The Localism Act coming into force across the UK this Autumn presents new opportunities for community ownership of formerly untouchable assets.
A group from Bradford have recognised the introduction of this act as a potential way to save the former Odeon Cinema building, subject of a pitched 10-year battle to save it from demolition, to restore it to a 3,000 capacity venue in the heart of the city centre.
Can this plan succeed where many have failed and go head to head with the O2 Academies in neighbouring cities, and if so, what makes this plan so different?
We have for some years now been in the midst of the greatest upheaval to the way we hear music since the first scratchy gramophone records made it out of the country estates and onto every Joe’s coffee table. An industry that took nearly a century to wriggle away from the unprofitable production of sheet music (despite the recent efforts of Beck to spark a revival), in order to funnel the gilded fruits of our collective musical talents into the pockets of a few wily executives, has famously struggled in the high seas of digital piracy. As the traditional dominance and profitability of the major labels has waned – now that anyone, anywhere can top the charts without their backing – their attention has once more turned to squeezing the maximum revenue from the live performances of their signed artists.
The last 10 years has seen a marked change in the way that live music by major artists is presented and packaged. Back in the heyday of the LP and those new-fangled Walkman contraptions, the live performance was seen as more of a marketing tool than a potential source of revenue. Industry giants who could afford the losses that a major headline tour would generate would see it as an investment in future record sales. With more and more music being shared electronically, often bypassing the labels altogether, and smaller labels to compete evenly on this playing field, the days of the loss-leading spectacle are well and truly over.
The knock-on effect of this is that larger venues have had to change dramatically to keep up. Large independent venues relied on the notion that they were doing the major labels a favour by showcasing artists on their books and so their business models largely relied on what were in effect subsidies provided to them. As these subsidies began to dry up, more of the costs of running major shows fell onto their shoulders and the unsustainability of this practise began to bare its teeth. Many independent venues began to decline and close, despite healthy attendances as the music wars raged around them.
In an ideal world, this situation would have resolved itself simply. With major labels still needing to showcase their talent, particularly new talent that they could push on the back of already recognised headliners, the subsidies would have inevitably been restored. Unfortunately, the realities of free market capitalism meant that there was always going to be someone out there with enough financial muscle to take up the reins with a loss leading push for sales of a different product.
The first to significantly dip their toes into this pool was Carling. Beer sales have always been a major income for any venue large or small. The “Wetherspoons effect”Â of huge chain corporations tying up the leases of many formerly independent premises in order to lock the landlords into lucrative exclusive vending deals was already becoming the norm at about the same time as the music industry began to panic. Carling was a brand that was already becoming unpopular in the face of competiton from the booming imported beer market and was in desperate need of an image overhaul. Realising the propaganda boost they could gain from tying their brand into the minds of the cool young 20-something gig-goers they most seemed to want to reach, they began to stitch up venue and festival alike. The Carling Academies and the Carling Festivals looked from the outside like the independent venues they replaced, but inside was a hollow soul that lacked even the most basic of the atmospheric beauty of that which they replaced. Gig-goers became punters, advertisees and cash-cows, and the true magic was gone.
Fast forward a little and a new monster was born. The alliance between O2 and the music industry was, to a commoditised western world, an unerringly natural one; as the latter began to exploit new technologies and began to reap the benefits of free and instant crowd sourced publicity, largely courtesy of the now ubiquitous camera phone. O2 academies and arenas sprang up in every major city and continue to be built in any location where there is a potential audience. O2 seem happy to bankroll the live music scene for much the same reasons as Carling, the offers of exclusive access for their customers being levied against an increase in sales and public image.
As is so often the case when culture is appropriated by big business, there is a cost that ultimately falls most heavily on the consumer. With artists and tours fought over by these venues for purely commercial priorities, the musical desires of a generation being of secondary importance, the ferocity with which these major venue providers are prepared to guard their investment is hugely damaging to those outside the marriage. In a similar manner to the behaviour of chain pubs towards traditional freehouses over the last decade, promoters of major acts can become locked into exclusive deals with the O2 express and the last remaining independent venues are either offered no access, or access at a higher premium than any non loss making venue could afford.
Whilst this may seem terminal, it offers glimmers of hope for music fans in unexpected ways.
Because of the nature of the 21st century entertainment game, the O2 Academies are only really interested in the very largest acts ”â the artists only really being seen as a vehicle with which to promote their brand image. This leaves a wealth of highly talented early to mid term career artists looking for places to play, and a niche to be filled by mid-sized venues who wish to cater to their audience. Fans (by which it is meant fans of music rather than followers strictly of fashionable bands) of these artists will invariably stick with them for longer in their careers and forgive more mistakes than a large company at the whim of today’s tabloid culture may be prepared to do. Artists who can make a living this way are less likely to want to endanger this status quo in return for a brief ride aboard the gravy train.
What was needed, and until recently seemed a distant prospect, was a viable alternative to the days when a wealthy local businessman could flex their impresario muscles and take a punt at opening a new venue, an antiquated notion that now seems almost impossible given the lack of compassion from the banks towards such new ventures. The solution it seems has come from one of the most unlikely of sources possible in a manner that is likely unintentional: a new Conservative policy coming into effect this Autumn called The Localism Act.
The Localism Act is intended to reduce the outlay of the state when providing community facilities. It is a mechanism by which local authorities can back away from bankrolling community assets such as social centres and local amenities, under the guise of the “Big Society”Â agenda, by offering control, ownership and fiscal responsibility to the people who use them. At its heart is the notion of a “community right to bid”Â for assets perceived to be of value to citizens of any area. It is similar in practise to the way in which buildings can be listed for their architectural or historical significance, but differs in that it takes into account the wishes of the community and the vision that they have for any particular building. A bona-fide community group can apply for any building to be held on a list of community assets that from this summer all local councils are obliged to maintain. If a building on this list comes up for sale at any time, the community group has a statutory 6 month period in order to prepare a viable bid to purchase it. This is intended to allow them to compete fairly against major regeneration companies who may seek the building or land for venture purposes.
Several groups have managed to take advantage of this shift in attitude by lawmakers even before it has come into force. Campaigners bidding to wrest control of Hastings Pier from a private owner and into community ownership finally have a realistic chance to realise their vision after their local council, perhaps sensing the winds of political change shifting, issued a Compulsory Purchase Order in preparation for community ownership. A group seeking to reopen the historic Unity Hall in Wakefield has recently offered a community share issue in order to raise funds for their project to provide a much needed venue for that town, owned in a manner that ensures it will remain in the hands of the people in perpetuity.
The act is designed in such a way that it seemed the originators had much smaller venues in mind when it was passed into law, such as village halls and local swimming baths – long seen as financial black holes for many local authorities. It is unlikely that it was ever intended to be used for larger projects; the sheer scale of community interest needed to make such a scheme viable seems unrealistic at first.
In Bradford however, a city long locked between the competing wishes of speculative regeneration entities and the public will, the Localism Act may have found a new heavyweight champion.
Much has been written about the 10-year struggle to save the former Odeon building in the heart of the city from demolition and redevelopment into luxury offices (for those seeking further information on this campaign, see the City of Film site). Despite changes of ownership, controversial planning committee decisions, promises of investment by a sucession of big players and the often murky dealings that have brought many political stormclouds to the city, the building at the time of writing still stands.
Whilst many competing plans have been put forward for this site, some advocating demolition and some restoration, there has yet to be a viable business case offered into the public domain for its retention as an entertainment venue – the purpose for which it was originally built. The current plan for the site which has been on the table for many years involves a risky speculative development for which few hold out any prospect of realisation. Despite having been marketing the scheme for many years, the developer Langtree PLC has yet to secure sufficient interest to convince the council to allow demolition. As ownership of the building was passed from the aggressive regional development agency Yorkshire Forward to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) during the “bonfire of the quangos”Â at the outset of the new coalition government, hopes were raised that an agency with community in it’s name would have the wishes of the community as a guiding principle.
Although contractually locked into a development agreement with Langtree (inherited from their predecessor) which would mean the death of the Odeon, as each month of stalemate passes it becomes increasingly obvious that the proposed New Victoria Place has no viable basis and the HCA will need to seek an alternative. Other ways to retain and restore the former Odeon building have been proposed (and a multi-million pound cheque at one time placed on the table) yet all rely on the traditional notion of owner-management and the precarious position of a single point of failure. Feasibility studies that have been carried out generally fall flat since they focus on the need to compete with the O2 behemoths in nearby Leeds – a brand new arena is currently under construction, adding to the existing Academy already there.
What is evidently in need is an entirely fresh approach, and with the guidance of heavyweight experts such as Locality (the organisation behind the restoration and redevelopment of the grade I listed Manningham Mill) a group of local Bradford residents formed under the banner of the Save The Odeon group are hoping to present just that.
The approach that ”ËSave The Odeon’ are taking with their planning is much the same as that adopted by the group currently redeveloping the aforementioned Unity Hall, Wakefield. With the help of Leeds-based Shine, a consultancy group that successfully created an award-winning and financially sustainable mixed-use centre in the Harehills area of Leeds, Unity Hall is structured as a co-operative entity known as an IPS (Industrial and Provident Society) Ben Com (of benefit to the community). Being a co-operative, the venue will be completely owned and run by its members, and any profits made will either be invested back into the project or paid as a dividend to investors. This is a radically different approach to the traditional thinking behind this size of venue, and entirely at odds with the capital aims of others.
By issuing shares to the community on a “one member, one vote”Â basis, it ensures that no one person can buy undue influence in the project. Someone holding a single share will have an equal say to another holding a thousand. With the amount that any one investor can plough into the project capped by law at ÃÂ£20,000, investment is unattractive to speculators wishing to use the project simply for personal financial gain. This leaves the majority of investors as lay music fans, members of the community who wish to see the project thrive and others who back the principles of co-operative structures as the alternative to big money ventures.
This structure is the one being proposed by ‘Save the Odeon’ to realise their plans. In practise, a restored Odeon would run in much the same way as many existing smaller venues which have thrived under common ownership (such as the 30-year-old 1in12 Club located a short distance away). All members would have an equal say in the direction of the project, and may decide to delegate the day-to-day running to a management committee which would remain accountable to the wider membership at all times. The project would be asset locked so that no-one could ever take the crown jewels and run ”â should the project ever fold it would be legally obliged to hand any remaining assets over to another project with a similar purpose.
The specifics of the plan that have been drawn up by ”ËSave The Odeon’ are to refurbish the building to a 3,000 capacity venue, retaining as many of the original features as is possible. Architects have drawn up detailed plans based on the desire of the group to create a centre for creative arts in the heart of the city, focused on early to mid-term career artists and inspired by the work of the great John Peel. Other uses mooted have been a place for the Bollywood film industry to host UK premieres of major releases in what is (ironically) the first UNESCO City Of Film, and for a venue that integrates seamlessly with the neighbouring Alhambra Theatre, National Media Museum and the ÃÂ£24million City Park that was last year laid at its feet.
The group are aware of the need for a viable business case to accompany their vision and have spent the last 12 months preparing for their chance to present this to the current owners. Since the focus of programming at the venue will be firmly within the niche identified earlier (artists that are mostly surplus to requirements for the major chain venues) there should be no need to see this project as a competing entity. Inversely, a home for a strong independent and alternative music offering may even act as a feeder of both artists and gig-goers to other venues in the wider area. By exploiting this niche they are seeking a business model that is not reliant on funding from local authorities or the Arts Council, but is a self sufficient and sustainable venture.
Plans are already being made to have the building nominated to be placed on the Community Register once the Localism Act comes into force. In doing so the long running battle to save this much loved venue may prove to be the first major test of the effectiveness of this act. Should the attempt succeed and a redeveloped Odeon have observable effects on the regeneration of this city, it could well be the catalyst for a revolution in how the UK live music scene operates at this level.
Art and Music have always been guided by the prevailing political winds. Exploiting opportunities and adapting to fresh ways of working are what have kept many independent artists, venue owners, record labels and music fans one step ahead of the big players, and hopes are high that the Localism Act will open doors that previously seemed firmly shut.