industry

The former Labour MP his first year leading the trade body and what must be done to ensure the survival of the UK’s live sector.

Since his appointment as chief executive of music industry trade body UK Music just over a year ago, Michael Dugher has been banging the drum for the importance of the live music industry to the nation’s economy. Daniel Gumble met up with the former Labour MP to discuss the biggest challenges facing the sector and the work that is being done to preserve it…

A little over 12 months ago, Michael Dugher, former Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Labour MP for the seat of Barnsley East, called time on a career in Westminster spanning two decades to take on the role of chief executive at music industry trade association UK Music. Replacing the outgoing Jo Dipple, he could scarcely have arrived at a more pivotal time, with the shadow of Brexit looming large on the horizon and posing all manner of questions over the future of the touring market.

If the nation’s impending departure from the EU wasn’t enough to be dealing with, the rapidly rising number of grassroots venue closures across the country was in urgent need of stemming. Last year, the Music Venue Trust estimated that a staggering 35% of UK music venues had closed over the past 10 years, many of which had been forced out of business due to, frankly, ludicrous planning regulations which allow new property developers to set up shop within earshot of pre-existing venues and then inflict the costly burden of noise restriction measures upon them.

In a bid to curb the vast volume of venue closures, Dugher and UK Music spearheaded the much publicised Agent Of Change campaign, which, with the backing of several major recording artists, politicians and music industry executives, received public support from the government in January of this year.

To ensure the extensive publicity surrounding Agent Of Change doesn’t run out of steam and that real change is implemented, Dugher has been working with London mayor Sadiq Khan and the capital’s first ever night czar, Amy Lamé, who was appointed to help preserve and nurture the capital’s night time economy.

Here, PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble pays Dugher a visit at UK Music’s London HQ to find out how he’s finding the job one year in and what the future holds for live music in the UK…

What are the key challenges facing live music in 2018?

The issue that has dominated everything has obviously been Brexit. We’ve worked really hard not just in terms of the IP agenda and the protections we currently enjoy from the EU, but also [to protect] the the ability of UK acts to tour EU states without the beaurocracy and costs that could happen with new visa arrangements. We work closely with the migration advisory committee at the Home Office, with ministers, MPs and others to really push that. That is connected to the second issue, which is that we have to constantly be making the case about the importance of the live sector. It’s worth over £1 billion to our economy, according to our last Wish You Were Here Report. It brings enjoyment to millions and it’s economic contribution is something we’ve got to be banging the drum about to people who make decisions, whether they are in Whitehall and Westminster or whether they are these new city region mayors or local authorities. We must get across the importance of the live sector and the need to protect it, nurture it and strengthen it for the future.

How difficult is it to get that message across? 

There is a growing awareness of the contribution the sector makes. Things like the select committee inquiry into the live music sector is an opportunity to really fly the flag. I’ve found that people are receptive to that and they love live music, so there is a lot of affection, but the point is turning that affection into action. The recent campaign on grassroots venues and planning laws are good examples. We really had to turn up the volume on that campaign, and we got a result. So in terms of solid achievements, at the start of this year we got the announcement from the government [that developers building new homes near music venues should be responsible for addressing noise issues] in England and in Scotland. In effect, we changed the law twice in a couple of months. I was a member of the legislature for seven years and I’m fairly sure I didn’t change the law twice in a couple of months while I was there. It shows the role UK Music can play in bringing people together and in raising the profile, whether it’s in the media or in parliament. We need people of influence to deliver results for us, and I hope on the live side that we’ve seen some evidence of that in the time that I’ve been here.

Just how difficult is it to get the government to take notice of your concerns regarding Brexit?

Most people in the industry would rather [Brexit] wasn’t happening, but it is. What Brexit looks like, God only knows. I think the government is no clearer to knowing and there is no consensus among themselves over pretty fundamental issues like the customs union or freedom of movement. It’s important to make sure the music industry isn’t in denial about this. It’s happening, it creates a big challenge and we’ve got to meet that challenge and engage with people on it. The approach we’ve taken with the government is to understand that Brexit is all–consuming for them and we are in a queue with a whole bunch of interest groups wanting to protect our bit of the world. We’ve tried to make sure our voice is as loud as anyone else’s, if not louder, and that our concerns are front and centre in the minds of the people who will be negotiating these things on our behalf.

What are you doing not just to help grassroots venues survive, but also to help them prosper?

Agent Of Change became an iconic issue for the whole music industry, but there is so much more out there in terms of having an impact on grassroots venues than just the planning laws. We’ve made reccomendations before the budget was announced and before the spring statement about business rates, so we’re trying to get a handle on this nonsense where a football stadium in one borough can get a discount on its business rates and a grassroots venue down the road can get three-figure percentage increases. We’ve called for the government to bring forward its review of business rates, and that’s an issue we need to step up on. Making the case for the grassroots venues is vital. The global stars dominate the headlines when they play packed out stadia in front of vast crowds, but they all started somewhere and you cannot overstate the importance of grassroots music venues in the ecosystem that supports that industry. So whenever we do our big top line figures ‘£4.5 billion contribution to the economy; £1 billion from the live music sector’ that is because you’ve got this community of grassroots venues all over the country. And making sure they are opening their doors to a wider community with organisations like Attitude Is Everything to further improve the sector is really important.

How hopeful are you for the future of live music in the UK in light of the large number of venue closures?

It’s an on-going battle. The victories on Agent Of Change show the impact we can have, but this is a war without end. We’ve spent a lot of time working really hard on a regional strategy. If you look at a lot of the progress we’ve made in London, that’s come out of having a music board and having the night czar under the auspices of the London mayor. We’ve got several more city region mayors now, so we’ve had intense conversations with those and announced jointly with the Mayor of the Liverpool city region that they would have a music board in Merseyside. And we’re working really closely in Greater Manchester with Andy Burnham about how we can protect the music scene there. We’re hoping to work with him to come up with proposals of which a music board and night czar may well feature. In Sheffield they have very recently had a city region mayor (Dan Jarvis) and there is no reason why we can’t bring people together to protect grassroots venues in South Yorkshire. We were in Bristol recently where there has been lots of threats of closures and we’ve been working with the city region mayor and local MPs. We’ll go to any corner of the country and make that case.

What have you made of the London mayor’s approach towards live music and the appointment of Amy Lamé as night czar?

They’ve been ahead of the game. We hosted a big event with [Sadiq Khan] at SXSW so it’s something he is personally committed to. He understands the importance of live music to the London economy and he wants to provide greater opportunities in London for people in music, as well as protecting everything he’s got in the form of the most successful venue in the world – The O2 and its fantastic grassroots venues. The London regional music board has given us something that UK Music can take on the road to show the other city regions what we can achieve.

Overall, how have you found the job so far?

I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. We’ve got a really good team who are incredibly able and enthusiastic. I work with quite a diverse board, lots of organisations. Occasionally they aren’t all on the same page about every issue, but the list of issues that unites everyone is a very long list. I remember going to my first board meeting and someone said, How are you going to manage it there? Sometimes you’ve got different individuals and egos diametrically opposed to one another. I said, I was in the shadow cabinet for five years – the politics of the music industry compared with the politics of politics is pretty straightforward! I wanted UK Music to be a bit more aggressive, to be feared as well as loved by policy makers. I want them to understand we won’t shy away from fighting hard for our industry. I enjoy that fight. And I feel that one year in we are only just starting.