Fears for music's 'toilet circuit': Small venues that nurtured big stars are increasingly at risk of closure

Soaring rents, noise pollution orders and the converting of neighbouring office blocks to apartments have combined to force struggling venues to close their doors
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The Independent Culture

It is affectionately known as the "toilet circuit", the network of small music venues across Britain from which the next stadium-filler might emerge. But now these noisy backroom clubs could face the threat of closure unless ministers change the law to protect them.

Soaring rents, residents seeking to enforce noise pollution orders, and developers converting neighbouring office blocks to apartments have combined to force struggling venues, which have traditionally spawned stars from Arctic Monkeys to Ed Sheeran, to close their doors.


Noise issues have forced the closure of the Freebutt in Brighton and the 200 Club in Newport, Gwent.

Ed Sheeran backed a successful campaign to rescue the Boileroom in Guildford, Surrey where the singer, who has announced three nights at Wembley Stadium, once played. Also under threat are Liverpool music venues The Kazimier and Nation, the home of Cream, where developers plan to rent short-term serviced apartments in an area known for late-night music.

The Buffalo Bar, a sweaty 300-capacity dive in Islington, north London, which gave Foals and The Horrors early breaks, is the latest music venue facing closure. The owners say they have been evicted at short notice by freeholder County Estate Pubs, and its leaseholder, Stonegate Pub Company, which owns the Slug & Lettuce chain.

The rock trio The Subways and former shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, the local MP, are protesting against the decision. "It's been going for years, and some very important bands started there," Ms Thornberry said. "It's been around for 14 years, opening late, and no one has complained to me. I've written to the leaseholders and hopefully they'll come round."

Developers are being encouraged by planning law amendments to bring disused spaces back into use. They are allowed to build flats on top of an established venue, move the residents in and if one person complains about the noise, that venue could face closure.

Hope of the States play the Buffalo Bar, north London (Rex)

More than 30,000 music fans have signed an e-petition urging the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to ensure anyone who buys or rents a property within a set distance of a music venue should sign a waiver giving up the right to complain about noise.

Frank Turner, the folk-punk singer, and ambassador for next January's Independent Venue Week, hopes to meet Culture Secretary Sajid Javid to broker a solution. "The toilet circuit is vital," he said. "It gave groups like Biffy Clyro and Arctic Monkeys space to develop, hone their craft and build audiences. Without these clubs the only people able to play the O2 Arena will be X Factor Christmas tours."

Turner wants to see the "agent of change" principle, which applies in Australia and Canada, introduced here. Any developer building an flat block near an established live music venue would have to pay for soundproofing, while a live music venue opening in a residential area would be responsible for the costs.

A resident who moves close to a music venue would be assessed as having done so understanding that there's going to be noise – and venues must manage their impact.

Turner said: "I'm not opposed to development but there's an imbalance of justice. It only needs one or two residents moving in to make a noise complaint and a venue that's been there for 25 years can get shut down. The agent of change principle seems entirely sensible. It just gives some recognition that there is a culturally significant precedent there."

Frank Turner is ambassador for next year's Independent Venue Week

Defra argues that current legislation "strikes the appropriate balance between managing the noise environment and considering the needs of business", but Mr Turner says the Music Venues Trust campaign believes some ministers are sympathetic. Turning the volume down is not an option, he says.

"I do play unplugged now and then but if I'm going to a punk-rock show I want it to be loud. Venues can be sound-proofed. There's so much red tape and the profit margins running a club are so small that fighting a legal challenge is often enough to close a club.

"I hope ministers recognise that live rock music generates a lot of economic activity, without being a subsidised part of the arts. That should be taken into account as much as complaints about noise."

A debate on "noise v nuisance" will be held at London's Southbank centre during the first national Venues Day on 9 December.