The Six Six Bar, Cambridge's home of hard rock and metalShona Hoey with permission for Varsity

An alarming report published by the Music Venue Trust has identified 2023 as the “most challenging year” for grassroots music venues since the charity began, with 2024 showing no obvious signs of improvement. The first promises of post-pandemic recovery have been erased by the cost of living crisis, leaving local independent music venues throughout the UK in a state of emergency.

Cambridge is no exception. If we want its music scene to survive, students need to make the most of the bands flooding through its often forgotten venues. However, rising ticket prices mean that this isn’t simply a matter of choice. Pushing for political change so that grassroots music venues receive the support they need and people can afford to enjoy music is essential. Adam O’Sullivan, owner of The Six Six Bar, stresses that “it really is now or never”.

It can be easy to forget just how important these venues are. The sense of community they foster among audiences can be vital in an increasingly atomised world; by the end of a concert, you feel a strange closeness with the people next to you, even if you haven’t spoken to them. Just as importantly, venues give artists a place to learn. Steve Pellegrini, owner of the Portland Arms, explains that “we are the testing area for new talent to perform and perfect their craft”. The next generation of artists could be lost because they have nowhere to get started.

“The next generation of artists could be lost because they have nowhere to get started”

With an average profit margin of 0.5%, grassroots music venues are threatened with closure by every single shock. According to O’Sullivan, the cost-of-living crisis has created a situation where “winning isn’t even enough anymore”. Beyond reducing crowd numbers and pushing up expenses, it means that even sold-out shows won’t necessarily generate enough income to be profitable.

As Pellegrini points out, uncertainty has driven people to purchase tickets at the last minute, leading some promoters to pull shows for fear of low sales. Staff shortages are also increasingly common as sound techs are forced to work on a more temporary basis, taking on second jobs to survive. In combination, these factors have left music venues in a dangerously precarious position.

Venues have few options when choosing how to respond. Cost-cutting measures can only go so far and institutional support is horrifyingly limited. For both The Six Six Bar and The Portland Arms, the Music Venue Trust has offered vital crisis grants and raised the profile of grassroots music venues with Arts Council England. However, O’Sullivan explains that “outside the Music Venue Trust we are on our own.”

In a city like Cambridge, students have an important part to play in solving this problem. Despite the diversity of shows on offer, students rarely venture far from the city centre, meaning that at the Portland Arms, “a big-name touring act might attract some students, but it is traditionally local residents and out-of-town people attending shows.” The most effective way we can support local music is by turning up, whether as part of a student band making the most of the platform offered by local venues or as part of the audience. As O’Sullivan explains, “a show is only as good as its fans.”

“In a city like Cambridge, students have an important part to play in solving this problem”

The problem is that students have been hit just as badly by the cost of living crisis, and ticket prices are rising. While some could trade a night of sticky club floors and overpriced shots for a local concert, this won’t be enough to counter the economic pressures on venues. Political change is needed to deal with the cost of living crisis and offer immediate support to grassroots music venues.

This situation hasn’t emerged from nowhere. Conscious choices including decades of austerity and neglect of the arts have created an increasingly inhospitable economy and have made it difficult for venues to receive funding from organisations like Arts Council England. Conscious action is needed in response. By demanding change from local MPs and supporting movements like the Music Venue Trust, which pushes for the creation of a grassroots music venue fund and a ticket levy to increase investment, students can use their voices to help protect venues that are invaluable for bringing culture and community to Cambridge.