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A glimmer of hope in a dark period for grassroots music venues

The cost-of-living crisis is proving to be a testing time for grassroots music venues, coming directly after the difficulties of COVID. It feels as if there is no room to breathe for some businesses. But a new scheme from the Music Venue Trust has secured the future for a Greater Manchester venue. 

One of the country's most beloved live music venues, Moles in Bath, has shut its doors after 45 years, and is the most recent casualty of the economic issues with the cost-of-living crisis.

Like many other grassroots music venues, Moles was pivotal in housing emerging talent and being a catalyst for those artist's careers, with industry titans such as Oasis, The Killers, The Cure and Blur gracing their stage. Even Geroge Ezra was a support act when he performed there, and Ed Sheeran performed two months before the release of his debut album ‘+’.

The legacy of Moles has been etched in history, and the legendary history of this 220-capacity venue will not be forgotten in a hurry, especially when their importance stems beyond the stage. The back cover of Supergrass' debut album 'I Should Coco' was shot in the old dressing rooms, and Manic Street Preachers signed to a record label following their performance. A recording studio was built upstairs in the venue, which saw James and Biffy Clyro creating tracks. Their DJ booth was as coveted as the stage, where Annie Mac held down a residency and Fatboy Slim performing in 2018 to celebrate their 40th birthday.

It’s an understatement that Moles will be sorely missed, especially now the closure effectively takes Bath off the gigging circuit.

Tom Maddicott, co-owner of Moles, broke the news that the venue has filed for insolvency. “This cost of living crisis has crippled the grassroots music sector. Although that is not the only problem, it has accentuated it. Huge rent rates, along with massively increased costs on everything from utilities to stock, are all factors. This has been compounded by our customers also feeling the impact of the crisis.” Tom shared this on Moles’ website.

“Venues like Moles are also more than just talent incubators; they are also so important to communities. People meet their future partners in them, they make friends for life, they discover their new favourite band and sing their hearts out while forgetting their troubles for a few hours. And sometimes they can just be somewhere they feel safe and not alone. The importance of these venues can never be overstated.” 

Whilst the closure of Moles reiterates the dark period hospitality venues are enduring, the glimmer of hope in the industry is the Music Venues Trust’s (MVT) campaign Own Our Venues, which protects grassroots venues from having to close.

The scheme purchases the freehold of the venue and provides more long-term security by revolutionising cultural ownership.

The first venue to receive this support from MVT was The Snug in Atherton, Wigan. 

The Snug doubles down as a laidback coffee shop during the day and transforms into an electric live music performing space in the evening, shining a spotlight on the emerging musicians coming out of Wigan.

Doubt was cast over The Snug’s future after the landlord was looking to sell the venue in May 2022. But MVT will now act as the landlord of this community-owned venue.

The Event Manager at The Snug, Ben Morgan, told me: “It did give us security doubts, but now that we can plan for the future we are not just planning step by step, and questioning whether this will go ahead and if our security is in doubt?” Ben told me, “We can carry on doing what we're doing without this grey cloud hanging over us, which has been a definite weight lifted off our shoulders.”

The partnership has come at a difficult period for grassroots music venues due to rising costs and inflation. MVT reported that 120 grassroots venues in the UK have closed, which is 15% of the total, with a further 84 currently in crisis.

About the work that MVT does to support grassroots venues, Ben said: “They saved us once before during lockdown with support from the Cultural Recovery Fund that Arts Council put on, and that was pivotal in keeping us alive after the pandemic."

The 100-capacity venue is the perfect place to unearth new talent, as they have brought artists to their stage, such as Mark Morriss of The Bluetones and Tom Hingley from Inspiral Carpets, alongside up-and-coming acts like The Facades and Shrouded.

“We rely on the local bands to make up our event schedule and the audience we have they’re always really excited to see new live bands, and we have a lot of success putting those types of bands on.” Ben added. 

When speaking about the closure of Moles, Ben said: “The upper echelon of the industry don't like to admit this, but we are the research and development department of the music industry. Without us, you don't get your formidable names in the industry, as they have grown up in grassroots venues and honed their skills. 

“We’ve just lost Moles in Bath, which is one of the most famous grassroots music venues. It doesn’t matter what genre of music you're into, that was an important venue for so many different artists, which is sad and a loss to the community in so many different ways, and a loss to the local music scene too.”

The dire situation of grassroots venues in the past few years is alarming. Oasis performed their first tour at Moles, and the venue in Bath was the last one grassroots venue that the Manchester band performed at left. Of the 366 venues that Ed Sheeran performed in, including Moles, 151 have now closed their doors. 

“It’s just insane. There needs to be something done about it. It’s ridiculous what is going on in the industry now, and the big players will only realise when it's too late, when the big names are performing on the big stage ,and they go 'where is the talent pool?' We don't have access to the artists that we used to.” Ben continued.  

The co-owner of Moles later said in his statement that seven new arenas are currently being built, and they need to start supporting grassroots in “a major shake-up of the live sector.”

It is for this reason that the CEO and founder of the MVT, Mark Davyd, has called on the government to implement a compulsory levy on every ticket sold for live music events above 5,000 capacity, “to prevent the devastation of the sector.” This would see similar legislation creently in place in France where all major live music events are required to pay 3.5% of each ticket sale to support grassroots. 

“Venues like these all over the country are going out of business, whilst helping nurture the artists that will go on to generate millions for the broader music industry. Put bluntly, they have been badly let down by those who profit from their efforts.” Mark shared in a statement after the closure of Moles. 

Whilst stages for emerging artists are reducing in grasroots venues, perfamce spaces in the seed music industry will continue to grow. Data from GigPig revealed that 87% of the 500 venues surveyed, whether that be a bar, restaurant or pub, will look to put on more live music within the next year, meaning their sales can increase by an average of £107k per year.

It’s these positive readings and moments of positivity within our industry that provide a new outlook on the future of grassroots venues.