Music venues hold a special place in the cultural heartland of Britain, laying claim to some of the most historically iconic performances and moments of all time. Acclaimed venues such as The Cavern Club, The Hacienda, The 100 Club, Barrowlands and many more have achieved acclaimed national recognition and legacy worldwide as legendary spaces where the greatest of musicians have plied their trade.
Part of the fixation with the UK live music experience was the total acceptance of smoke-filled rooms that clogged up the arteries of starry-eyed onlookers until the 2007 smoking ban came into effect. Since then, the majority of gig-goers probably won’t even remember what it was like to light up a fag in an enclosed public space without consequences.
Although the smoking ban was heralded as a key moment in shifting public health opinion, there has always been an argument that it takes away part of the archetypal show experience. Smokers have to fulfil their habit by going into designated smoking shelters, which have taken on a whole new status of their own. With the meteoric rise of people vaping also proving to be a grey area for music venues, being a nicotine addict and wanting to go see your favourite artists can be an all too familiar tricky situation. Has the smoking ban actually affected UK music venues for the worse?
Flying The Flag
The UK smoking ban came into full effect 12 years ago, signalling a positive chapter towards public health attitude. Since then, the UK has dropped drastically down in the most prevalent smoking nations, having the second lowest smoking rate in Europe. This has further led the government to propose for the UK to be smoke free by 2030, a somewhat hopeful target but nevertheless symbolic of how far Britain has come since the days of cloudy pubs and overfilled ashtrays.
As a result of the smoking ban, most public venues installed smoking shelters within their premises as a solution for smokers to get their fix. This effectively means that punters wanting a cigarette have to leave the performance and ultimately miss out on moments of artistry. Vaping was thought to be a gamechanger in the sense that attendees could stay indoors and get their nicotine fix, whilst not harming the public through second hand smoke. As well as these positives, according to Vape Club there are also a whole host of benefits in terms of health and social etiquette when stood up against smoking.
As the vaping industry grew in stature and infrastructure, so to did the advocation from public health organisations such as the PHE (Public Health England), NHS and Cancer Research. Rather counterintuitively however, a growing number of music venues decided to treat vaping the same as smoking and pushed vapers to the smoking shelters. Justin Turford, a DJ, Event Producer and one half of international music and culture champions Truth & Lies claims, ‘I vape and do it while DJing but most venues treat vaping the same as smoking which is very unfortunate. If the vapers who plume (blow clouds) heavily could stop maybe more venues would allow it. I think now there are fewer young people taking up smoking so events catered to them seem to retain the audience in the venue more.’
With the majority of venues taking an anti-vaping stance, vapers are forced to share the same enclosed, and often tight, shelter spaces with smokers which unfortunately entices them to get back on the cigarettes. Anyone who has successfully given up tobacco will tell you that disassociation both physically and mentally from cigarettes is essential, so being within close proximity will only increase the likelihood of getting hooked again. However, since the inception of the smoking ban, the UK has seen a consistent drop in smoking which ultimately equates to less pressure on the NHS, with smoking costing the NHS a staggering £30.1 million each year.
Shutting Up Shop
Saying this, whilst smoking rates have dropped significantly, music venues in Britain have in fact experienced a decrease in attendance, with over a third of small venues fighting to survive outside of London. Coupled with high rental and business rates, it’s of no wonder that big franchise music venues have risen in numbers across the land, with the likes of O2 Academies cropping up in most cities over the past decade. On the flipside, iconic venues such as London’s Astoria and Manchester’s The Roadhouse have closed up shop in the past few years, sadly unable to keep afloat and thereby inflicting a huge dent in the cultural landscape of Britain.
Of course, just the smoking ban cannot be held accountable for this drop in attendance and closures of venues, as Justin continues to say, ‘I think most gig-going people have got poorer, tax on alcohol is high and there’s also a celebrity-focused culture we live in now where up and coming bands just can’t get audiences’. As inflation continues to rise, coupled with the daunting prospect of another recession on the horizon due to Brexit, it seems likely that the further increase of closures across Britain is almost a certainty.
More however needs to be done to accommodate e-cigarette users, who don’t want to leave a venue in order to get their fix, let alone be forced to share the same vicinity as smokers in order to do so. If this can be achieved, then that 2030 nationwide smoke-free target may not be so hopeful after all.
Jack Garofalo is a freelance writer who documents music, art and culture for a variety of outlets including Red Bull, TRENCH, Dazed and The Source. He enjoys playing sports, cooking obscure food and throwing sticks for his dog Squash.