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Saving Live Music Venues: Interview With MP John Spellar

In a landmark victory for musicians and gig-goers across the country, the Government has announced it will back vital plans to protect live music venues from closure.

Housing minister Savid Javid has said that, in future, property developers will be responsible for identifying and solving potential sound problems when building near to music venues, to reduce the number of noise complaints.

This follows the Agent of Change campaign, which won cross-party support from politicians and musicians including Sir Paul McCartney, Ray Davies, Nick Mason and Billy Bragg, as well as over 100 MPs and Peers.

The campaign has been led by Labour MP John Spellar, who recently unveiled his Planning (Agent of Change) Bill at a mass lobby of Parliament.

Mr Spellar took some time out from his busy schedule to talk to Insure4Music about what the success of Agent of Change means for the UK’s live music scene.

Discover more: Find A Small Music Venue Near You! [Interactive Map]

Thanks for talking to us John. Firstly, congratulations on securing Government support. You took the Planning Bill to Parliament and your months of campaigning has resulted in decisive action. What’s your reaction to this announcement?

I’m really pleased – it’s good news for the venues and the Music Venue Trust has done a terrific job in pushing this issue over the years.

Most importantly, it’s welcome news for musicians. People don’t start out playing the big time – they start out in the small venues and learn their trade. Sometimes musicians will try and break out, it doesn’t work and they go again.

Billy Bragg said to me that he went full-time on three occasions and it was only on the final attempt that he broke through. If he and other aspiring musicians hadn’t had these venues to perform at, they wouldn’t have been able to keep going and have the careers they had.


When you first started the campaign, could you have envisaged that it would have received anything like the level of coverage and support from within the music industry that it has?

Being a veteran politician, I was astonished to see the vast amount of social media coverage the campaign received! All coverage is very welcome, because it shows what a strong feeling there is about protecting live music venues – not just among grassroots musicians, but also among local MPs and councillors, as well as residents concerned about the vibrancy of their communities.

Let’s not forget, music venues are a staple feature of urban life and are enormously important in terms of making our areas liveable. They are also part of our country’s offering to the world – not only are they one of the reasons people visit the UK, they also attract investment because they provide jobs for owners, managers and venue staff.

A job at a live music venue is certainly an interesting proposition and the whole street scene is part of the incentive, i.e. enjoy the area and listen to some live music while earning money here. Live music venues matter, and not just for the late-night kebab shops. They make Britain a more attractive destination.


Sir Paul McCartney has effectively said that, without the presence of grassroots pubs, clubs and music venues, there may not have been a Beatles. Do you think now, through the success of this bill, we could see a mini revival of British live music and more up and coming bands as a result?

I certainly hope so. One of the concerns I’ve expressed is that, although Britain has the second biggest global reach of any music industry behind the United States, there’s a lot of grey hair in the industry.

We need to keep bringing through new talent that understands the trade. To refer to a point Billy Bragg made to me – whereas in years gone by musicians made most of their money on records, now they’ll make money on gigs. Recording songs and posting them online is not where the money is these days.

As any musician will tell you, performing live is completely different to writing a tune and going into the recording studio, as you’ve got to learn how to engage with your audiences. When Billy was starting out, he played at The Tunnel pub in Greenwich as the warm-up act and he said: ‘We were absolutely aware that nobody had come to see us and therefore we had to work hard to get people’s attention.’


The essence of the bill is that live music venues are being lost to an increasing number of new build developments. What do you think about the shift towards such developments, particularly in cities, and how concerned are you about the ongoing threat they pose to live music venues?

I think new-build developments are a good thing that should be embraced in major cities. We need new housing in this country. In many areas, the old warehouses and industrial sites have fallen into disrepair. The revival of these buildings is very welcome.

What I’m concerned about is that these buildings could be redeveloped at the expense of what actually makes those inner cities attractive living areas in the first place. A few individuals can complain about noise, but many other residents, let alone the regulars at these events, want to be a part of this vibrant, cultural inner-city life.

If people visit a music venue, they’re also likely to visit a nearby pub or restaurant to meet up before they go. All of this is part of a vibrancy and a street scene that makes cities so appealing.


Obviously, the impact of this Agent of Change law will be felt across the country. How do you think it will affect musicians in rural areas?

It’s every bit as essential that this law applies to the smaller towns where you just have one or two music venues. If you lose those, people who either go to gigs or are a performing artist themselves may have to travel 40 or 50 miles to experience live music.

This will only further reduce the cultural attraction of these towns, many of which are struggling to retain the interest of young people who are drifting towards the nearest cities. I can think of many towns and villages across the UK which are becoming retirement dormitories. Essentially what we’re seeing is a real lack of balance in many communities, which have sadly been left behind.


You’ve spearheaded this campaign which has been supported by the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Ray Davies and Nick Mason from Pink Floyd to name just three. How does it feel on a personal level to secure the backing of such reputable figures within music?

It’s terrific. It’s been very encouraging to see the levels of support Agent of Change has had from across the industry and across parties. The beauty of this campaign is that MPs and musicians from all backgrounds have worked collaboratively to achieve a common goal, which hopefully resonates with young people who are disillusioned with politics.

Ultimately, this shows that if you have a good campaign which is properly researched, argued and supported, politics can change things for the better in this country.


Do you think the success of this campaign represents a step change in terms of how today’s society perceives live music venues, in that they’re not this evil that they’ve perhaps been construed to be?

Absolutely – the sheer number of closures has been a wake-up call and people are realising what they’re losing before it’s too late. I hope this campaign will lead to a proper attitude from licensing authorities.

As I’ve alluded to, it’s been fantastic to see two Government departments working together so well – Matt Hancock (Minister of State for Digital and Culture) and Sajid Javid (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) have played integral roles in responding to this issue.

The role of music is much more at the forefront of people’s minds, which is particularly important at a time of Brexit. We’ve got to maximise every advantage we have in this country and our music scene is one of our biggest assets. I hope this campaign will not only help preserve it but also help it to grow.


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