Chelsea Rixson, Managing Director, Brighton Music Office
The following is based on a telephone interview with Emma Webster on 3rd November 2017.
The Brighton Music Office (BMO) was launched in September 2016 and is inspired by the concept of ‘music cities’ that came out of a report published by MusicCanada in 2015. Called ‘The mastering of a music city’, it defines a ‘music city’ as a place with a vibrant music economy which could deliver significant economic, employment, cultural and social benefits for the city and gives ideas of best practice for how to boost that economy. With BIMM’s Phil Nelson, we went through the report and realised that Brighton has many of the key elements of a music city but was missing a music office. Our first idea was to interview key music industry professionals in Brighton to find out about where they come from, and what they need, what are the barriers to success and what we can do to tie that all together. The first thing was to connect Brighton’s music industry so that they use each other and we keep that revenue in the city rather than it going to London. We started by mapping music in Brighton and from there we have created a music directory. Something that was massively missing in Brighton was gig listings; there wasn’t one place you could go to which had all the gig listings since Brighton Noise stopped posting gigs, so we developed a method to ensure that a comprehensive gig listing now exists in Brighton.
One thing that we did differently to other organisations similar to ours is that we started off independently to the local Council. We’re now working in collaboration Brighton & Hove City Council as an advisory guide on live music in Brighton. We would like to remain independent from the Council, rather than being a part of them, so that we remain unbiased and impartial. The Council has commissioned us to write a report about live music, and to develop recommendations for the city to help support the live music community… The Brighton Music Office had been running for quite a while before we began work with the Council. This was more to do with resourcing issues than not backing what we’re trying to do, and now they’re being really proactive. The Council values live music; they see it as the ‘golden egg’ and understand that if we don’t look after it then it could disappear and that this would be a disaster for the city. One thing they want from this report is to make people more aware of how live music benefits the wider Brighton economy, to show how people travelling into the city for live music spend money across a variety of different businesses whilst they are here and not just in live music; for example in restaurants, travel, shopping, hotels, etc. I think that as well as these economic benefits, though, the Council are also interested in people’s standard of living and quality of life; they understand that people also need to have fun, that people work hard and deserve to be able to go out and enjoy and themselves, and that live music is a massive part of that in Brighton
Live music in Brighton is thriving at the moment and the DIY scene is great. There are some venues that are still under threat and receiving noise complaints although the majority of these complaints are generally about the noise outside of the building, rather than the live music itself. In between bands, people will go outside to have a cigarette and if this is a busy show there could potentially be around 50 plus people outside of a venue. It’s got better in the last year or so, and there are no venues currently under serious threat of closure (as far as we are aware) due to noise complaints in Brighton. One of the issues used to be that Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) generally haven’t had any experience of working within live music and therefore don’t have an understanding of how live music works. To give you an example, there was a venue called the Freebutt which got shut down in 2010 due to a noise complaint from one neighbour. It had a noise limiter in the venue which meant that the power would cut out if the music was above a certain level, as set by Environmental Health. Of course, it will take a few seconds for drummers to realise that the music has stopped and to stop playing. The situation occurred when the Freebutt had a visit from EHO, whereby the officer assumed that the venue was bypassing the limiter, when actually it just took a while for the musicians to stop playing. This contributed to the eventual closure of the venue. With this in mind, something we would like to introduce is to provide education and information to Environmental Health Officers about how live music works so that they are more informed in their decisions and prevent any future venues being closed down.
One key issue for the growth of Brighton’s live music industry is that the ‘venue ladder’ in Brighton is not complete, with clear gaps in Brighton’s venue provision. 50% of Brighton’s venues are below 250 capacity, then there are two venues at 350 and then Concorde 2 which is 650, but then it jumps to The Dome, which is 1,800 and is the most expensive venue of its size to hire in the country. Then we jump up to the Brighton Centre which is 4,500 and is facing demolition for the redevelopment of Churchill Square, the shopping centre which is going to be extended to the seafront. Ideally, Brighton needs a 1,000 capacity venue. If you look at the sort of bands who tend to play that sized venue, they generally miss out Brighton when they tour the UK, and so the wider economy is missing out as well. There’s been some talk of a new 10,000 seater arena being built in the Black Rock area and we would like to see a 1,000 capacity venue tacked on to the side of it. In addition to bringing in bands to Brighton, a lot of the local bands can get big on the DIY scene in the city and then they need that big home show in order to move up to the next level of their career; a 1000 capacity venue would enable this.
There seems to be a good balance between national promoters and local promoters like Melting Vinyl, One Inch Badge, and Lout. One issue we have, and I am sure this happens in other cities too, is that grassroots promoters get charged a higher fee to hire a venue than the national or major local promoters. The people that are the heavy hitters who can afford to pay the extra money should, and the promoters working on a tighter budget should be able to take advantage of the cheaper rate. I can understand why it is this way: the venues believe that the national promoters will bring in more people who will spend more money at the bar and they will therefore take more money, which is essential when running a live music venue, but we need to look at how we can encourage more people to put on live music. Say there’s a venue that costs £100 to hire but the national promoter gets it for £50, for the larger promoter that extra £50 is nothing; they can make that back in two to four tickets. For grassroots promoters that £50 could go towards marketing or printing some flyers, for example, getting more people into the venue or paying one of the bands. Those tiny little margins really really help the grassroots promoters rather than the national ones so there’s a need to work with venues to encourage them to charge grassroots promoters to a lower hire fee.
Our work with the Council includes us looking at best practice in other cities and judging if any of these would work in Brighton. I think the city would really benefit from a ‘Night Mayor’. The Night Mayor would work on behalf of those who work in the night-time economy. Things like business rates really need to be taken into account, especially for live music venues. Licensing also needs to be looked at. Under-18s find it really difficult to go to gigs in Brighton. Brighton’s got a really big thing with their ID-ing policy. (I’m 29 and I will still get ID-ed at every single venue that I go to.) This can cause more of a long term issue for Brighton: the majority of the people who work within live music now fell in love with it when they were 14 or 15 when they first started going to gigs. However, the majority of DIY shows take place at strictly over-18 venues. There are a few venues that will do shows for under-18s—Patterns and Komedia for example—but these are bigger shows, with a higher ticket price. The venue charges a larger higher fee because they need to cover the cost of having extra security staff. In order for a venue to attempt to make a change to their premises licence, they have to go to a licensing board and it costs them around £1,000. It also means that any of the terms they have on their licence are up for discussion, and they may not even get approval for what they are requesting, so venues tend to avoid this process. I believe it is imperative to maintaining Brighton’s thriving music scene for the live music industry and the council to find a way in which 14-17 year olds are able to go to see live music. The main thing is protecting children from harm and then looking at what we can put in place to help venues to allow young people in. Young people don’t necessarily have the money to be able to afford to go to pubs but they do have the money to go to a corner shop, which have less strict ID-ing policy, and buy a bottle of wine or vodka and go and sit on the beach where they’re really at risk. We need to find a way to bring them into an environment where they are safe; they’re not drinking alcohol but they’re able to experience live music. In addition to ensuring that minors are able to enjoy live music, we also need to make it accessible to people with learning difficulties, and those with physical disabilities. We want to create a unified guidance document for venues, with assistance from the council, which includes advice on things like child protection policies, so that there’s consistency across all venues, in order to ensure that parents know that their children are safe, and that live music is accessible to everyone in the wider community.