Race to the bottom?

UK Music Diversity Taskforce chairman and Punch Records CEO Ammo Talwar MBE provides his perspective on Black music, local venues and building a stronger musical ecosystem.

You know it, I know it: it’s our local venues and independent hotspots that are the nation’s talent pipeline. Grassroots venues break new artists, break new genres, build them an audience and grow the businesses of their promoters and booking agents – it’s called a positive musical ecosystem. So why can it seem that small venues are the ones who are the first to drop Black acts or genres? Are grassroots venues racist?

Short answer – no, of course not. But when you’re small you’re vulnerable; often to excessive police pressure and to paperwork punishment from local authorities. These are the bosses behind the scenes, masking their biases as health and safety concerns. I know; I was a promoter myself, back in the day. “Guidance” is issued, often last minute and often the promoters or owners have to pay for extra security. Or maybe the event is cancelled outright, and the audience and artist entourage take to Twitter to blast the venue.

It’s often our small, local live venues that have to face this. Big commercial arenas have enough economy of scale to ensure compliance is well resourced. Light bulbs need changing? OK – This was something we did a deep dive into in a panel discussion chaired by ex-Live Nation diversity lead David Carrigan. And this was back in June 2020; FORM 696 (a Risk Assessment form targeting Black artists, Black music promoters and venues that support this innovation) is now five years gone and how much has actually changed?

So how can a small, grassroots venue protect its reputation, its openness and its profit margins, while continuing to book the best new sounds from the street’s? I’m not here to moan and groan, I’m here to offer some solutions that are honest, adoptable and effective:

FOR YOUR ARTISTS – THE ANTI-RACIST RIDER.

Black musicians have been playing to audiences of every size and demographic in the UK for years – European touring has consistently been seen as a positive experience by Black artists. While this still rings true, visa checks and airport interrogations for artists coming in from the Caribbean and Africa – can get the tour off to a bad start. One solution is the anti-racist touring rider. This was developed by key players in the UK’s theatre industry. It offers a kind of outline “code of conduct” and sets the scene for a positive relationship between venue and artists. It could help to reboot the vibe after your artist has spent three hours being Guantanamo-ed by immigration officials at Heathrow.

FOR YOUR AUDIENCE – YOUR HARASSMENT POLICY; UP-FRONT

Door policy is always a source of disappointment, debate and displeasure. It’s easy for audiences in the queue to get angry about perceived prejudice – “she got in, and I didn’t?” – and just as easy for them to start a social media pile-on about your door staff. One way to head this off is to have a harassment policy upfront, next to the dress code, so people know that you expect and respect complaints, and you will deal with them. Off-hand remarks and snap decisions made by security while simultaneously dealing with a critical issue can be a factor.

FOR YOUR VENUE – THE UK MUSIC DIVERSITY SURVEY

UK MUSIC has been running a nationwide diversity survey since 2016 and this year we’re teaming with live music’s key advocacy body LIVE (Live music Industry Venues & Entertainment) to ensure we have sharper data to support better practice and fresh investment.  We are all diverse in some way, and everyone can contribute. It’s not just a box ticking exercise. We have just launched this year’s survey and we need to hear your independent voices with clarity and honesty. Real change is happening on the back of the info we’ve collected so far, and we want to make sure we can support the UK’s grassroots venues – Get involved and be the change we all want to see.

THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE LATEST EDITION OF ACCESS ALL AREAS MAGAZINE  – SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE HERE

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