Is the live scene struggling?

There has been recent talk that the live circuit in the UK is struggling.

The recession is certainly making a difference and many small town venues have recently shut. In the big cities the story is variable- Manchester has seen a boom in venues with nearly 30 venues in the city making it perhaps the most venue heavy city in the UK.

At the same time the national circuit, that was once thriving, has several gaps in it. The recession has made a big difference and so have festivals. Is everyone buying cheap booze in the supermarket and staying in?

The trend in the last few years has been for people to save up for the big summer festivals and there and lots of them. In the last few months several small key venues like Sawyers in Kettering or the Princess Charlotte have gone- in a few years it could be a case of key big cities with big music scenes and the small town circuit- the backbone of music gone.

The small town circuit was where bands learned to play, the grind of long haul touring is what makes groups great- as this dies out then so does the great British band. Does this matter?

The great myth that bands can survive now by letting having all their music given away for them by torrent sites so they can go on the road and sell loads of merchandise is slowly being exposed as a hollow myth.

The only people that can survive out there are the covers bands and the bands who have money before they start- is this a good or a bad thing?
Is this evolution? Does it matter if the venues shut?
Are they shutting? Or can you survive out there on the live circuit or promoting gigs?
Do you think the live circuit is dying out?
Do you prefer going to festivals or local gigs?
What’s happening in your town?
We would love to know”¦please comment”¦

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. We’ve been in London recently and we played 23 gigs in 2 months. Every damn promoter told us that the situation is getting harder and harder for the bands. Most of the venues are hiring DJ’s because they are cheaper. Is that good? NO. Are bands playing for free? Yes. Do you think that’s good and helpful? NO. Do you consider it “abuse”? Yes. It has anything to do with music and culture evolution? NO.

    Do you think all of us must introduce a change, a click to wake the music scene up? YEAH!

    Is the live gig circuit dying out? WE WON’T LET IT DIE, JOHN!

  2. A very interesting article. I write original songs but also have a covers band which is thriving. I find that the original music I make doesn’t pay when gigging. It’s more fulfilling but costs me to lug gear about for little, or more often, no pay.

    Manchester is close enough for me to spend my time there and I have run an unsigned band night at one of the city’s venues but I do play a lot of the surrounding market towns with the covers band.

    In Manchester itself there’s loads of unsigned bands playing almost every night. In the market towns there are still some but I’ve definitely seen a decline. The pubs meanwhile are busy with covers bands. We had 24 dates booked by the end of January and get at least 2 enquiries per week (We set a limit of 2 covers gigs per month so we can do other things also) and there’s hundreds of covers bands that do more than us.

    There are definitely pockets where unsigned original music is still burgeoning. Northwich for example has the Winnington Rec and several other pubs and
    Clubs which regularly has bands playing and there seems to be a lot of them gigging. DeBees in Winsford also has a healthy unsigned night which is difficult to get on to and they have stopped getting covers bands in. It remains to be seen if this will affect their patronage but at the moment it’s going strong.

    Hop over to Macclesfield and again there are lots of bands making an appearance, spearheaded by The Virgin Mary’s who have built a large following in their home town as well as further afield.

    But this is only a microcosm of the country, I’ve not been going to enough places to make a broad observation but from the unsigned night I promoted there wasn’t much in the way of passing trade, it was all fan base from the bands and where bands had travelled from way out of the M60 ring road, they tended not to bring many fans with them. So are they watching their mates in their home town or just not bothering anymore? Remains to be seen but we are planning a tour of the country to look at this in more detail and to talk to people about what they are finding.

    Maybe it would be good to have a mix of covers and originals in pubs that have covers bands on. We’ve slipped our own tunes in amongst covers and had a good response before now.

  3. the idea of giving music away and earning money (ie earning enough to pay a small crew ,2 people,the band and transport etc)playing live and selling merch is indeed a myth always has been.That is until you sell out theatre size venues. 22 years ago we used to get £50 for a support slot in Dingwalls Camden I bet these days you get the same or even less.Touring the toilet circuit can turn an average band into a great band it has to be done but now as then the fee never covers the costs.
    Is the live gig circuit dying out? from what I see in manchester but in most cases it is surving on the smallest of margins.

  4. The reason cover bands do well financially (and always will do) is that it\’s a no-brainer, risk free guarantee of entertainment. Most folk aren\’t receptive to things they haven\’t heard before, fear it almost – whereas a cover set is tried and tested tunes that are ingrained on people.

    Bands who have cash before they start? I\’m sure there has always been a whiff of that with successful acts anyway (I mean, I love Led Zep, but HOW plummy are those accents?), failing that any band worth their salt is gonna need investment in any case.
    IMO: there are too many venues and too many homogenised genero-nights.
    It\’s simple economics – the supply of bands and nights vastly outstrips demand for them.
    And when the basics are not being done correctly they will wane. Dressing up a ridiculous hodge podge of styles on lineups as \’eclectic\’ is not an attractive proposition to the majority of punters. They know what they like and will go to what they like. It\’s why a live night will draw 10 people, but the club night that follows will draw 400; they know what they are going to get and can identify with it.
    Festivals are another example of this. A catch-all of stuff they will like that allows them to ignore what they don\’t like, but still justifiable, given you can tack on a good few days drinking and other recreational pursuits.
    There are plenty of places that get the basics right – these are doing well. But if your average punter attends too many rubbish nights they will tar them all with the same brush.
    Bands need to make money. Some don\’t see it that way as they may see it as a corruption of their artform. The issue with the freemium model is that once punters expect the tracks for free, it follows that live shows should be for free too, and anything that act produces should be free. As a model it is outrageously unworkable. Get out of the bubble and understand it costs to record, promote, hire gear, rehearse, install sound systems, hire engineers, pay the rent or mortgage on venues/homes etc
    A lot of acts don\’t see it this way as paying rent or indeed any costs is alien to them – they will be the ones that see some success. Being in a band is a full-time commitment, you have to be relatively unemployed (in the traditional sense) to do anything of merit I believe the old adage goes.

    Burn it down, start again and do it right. Don\’t overstretch yourselves trying to put 5 bands each in 30 venues 6 nights a week and you may start creating some demand again – of course this is a little elitist and a lot of nights and bands would flounder. But survival of the fittest is it not? Everyone would have to up their game.

  5. UK is 1 hour away by plane, so Netherlands feels free to have a say.. Live venues appear to have full programs, but… no one seems to dare book any artist who sounds different in any way. Result is: almost all of the booked bands look and sound the same. If you play loud, scream and pretend to be a revolutionary, they will book you. But will you sell all tickets? Probably not. Of course there are very few exceptions : but usually those exceptions have a pitbull of a promotor behind them.

  6. It’s getting bigger, in London at least.

    You can’t move down here for the number of pubs and bars becoming ‘venues’, putting gigs on. The population hasn’t got any bigger, everyone’s skint. It’s one of the many reasons we shut down The Luminaire last year.

  7. I live in the north east and there a loads of venues putting bands on. Pubs usually have covers and late night bars original bands. I play both and have done for the past 10 years. It was always good but I have noticed a big decline in the interest in original music. People just don’t seem to want to watch live original bands anymore unless you are established and even then it’s tough. With the X factor generation I think people accept covers a lot more and will happily watch a band down the local but as soon as they hear a song they don’t know no matter how good they don’t want to know. There are still music lovers out there and one or two bars are good to play with a crowd of music fans but most other places ain’t bothered and are almost put out by the fact bands are on. For me the way we get our original music heard is changing and seems people are more interested in listening to soundcloud and YouTube ect than going to see the bands live. It’s a shame and sad to watch good live music die and I must admit I can be sole destroying when you put all you time and effort in to write and play only for no one to be interested when you play live bit yet the same people will listern to you online? I will always gig but I worry that venues will soon start to forget about original bands and stick to cover groups.


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