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.