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Keep Music Live And Loud

by Jimmy Mulvihill

8th April 2015

The whole music industry revolves around a simple premise of bands making great music, and people who love music listening to it on record or in a live setting. Whilst listening to music on record can be done on headphones or on a small stereo, for music to be created and recorded, and for live concerts to be held, the volume of the music needs to increase and that is easier said than done. In fact, it is the repercussions of this need for noise that is killing the music industry. It is a sad irony that the very essence of what makes music so great – the freedom to express oneself freely and being able to appreciate that music in a room filled with like-minded people who share that love – could be its own undoing.

Music venues and rehearsal studios, in London particularly, are closing at a staggering rate. They are not being moved to the outskirts of town nor being reduced in size, but being shut down at a time when it is becoming increasingly harder to open them due to government legislation making the law so vague that anyone with either the inclination or the money to invest in live music is unable to do so without taking huge risks.

The problem arises when the music that causes so much unbridled joy for the people within the venue/studio becomes a source of annoyance for the people who live nearby. In order to reduce this impact, heavyweight and relatively expensive soundproofing needs to be installed to contain it, a process which can also take a lot of time skill to perfect. Herein lies the crux of what is holding the music industry back so much. All big bands start small, yet small music venues and the kind of rehearsal studios that these bands use in their formative days are run on a shoestring budget, whilst requiring lots of investment up front. In any other industry the solution would be to bite the bullet and invest the money accordingly, recovering 5% of that investment each year for the next 20 years, along with your profit margin on top. However, the ambiguity that the music industry has to operate under means that this is impossible since businesses neither know how long they have to earn that investment back, nor what standards they are trying to reach with that investment. Therefore, they don’t know what they are investing, or what they are getting out of it.

The government’s refusal to issue clear guidelines for noise disturbances means no-one really knows what standard they are aiming for, and all this uncertainty fosters a short term mentality that is corrosive for the whole industry. Businesses are given short term leases by landlords that know how much investment of time, money and energy is needed to soundproof a music venue, who also know that once that investment is made it becomes very difficult for the tenant to walk away from that investment, leaving them unable to negotiate any future rent rises on a fair basis. What can a tenant do? – if they refuse to pay the rent rise their only option is to walk away from the property, giving up all of the benefits of the investment that they have paid for while leaving the landlord with a nicely soundproofed venue to pass onto the next tenant who will be happy to pay a premium for it.

All things considered, many of them will take their chances with the rent rise, further hampering their ability to make a profit. This leads to many venues/studios trying to claw back their money as quickly as possible through dubious (and sometimes dishonest) schemes, or cutting corners on the soundproofing to reduce their risk of losing the investment, which leaves us with many of the problems that the music industry has today, of prioritising today’s profits over building a strong and stable music scene. In a way, though, they have a point. Why spend 12 months building up the infrastructure of a music scene if you could be shut down tomorrow? Businesses feel the need to make what they can, while they can, as today is the only certainty that they have. Risks are taken, and the industry suffers as a result.

Needless to say, this does not apply to all organisations that work in the music industry. There are both good venues and good studios out there that hope to earn their money back a bit at a time, putting the good reputation of the business before its short term profits, but what happens if they get closed down or have a huge rent rise before they have had a chance to recover their initial investment? Ultimately, they will be punished for it. You only need to look at venues such as The Flowerpot in Kentish Town, The Luminaire in Kilburn and The Buffalo Bar in London to see a stark correlation between businesses that were fair and committed to their customers, who also made a financial loss as they were not able to stockpile profits before their untimely demise – specifically because they were fair to their customers – to see how the music industry can be a cruel industry for those who play fair. If they had been more mercenary they would have more profits but a poorer reputation. As it stands, their reputation means little now – either way they are no longer trading.

Thus, under the current system, the good-guys are at risk from being closed before they have made their fairly earned profits, and the not-so-good-guys are further inclined to ramp up their behaviour on the basis that there is no concern about getting a bad reputation if the venue is going to be closed in a few months anyway. Whilst it is impossible to view any organisations that act with such careless regard to the customers and the bands who they work with in any positive way, the sad fact is that many do so as they view it as the only way to balance the scales back in their favour, to claw back the advantage where they are at a disadvantage, and to get what they can, while they can.

Al Berkowitz live” by Javier L. Navarrete – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

At present there are no quantitative guidelines over how much noise can be made, and this ambiguity scares off most landlords from allowing their tenants to make any noise at all, meaning that the few that are happy to take a chance on anything involving live music will be in a position where they can call the shots, while also being able to justify much higher than usual rents by way of compensation. The only people willing to take a chance are people that are not risk adverse, which further damages the industry . At a time when sensible planning and a measured approach is needed, the people in the best position to provide it are most likely to be put off by the lack of clear legislation.

A simple rule of business is to always understand what you invest in, and yet this is impossible in the UK due to the rules and regulations concerning noise regulations being so interpretative. If someone complains about your business you are closed down pending further investigation – effectively being punished while the council works out if there is a reason to punish you – and if no complaints are forthcoming then you are free to operate, but always under the threat that one day that complaint will be made. It is no way to run a business.

In any sensible system quantitative guidelines would be given by authorities as to how much noise can be emitted with clear and precise limits. A consequence of exceeding such limits would be made clear in advance, and assistance would be provided by the authorities to make sure that these standards are met. This would be done with the objective of the council working with and helping the businesses meet that target. At present, that is not happening. Instead we are left with a situation where, on one hand, the government can provide nearly a trillion pounds of funding to banks who were given clear guidelines as to what they could and couldn’t do, who willfully broke these regulations (illegally in many cases) and who were then bailed out and assisted by the government to extreme levels, whilst at the same time small music venues and rehearsal/recording studios, who through no fault of their own contravened unspecified local authority noise regulations which are vague at best, are closed down for exceeding limits that are undefined. As a result of stepping over a line that does not exist, they were closed with little grounds for appeal. The community loses a way to come together, people lose jobs, and bands lose a way to connect to their audience. Hardly seems fair.

The music industry does not need a legal structure that bends around it’s every whim, nor one that allows it to create untold misery for people who live near music venues, for these residents deserve to be protected as much as the studios themselves. Instead it needs a system that actually helps music venues understand what standards they need to reach, which will help the investors know what they are investing their money into, the organisations within the music industry to be sure that their investment will meet the standards asked so that they can trade with certainty without the threat of closure, and for local residents to be able to protected by regulations that exist for their benefit. A system that says “if you live “X” distance from a residential property, you can make “Y decibels” of noise between “Z” hours, and one that says “this property is unsuitable, but we have a list of other places that fit the bill perfectly”. A system that actually tries to fix a problem, instead of one that points those same problems out with no attempt to correct them. That way we all know what we have to work with, instead of the confusion we currently have where we have opinion vs opinion, and where the biggest studios with the best lawyers get the opportunities that smaller studios do not get.

Such a system would mean investors can invest securely, studios can spend that investment knowing they are protected, and residents will get bothered by noise pollution less: win-win-win. At present the ability to provide such clarity lies with the councils, and our political leaders. It’s time that we asked them to deliver it so that the UK music industry can attract the money it needs to not only survive, but to thrive and start reaching the potential it has to be rewarding both creativity, socially and economically.

The remit is simple:

– We want the government and the councils to tell us how much noise businesses in the music industry can and cannot make. – To give renters the protection that they need so that they can make the investment to meet these standards with a lease that gives them ample time to earn that investment back without the fear of unfair rent rises. – Assurances that in circumstances where standards are not met, the council will work with businesses to help them reach it instead of punishing them for their failure to do so. – Where investors can be sure that the money they invest is protected by actual measurable guidelines, not interpretative ones.

We’re not asking for the game to be weighted in our favour – we just want to know what rules to play by.


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