In our last entry Foundational Support of Musicians, we laid out some of the challenges facing independent musicians and how cities need to look at musician revenue through a workforce development lens. Today, let’s talk about venues. Just as musicians contribute to our music ecosystems, live music venues are an equally important part of the equation. This type of thinking needs to be incorporated into governmental operations. Cities of all sizes should be implementing strategies that incorporate best practice policies with venue success in mind.

The amount of press coverage on the challenges that face grassroots music venues demonstrates this need for venue preservation. Here is an example of the discussion as it was happening in 2015 from The Guardian—The Slow Death of Music Venues in Cities

Indeed, venues in almost every city face a number of challenges. Regulatory oversight by permit-issuing departments within municipalities create confusion, deteriorate government-business relationships and require venues to expend time and expense on minor and potentially irrelevant fixes. Pair these challenges with the disruptions that are caused when compliance or enforcement teams do surprise sweeps. The impacts of enforcement conducted in this manner can be disastrous for these fragile businesses.

Over the years, venue owners and operators have repeatedly shared with us their frustrations over trying to keep up with policies that constantly change and are often-time not meaningful. If venue communities band together into a collaborative body they start to provide a voice to help cities understand how their policy enforcement strategies may or may not be aligned with the larger interest in thriving (and at the same time, safe and compliant) venues.

Cities that provide both a Regulatory Framework Guide to venues AND consistent communication boast better relationships with their venues and celebrate longer-term successes. That’s why we are big supporters of this collaborative approach.

At the same time, we have repeatedly witnessed a dangerous assumption that venues enjoying a solid reputation and healthy crowds of music lovers are profitable and stable financially. Live music venue revenue streams are complex and unique especially when compared to other nighttime venues (such as “shot and beer bar” establishments). We can’t expect live music venues to share a significant portion of their revenues with our creative community, without also understanding how this impacts their survival within a city’s highly competitive nightlife scene. A good example of this misunderstanding can be found in many cities that impose additional entertainment or amusement taxes on their local live music venues. This creates a disincentive for grassroots establishments to present live music, and results in a clear misalignment of policy with the community interest to have a thriving creative scene.

OWNING AND OPERATING A MUSIC VENUE IS A LABOR OF LOVE

Almost all of the owners and operators we’ve dealt with over the last 30 years entered the business in order to provide a quality space for musicians to perform and hone their craft.

Beyond the regulatory obstacles we’ve mentioned above, there are additional challenges that venues face on a daily basis. To get a more in-depth overview of what some cities are doing to address the factors impacting their venues, we recommend the following article from Rebecca Greenwald and Yvonne Lo at NextCity: Making Space for Culture: How Cities Can Preserve Their Valued (and Valuable) Cultural Assets.

VENUES WILL NEED TO BAND TOGETHER FOR CHANGE

In an earlier post we identified discipline as a key ingredient in any development strategy. It starts with getting everyone on the same page, functioning and communicating as a unified body before proceeding on to advocacy (and then ultimately onto policy change). This order of operations is important to the success of making real change happen.

It is extremely difficult to enact policy change while managing many disparate voices of advocacy. If both of these functions are attempted simultaneously it is likely they will fall apart before coming to fruition. Finding success with both requires the drivers to have unity and discipline.

A great example of this theory being put into practice right now is the Music Venue Trust (originating in the UK, and now also in Austin, Texas). In observing their progress over the last several years, it has been evident that this group understands this proper sequence in how to turn advocacy into policy. We are most impressed with their laser focus on defining the key issues that provide the greatest impact for live music venues, paired with their discipline to not get delayed or distracted in this complex environment. The Music Venue Trust’s work is a great model for communities of venues to consider when launching collective initiatives. Getting venues to band together is the first step!

In our next post we plan to discuss other specific issues venues face, such as sound ordinance policies and enforcement.