Musicians Speak Out About Small Venue Closures

As live music venues are awarded £2.2m in emergency government funding, Fergal Kinney asks if it is enough and speaks to artists about the small venues that they love

Audience shots by Maria Jefferis/Shot2Bits

For the tens of thousands of people directly employed in the live music industry, it was 16 July that the stuff of sleepless nights became a reality – big and important venues confirming that they would not be reopening. In just twenty-four hours, two of Britain’s major music cities reported the loss of two venues each – the Deaf Institute and Gorilla in Manchester, the Polar Bear and the Welly in Hull.

Manchester’s Band On The Wall – the eclectic, not-for-profit 350 capacity Northern Quarter venue – made the announcement that it would be shutting for one year, with the aim of reopening in autumn 2021, meaning 26 redundancies, the entirety of its casual staff. Within a week, a buyer was found for Deaf Institute and Gorilla – there was considerable anger in Manchester at the behaviour of the parent company that own those two venues, Mission Mars, who seemingly made no steps to access emergency venue funding and instead used the pandemic as a fig leaf to sack off two venues that no longer fitted its business model (all of the commitment to live music one would expect from the brains behind the Revolution high-street vodka chain and Pets At Home).

At the weekend, £2.2m emergency government funding for small venues was announced – this is the first slice of the wider £1.57bn arts relief fund. “Given that delivery of the much larger Cultural Recovery Fund is a little way off it’s crucial that those UK music venues who are most at risk receive some short term help if they are to avoid permanent closure” explains Jay Taylor, North West Co-Ordinator of the Music Venue Trust and in-house promoter at Manchester’s Night & Day Café. “Some have already been supported by crowdfunding initiatives and grants, but there’s still grassroots venues out there for whom the battle will be lost before August is out. There are venues with no income and growing rent arrears and the ban on tenant eviction stops on 23 August. This intermediary fund is welcome aid for music venues that need funds without delay.”

Good news in the short term, but what’s the longer term outlook for small venues? “Avoiding large scale closures and redundancies over the coming months is going to hinge on the speed with which the Cultural Recovery Fund arrives and that special attention is paid to making certain that grassroots venues are on the reviewing end. Beyond that we need thorough guidance and a reopening timeline from government as soon as possible so that venues are able to properly plan and consider the viability of safely putting shows on again.”

Daniel Mawer was the in-house promoter for the Polar Bear and runs the weekly Sesh night. “The night was always busy” he tells me, “it had creatives from photographers to musicians and filmmakers all popping in watching artists and having a drink in the beer garden. We’d have crew learning on the job, people learning how to rep, learning how to do photography, so you lose venues like the Polar Bear, you lose jobs. You lose a learning platform, and a place for bands to get good; to get really good.” Mawer is concerned that, in the coming years, the pandemic will result in a music industry skewed even further towards the capital. "It’s a very conscious decision from me to stay in Hull and do live music in Hull. I’ve been doing this on minimum wage for a good long while where a lot of peers have moved and gone to different cities. When you lose it, it sends the message that you have to leave Hull in order to gain work. Which is not something anyone wants.”

The lay of the land for venues, at time of writing, is appalling. Bookers complain of rescheduling shows for dates that they know will likely be impossible. Socially distant test events are occurring in London, though privately most venues will tell you that even if these test events throw up a model of operating, it’s still asking venues to operate at a capacity that would be entirely unsustainable. In the majority of cases, British live music venues have far more in common with nightclubs than they do pubs or seated performing arts spaces, and there’s still no guidance on reopening nightclubs.

Without a clear, conditional timeline for reopening venues without social distancing, or without a full and comprehensive bailout of the live music sector, we will have a lot more losses in the coming months. Even were we to wake up tomorrow with the pandemic magically over, we would still have the problem of venues – places that have generally spent the last decade learning to operate on a shoestring – opening their doors to the worst recession for three hundred years. If the last decade has been dominated by a flight of working-class people from the creative sectors, it’s entirely likely that this decade will be defined by the destruction of creative sectors altogether. Had I tried to imagine a scenario more likely to precipitate a cultural collapse in this country, I’m not sure that I could have thought of one so potentially and uniquely destructive than the present moment.

One major concern is that the funds will mainly be directed towards propping up big legacy institutions like the Tate or the National Theatre, and not be enough to keep venues on the ground afloat. Likewise, as Nathalie Olah has written, its even more doubtful that funds will reach the freelancers who form an integral part of the live music sector afloat – freelancers without financial safety nets will likely leave the sector altogether. Venues of all sizes play crucial roles in the overall ecosystem of the British music industry, in their local economies and give meaning, shape and community to the lives who inhabit them. As the testimonies below show, the effects of losing these spaces could be catastrophic.

Johnny Marr

Deaf Institute got it right from the start. Before I went there, I’d heard it was a good environment and an unusual space. It’s a curious mix of old school venue and new thinking, and it felt modern at that time. It had those features – it was like a lecture hall – but it just seemed like a really obvious fit, and every time I went there I had a good night. I played two nights there in 2011, and they’re such nice memories for me – kicking off with a new band, and it was all a bit experimental. But the atmosphere in the place was conducive to trying out new stuff, it felt really intimate.

I am fearful that it’s a portent of things to come. For example, I think Gorilla is one of the best venues in the country – I’ve actually recommended to other musicians, like my friend Peter Perrett [The Only Ones], that they should play Gorilla. I tour a lot around the UK, and I often go out to shows after I’ve played, I know a lot of musicians and I tend to like to see bands starting out – and Gorilla is one of the best places. The sound is really great, the size of the venue is perfect. Now from what I saw, it was always busy, so go figure. I nipped in there in the daytime sometimes, and it seemed to be doing pretty good business.

I think both Deaf Institute and Gorilla are the best venues of their size that Manchester has had for decades actually – when I was younger, there were similar sized venues but frankly they weren’t anywhere near as good for audiences. The sound wasn’t as good and they weren’t as well kept. There are places like Rafters and the International in Manchester that people remember fondly, but I can say that these places are better than those places back in the day. If we’re losing these places, then I really dread to think what’s going to come down the road.

It was already challenging for younger bands before the pandemic, people on the street side of music in Manchester. But that’s where all the good stuff happens. By the time you get to arenas and big theatres, you’re not seeing nascent beginnings and you’re not seeing people exploring. For young people who go out during the week and are wanting to see cutting-edge music, if your experiences of bands are very big stages and big production, you’re absolutely missing out on a real vital part of that band’s identity and sound. I don’t know what it’s going to mean for the bands either, I can’t really think how a band can be a band without playing in front of like-minded people?

It’s not hard for me to keep my connection to these places because I was connected to them from being a kid – the bands I was in before The Smiths, we were always trying to get a gig at Band On the Wall. I’m like every musician you know in Manchester, I happened to break through, but because I broke through it didn’t mean I was any less interested, far from it.

Nadine Shah

Our independent venues are vitally important. Not just for artists like me. They’re important for the weirdos like me. I found my place in society via small independent venues that put on live music, I found my people. The times where I felt alone, when I was bullied, when I was outcast. I found solace in these venues, I was embraced and I was celebrated. I made friends and in these venues I learnt that I could be a proper musician. I learnt I could make a living from music being more Diamanda Galás rather than Mariah Carey.

These venues nurtured my talent. Without them I (despite making four albums) I have no career. It is of the utmost importance that we nurture and value these venues. They will undoubtedly incubate the musicians who will soundtrack our lives. Music is important. Music voices the frustrations of those misrepresented, music is the soundtrack of our heartache.

My favourite experiences as a professional musician are based in these small independent venues. They feed me well, they treat me with respect which I never see in the music industry, they reaffirm why I do what I do. I make music for people who love music. I pray we don’t lose these hubs of kindness and love.

My favourite show of all time was not playing grand stadiums to thousands supporting Depeche Mode. My favourite shows of all time, the shows I will tell my grandkids about are the small venues. I can name every owner, every meal they fed me, every kindness they showed me. They are personal, they are individual, they stand out. They are important and I honestly cannot do my job without them. Please fight for them. Please fight for Hebden Bridge Trades Club, for Brudenell Social Club and the Cluny. The list is endless. I as a music lover not just a musician don’t want to lose them. They light a fire in my belly. I see them light a fire in yours too. They help us. Help them back.

Rebecca Lucy Taylor, Self Esteem

It’s the capacity that we’re talking about here – people think of bands at my level, that we’ve made it and we’ll be fine. It’s not at all. Artists like me – and absolutely loads of artists that you could call 6Music artists – all we can do is play places like Band On The Wall or Gorilla. I feel fantastic if I sell those out. But put me in a place that’s a hundred capacity more and I’m not going to sell it out, and that changes the dynamic of the tour. I don’t think people understand the difference between someone like me and someone larger – where me and my peers are at, it’s on a knife-edge as to whether we can carry on doing this.

It needs to be possible that you can have a really good tour of full rooms that are that size. I can’t tour that level up, I’d just haemorrhage money, but my show and what I do musically can’t go in really small places without soundsystems or that aren’t advanced enough. I’m never shy about saying this too, but I can’t be fucking arsed to do the toilet tour anymore because I’m old, I don’t like it and I want to be comfortable. These mid-point venues, these are vital and they are my career – the only thing that makes me be able to pay my rent.

Take that away and you’ll only get music made by people with big record deals or who can self-fund projects. Me making another album right now, it’s a huge risk. It’s a lot of work, with very low returns. Now I have lots that I still want to say and do, but if you take away the ability for me to be able to tour in the way I’m hoping to next year, I don’t actually know what’s left.

And in general, what a shit way to dilute creativity and diversity, and different ideas. If you have just bands that can get on Radio 1 playlists, if that’s all you can go and see… that pool of what music is will just get smaller and smaller. Same with theatre, art, anything – the easiest thing to get rid of is the middle, and for me that’s where the most interesting stuff happens.

Jason Williamson, Sleaford Mods

I think the venue I would like to see still open after this pandemic ends, is our spiritual home where we cut our teeth, which is The Chameleon in Nottingham. It’s an independent venue, and it’s disconnected from the main promoter in Nottingham, which is DHP – who work with Rock City, Rescue Rooms, The Bodega, and they’re all owned by DHP. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s fine, but at The Chameleon you get a lot of fringe acts and stuff that’s not necessarily going to be given a show at the other venues – Guttersnipe, for instance, they played there a while back. There’s lots of interesting acts, and a lot of local acts that – again – don’t really get the opportunity to get a hand up in these more established venues.

The Chameleon’s quite shabby, it’s dirty in a good way – I’m not saying it needs a Hoover or anything – but it’s makeshift and these are all of the things that really inspire you when you’re playing, when you’re coming up, these little places are just rough and ready, which is what you need because you’re rough and ready. If what you’re doing is decent and is seriously on the road to becoming something, then these places are invaluable for that experience. If worst comes to the worst, people will find a way I think, but at the minute we are having to deal with the tragedy of it all. And there is a lot of tragedy. It’s lucky that the two in Manchester – we’ve never played at these places, but it’s lucky they got out the shit. A lot of places are going to be either very crippled or they’re just going to shut. You need it, these are where the ideas come from, this is where the industry – the big industry – relies, because the major industry takes the best ideas from the bottom and transforms it onto whichever idiot they’ve signed. Without that, the major industry is going to look like shit eventually.

Lias Saoudi, Fat White Family

If only one place must survive the music business nuclear winter that is Covid-19, then let it be the Lexington – run by Stacey Thomas, grand matriarch of north London’s alternative scene. I have extremely fond memories of the place, especially of our second visit which must have taken place around eight years ago now. It was maybe the biggest gig we’d landed up until that time, supporting the indomitable Lydia Lunch with Big Sexy Noise. I’d never shared a backstage room with anyone like that before, someone who already owned their own little chunk of musical history, it felt a little overwhelming. My little brother had no such issue however, him and Lydia started jibing each other pretty fast – eventually it looked like they were almost flirting. I remember timidly asking her how long she had left on the road, about as dull a question you can ask backstage, "forever" she replied and turned her head away in supreme indifference. During our show she was down the front grinding by my little brother’s rig, pretty surreal goings on to be sure.

One thing I love about the place is that when you’re skint, as you so often are when working in music, Stacey will almost always sort you out with a bit of paid work. Half of the bands you’d see playing in there you’d see working the bar a week later. When I ran out of funds making the third Fat Whites album up in Sheffield, she opened up a spot for me to DJ regularly. I like when a venue becomes its own little eco system, a support network for folks too interested in tunes to go out and get proper jobs. Without such places our community is dead in the water. God save the Lexington.

Richard Dawson

I’m thinking about venues in the North-East – the Star And Shadow, The Old Police House, The Cumberland Arms – which are so integral to the community here and real labours of love for the folks who run them. I hope they’ll survive this unfolding catastrophe. I guess somewhere like the Star And Shadow, with its amazing army of volunteers – who all had to fight tooth-and-nail to bring it into existence in the first place – may be better equipped than a lot of venues with more traditional business models to take this massive hit, though I really don’t know.

I’m remembering Hen Ogledd’s kids gig there back in February, which feels like another world away now, the overflowing joy and just the feeling of that place being an epicentre. We followed it up with a few pints in the Cumberland and listened to the incredible folk session in the back room. I’ve lived a lot of my life in that back room, and upstairs in the gig room – that’s where I first saw Circle, supporting Acid Mothers Temple. It’s a special place. The thought of a world without the Cumberland is bleak. Me and countless other fellow music dweebs call it our spiritual home.

Steve Lamacq

The first time I went to the Welly was in 1983, the first time I ever followed a band around on tour – which was the Harlow group Newtown Neurotics. I remember sleeping in my Mini in the car park after the gig until the next morning, and this is how brilliant Hull is – the car park guy in the little hut came over with a cup of tea, having noticed I’d been asleep in the car all night. In the early 80s, it was great to be able to go somewhere where your politics weren’t out of step. To spend the night with people who were pro the miners and anti-apartheid. That’s why these venues are at the heart of the community for people, it’s the one place in your town you can go where you don’t feel like a total outsider. You need people to be there, swap ideas and create stuff, and that’s what the Welly was.

What the Polar Bear is brilliant at is that it’s just a great home. A mix of the people who congregate there and the people who put on gigs there – it’s a legend in Hull, and not so broadly around the country. There’s obviously the folklore that the Beautiful South formed there, and did their early rehearsals there, so it’s part of the fabric of the story of music in Hull. It’s extraordinary the amount of bands there are in Hull, when we went up for Independent Venue Week there was just this huge unsigned scene – a lot of that is based around the Sesh, which is Tuesday nights at the Polar Bear and it’s free to get in. Mostly local bands being given a chance. And on a Tuesday night in Hull, it was heaving with music fans, you don’t get that so much in London these days. It was properly like going back to the 80s or 90s.

Music Venue Trust have done so much work on grassroots venues that take you up to a certain capacity, there’s a missing rung above 500 capacity – we really struggle in London for the step between the Lexington or Scala and the Forum. It’s really difficult in a climate of changing city centres, where live music isn’t really factored in, and large venues around 600 capacity are the kind of places that you can easily turn into something else. Venues of reasonable sizes are being pushed out of town or closing down. It makes it harder for bands.

Obviously this is the worst time to be thinking about investing in live music, and obviously the companies involved have found themselves financially challenged at this point – hence why these places are going. But I would hold out some hope that behind the scenes there is work being done by various organisations putting interested parties together – we’ll see.

Bill Ryder-Jones

I’m really just gutted about those two venues because they hold some really great memories. I saw Bill Callahan play to about two hundred people at Deaf Institute about ten years ago, I saw Anna Calvi about thirteen years ago supporting Johnny Flynn. Gorilla, I saw Mick Head play there and I’ve played both of those venues myself – Manchester has always, always been, other than Glasgow, my favourite place to play and I don’t know how it works without a venue like that. More importantly, I know quite a few people who really need to go to those places, to get their fix of music or people. They really need it.

I know a few people in Manchester who are sound engineers, tour managers, and I just know what that will do. Where would be the next biggest one, Ritz? That would be too big for someone like myself, so it would mean that I couldn’t really see myself playing in Manchester. When I was sixteen in the Coral and playing in Liverpool, it was at venues like Deaf Institute – it’s proof of a bigger problem really, that the government just doesn’t care. Which we know, but what’s going to happen to these places? They’ll be turned into accommodation, and then if it gets possible to start a venue, when people do want to, they won’t be able to because of noise complaints from that accommodation. So the problem isn’t just immediate with these venues.

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