One of the U.K.’s most storied venues is facing the prospect of permanent closure.
The O2 Academy Brixton in South London has been out of action since December, following a fatal crush at a gig by Nigerian singer Asake. Two people died in the tragic incident and several investigations were launched, while a BBC report said some members of the venue’s security staff was allowing ticketless fans into gigs in exchange for money.
The Metropolitan Police has now applied for the venue – which has played host to the likes of Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Rihanna, the Clash and the Smiths over the years – to have its license revoked. That request will be considered by Lambeth Council in an upcoming meeting, alongside the Academy Music Group-owned venue’s suggestions for changes to its license that would address police concerns.
“AMG has cooperated fully with the Metropolitan Police and Lambeth Council since the tragedy at Brixton occurred,” an AMG statement said. “We have had regular meetings and discussions at which we have presented detailed proposals that we believe will enable the venue to reopen safely. AMG has been awaiting feedback on those proposals for several weeks and looks forward to hearing from the police as soon as possible in constructive terms.”
In the meantime, many in the music industry have shared details of a petition to save the venue. While everyone in the business acknowledges the need to find out what went wrong at the Asake show, many in the live sector believe the closure of such an important venue would have a detrimental effect on both the local Brixton economy and London’s wider live music scene.
Originally a cinema, the Academy has been staging gigs since the 1980s and, with a capacity of just under 5,000, is one of the biggest non-arena venues in London and hugely popular with American touring artists.
“The Asake event was a tragedy beyond words, and should be fully investigated so these mistakes never happen again,” Wasserman partner/agent Alex Hardee, who reps the likes of Liam Gallagher and Lewis Capaldi, tells Variety. “However, I can’t imagine London without Brixton Academy. The Academy Music Group is regarded as one of the most professional operators and Brixton is the pinnacle of that group. It’s one of the greatest venues this country has. I can’t understand what the police think they will achieve by recommending withdrawal of its license.”
In recent months, shows originally scheduled for the Academy have been moved to venues including the Eventim Apollo, Alexandra Palace and Wembley Arena, all of which have a different profile to the Brixton venue. And another leading agent, who wished to remain anonymous, notes that, once closed, such venues are very difficult to replace.
“I don’t like to think of any venues closing, even temporarily,” he said. “The Astoria closed many years ago and is still dearly missed. Venues are a cultural hub and bring valuable local income into whatever other businesses surround them, so everyone loses when they are not open.
“I’m really hoping things work out and we can once again enjoy some time at Brixton Academy.”
The petition had passed 15,000 signatures as this column went to press, and the music industry will be hoping that public pressure will help the venue to re-open at some point.
Arctic Monkeys played Brixton multiple times on their way up, but are now at stadium level in Britain.
And the band and management introduced a number of measures for the upcoming U.K. tour to make sure fans could get tickets at a reasonable price, and prevent scalpers getting their hands on tickets.
Ticket sales for the SJM-promoted tour sold via primary agents Ticketmaster and See Tickets were restricted to four per person for the entire tour; ticket resale was restricted to face value or below via Twickets and Ticketmaster Resale; while the Terms & Conditions defined the ticket as a personal license that could be revoked if those T&Cs were broken.
Arctic Monkeys manager and CEO of Wildlife Entertainment Ian McAndrew, a founder of the FanFair Alliance anti-scalping campaign, tells Variety the measures have resulted in less than 0.3% of ticket inventory being listed on secondary sites. That’s a much lower percentage than usual, especially with over 500,000 tickets sold for the tour. Most secondary listings, many of them fraudulent, have subsequently been removed, with specialist consultancy WebbWalker engaged to help prevent exploitative resale.
“The whole on-sale for the Monkeys shows has been a success,” says McAndrew. “There are still some tickets on resale – it’s something that unfortunately we can’t completely eradicate – but the volume of tickets is much reduced. It’s an attritional process, but that’s what you’ve got to be prepared to do.”
UK consumer law obliges those selling on secondary sites to reveal more information about themselves and the seat’s location, meaning it’s easier to cancel tickets that do slip through the net. But McAndrew admits it’s much harder to take on the scalpers in the United States.
“The USA is the Wild West when it comes to ticketing,” he says. “It’s different from state to state, but it’s fair to say the legislation in America doesn’t support the efforts of those wishing to mitigate the problems of ticket touting.”
McAndrew calls on Google to stop listing resale sites at the top of ticketing searches, while also noting that rows over primary ticket sales for major artist tours in the U.S. are also damaging consumer confidence in the process.
“[Ticketing] has got a bad reputation and that reputation is harming the artists,” he says. “It’s very difficult for consumers in America to even know what the face value of a ticket is. When you see major artists such as Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen and others feeling the need to make statements in response to negative news stories concerning the experiences fans had trying to buy tickets, it clearly underlines a significant problem.”
McAndrew acknowledges that reform is difficult without legislation or changing the entire ticketing business model, but says artist intervention, as happened recently with the Cure’s Robert Smith, can have a major impact.
“Artists [need] to stand up and say, ‘This has got to change: these are our fans and this is our reputation that’s being affected, we need to take action’,” he says. “And other stakeholders in the industry need to recognize that that is what’s required to really change.”
The Arctic Monkeys U.K. tour kicks off at Bristol Ashton Gate Stadium on May 29, with U.S. dates to follow in August and September.
There was good news for the live sector in PRS for Music’s annual results. The collection society, which deals with performance rights royalties for songwriters, composers and publishers, saw revenues from live music increase a huge 683% year-on-year as gigs staged a strong post-pandemic revival. Live receipts of £62.7 million ($77.3m) were even up 16.1% on 2019, the last year not affected by COVID-19.
The overall figures make hugely encouraging reading for the industry, with record-breaking stats for both collections (£964m/$1.19 billion), up 22.9%, and distributions (£836.2m/$1.03bn), up 23.5%. Revenues rose in almost all sectors, although international revenues remained 2.3% lower than in 2019, despite a 22.4% year-on-year revenue increase in North America.
PRS CEO Andrea Czapary Martin puts the performance down to improved efficiency and 33 new agreements above the £10m ($12.3m) level, including with Twitch, Apple TV+ and Freevee, plus improved terms with many other platforms.
“We’re taking a much more commercial approach,” Martin tells Variety. “When I arrived, the mindset was, ‘Don’t talk to YouTube, they’re the Darth Vaders of this world.’ But we have to work with them. It’s about how we can have a better deal together, but also can it be more of a partnership?”
As well as being good news for PRS’ growing membership – 5,731 creators received their first PRS check last year – the figures are also a personal triumph for Martin, who had been in the job for less than a year when the pandemic hit.
“It’s been a challenge,” she admits. “I’m not from the music industry and I’m not from the U.K., so it was really hard to go into lockdown and be down in the first year by 20-something percent because of the pandemic.
“But at the same time, it allowed us to pivot and it showed the company that we can change,” she adds. “It was hard for the employees, but now it’s so refreshing to have these great results and show them all the hard decisions we made are paying off.”
Finally, it might be hard for U.S. readers to imagine a nation coming to a standstill for a mid-morning pop quiz on a terrestrial radio station.
But that is what happened every morning during DJ Ken Bruce’s 30-plus year stint on BBC Radio 2, where his Popmaster quiz helped him become Britain’s most popular music radio presenter, with over 8.2 million listeners, according to the latest Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) survey.
So, his departure for Bauer’s Greatest Hits Radio sent shockwaves through the industry. His new show, which started this month, may be similar to his old one – he’s even brought Popmaster with him as he owns the rights to the format, now set to also become a TV show – but Bauer’s chief content and music officer, Ben Cooper, hopes it will help spark a commercial radio revolution.
“It’s one of Bauer’s biggest moments in the industry for years,” Cooper tells Variety. “We’ve disrupted the U.K. radio landscape with this [Lionel] Messi-like signing. It really demonstrates our ambition and intent for what we want to do going forward.”
Cooper – who himself joined Bauer from the BBC in 2021 – says he was able to poach the veteran DJ in part because “Ken didn’t get the attention he deserved from Radio 2”. The BBC network, which has revamped its DJ line-up and music policy in recent times, remains the U.K.’s most popular station. Meanwhile, GHR’s signing of Bruce drew front page news stories and has been promoted with a huge advertising and social media campaign that Cooper dubs “the best of any radio station this year.”
The Bruce ratings effect will not be fully apparent until the Q3 RAJARs, but Cooper says his first show saw a spike in online listening of over 400%, and his show has also prompted a hugely increased take-up in subscriptions to Bauer’s commercial-free Premium service (Bruce’s BBC show did not feature advertising).
That Premium service is one of a number of technological innovations at Bauer, which also include Rayo, a new online audio brand that will feature all of Bauer’s radio and podcasts from across Europe in one place.
“Rayo is going to be a game-changer,” says Cooper. “Because it allows radio to go up against the Spotifys of this world. This is Bauer’s year of creative ambition. We want to demonstrate what we can do to the record labels, agents, DJs, audiences and advertisers; whether it’s signing someone like Ken, or innovating with things like subscription, ad-free radio. These things will mean we reinvent radio for the future.”
Cooper acknowledges that radio faces stiff competition from streaming services and social media, but the medium remains hugely popular in the U.K., reaching 89% of the 15+ population. Bauer itself has over 21m U.K. listeners.
Cooper says Bruce’s signing has “opened a lot of doors” for recruiting other talent and says further big-name signings could follow across Bauer’s stable of radio brands, which includes Absolute, Magic, Kiss and Kerrang!
But, while that might make his former colleagues at the BBC nervous, Cooper says he has no plans to go the other way and return to the corporation.
“Getting the opportunity to run BBC Radio 1 was a boyhood dream,” he says. “But I’ve now been given the most amazing trainset with all the famous radio stations in the Bauer portfolio. There are opportunities ahead to really disrupt and reinvent radio for the modern era, so it’s a tremendously exciting time. I’m not going back to the BBC.”