Building careers from U2 to Self Esteem, The Horn is a haven for ‘people a little bit outside normal’
Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign shines a light on what grassroots music venues do for their communities. The three biggest towns in Hertfordshire are now without a place for up-and-coming acts to play. The Horn in St Albans is a ray of hope. But for how long?
Rebecca ‘Self Esteem’ Taylor playing with her previous band Slow Club at The Horn. Photo: Paul Hudson
For almost five decades, The Horn in St Albans has offered local talent a place to develop their music and performance. Enter Shikari, Friendly Fires, The Subways, Bastille, Rebecca ‘Self Esteem’ Taylor (playing with her previous band Slow Club) – they’ve all had a leg-up from the beloved grassroots music venue. Former Big Issue guest editor Yungblud enjoyed his early shows there so much he proclaimed The Horn his favourite venue in the UK.
That career-building tradition goes back across their venerable history. Paul Young used to lead the house band in the ’70s. Motörhead played when it was a biker haunt. U2 dropped by before they’d released their debut album. Kym Wilde used to work behind the bar.
Starting out as a railway hotel – hence its prime location for those jumping off the train (just 20 minutes down the line from London) – The Horn has been through a few incarnations. But music has been at its heart since the mid-70s. Next year, it will mark its 50th anniversary as a venue.
“Since the 70s, it has been a spot where people have played their original music and come along to establish what they do,” says venue programmer Luke Hinton. A man of many hats, Hinton runs the indie promotion company Juicebox Live with his wife Rachael, co-chairs the Association of Independent Promoters and programmes both The Horn and Hertford Corn Exchange. He’s been working in St Albans’ finest grassroots venue for a decade and a half.
Step inside The Horn and the walls immediately tell a story – both of those incredible artists who’ve started out here, and of the venue’s importance to its community. One wall acts as a hall of fame, featuring pictures of their famous alumni. Another is dedicated to naming all the people who stepped up to save the venue when Covid hit in 2020.
“During the very early stages of the pandemic, we were in a situation where we actually didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Hinton. “There was no financial support at that point. And we’ve got a team of sound engineers, event crew, bar team, security, management, promotion who all were sitting there going: what does this mean for us?
“Most venues I know of had no reserve funds. There was no money sitting there to be able to pay for that rainy day.”
The team at The Horn could see only one way forward – to fall back on their people. More than 1,000 fans donated, raising “in excess of £40,000”, says Hinton. “It was truly humbling. It was just a groundswell of support.”
Hinton, a man who credits most of his friendships and even his marriage to places like this, needed little persuading. But even for him the response underlined a key value of grassroots music venues: they are havens for “people who feel a little bit outside of the normal world”.
“You meet like-minded people,” he explains. “People who have a slightly different outlook or political view or whatever it may be. And I think that is something that these places are so vital for. Because without them, it becomes quite a dull existence.”
“I don’t think any grassroots could realistically sit and say it’s thriving,” says Hinton, but The Horn is “comfortable” at the moment. Across the county of Hertfordshire, few venues can say the same. “Hemel Hempstead doesn’t have a venue. Stevenage doesn’t have a venue. Watford had The Horns [no relation to The Horn]. It’s had a huge history as a music pub. But just last week, the landlady announced she’s giving the keys back because it’s not sustainable.
“Suddenly, you’ve got the three largest towns in Hertfordshire, who won’t have a live music or grassroots venue. That’s not just in Hertfordshire, that’s happening all over the UK.”
The cost of living is a challenge, as is the fact that ticket prices for concerts in the grassroots sector have barely risen in decades – at the same time as arena and stadium show prices have ballooned. “There’s a disparity of where the money’s going. And it’s putting off newer artists getting involved because there is no money, or there’s very little money, at that grassroots side.”
But the most imminent concern facing the sector lies in the power of UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt.
Grassroots music venues currently pay just a quarter of regular business rates – an increase from the total rates holiday they were granted during the height of the pandemic but still less than the 50% reduction announced in January 2020 by then-chancellor Rishi Sunak. From April next year, there is no guarantee of any help at all.
Everyone who runs a venue like The Horn will be watching closely for clues when Hunt delivers his Autumn statement on 22 November. The stakes could not be higher. The potential fallout could be apocalyptic.
As a whole, the grassroots music sector currently makes just 0.2% profit – “effectively zero”, according to Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd. Many would be wiped out in one fell swoop by a rates increase.
If rates go back to 100%, “that would put The Horn into crisis, let alone venues that are just about breaking even,” says Hinton. “I would say we would probably lose something like 75-80% of venues within two years. It’s scary.”
If that happens, it may be too late for the vitality of the UK music scene – once a venue goes under, it’s “near enough impossible” to revive it – but for now, there’s still time. Both government and industry must step up, says Hinton.
“It should be down to the big companies, the stadiums, the arenas, the record labels, the streaming platforms to invest in the research and development part of our industry. And that is the grassroots venues and grassroots promoters. Because without them, Yungblud doesn’t get that first show. Enter Shikari don’t pay in the Battle of the Bands and finish runners-up. They don’t get on that stage. Then they don’t get to playing the O2 or Wembley Stadium,” he argues.
“If something isn’t done, in 20 years time… I’m not saying there won’t be headliners, there’ll be headliners of sorts. But there’ll be very few British headliners.”
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Venue Watch analysis: The Horn, St Albans
By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur
As I read about the potential threat to The Horn in St Albans, I had a terrible sense of deja vu. As mentioned by the wonderful promoter Luke Hinton, The Horns in Watford recently closed its doors. Based in my hometown, it was a venue close to my heart. It was important at the start of my music career, later going on to host endlessly brilliant and now very well-known bands.
Hertfordshire was once a thriving hotbed of places to play but, alas, no more. The Horns in Watford was finally forced to close due to “unsustainable running costs”. As my colleague Laura writes above, these “unsustainable running costs” include an unnecessary tax burden controlled by the government and in part local councils. I’m not going to go on about how this government has been starving local councils of funds, forcing many to the edge of bankruptcy, giving local councils very little financial wiggle room to help grassroots music venues (although this government is clearly in the frame for that).
But it is in their power right now to do something about business rates and the VAT on gig tickets and a host of other damaging taxes small venues face.
So just what can national and local government do? Well, for starters, they have to finally recognise that grassroots venues are a vital part of the UK’s social fabric that is currently being torn to shreds, ripping the hearts from communities and leaving our towns and cities all the poorer in so many ways.
But it’s more than just that for our current politicians, I think. They should be asking us what kind of communities do we want to live in? Surely not ones without music. We need places for the next generations of UK musicians to play. Places where they will entertain thousands of us and learn their craft at the same time. These same musicians will then export the best of British music around the world, generating billions in taxable revenue. Talk to Enter Shikari and see what they say. They played The Horn in St Albans, and now look at them!
UK music colleges currently teach thousands of brilliant young music students. Music. Production. Stage Management. I have a friend who’s a professor at one of them. I’ll never forget the sorrow in his voice just after Covid, seeing grassroots music venues closing left, right and centre. As he told me, without places like this to play and work in, his students have a bleak future. Thousands of them. Young dreams shattered. Careers finished before they had a chance to begin. Think about that.
Please do join our Big Issue Venue Watch campaign and together we can change these dire predictions. Together we can save music. Come on join the gang!
Musician Phil Ryan has toured with The Animals and is co-founder of The Big Issue and The 12 Bar Club.
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