Crowding Out Live Music

In a recent study of New York, Fabian Holt describes how many small live music venues have come under threat as the market changes and audiences disappear. In London too newspapers report that one-third of the live music scene there has closed in the last ten years. If art has the potential to trigger new ideas, even social and intellectual revolutions, a lot more than money and jobs may be at stake1.

An important cause of this decline is the so-called process of gentrification. Local dwellers, entrepreneurs, and shop owners are forced out often because the area becomes attractive to people with a higher income. Textbook gentrification, according to writer Martha Rosler, occurs when there is resistance from at least part of the community2. But change is subtle and evictions rare. Rents usually rise slowly and there is no mass exodus of people or shops. The transformation of existing living spaces also takes time. Of course, the sure telltale signs will be growth in real estate prices, higher property taxes, and more sophisticated retail outlets. Overall economic growth may be the driver of gentrification, but not always. Bohemian or artistic neighborhoods can become a magnet for the rich just because of their ‘coolness’ factor.3

Gentrification is often accelerated by political and urban plans to sanitize a city area. Such regeneration implies the renovation of houses, roads and squares, and it increases prices and reinforces the outward migration of residents. Gentrification then, does not only affect people, but also the area, which is left with a different physical or atmospheric expression and without its usual users. This can have severe effects on neighborhoods, venues and urban spaces as the area become more economically homogenous. In London, this has prompted much backlash.

This article focuses on live music venues in London. It considers them a crucial part of the city’s urban identity, its economy, and way of life — as many other popular music studies have done (Cohen 2007, Krims 2012). It draws on recent literature, and uses Peter Marcuse’s approach to marginalized neighborhoods, part of modern urban theory. Marcuse’s analysis is threefold: (i) it depends on the observation of systemic and historic events that reveal exclusionary effects on the local community; (ii) it puts forward conflict-resolution alternatives; and (iii) it addresses the possible politicization of those affected to harness change for the better.4

A small or grassroots music venue approximates the following parameters: a place with an audience capacity less than 350 persons, offering nearly 150 live music events during the year, and serving nearly 200 bands and at least as many musicians. Typically, these venues make little profit, rely on a significant number of volunteers, and, because of their relatively high running costs, employ only a few paid workers, such as administrative and programming personnel and sound engineers.5

Since 2007, 35% of the small music venues in London have closed,6 especially in Soho and the Denmark Street Area.7 Two main reasons are generally given: (i) a market failure intrinsic to the music industry, and (ii) external factors that have little to do with the music industry.

Market failure in the music industry is related to the emergence of mega-shows and the ‘instant stardom culture’8 in shows such as X-Factor. Because small venues are where new talent is discovered, and because they provide a place for musicians to hone their trade and grow their own network of personal connections, the impact of such closings on the music ecosystem is huge. As has been argued, ‘without the supply of new talent, the rest [may] fall apart’9.

Powerful external forces are probably more important, and here is where the gentrification of urban spaces is clearly a problem.

First, many big cities, including London, are reinventing themselves top-down. Politicians decide to renew particular areas and so reduce crime, help the local economy, and raise income levels (there is also the more aesthetic goal of making the city look better and modern). As part of the political process, laws have allowed entrepreneurs to make old office buildings into luxurious apartments. This pushes overall property values up and increases the density of population.

Second, the establishment cost of these venues is going up. Venues need separate licenses both for entertainment10 and the consumption of alcohol and liquor.11 The evidence suggests these are onerous for venue owners and are becoming a constraint to artistic practice.12 Moreover, other business rates usually rise with higher rents, and the possibility of relief is little and far between.13 Important cultural protagonists in the London scene are now turning to sponsorship deals and investors to survive, if they can get them. The reputable 100 Club in London would likely have closed without the support of Converse, the sneaker company.14

Third, the austerity of state funding for the arts, a phenomenon observed now throughout Europe, shows no sign of abating. There is less breathing space for everyone, and not least for students. In the U.K., the rise of tuition payments15 is curtailing attendance at live music venues.16

The typical cycle of gentrification is illustrated. The top box in the figure represents the creative workforce and its industry, including artists, venues, and small creative businesses. They make the area trendy and attractive. Then, wealthier citizens get drawn in. Initially, shops, cultural centers, and meeting places benefit from the attention and add to the area’s revenue. But this attracts competition and the commoditization of space. This first step is what Eric Clark calls the roots of gentrification. At this stage, it is hard to decide between the cons and pros of the process, and in any case competition is inevitable.17 New agents might start presenting live music and take on existing venues, providing better value.

Gentrification occurs thereafter. With competition, the overall market value of the area rises, and real estate developers seize the moment. They invest in existing property and in old office factory buildings, converting them into luxurious apartments. The real estate market, driven by high profit expectations, will take over and bring with it its own ‘upscale’ vision to bear on the locals (Clark has compared this vision to the imperialism of colonizers).

Finally, property taxes and business rates go up. As new neighbors move in, taxes go up even more, exacerbating socio spatial inequalities. Class barriers become evident. Money confers power, and gentrification takes power away from erstwhile players. In particular, music venues are often forced to close due to a lack means, as well as political power. They become displaced, and move away from the central location they once enjoyed.

Even if those music venues stay the course, new neighbors create problems. They will complain about noise and waste pollution. Such complaints will often have to be catered to — and at great expense: soundproofing costs, for instance, can weigh heavily on the bottom line. Moreover, the balance of power between the new and old constituents shifts increasingly in favor of the former. This can result in stricter laws of licensing for the venues. A good example is Rygeloven or the law of smoke free environments enacted in Denmark in 2007.18 Since then, people attending a concert at a venue have had to go outside to smoke. When located in a dense city, most venues cannot offer a courtyard for this. Therefore, guests will often be compelled to stand on the street. This fuels the cycle of noise pollution and more neighborhood complaints.

Particularly in Europe, the state both regulates live music and promotes it with subsidies and public money. But a nation state will typically run a balancing act, for it has to promote free trade and support business development in a city.19 So even if music might have a recognized cultural import, and even define a country by its sound, there are many interest groups that regulators have to keep in mind. The question arises as to whether public officials can do more to recognize live music in the current economic landscape.

In London, The Music Venue Taskforce made four key recommendations to save the city’s live music venues and avoid the sorts of issues that gentrification creates. The MVT suggested: (i) adoption of the Agent of Change Principle; (ii) easing regulations on noise pollution and other licenses; (iii) granting relief in business dues; and (iv) more scrutiny over the development-rights of turning old warehouses into apartments.20 Whereas the last three are self evident, the Agent of Change Principle needs some explanation. When new businesses go into a new area of town, as shown in the second and third step of the diagram, they should work and adapt to the needs of existing businesses. For example, if company wishes to renovate an office building close to a venue for conversion into luxurious apartments, and those apartments might be disturbed by the noise produced at the venue, the company has to help the venue pay for soundproofing. In effect, the principle recognizes the rights of old timers. Newcomers buy in on what is already there, respecting the infrastructure. The Agent of Change Principle bodes well for live music venues in London and has a positive history outside the U.K., notably in Australian and Canadian cities.21

As mentioned, music venues in Europe are often the result of city or state subsidies. Denmark’s Regionale Spillesteder, governed by a set of New Public Management Agreements (PM), is a case in point.22 But in the UK, the municipal mindset is not the same regarding funding for music venues and therefore there is more need for a plan to take on gentrification. If the venues are required to make deals with commercial companies, such as the 100 Club did with Converse, artistic freedom may be compromised. Or so the argument goes. In Denmark, the state run NPM initiative has met a lot of critique by scholars and practitioners in the Arts Management field.23 Cultural institutions there constantly have to account for the ways in which they contribute to society in terms of music’s economic and social value.

*       *       *

There is no magic wand, of course, that will take care of the plight of small music venues today, especially measured against the forces inherent in the marketplace–and the rise of modern mega cities in other parts of the planet, notably Asia. The irony is that, more often than not, these venues tend to justify their value mostly in economic terms to incur political favor. Yet urbanization is growing across the world by leaps and bounds, and if these bastions of local musical culture expect to get protection from public authorities using the same arguments that their opponents do, i.e. real estate developers, they will surely lose.

Small music venues in big cities are on the cusp of the fight over the future value of music. As long as music continues to be sold more for its entertainment than its cultural value, the prevailing discourse will be mainly economic, with competing claims neatly measured and compared in purely money terms. If so, the gentrification of areas that have been determinant to our modern culture, such as Carnaby St. in London, will continue.

The real challenge for society will be to trade this knee-jerk need for development for a more intelligent planning method that embraces some of the cultural intangibles that have come to define and distinguish many of our cities and region. This involves supporting the creative community of musicians and their intermediaries, and integrating them into a plan of urban renewal that leaves the city better off than before. London is trying, and perhaps New York will too. They are not alone. Live music venues in cities are as necessary for our music ecosystem today as, arguably, the Church and the odd café were in Bach’s time.


By Trine Heide and Jeppe Zielinski Nguyen Ajslev


1.Harvey, David. 2012. ‘Reclaiming the City for Anti-capitalist Struggle’ in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Verso.

2.Rosler, Martha. 2010. Culture Class: Art, Creativity and Urbanism Part I. (accessed May 9th 2016)

3.Krätke, Stefan. 2012. ‘The new urban growth ideology of “creative cities” in Cities for People, Not for Profit. Ed. Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer. Oxon: Routledge.

4.Brenner, Neil, Peter Marcuse & Margit Mayer. 2012. Cities for People, Not for Profit. Oxon: Routledge.

5.Davyd, Mark et al. 2015. London’s Grassroots Music Venues – Rescue Plan. London: Greater London Authority.




9. Ibid.

10. accessed May 25th 2016

11. accessed May 25th 2016

12.Davyd, M.; loc.cit.


14. accessed May 30th 2016

15. accessed May 25th 2016

16.Parkinson, T., M. Hunter, M. Dines & K. Campanello. 2015. Understanding Small Venues: An interim findings report for the Music Venue Trust and Arts Council England. Institute of Contemporary Music Performance/Music Venue Trust.

17.Clark, Eric. 2005. ‘The Order and Simplicity of Gentrification – a Political Challenge’ in Gentrification in a Global Context – the new urban colonialism. Ed. Rowland Atkinson & Gary Bridge. London and New York: Routledge.

18. accessed May 30th 2016

19.Frith, Simon, Matt Brennan, Martin Cloonan & Emma Webster. 2013. ‘Getting Back to Business’ and ‘Live Music and the State’ in The History of Live Music in Britain, Volume I: 1950-1967. Surrey: Ashgate.

20.Davyd, M.; loc. cit.

21. accessed May 3rd 2016

22. accessed May 29th 2016

23.E.g. Nanna Kann-Rasmussen 2016, For Samfundets Skyld



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