Jazz Clubs 2023
by Howard Lawes
Howard Lawes looks at the situation facing UK Jazz Clubs as they enter 2023
The Music Venue Trust (MVT) is a charity that was created in January 2014, with the aim of securing the long-term future of those iconic Grassroots Music Venues which have played a crucial role in the development of British popular music. The following year a report was published that proposed a rescue plan for Grassroots Music Venues in London that had been closing at an alarming rate.
Part of the conclusion of the report was that "there is now a need to rebuild London’s grassroots venues and invest in new talent so that all parts of the music industry ecosystem return to full health". However, the type of grassroots music venues referred to in the report, and in the subsequent progress report, published in 2017, were generally commercial businesses, with full-time employees, and that appeared to generate significant tax revenue.
With a few exceptions, such as Ronnie Scott's club in London, most jazz music venues and clubs are run largely or entirely by volunteers and it has become increasingly clear in recent times that such clubs tend to get overlooked when financial assistance is distributed. There has, of course, always been a turnover of music venues and clubs, but in recent times more have been closing than opening. Live jazz is very often performed in pubs and social clubs and many of these establishments have closed as pubs themselves have gone out of fashion. It is often likely these days that volunteer-run jazz clubs operate in function rooms and art centres producing weekly gigs, while professionally run venues, which usually include bar and restaurant facilities and are open up to seven days a week. Clubs are reported to be struggling and there are perhaps at least four significant reasons for this.
The Covid pandemic roared through the UK in early 2020 and restrictions on social mixing immediately forced music venues to close for an indefinite period depriving audiences of live entertainment but more importantly depriving musicians and associated workers of a primary source of income. The government spent huge amounts of money supporting salaried employees through a ‘furlough scheme’ and businesses through grants and loans. In England, the music industry received help through the Culture Recovery Fund including an Emergency Grassroots Music Venue Fund but many musicians and jazz clubs that hired (rather than owned) their venue were not included. As the predicament of the jazz clubs that did not receive funding became clear letters were exchanged between concerned organisations and the government highlighting the situation, but for many, particularly those who love jazz, they found the responses from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) disappointing.
Increases in the Cost of Living – including energy and interest rates, have affected us all and while the impact has been ameliorated to some extent for householders, some businesses and voluntary organisations have needed more support. At many venues, ticket prices have been increased to cover costs inevitably audiences have had to decide what to spend their money on and so, when it comes to choosing between, food, heating and going out to hear some jazz the choice for many will be a simple one. A further disincentive to leaving home and mixing with others is that some people are still very wary of catching Covid, flu or other viruses.
Lack of Funding for clubs remains a problem. Smaller jazz clubs find it difficult to secure funding from arts councils, local arts groups and business sponsorships. Typically arts councils are willing to fund initiatives that somehow benefit groups of people who would otherwise miss out (e.g. ethnic minorities, the young, etc.) but they generally do not fund normal running costs. Once a club is unable to generate sufficient revenue to pay its way and exhausts its reserves it is likely that it will have to close.
In some respects, Planning and Licensing regulations also appear to be having an effect on premises used by clubs. In 2018 an amendment was agreed by Parliament to the National Planning and Policy Framework such that any new development planned for a site next to noise-making premises would need to mitigate any potential risk to the existing premises before receiving planning permission (this is referred to as the Agent of Change principle). However, it seems that the application of this principle is inconsistent among planning authorities and anomalies exist. An example has been a recent case in Manchester involving a cafe and music venue called Night and Day. In this instance, an existing commercial building next to Night and Day was converted into accommodation. Following complaints from the new residents, the continued existence of Night and Day was put into doubt and at present the legal situation remains unresolved - details are here.
A recent report from the House of Lords states "Significant issues remain between the licensing and planning systems and little progress has been made in addressing the lack of coordination between the two systems. The Government must work with all interested parties to establish clear mechanisms for the licensing and planning systems to work together and communicate effectively".
The current situation with regard to jazz clubs has been raised as part of a survey being undertaken by Chris Hodgkins, secretary to the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group. APPJAG includes over one hundred members from both houses of parliament who have an interest in the music and seek to promote it in the UK. Their website here includes copies of correspondence between those concerned about the current state of jazz music in the light of the problems outlined above.
Guitarist Nigel Price has been running a campaign called ‘Grassroots Jazz’ aimed at supporting small clubs that get into difficulties and have no other source of funding. Further information is available here.
Swansea Jazz Club in South Wales is one of the longest-running weekly jazz clubs in the UK. It was founded in 1949 and continues to present weekly jazz events in Swansea, hosting local and international bands and musicians. The club is run on a not-for-profit basis and its sole source of income is ticket sales. Since the Coronavirus pandemic, the size of the audience has varied a great deal, resulting in unreliable takings at the box office and making it very difficult to justify continuing with a weekly programme. Fortunately, the club has received financial support throughout 2022 from Jazz Club Patrons, donations, and the Grass Roots Jazz support fund and is now able to look forward to the future with renewed confidence. The state of affairs at Swansea Jazz Club epitomises the situation for many.
On the other hand, some jazz clubs seem to be doing fine. Pizza Express in London and Peggy's Skylight in Nottingham are commercial businesses that include a bar and restaurant together with the music. There is typically an admission fee on top of the bar and restaurant bill. Because these establishments are businesses, paying taxes and employing staff they would have been able to claim assistance from the Culture Recovery Fund which was delivered in a series of tranches.
The Globe, Newcastle is owned and run by a community co-operative of 230 members and in 2021 it won awards for Small Community Co-op of The Year and a Parliamentary Jazz Award for ‘Lockdown Innovation’. It has been remarkably successful in securing three awards from the Culture Recovery Fund and one from Power to Change which is an organisation that seeks to strengthen communities through community businesses.
All jazz clubs, like any other venture that relies on its income from the general public, has to make ends meet. However, there are various strategies that all jazz clubs might consider to improve their income-raising capabilities and the author is indebted to representatives of Mood Indigo Events, Guildford Jazz, Wakefield Jazz Club, Seven Arts (Jazz Leeds) and Watermill Jazz Club who kindly took time to discuss the management of their clubs.
During the pandemic, all entertainment venues were forced to close and this caused a great deal of hardship for everyone professionally involved in all performance art. As mentioned above some venues were able to receive financial help through the Culture Recovery Fund while others were not. During and after the pandemic some venues endeavoured to provide assistance to the artists who were deprived of their living from live performance. Some venues were able to set up socially distanced performances that were live-streamed to audiences via the internet and those that watched were either charged a fee or invited to donate. Live-streamed performances were often transmitted from art centres or larger club premises that already possessed the equipment necessary to produce such events.
Another type of event, requiring less in the way of technical equipment, was transmitted via ‘Zoom’. Once again a fee was charged to receive the transmission and in this case rather than perform, artists could chat and play recorded music. Some artists were additionally supported by the use of online donation sites such as ‘JustGiving’ and often they were able to receive as much in charitable donations as they would have received had they been able to perform.
As restrictions were eased, audiences were allowed to return to venues but were required to socially distance themselves. This was only possible in seated venues with seats placed two metres apart. Because this arrangement caused a significant reduction in how many could attend a performance at any one time venues presented two separate performances per evening without intervals. In some venues, particularly those that provide food and drink at tables, this arrangement continues and provides extra revenue for both the venue and the artist.
The hospitality industry continues to experience problems with lack of staff and this is leading to some pubs and restaurants reducing the number of hours that they remain open. This problem will only affect the larger venues that employ bar and restaurant staff but the restrictions on travel and work permits for those travelling from Europe also impacts the cost and availability of jazz musicians. Audience numbers are yet to return consistently to the level that they were before the pandemic and this could due, not just to the continuing reluctance of some people to mix socially, but also to the cost of living crisis that is affecting everyone.
Jazz clubs are struggling with the dilemma of paying increased costs while not wishing to discourage audiences with higher ticket prices. Club members in affluent areas are understandably more able and willing to pay higher ticket prices but elsewhere clubs are drawing on their reserves. Recruitment and retention of the audience is a perennial problem, compounded by the fact that the average age of many jazz club audiences is on the high side. Clubs, such as Leeds, which began with Trad Jazz in the 1960s, have inevitably had to attract new people with new music performed in new venues, but some clubs find recruitment of new audiences very difficult. Club committees also grow old at the same rate as their audiences. Typically a club needs a committee of five or six people who take on certain roles and finding a volunteer publicist, web designer or sound engineer can be a huge problem.
Of course, it is not all gloom and doom. Many jazz clubs of all sizes run successfully and continue for many to be an essential part of the social and cultural life of their communities. Often jazz clubs were initiated by the chance meeting of musicians, or friends of musicians, who decided that running a jazz club would be a lovely thing to do and still find that the joy and inspiration outweigh the problems that inevitably arise. A benefit for musicians who run clubs is that they can be part of a house band, and this will sometimes lead to further performance opportunities elsewhere.
Many successful jazz clubs run a membership scheme or sell season tickets that provide those that join with certain privileges. These privileges include early booking of tickets but in some cases by using an online membership platform such as ‘Patreon’ members can access free live streams, videos, recordings and other perks. The Globe in Newcastle has set up a cooperative so that members actually own the venue and are part of a not-for-profit business. This initiative paid huge dividends during the pandemic as it qualified them for three payments from the Culture Recovery Fund. The great benefit for the club of a membership scheme is that the money is raised upfront and audiences are incentivised to come to gigs, even if the performer is not someone they have heard of before. Committed members encourage programmers to plan a more exciting and adventurous programme. The most successful clubs have around 250 members.
Co-operation between clubs can be very helpful and examples include the Jazz in Reading website which has built up a large mailing list and advertises gigs from pubs, clubs and theatres over a wide area centred on Reading. Clubs that are close to large cities (which particularly applies to those in the home counties around London) can arrange to sign very high-profile artists who are visiting the UK to appear at top venues but who would not normally have ventured outside the city. Co-operation can also be possible between clubs and academic conservatoires of music, either to gain access to teaching staff for special educational projects or to provide opportunities for stars of the future to perform.
Many clubs run additional money-making activities such as raffles, and this can lead to a more friendly and welcoming atmosphere. In fact, for many clubs, the audience comes for the venue as much as for any particular artist, based on their confidence that they will enjoy great entertainment and be able to socialise with friends who have similar musical tastes.
In addition to regular gigs some clubs run amateur ensembles, choirs and jam sessions which can all contribute to enhancing the cultural life of a community and raise extra revenue. Sometimes clubs organise festivals that not only raise the profile of the club but also raise money for charity with Guildford Jazz being an example of a club that has raised thousands of pounds for philanthropic initiatives in the local area. One club encourages members to pass on unwanted CDs and records, perhaps as a bequest, which can then be sold to raise additional funds.
Clubs are aware that the way music is enjoyed has changed significantly over the years, particularly for young people who have embraced the internet and streaming. Young people are perhaps less likely to want to sit still in rows of seats and for many, the fact that dancing to some jazz music is becoming more popular again is excellent news. Whether, seated, standing or dancing nothing can compare with a thrilling live performance that in most jazz clubs takes place almost within touching distance of the audience. In continuing to provide these unique experiences jazz clubs take great care to supply the best possible conditions for both musician and audience. Excellent pianos, PA systems and acoustics will encourage artists to choose a particular venue as will the hospitality that they receive.
Publicity is always going to be important to any club selling a product to the public. The importance of websites, social media, listing sites and email is difficult to quantify but word of mouth and personal recommendation is still a very important part of the mix and this is likely to be just as true for younger audiences as it is for older ones. Regular emails to those that subscribe keep the club and the club programme in mind, and are likely to generate a reaction, particularly if recipients know that tickets are selling well. An initiative in Guildford has seen the jazz club team up with a local contemporary music venue with Arts Council support targeting a new, young audience of music fans to the venue and with a focus on engaging students from nearby further education colleges. This new audience was engaged through the scheduling and marketing of a diverse programme of emerging local and national talent that included several young jazz artists. Clubs that are located in towns or cities visited by tourists might ask tourist information centres to emphasise the diverse nature of attractions in the area, including the local jazz club.
Jazz lovers in Newcastle have purchased premises and are running it as a successful venue, not just for jazz performances but for a range of related activities that are improving the cultural life of a whole community. The Globe hosts a wide range of genres including jazz, folk, rock, classical and spoken word. Some jazz can be described as ‘traditional’, ‘mainstream’ or ‘contemporary’, but The Globe also hosts many cross-genre performances that defy definition. A new development was highlighted by Gilles Peterson in a recent article in The Guardian 'The Boundary Between Club Culture And Jazz Is Finally Breaking Down' where he describes how live jazz music is proving to be a success in the London club culture (previously known as ‘discotheques’), that is typically the preserve of DJs and turntables.
Jazz has always moved with the times, often setting the trend in music and dance. Jazz clubs can continue to be successful as some of the examples above illustrate but as with so many ventures they have to adapt to prosper and surely they will.