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Saved like the Bell

With ever accelerating costs and increased competition, pubs as live music venues face a bleak future. Yet one venue demonstrates that it is possible to not only remain viable and regularly present live music but also to turn a small profit.

It is hard to under estimate the difficulties that pubs face as live music venues. In 2018 the first live music venues survey reported the start of many of their recent difficulties.

"Of almost 200 small music venues (with a capacity of up to 350 people) surveyed, 33% reported that increases in business rates had an “extreme, strong or moderate” impact on their existence in the past 12 months. One medium-sized venue (351 – 650 capacity) reported their rateable value quadrupling from £17,500 to £72,000."

Next came Covid and by 2021 the Music Venue Trust reported that of the venues that had survived the pandemic there was still considerable uncertainty in the market as the graphic below illustrates.

Now a year later pubs face even further problems, through increased staffing costs, further commercial rate increases and a considerable increase in heating costs. Dan Maiden from Fiddlers Elbow in Camden summarised the problems in a recent NME article.

“One of our main problems isn’t just people not coming, but it’s also promoters pulling gigs at the last minute. They’re not waiting until the day when people buy tickets on the door. They panic that they’re not getting many pre-sale tickets, but people aren’t buying tickets because they’re not sure whether to put food on the table or go to the gigs that they used to. Maybe they used to go to four or five gigs a month and now they can only afford to go to one."

Equally in the same piece Reece Ritchie in-house promoter at Manchester’s Night & Day summarised why such small venues are important.

“Independent grassroots music venues are the first and often the only people willing to take a risk on something new and something different,” he said. “That’s worth watching whether the act reaches theatres or arenas or not.”

Yet despite such problems some small venues are not only surviving but continue to flourish. In the South West, the birth place of AWTY, in the City of Bath lies The Bell.

In 2013, long before the current crisis, the pub, a long standing music venue, faced closure and needed to raise just under a million pounds in order to survive. Supported by Robert Plant, Van Morrison and Peter Gabriel, its customers and friends raced to the rescue and within a comparatively short time nearly 700 people had contributed to buy shares making the pub community owned. The Bell was saved as a music venue!

"The Bell has always been a key part of Bath's live music scene, often giving musicians their first break and always providing music that is vibrant, diverse and free." Peter Gabriel

But community ownership has proved to be more than just a mechanism to raise money. Through the large number of shareholders it has also created an allegiance, something that has stood the pub in good stead through these lean last few years. Consequently it is still a venue where for two or three nights a week and on Sunday lunchtime, you can listen to live music for free.

Steve Henwood, music promoter for The Bell, talked about the pub's position. “There are stories of venues closing and of places opening no matter what, because they have to get income to cover rent and debts. We are very fortunate because we are not in that position, in part because of the support we have received over recent years and because we own the property. So we do not have to open because we have rent to pay or debts that cannot be met. We can choose what we want to do."

“Many venues are in a difficult position. Yes, you can open but is it financially viable? Since COVID we are also very reluctant to pay musicians less for their services than we were before. Many pubs, like The Bell, have restricted space. We are able to put on music for free because we get enough people in for the takings to pay for the bands. If we can’t get people into the building in sufficient numbers to make it viable then we can’t have music."

Now ten years on The Bell continues to thrive, continues to put on live bands from around the country and even has capacity to pay its shareholders a dividend plus make the occasional charitable donation.



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