Britain’s live music industry is enjoying it's most profitable year on record, as people flock to see mega-stars like Harry Styles, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. But as the infrastructure which supports new talent crumbles, is this sustainable?
For the live music industry, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. Thanks to sky-high ticket prices and a series of sell-out stadium tours, the sector is enjoying its most profitable year on record, with experts forecasting continuous growth across the next four years. But the boom times are not booming for everyone: at the bottom rung of the latter, small-scale venues are either struggling to survive or vanishing at an alarming rate.
On a long-term scale, this growing divergence presents an existential problem for the music industry, particularly at a time when record executives are complaining that it’s harder than ever to break new stars. If there are no small venues where emerging artists can cut their teeth, it raises the question of who will be headlining Wembley in ten years’ time. The industry cannot dine out on already-established megastars forever.
It might seem counter-intuitive that the live music boom is happening in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis – isn’t everyone supposed to be broke? But it actually fits into wider patterns of consumer behaviour: whether it’s club nights or concerts, people going out less frequently and saving up for big events (or whacking tickets on a credit card to worry about later). It’s no great mystery that people are scrambling to see the likes of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé or Harry Styles, some of the world’s most popular artists whose previous tours have generated a similar degree of hype.
“If you think about it, this behavior is not actually new,” says Dr Adam Behr, senior lecturer in contemporary and popular music at Newcastle University. “Back in the 1960s and 1970s, people would queue outside the box office the night before it opened – if you look at archived footage of a Beatles concert, or whoever, it was much the same thing.”
But the data shows that the current demand is on a different scale, as does a cursory glance at social media anytime over the past six months. We are in the midst of a ticket frenzy, which can’t be explained by economic factors or the popularity of these artists alone. On the one hand, fans are not happy about how difficult and expensive live music has become – if the CEO of Ticketmaster hasn’t gone into hiding just yet, the thought must surely have crossed their mind. But in another sense, the often fiendishly complex process of securing tickets to a top-level stadium gig seems to be part of the fun.
As someone with a handful of Swiftie friends, I have witnessed first-hand their steely, cold-blooded determination; the planning sessions and elaborate spreadsheets; the ecstasy of securing a “code” (whatever that means); the triumph of queuing for hours and finally being granted access to a better queue. And when it pays off… Swiftie Valhalla: back-row seats at a football stadium on the outskirts of a third-tier German city.
“The competition and rush of getting tickets is definitely part of it,” Fran, a 26-year-old communications officer and avid Taylor Swift fan, tells Dazed. “There’s also a fans v ‘bots’ mentality, the sense you’re in a battle with fellow fans against bots, scalpers and touts. That can’t be the whole truth, really, but it does come into play.” Securing tickets also becomes a status symbol, with fans listing the gigs they’re going to in their social media bios or bragging that they’ve survived “The Great War” (a reference to a song).
Sophie, 25, isn’t exactly a “Swiftie”, but has still found herself swept up in the hysteria around the ‘Eras’ tour, partly because the process was so all-encompassing. “Even if I have been caught up in it,” she tells Dazed. “Wanting to go to multiple dates, wanting specific surprise songs, needing multiple code sign-ups – nothing like this ever comes into play with any other gig.”
However much they might complain, it makes sense that fans would – in some ways – enjoy the difficulty of buying tickets. The fact that scarcity drives demand is a basic economic fact: generally speaking when something is harder to come by, we will go to greater lengths and spend more money to attain it. “It becomes a kind of self-fulling circle,” Mark Dayvid, CEO of Music Venues Trust, tells Dazed. “There really is no limit to what people will pay or how much they will fight to get the tickets because everybody wants to be the person who’s going.” The emotional connection which many fans feel towards their favorite artists lends this scarcity an extra level of intensity – what self-respecting Swiftie could withstand the shame of failing to get tickets, of letting Taylor down, of being jeered at, mocked or pitied by their fellow fans for simply not trying hard enough?
Even though enthusiasm for live music has never been higher, there’s little indication that this is benefiting smaller venues. According to Dayvid, 68 have closed so far this year, 84 are in a state of emergency, and the MVT have been unable to contact a further 92, who they believe may have stopped doing live music. “The contrast between those two things is only sustainable if you take an incredibly short-term view on the music industry,” says Dayvid. The infrastructure which supports new talent is in danger of total collapse, which – in an industry dependent on legacy acts – is shoring up problems further down the line.
It’s likely that Beyoncé or Harry Styles will still be performing in ten years’ time. But barring some miraculous new advances in anti-ageing technology, that’s probably not the case for The Rolling Stones (the highest-grossing tour of 2021) or Elton John, whose ongoing farewell tour has become the highest-grossing of all time. Dr Behr’s research shows that stadium gigs typically have a positive economic impact, particularly for hotels and restaurants, but the “trickle-down” benefits for local music scenes are few and far between. Instead, Dayvid suggests, newly constructed stadiums tend to draw customers and workers away from existing venues, rather than creating new markets and jobs. It could be the case for some people, but going to see Harry Styles once every couple of years is not necessarily going to inspire you to start seeking out unsigned bands in the upstairs room of your local pub.
Based on our current trajectory, the worst-case scenario is that small venues disappear and increasingly expensive stadium gigs become the only way of experiencing music. But according to Dr Behr, it’s unlikely the grassroots will vanish outright – there will always be some kind of appetite for it. “Musicians and venue operators are incredibly resourceful, so they’ll find a way to make things work. A lot of live music has always been grass growing through the cracks in the concrete,” he says. “But do we want another generation of people continually having to struggle to make things work? We can’t take anything for granted, and we have the chance now to have both stadium gigs and support local grassroots venues. Why not do that? Just because someone will find a way to do something, doesn’t mean we should make it hard for them – we could have better live music if we supported the industry.”
With the goal of building a more sustainable future for the industry, Music Venues Trust has launched a ‘Pipeline Investment Fund’, which provides financial support to grassroots venues. Enter Shikari has pledged one pound from every ticket sold from their 2024 arena tour towards this initiative, and the MVT is calling on other artists to do the same. As Dayvid sees it, this is not an act of charity, but necessary for the survival of the industry. “I don’t want to get on a moral high horse about it, I just want to talk sense: if you are making millions of pounds out of the top end and you are not investing in a crumbling infrastructure that got those artists to the point where they can make that money, that’s incredibly short-sighted.”
The present state of live music is depressing precisely because it’s not unique. Across society and culture we are seeing the same divergence, where wealth and resources are funneled upwards as people at the bottom end struggle to survive. Stadium gigs can be a lot of fun, but as Dr Behr argues, they have to be part of a wider ecology that includes small and medium-sized venues. Without that, the future looks bleak. In a decade’s time, do we want an exciting and generative music culture? Or do we want to be spending £2,000 to watch an AI hologram of Paul McCartney play a sell-out show at the Elf Bar arena, with support from Muse and the “ice cream so good” girl?