Mumford & Sons' keyboard player Ben Lovett urged government and MPs to “protect the cultural sector” as he gave evidence to the live music inquiry in Parliament.
The Department of Culture, Media & Sport session on music venues followed the hearing last month on secondary ticketing, which Viagogo failed to attend.
Lovett was a promoter before recent Music Week cover stars Mumford & Sons took off and went on to launch Communion Music and the Omeara venue. He told MPs that Communion Music puts on around 400 shows a year, including 250 in London, of below 2,000-capacity.
“We think that live is the way for discovery to find new music,” said Lovett. “We applaud people who go out and spend money to hear new artists.”
But there was a downbeat assessment of the outlook for grassroots venues, despite the agent of change legislation.
Mark Davyd, chief executive, Music Venue Trust, said three small venues had closed in the past week. He disclosed that many of his members routinely lose money on gigs they stage.
“They are all a bit mad to be honest,” said Davyd. “But the drivers are not about being a business, they are communities of live music fans.”
He added: “Their role at that level is to put on music nobody likes yet.”
We applaud people who go out and spend money to hear new artists
Lovett recalled that Mumford & Sons played 40 to 50 shows in London before they broke through. A decade on, the band are a major touring force, but he estimated 50% of those small venues have now closed.
“London has 50% of the venues New York has, we are trending down, we are a long way off the mark,” he said.
Looking at the difficult economics of small venues for both operators and artists, Lovett said an act might be paid £500 to £700 for a 200-capacity show. But that would have to cover all costs, including rehearsals and parking.
“There’s no sense of it being a viable revenue stream, it’s a way to get to the next level,” he said. “It’s a loss leader up to 1,200 to 1,500 [capacity] nationwide tours.”
Lovett said the music venue side of Omeara makes a loss and it relies on other income streams, including food and beverages.
Independent artist ShaoDow told the committee that streaming was not a viable revenue source for many artists at a certain level.
“As artists our income streams have taken a massive hit,” he told MPs. “It’s going to get to a point where musicians can’t afford to live and create.”
He also raised the issue of extra costs, such as insurance, for playing 14-plus shows, which reduces access for young people to live music.
“We need to encourage and protect the cultural sector,” added Lovett. “We have to provide the places to create and provide variety.”
He contrasted the “curation” of a small venue like the Slaughtered Lamb with the all-powerful streaming services.
“Streaming services have algorithms - they think they know you better than you know yourself,” said Lovett. “But we can’t have our culture created by robots.”
He said the next generation of artists shouldn’t be decide by tech companies “but music companies and venues run by music fans”
“It’s homogenous,” he said of streaming playlist culture. “If you want to push boundaries, we need people who are cultural leaders willing to take risks.”
A range of solutions were suggested to help venues, including the Music Cities movement led by Sound Diplomacy, and reform of business rates.
For iconic venues such as the 100 Club, brands such as Converse and Fred Perry have been integral to their survival.
“Without their help and commitment, the 100 club would not exist now,” said owner Jeff Horton.