Agent of Change UK

Agent of Change Battles Threat to UK Live Music Scene – A Proactive Solution to a Universal Problem

Text By Dawoud Kringle

Music Venue Trust is a UK based network of grassroots music venues and their supporters. Their base concept, Agent of Change, was first introduced into the music scene in Australia, and then, three years ago, into the UK. Agent of Change is a term that is used to describe various approaches to controlling the relationship between newly built development (typically residential), and extant noise sources (typically, music venues).

The Agent of Change campaign believes that the cornerstone of the UK music industry is under threat and needs protection. Music venues are threatened with closure because of changes in planning laws to encourage residents to move into town centers. This change in policy was originally intended to address housing shortages (specifically, offices, car parks and disused buildings to be converted into residences. The problem arose with the UK’s music venues being next door to those offices and car parks. Music venues were subsequently forced to fight noise complaints, abatement notices and planning applications. The locations of the venues were deliberately chosen so that the music wouldn’t create problems for residents. With the aforementioned housing policy changes, residents made complaints about sound. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the developers of the residential properties have no legal obligation to soundproof these new residences. UK law mandates that the business or person making the noise is responsible for its management.

It is believed that not only music venues, but any place that makes a noise is under threat. Theaters, pubs, sporting areas, arts centers, and even churches and mosques are threatened.

The Agent of Change principle attempts to offer a solution. Under the Agent of Change principle if a music venue is in place before the residential building, the residential building would be responsible for paying for soundproofing. Likewise, if a new music venue opens in a residential area, the venue are responsible for the cost.

The solution offered by Agent of Change is so obvious, people are amazed it isn’t part of UK law. When Australia adopted it, the result was improved planning; venues working alongside their communities to manage their noise when it changes, and developers making better residences that are fit for purpose.

In other words, everyone wins. The alternative is the ruin of the British live music venue circuit.

Fronted by Frank Turner, their campaign attempted to make Agent of Change law in the UK. In September of 2014, Turner began a petition to this effect, which included a public message to Sajid Javid MP, Conservative Party, former Cultural Secretary of the UK (former managing director at Deutsche Bank, and Member of Parliament (MP) for Bromsgrove in Worcestershire since 2010. He has since served as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government from July 2016, and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade from 2015 to 2016).

January 10, 2018 was an important day for Music Venue Trust. After building a collective voice as partner, organizations such as UK Music and The Musicians’ Union have joined their cause. They worked together to raise support for John Spellar MP’s Ten Minute Rule Bill prior to its reading in Parliament on 10 January.

The Bill was backed with cross-party support in British Parliament. Artists who have publicly supported the cause include Sir Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Craig David, Sandie Shaw, Ray Davies, Feargal Sharkey and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, Billy Bragg, John Robb, Jeremy Pritchard (Everything Everything), Frank Turner, Rhoda Dakar and David Gedge (The Wedding Present).

No objections were raised when the Bill was read in Parliament. The Bill’s first reading was accompanied by a lengthy list of sponsors. In accordance with UK law, the secondary reading is scheduled for January 19th, 2018, and is expected to have its second reading debate on Friday March 16th, 2018.

Turning this question of music venues vs. zoning, ordinances, public funding and support of the arts, etc., to the New York music scene, we find some interesting dynamics.

In 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment Julie Menin announced the results of a study of the music industry’s economic impact on New York City. The study found that the music industry generated $21 billion in total economic impact in 2015. It declared, “New York City’s music ecosystem is healthy and thriving.” This contrasted other findings that the city’s local artist communities composed of up-and-coming musicians, small venues, collaboration spaces, music education institutions, and similar resources that support and nurture musical and artistic talent and development talent, including are suffering, and have become excessively vulnerable to current economic and industry trends.

23 percent of New York’s smaller (below 500 capacity) venues have closed in the past 15 years. The reasons for these closures include rising real estate prices, zoning pressures, increasing operating costs and financial risks, noise complaints, and licensing problems that small venues face. A high concentration of these venues have been located in areas like the East Village, Williamsburg, and Harlem where increasing popularity is matched by skyrocketing rents, and where the creation of new residential units from warehouses or other types of real estate has increased complaints of quality-of-life disturbances. New venues are opening in the outer boroughs. But music business professionals believe it will be difficult for these spaces to replicate the concentration of talent and the level of community that the traditional art and music rich neighborhoods enjoyed (part of this could be due to the difficulties in travel; as of this writing, the MTA is in a shambles, and is struggling to keep from falling apart at the seams).

Sadly, the arts suffer when budgets tighten. A little coordination and representation in city government can help. Developing a music policy, however, has to be taken in a case by case, basis, because no one set of tactics can work in all cities. Each city is different, with unique strengths, problems, and opportunities.

There is also the sad fact is that local governments often hinder local music. It’s a historical trend that successful music scenes often arise from illicit spaces in lightly regulated and low-rent environs. The punk and hip-hop movements that emerged from New York City’s Lower East Side and South Bronx, respectively, during the 1970s could not have happened if they relied upon the then bankrupt New York City government to promote and support them. Today, several cities wary of disasters pulled the plug on the kinds of underground performance spaces that can incubate local scenes.

The very fact that those DIY spaces exist at all is a sign that something is wrong with how the government is handling itself. Artists are forced to make music in illicit spaces for no reason other than that there are no legitimate spaces for them. Corrupt and incompetent governments cannot understand this, and lack the vision to assist the development and sustenance of a healthy music scene.

In hindsight, successful music communities always arise unpredictably, disappear quickly, and leave city and business leaders wondering what happened. Professional speculators try to anticipate or stimulate a rich and successful music scene, but such musical ecosystems seem to invariably develop organically – or not at all.

It is, however, possible to apply the scientific method to making a music scene. Cities could take stock of their local musical assets and then make the most of them through rational policy, zoning, housing, coordination between city agencies, and investment.

For a city to cultivate its musical ecosystem, and boost quality of life, education, tourism, and the local music business, it needs to address policy and assessment mechanisms. It’s necessary to know what you have, and what needs to be improved. A data auditing process assesses music venues, recording studios, sound and light companies, musical instrument shops, and musical education in schools. It is just as important to understand the economic activity of each aspect of the music business. Many political leaders fail to understand that having an accurate inventory of music-related assets can help shape policy. This will encourage the health of their music infrastructure; and stimulate the local economy. For example, knowing where a loud club is less likely to disturb sleeping neighbors can help shape zoning plans.

A music and creative-arts infrastructure can be directly built into cities. Municipalities will benefit from factoring music and the arts as much as they would restaurants and retail when planning development.