This article has been written with the support of Jack Daniel's.
Why grassroots music venues matter, according to the people who run them
Mystery Jets at Hackney Wonderland
As Independent Venue Week kicks off, venue owners and managers across the UK tell us their stories
Independent Venue Week is back again, helping music lovers get 2017 off to a blistering start. Founded in 2014, IVW's mission is to turn the spotlight on to the UK's grassroots music venues, all of who are instrumental to the nurturing emerging bands, artists and audiences. This year, IVW has the Charlatan's Tim Burgess as its ambassador, and there's a busy programme of music on at independent venues supported by live music champions like Jack Daniels, from Mon 23 to Sun 29 Jan. As well as supporting both IVW and the Music Venue Trust, Jack Rocks has been working with independent venues directly since 2014 and on Sun 29 Jan hosts a gig with The Wythches and Death of Pop at The Hope and Ruin in Brighton. As the week revs up, we chatted to owners and managers at key IVW venues around the country about the music they love, their local scenes and the inevitable challenges of doing what they love.
The 100 Club (290 capacity)
Jeff Horton, owner
'I became owner in 2001 having started work here in 1984, the venue's been in my family since 1958 when my grandmother became a shareholder. My dad bought a shareholding in 1964 and named it the 100 Club that year. The club had been named under various guises since it's conception in 1942, always with the word 'Jazz' somewhere in the title, but my dad wanted to change the name to reflect a more eclectic music policy and named it The 100 Club because of its location at 100 Oxford St. Compared to when I first started working here, the scene has virtually disappeared in London when it comes to small, independent venues. Other than ourselves, Ronnie's, the Borderline and the Lexington, I'm hard pushed to think of any others in Central London. When my dad took over this venue there were 40 jazz venues and over 100 live music venues in Soho and central London. Live music is slowly becoming corporate, played in massive venues with stages miles from the audience.
'The best thing about doing this is the music, I've seen some amazing bands this year. Savages at 8am in the morning was something else, Slaves were absolutely brilliant but the stand-out show would probably have to be Sleaford Mods a few weeks ago. An amazing band, an amazing crowd, all of them like-minded people rallying for change. It was an event in every sense of the word, only music can do that. The worst thing is the cost, the rent and rates are ridiculous. We shouldn't be paying rates, in my opinion, not after surviving for 75 years. Arts centres don't, why should we? Then there's licensing, I have scores of conditions on my licence which remain on it since it was granted in 1964. The world has changed in every conceivable way since then, but not in the world of licensing apparently. And the insurance is prohibitive and compulsory insurance. It's always been a challenge because of where we are, situated on some of the most valuable real estate in the world, and that's not going to change any time soon.
'Independent Venue Week is a great thing, the awareness of the part we play in the greater scheme of things is starting to get realised. It's in places like this that the future of our industry is being nurtured. Who's going to headline Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage in 2022? Will tourists still flock to the UK in the numbers they do if there's no arts and music heritage left? Will people still go to festivals in the UK if the same faces are headlining year after year? It's an industry that generates £4bn to the UK economy every year, yet the average age of the average headline act was 57 in 2016. The survival of grassroots independent venues is crucial in answering all those questions positively.'
Find out what's on at The 100 Club
Nambucca (300 capacity)
Zachery Stephenson, events manager
'There has been a venue called Nambucca here now since the mid noughties. It was the birthplace of The Holloways around 2004–05 and artists such as Mumford and Sons, Florence & The Machine, Laura Marling, Frank Turner all used to play there. After the infamous fire in 2008 it was taken over by other people and that didn't really work out but in late 2014 it was reopened under new management and ownership after a massive refurbishment. Since we reopened in 2014 we've put on Wolf Alice, Kaiser Chiefs, Fat White Family, The Wombats, Wretch 32, Declan McKenna, Paigey Cakey, Carl Barat and a host of amazing bands with the This Feeling clubnight.
'For me the best thing is that the space is fantastically versatile. While 300 can squeeze onto the dancefloor to see a sold-out show, the nature of the space is such that even 50 people watching a new unsigned band on a Monday night and it still looks busy. The PA system is fantastic, the lighting is great. We've put in loads of work making it look lovely inside with murals and framed gig posters, little school desks with inkwells. Drinks that don't cost an arm and a leg. And we make a point of always trying to be accommodating to everyone, respecting every artist and every gig-goer that performs or attends.
'The number one problem is that people in general are going to less gigs. And when they do they will often save up money and go to a few festivals where I suppose they feel they get more bang for their buck. The explosion of festivals in the last ten years has hurt small venues I feel. Also, modern life has provided so many new distractions. It's so much easier to be entertained from the comfort of your home. So I feel that while Independent Venue Week is a fantastic reminder to people, we also need a nationwide media campaign to reinforce that idea of how enriching live gigs can be. Licensing restrictions often make life difficult although we're very fortunate that our local council in Islington and specifically our officer Niall Forde is actually very helpful. They understand that artists can't just jump from their bedrooms to arenas. Grassroots venues play a crucial part in their development and on that basis they are places of cultural interest which should be given more protection.'
Find out what's on at Nambucca
Village Underground (720 capacity)
Dan Davies, editorial director
'Our capacity can feel like a lot when it's packed out but can be an intimate gig if you are quick enough to get tickets for someone like Alicia Keys when they play here. We began holding events here in 2007, VU originally started with an idea to build affordable studios for creative people struggling to get a foothold in Shoreditch, made out of recycled tube trains and shipping containers. Hackney Council agreed to rent us the land on top of a Victorian viaduct in Shoreditch and, almost as an aside we inherited the derelict warehouse beneath it, as our way to access the roof.
'Today the studios accommodate a creative community of 30 artists, and we've used the warehouse to host various events. We have around 150,000 people attend our events each year, with around 500 performances. One of our favourite early gigs was seeing Pixies coming back together when Kim Deal was still in the line-up, and we were extremely luck to host The Stone Roses during the 2012 Olympics, they hadn't played together in London for years and it was one of our hottest tickets ever. In the crowd was the whole of Team GB, Paul Weller, Jimmy Page, Bobby Gillespie, the cast of This Is England, Don Letts, Goldie… Otherwise, the best thing about running VU is the surprise of being blown away by something completely new and inspiring, from the ethereal Ukrainian folk of Dhakabraka, to the full-on mania of Drake taking to the stage at Section Boyz, to the tribalistic passion of Death Grips.
'Shoreditch has changed so much in ten years. The trend we see around here is the trend that has affected many venues across the UK: developers building too close to venues and eventually forcing them to close. We've been working closely with the Music Venue Trust on their London Rescue Plan to protect grassroots venues in this city, which included recommendations like getting a Night Czar as well as legislative change in the Agent of Change principle - this means that any new developments have to take care of soundproofing the new buildings, rather than risking complaints and closures of pre-existing venues. As a result of these changes and investments, the tide is starting to turn in the right direction again. After the loss of venues like the Arches in Glasgow and Sankey's in Manchester, the new music venue map that the MVT's about to launch has some encouraging growth, which is a relief for anyone in the industry. We've just agreed an extension of our lease with Hackney Council for the next 15 years, which means we can confidently plan ahead with some big projects.'
Find out what's on at Village Underground
Joiners Arms (200 capacity)
Ricky Bates, head of booking and promotion
'Originally [Joiners Arms] was a blues and soul club which opened in the 60s, so we've been here for 48 years – so hoping we get to 50, then I can retire! As far as I'm aware we've been open anything from 275 to 300 days a year; and especially in the last 25 years, we've had the motto to do live music every night. I'm trying to change up the formula a bit but last year we did more or less 330 events across the year.
'To list some of bands that played Joiners and went onto big things: Radiohead, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys, Greenday, Muse, Biffy Clyro, more recently Catfish and the Bottlemen, Courtney Barnett, Ed Sheeran, Miles Kane, you could probably list all of the biggest bands in the world! Coldplay, absolutely loads. The 80s, 90s, 00s here was where Joiners really made its name.
'The building is one of the last original buildings on the street, it's been here since the 1900s and you step in and you're sucked in by musical history, there's stickers on the walls from all the bands that played here. And then aside from that just the atmosphere, the shows are absolutely crazy. The room is a giant square but it almost feels intimate even with 200 people, there's no barrier to the stage so you get sweated on by the band who are playing. The bars are layered the old posters, so they can see the Libertines played here and people come in and can't believe that it was £3 to see Radiohead here; you know it's like a huge talking point if you're a music fan.
'The biggest challenges for grassroots music is getting people through the door constantly and imploring the mindset of how important music is, not just for the people that run it, but for the community. It's part of something bigger; we're supporting kids from the age of 14 and inspiring them to be a musician, learn instruments and be in bands – the biggest challenge is getting them through the door and into new music. People will listen to music once it's on radio 1 or in a magazine, but bands don't start there. It's all about the grassroots level and when they hone the craft and they become the band they've always wanted to be.'
Find out what's on at Joiners Arms
The Soup Kitchen (200 capacity)
Simon Catlin, live events manager
'You can't beat those evenings where you've either got an artist on their first post-successful album tour, or a local act managing to sell out the place and they're brimming with confidence. It's also great seeing artists return to the venue and playing to more people than previously, and witnessing them evolve as performers. Then there are those shows where - particularly as a relatively small venue - there's the feeling you've nabbed someone who should be playing somewhere bigger. Suuns here last August felt like that for me, a band who'd been winning new fans all over summer on the European festival circuit and sold out a much bigger London show. They crammed their gear onto our stage and tore the place apart on a Monday night in August, it was something really special.
'Making ends meet in the summer when numbers are down and the calendar's thin on the ground, those periods are always a challenge. It can also be quite an isolating experience, despite all the people you get to meet – being away from partner's evenings in a row, not having a social life beyond work, those are the personal challenges. Here we're not just competing against other venues, we're competing against new bars and restaurants that open up on a seemingly weekly basis, and a wealth of things that make staying in just as attractive as going out of an evening. Sadly, there's also the worry in the back of most independent venue employees' minds that we're only a noise complaint or a new block of flats round the corner away from closing down. Manchester hasn't suffered too badly compared to other cities in losing venues - we have Night and Day pretty much next door and further down the road The Castle and Gulliver's, Aatma across the square, as well as the Ruby Lounge nearby, and that's just the Northern Quarter – but that worry's always there. Although I think people really cherish a real life experience in a world where most are now online. Venues provide places of community, grassroots support of artists and a bit of colour and individuality to a city. '
Find out what's on at The Soup Kitchen
The Hug and Pint (204 capacity)
Brian Reynolds, owner
'I can't remember a time when I didn't want my own wee venue. I love that moment when a new band is playing in front of a hundred people and they're bringing the house down, it's addictive. I rarely go to big shows. It's the energy and excitement at this level, the will and belief of the musicians to haul themselves across the world to make sure people hear them whether they think they have an audience or not – to hell with their limitations, their lack of resources, their peer group telling them it can't work. If they need to sleep in the back of a leaky old van in freezing temperatures they make it happen, and it can demonstrate the best in people, their determination, resilience, talent, guts, staying power, their genius. It's an unbelievably hard road and it's very romantic. The team at the Hug (which includes musicians Joe Rattray of Admiral Fallow, Simon Ward of Errors and Phillip Taylor of Paws) have all been there, we've toured around these venues in Europe with bands, sometimes being treated well, sometimes not, and these experiences have informed everything we've done here.
'The scene in Glasgow is world class, no question, and it hasn't stopped improving year on year since the mid-90s when I first started playing shows here. It's like driving a car with a 5 litre engine, though, we're basically throwing around £100k of human resources every year at a venue the size of a shoebox with no way of breaking even on gigs. The place is really popular, the food is amazing and people love hanging out here – I thought I'd be making good money from a place like this! We're still young, I suppose, and we can make more efficiency savings. In all the 90s dive venues the standards weren't high enough, now you need a kickass restaurant and a lovely, clean, safe environment. I really welcome that change, though. Am I getting old?
'What we need is more support for the musicians who have made Glasgow an actual tourist destination, something that it certainly wasn't in 1997, and help building studios, help with rehearsal spaces, vans, gear, learning how to run a small business, learning how the industry works, how to negotiate, how to work as a team, learning about ethics… We could use this support from the council, and rates reductions and VAT exemptions for supporting the arts, or help with structuring as a charity if appropriate. Independent Venue Week and the Music Venue Trust have been great at establishing some respect and attributing value towards independent venues, and they're starting to influence government policy to be more supportive. They've changed the term 'toilet circuit' to 'grassroots venues', that's an important step. Who would put their name to funding the 'toilet circuit'?'
Find out what's on at The Hug and Pint
Sneaky Pete's (100 capacity)
Nick Stewart, owner
'I took the venue on ten years ago, because I had the opportunity and I thought I'd get it right. I mean, who wouldn't jump at a chance to run a place like Sneaky Pete's? Edinburgh's a really diverse scene, you might not get so many 'touring rock circuit' shows, but there's a good range of venues from Sneaks at the smallest end to the Usher Hall for 1800 capacity shows. But the city misses having a 1000 capacity venue. The average gig in the UK is just over 50% full, and I'd say Edinburgh's attendance is a bit better than that. We're sold out pretty often, and as we host clubs as well as gigs we can sell out twice in a night. I'd say it's not unusual for us to have 1200 people through the doors in a week.
'People go out less these days, have higher standards, and spend more when they do go out. Sometimes we have to run to stand still to keep up with the competition, but I think we're at least keeping up. The club has never been busier. It's hard work, but it's rewarding. I'm really passionate about music, and it sounds cheesy but the satisfaction in the job really is about seeing other people engage with it too. It's harder and harder these days for people to do close listening or really lose themselves on a dancefloor, and when audiences do get to that point, then I'm delighted.
'Running a music venue can be a very expensive thing to do, though. Margins are tight, and it's not been surprising to see a lot of venues going to the wall over the past decade. I think local and national government need to look at the impact music venues have, both internationally and in their local communities: music is a massive part of the UK's cultural soft power, but going to see music being performed is one of the most wonderful elements of a life well lived. Cities that care about quality of life should invest in their music venues.'
Find out what's on at Sneaky Pete's
Forum (250 capacity)
Jason Dormon, manager
'From the age of 15 we had been putting on gigs for the bands we were in, and we wanted a permanent place to put on local gigs and bands we loved – seeing them normally meant travelling to London, Brighton or Manchester. For a town of 80,000 people, without a college or university population, the scene is vibrant. There are music pubs and theatres in the town, but nothing else for miles around dedicated solely to music and arts. We open as often as possible, and audiences are from a wide demographic which reflects in our programming. We just celebrated our 24th anniversary this January, and we're looking to making a big celebration of our quarter-of-a-century in 2018.
'What I love about running a venue is meeting creatives, musicians, artists and music fans. There's a feeling of community, and that we're hopefully doing something positive for the greater good, although you need to work long hours and have deep pockets. In the 25 years we've been here the industry has moved from records to CDs to downloads to streaming, but the experience of being part of a live performance is still something that can't be imitated, it remains as exciting as ever.
'With the internet, the audience are able to book tickets in advance, but starting out, all of our sales were walk up - a scary thing, not knowing if anyone was going to come. I think nowadays people are less likely to take a risk on something new, so we try to encourage a trust in our curation mixed with acts that music fans may have heard of. We're looking to a future where grassroots music venues are treated as cultural assets in the same way theatres and museums and opera houses currently are.'
Find out what's on at the Forum
The Boileroom (275 capacity)
Duncan Smith, promotions
'The Boileroom is the only dedicated independent music venue in town, alongside a couple of pubs that host live music and a much larger council owned venue, as well as a couple of theatres. Guildford's home to Surrey University as well as the Academy of Contemporary Music, so there's a good turnover of bands wanting to play live here. We have five nights a week, on average, and in the last ten years the challenge of going from an empty room to booking in world class headliners has been totally satisfying. Being able to act as a creative hub to our area and put on artists that people never thought they'd see in Guildford is also amazing.
'The biggest challenges are the way music venues such as ours' are perceived. In a lot of cases they don't get the same tax breaks or protection as other cultural institutions, and are subject to the same conditions as nightclubs and late night bars, when our operations, target markets and goals are completely different. The rules on residential dwellings nearby should be looked at also, to put the obligation on developers to soundproof new buildings, which is something the Music Venue Trust is working on with the Agent of Change principle.
'On the one hand it's a lot easier to spread the word of our shows these days via mailouts, targeted ads and so on. But on the other hand, more and more places are using live music as a way to draw in punters to their bar, which can be good for bands but it dilutes the audiences. Music should be treated as art, rather than a commodity.'
Find out what's on at The Boileroom
Independent Venue Week is happening in venues around the UK until Sun 29 Jan.
Since its launch in 2014, Jack Rocks has held over 250 gigs around the UK, enjoyed by over 50,000 music-lovers, celebrating live music and the future heavyweights of the UK music scene. By supporting grassroots venues through Jack Rocks, Jack Daniel's is committed to championing the new, local talent that relies on these amazing spaces to hone their musical talent. Find out about Jack Rocks upcoming January gigs.