Music

The U.K. Has Elected a New Government. Can It Help the Live Music Scene?

The U.K. has elected a new government. Following the country’s General Election on Thursday (July 4), Labour won an overwhelming majority with 412 elected MPs, and its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is the new Prime Minister. The U.K. had been under Conservative rule since 2010, but the Rishi Sunak-led party lost 249 seats, finishing with just 121, the worst result in its history.

This comes as little surprise, as polling consistently put the left-wing party Labour ahead of its rivals. The only real question was how comprehensive the result would be. Starmer’s success rivals previous Prime Minister Tony Blair and his landslide victory with Labour in 1997’s General Election.

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Starmer ran his campaign on a ticket of “Change,” but few knew quite what that meant. There were promises of economic growth and a greater respect for the office, but a final YouGov poll released the day prior to the election found that only 5% of registered voters were choosing Labour MPs for “policy reasons.” Despite the seat majority — 326 elected MPs are required to win in the U.K.’s first-past-the-post electoral system — Labour’s vote share has increased by just 1.5% from the 2019 General Election that it lost comprehensively. It’s been a line of attack hammered repeatedly: What does Labour actually stand for?

It’s a question that the music industry has been asking, too. Between the cost-of-living crisis, the rise in inflation and the long-running impact of Brexit, a perfect storm has been brewing under the Conservatives which, Ed Sheeran suggested earlier this week, did “not value art at all”. 

There are positive noises. In its manifesto, Labour says it “will implement our creative industries sector plan as part of our Industrial Strategy, creating good jobs and accelerating growth in film, music, gaming, and other creative sectors.” There are references to assisting performers in touring through the EU, ensuring “new consumer protections on ticket resales” and plans to ban “no fault” evictions which, as NME previously reported, is contributing to the housing crisis felt by creatives and society at large.

Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), is optimistic that the members he campaigns on behalf of — venues, clubs, bars, performers, workers and more — feel positively towards the new government. Fourty four percent of respondents to the NTIA’s Consumer Insight Survey feel that Labour is supportive of the arts, culture and sport, compared to the Conservatives at just 11%.

“There’s been lots of positive rhetoric behind the scenes,” says Kill, but “it still seems very unclear where Labour is from the manifesto.” There will now be additional concern that Thangam Debbonaire, who had been widely expected to become the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, failed to win her seat in her Bristol Central constituency; she is one of just two shadow cabinet ministers to not join the party in government.

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The changes that Kill and other industry bodies like the Music Venue Trust (MVT) are calling for are simple. He points to the VAT rate (Value Added Tax) that campaigners like the NTIA and Save Our Scene want reduced to 12.5%, and a reduction of VAT on tickets for music events at grassroots venues. They say these changes would bring them closer to comparative rates in Europe. 

In 2022, it was estimated that the nighttime economy generated £136.5 billion, an increase from 2019’s pre-pandemic figure of £121.3 billion, but the NTIA’s report notes that inflation and an increase in operating costs means that any turnover gains will be “essentially wiped out.” Between policy, legislative and financial issues, the live music and hospitality industry is on the back foot. 

“We do need to change the attitude in terms of the value we bring,” Kill says. “The nighttime economy needs to start to be perceived as non-burdensome and more value-driven. The worry that we have is that the U.K. is going to lose that status as a real driver of culture.”

There are similarly pressing issues for artists, too. Lily Fontaine, lead singer of indie-rock band English Teacher, which released its critically acclaimed debut album This Could Be Texas on Island Records this year, says artists like themselves are in a dire position. “I’m still not earning. It’s still a struggle for me and my band,” she says. “And it’s even more of a struggle for smaller artists that are trying to make a career.”

When Fontaine gave evidence to the Culture Media & Sport Parliamentary Committee on Grassroots Music Venues in March, she pointed out the “cost-of-touring” crisis and the burden it places on her and her band to keep their tour crew — from technicians to production staff — employed and paid. Though the band received funding from PPL Momentum Accelerator to help record its first single, the sheer cost will lead to a landscape unrepresentative of the U.K.’s diverse music scenes. 

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“We didn’t have enough time to maintain full-time jobs to get enough money,” Fontaine says. “It was so hard to create and to enjoy creating [our debut album] when you’ve got to think about earning. Then that creates a homogenised scene because only the people that can afford it would do it.”

Manchester-based musician Chloe Slater — who released her single “Nothing Shines On This Island” earlier this year — is concerned that young people are being priced out of music events that help inspire creativity, and that grassroots music venues are closing at an alarming rate. The MVT says that 125 grassroots venues shut down in 2023, while the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) says that 50 independent music festivals have been canceled, postponed or closed in 2024. 

“Grassroots venues and festivals [are] where young musicians hone their craft, and the industry is an ecosystem,” Slater says. “And if you lose those venues, it’s such a massive part of that. I don’t understand where all the new artists are supposed to come from if they’re not there.”

A levy on tickets at larger venues to help support the grassroots venues has been recommended by MPs. Kill welcomes this suggestion but wants to ensure the whole ecosystem is supported, not just music venues. Elsewhere, Labour has suggested a crackdown on secondary ticket touts, but its position on AI is still uncertain, even as it’s become a pressing topic in the music industry and beyond.

The in-tray is bulging and the U.K. music industry is holding its breath, hoping that the incoming Labour government can meet the challenge.

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