Halifax businessman speaks of rollercoaster two years after a torrid time for independent music venues
For Sybil Bell, founder of Independent Venue Week (IVW), there is a sense of hope in the air. “We’re better off than we were last year,” she says. “But I’m longing for the time that we can get back to just doing it all normally.”
Since founding in 2013 and launching in 2014, IVW has set out to promote, celebrate and engage independent music venues across the country with a series of week-long events, concerts and promotion campaigns. This year’s IVW kicks off today.
“For us, it’s always just been about getting people into venues – to get people off their screens and get out in person and go to a venue,” Bell says. “That is now clearly much more important than it’s ever been. The last 18 months have definitely demonstrated that we really do need these places.”
It’s been a rough couple of years for many venues across Yorkshire. Some have closed, others have teetered on the brink, and others barely hung on. A combination of back and forth on restrictions, trepidation about people returning to venues, staff shortages, and whether they got access to things like Arts Council funding have all been determining factors as to how venues have managed.
“It’s hard to reconcile the last two years given it feels we’re not out of the woods yet,” says Nick Simcock, of Oporto in Leeds. “We’ve been supported financially enough to get through, but this was far from certain. Once we were successful with rate relief and local council support, this has been topped up every time there has been another lockdown. Support from the central government has been harder to come by though.”
Similarly, Michael Ainsworth, of the Grayston Unity in Halifax, described it as a “rollercoaster” two years.
“At the outbreak of the pandemic when we were first forced to close, I was not optimistic and could see us having to close for good,” he recalls.
However, a soon potentially disastrous situation was flipped on its head. “It’s a real irony that in some ways the pandemic has actually enabled the Grayston to have a future and a quietly positive and optimistic one at that,” he adds. “The reason being that due to our involvement with IVW – which we have been involved for the past five years – it enabled us to apply for Arts Council cultural recovery grants.
“Also, our membership of the Music Venue Trust enabled us to apply, and get further funding, from the Arts Council towards having work done to increase our capacity from 18 to 50. We were the UK’s smallest venue and whilst undoubtedly that brought us to the attention of BBC 6 Music, amongst others, the new larger size has enabled us to be able to book full bands and bigger artists.”
Tom Simpson, of the Parish in Huddersfield, was initially not so lucky with receiving support. The venue instead turned to the local community for help. “We decided quite early to try and raise money via a crowdfunder,” he says. “The response was amazing and overwhelming. We absolutely would not be here today if it wasn’t for the generosity of our amazing customers.”
The Parish even had to move venues in 2020, adding to the chaos and stress of the year. “The situation we were in was so perilous,” Simpson recalls. “We were worried we could lose our homes, we had personal guarantees on huge amounts of debt, and debt was growing day by day as we were still being charged full rent.”
However, the forced move brought about a positive change. “The new site is an amazing space where we could really expand our programme and we knew if we got through to the other side of the pandemic we would really be able to push our programme and business forward. Our live music scene has shown how resilient it is and if this pandemic ever ends I think it will come out the other side and smash back into life a lot quicker than some might think or expect.”
Despite the varying experiences of venues across Yorkshire, the one thing that unites them all is the impassioned support they received from their local community. “In the initial lockdown people were totally amazing – playing live streams, donating to crowdfunders, and buying merchandise. This was incredible for morale and to help keep us afloat whilst funding was applied for,” says Simcock.
Ainsworth also echoes this sentiment. “We couldn’t and wouldn’t bother if we felt that what we did had no value to the town and community,” he says. “It’s what has always driven me in my five decades of music promotion in the town. I’ve always been driven by a desire to do what I can in whatever way to contribute to the cultural life of the town.”
The role of the independent venue not just as a place to experience live music and have a drink but to be a meaningful cultural hub for the community has been one of the most clear outcomes of this uncertain period, Bell feels.
“I think it has been an opportunity for people to re-evaluate what they would like to do – whether that means setting up a new venture and opening up a new business or opening up to doing more community-based activities,” she says. “I think we’re going to see a lot more of that because you’ve got all these venues that are predominantly shut during the day and you’ve got all these community groups looking for spaces that are set up to hold events.”
However, for venues like the Grayston Unity, IVW is much more than just gigs and self-promotion, its role runs much deeper. “We would not still be here if it wasn’t for IVW, it’s as simple as that,” Ainsworth says. “They do amazing work at shining a light on the role that music venues play in helping nurture talent. All the biggest artists started out playing grassroots venues and they were often ignored in the past for public funding as if they were not culturally important enough. IVW continues to make strides to challenge such things.”
For Bell, this difficult time has helped to highlight the crucial cultural contribution of these venues. “I think there has been a complete sea change over this period, in terms of what we value and what culture actually means,” she says.