Protecting Brighton’s independent music venues

A local campaign to protect live music venues in Brighton has met with success in an unusual show of unity from the Greens, Labour and the Conservatives.

Spoilt for choice

Growing up in the heady midst of the North Laine – arguably the cultural heart of Brighton – has made it all too easy to take the diverse culture of this city for granted, especially the vibrant nightlife and eclectic live music which has always been pretty much on my doorstep.

I certainly was guilty of this, or at least I used to be, until a few years ago I started to notice that some of my most frequented independent venues such as The Freebutt and then The Blind Tiger (formerly the much loved Hector’s House) were being forced to close their doors. It may be a massive cliché, but it is true that you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone – or closed and boarded up in this case.

A trend towards the mainstream

At around this time, I also became aware of an emerging trend amongst the seafront venues, which were noticeably becoming more and more homogenous and gradually stopped putting on the more niche nights that they had embraced previously. As far as I can tell, the reason for this is that as the student population in Brighton has consistently grown, the larger venues along the seafront have understandably gone all out to make the most of this. To maximise profits on student nights, they started to put on large scale, low cost events that cater for the musical tastes of the greatest number. This inevitably means sticking to playing more generic and “crowd-pleasing” mainstream music, so as not to risk alienating anyone. Fair enough, I can see this makes sense as a business strategy, but it’s that bit harder to accept when it is happening in tandem with less mainstream venues elsewhere in Brighton being forced to close.

A loss of diversity

In itself, the larger seafront venues playing purely to the masses doesn’t have too much of a negative impact on the diversity of Brighton’s music scene – so long as there are still smaller, independent venues out there that cater to a range of more specific tastes and offer a bit more character. But as these venues have started to close, we risk losing the diversity and spectrum of choice of music and environment that we once had. The combined effect of these two phenomena has served to make Brighton that bit less diverse and feel less “like itself” as a consequence.

The most depressing part of this is that these venues have not been forced to close due to lack of popularity or failure to do good business, as you may well have suspected. Rather, these venues have been forced to close due to a legal loophole that has been ruthlessly taken advantage of by some particularly intolerant individuals.

The Environmental Protection Act

The Environmental Protection Act enabled people who knowingly moved in close to a live music venue – which surely, you wouldn’t do unless you were willing to be tolerant about what that encompassed – to complain about the noise levels and eventually to force the closure of the venue. This ill-thought out piece of legislation has meant that well established venues were forced to shut due to the lack of foresight and lack of tolerance of their new neighbours.

You may be wondering why I’ve raised the issue of musical diversity and highlighted the loss of independent venues specifically, as on the face of it this is not a law that affects independent venues in particular. It just so happens that, in practice, it does in Brighton. This is due to the size and location of venues, which determines their nature; independent or chain.  The smaller venues are in more residential areas, either below a flat or in a terraced block, and these are predominantly independent venues due to their size and thus the nature of events they can host.

In contrast, many of the large seafront clubs which lend themselves to big commercial nights are owned by chains. As such, the effect of the Environmental Protection Act is to leave these independent venues open to noise complaints from their neighbours which can eventually force them to shut down. This is far less likely to happen to the chain clubs who don’t have neighbours in close proximity. So, in practice, it has become an issue of lack of protection for independent venues which then impacts the range of musical events on offer; it has become an issue of diversity.

A campaign to protect music venues

Local resident Mark Stack, not content to let this legal loophole continue to be exploited to the detriment of Brighton and Hove’s music scene, set up a petition to get the wording of the act revised in order to offer more protection to music venues. The campaign has met with lots of support from Brighton’s residents, promoters and artists and has gained much local press coverage, such as an article in The Argus which featured case studies of venues affected.

On March 29th 2015, following a council meeting, Mark posted a petition update in the campaign on change.org to announce that he had received support from across the political parties to back the petition and push for parliamentary review of the act. Mark said in the update: “In a very rare show of unity the Conservatives, Labour and the Greens officially agreed that the Environmental Protection Act was flawed and, whilst still continuing to protect residents from excessive noise, needed rewording to protect music venues from unscrupulous noise complaints intended to close them down.”

The next step in the campaign will be to create a “Brighton Declaration of Music Venue Protection”; a city wide declaration backed politicians, venue owners, promoters, music and city organisations and musicians. The declaration will state that the city of Brighton and Hove calls for the Environmental Protection Act to be reworded to protect music venues and residents. Mark hopes that other towns and cities will join in making similar declarations with a view to a national petition calling for the legislation to be amended by parliament.

If your town or city is affected by similar issues, I would urge you to get in touch with Mark and learn from the success of his campaign and develop and alliance to strengthen your cause and protect the diversity of music venues nationwide.

Do leave a comment below and share your thoughts on my thoughts!

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