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‘I feel terrified’: Grassroots venues fighting for survival after a ‘brutal’ year

Scenes from CWRW in Wales, MacArts in Scotland, Luna Lounge in Leytonstone and The Cornish Bank in Falmouth, are all calling for more support  (Press)
Scenes from CWRW in Wales, MacArts in Scotland, Luna Lounge in Leytonstone and The Cornish Bank in Falmouth, are all calling for more support (Press)

Singer-songwriter Frank Turner, rock band Palace, and the owners and managers of the UK’s grassroots music venues are calling for more government action to support the struggling live sector following a grim report by a charity representing independent performance spaces.

A recent report by the Music Venue Trust threw a stark light on the dire state of Britain’s local live music scene, revealing that 125 venues were forced to permanently close their doors in 2023.

As Independent Venues Week is observed between 29 January to 4 February, the people behind popular venues from Carmarthen to Cornwall tells The Independent about their experiences trying to keep those spaces from closing down forever, while artists urged the government to take more action in order to protect the UK’s world-beating music scene, along with its significant contribution to the British economy.

Rufus Maurice started The Cornish Bank in Falmouth with his business partner, Will Greenham, and the help of various loans and grants – just as the UK was going into lockdown. Fortunately, by the time they were ready to launch, the government had lifted restrictions to allow venues to reopen.

“That slightly benefited us because it was like the town was desperate for this kind of venue – anything we put on was selling out, six or seven days a week,” Rufus tells The Independent. “We were probably fooled by that and thought it would continue like that.”

However, despite a slowdown after the initial rush post-lockdown, Rufus and his partner have managed to maintain a steady business for the past few years. “It’s been tough,” he says. “I think grassroots is massively underfunded despite generating so much for the industry. I don’t think they get the respect for the work they’re doing.”

The venue’s location created additional struggles, he says. In summer last year, locals in Falmouth hit out at the boom in cash-rich buyers from outside the town snapping up properties for Airbnb or second homes, claiming they were being forced off the property ladder.

“I’ve got staff working for us who are living in caravans or just struggling to pay their rent,” he says. “The rents are crazy around here – we pay £90,000 for this place. Then we’ve got wages, stock… and a 25-grand electricity bill.”

The Cornish Bank team: Rufus (far right), Jake and Lydia (Press)
The Cornish Bank team: Rufus (far right), Jake and Lydia (Press)

Rufus says the Music Venue Trust report had “sent shivers” through him and his team: “I think everyone in this industry is looking behind them – every time I hear that the doors of another venue have closed, I feel terrified. We’re pretty efficient but there are no more margins to cut, and that’s a really scary thing.”

Chris Wemyss, the venue manager at MacArts – a converted church in the town of Galashiels on the Scottish Borders – has seen the space go from hosting “relatively small” folk and jazz gigs by local artists, to artists on national tours such as The Big Moon and Arab Strap. It also runs support schemes for young bands, and throws gigs for younger audiences aged 14 and up.

We’ve been running on a shoestring for decades

MacArts manager Chris Wemyss

“We’ve been running on a shoestring for decades,” he tells The Independent, crediting MacArts’ charity status, some funding from local and national arts councils, and a peppercorn rent with its ongoing survival.

“We had a fairly good Christmas, which was an absolute lifesaver for us,” he says. “But with the general cost of living crisis, ticket sales are going down and our costs have rocketed.”

Chris Weymyss, who runs Scottish venue MacArts (Press)
Chris Weymyss, who runs Scottish venue MacArts (Press)

He called the UK government’s support for the grassroots industry “absolutely pitiful” and says that, were it not for the venue’s charity status, they would not have survived.

“It seems like a no-brainer that every single major artist started out in a small venue,” he says, “but it’s the big players that are taking all the money from that.”

Bands and solo artists have been speaking out in support of these venues, where the majority of them first cut their teeth in live performances, for decades. Every band has a musical mecca, a place where they’ve been birthed onstage,” Palace frontman Leo Wyndham tells The Independent. “A place where they’ve played endless shows to no one and anyone. That place for our band was The George Tavern in Stepney, London.

“We first played there 11 years ago. We were terrible then, had about three songs to our name, and were more wooden than the floorboards of the pub. But The George was a place where we could cut our teeth and feel welcome as a band in its rawest form. Slowly but surely, we built the confidence that has got us to where we are today.”

Alt-rock band Palace are championing the small music venues they started out in (Keerthana Kunnath)
Alt-rock band Palace are championing the small music venues they started out in (Keerthana Kunnath)

He says it is hard to comprehend how “wildly underappreciated” independent grassroots venues are: “They are deeply ingrained in our country’s musical fabric, but remain unnoticed and unsung.

“As they slip away, so do opportunities for young bands to solidify their musical identity and develop that essential confidence and chemistry onstage to realise their full potential,” he continues.

“Every musician, famous or not, started off in one of these venues – safe, intimate, accessible spaces for expression and experimentation. Some of the happiest gigs of my life are still the ones at The George in front of 20 or so people. We still go back to play sometimes just to feel that magic again.”

“Grassroots venues really are foundational for building connections as an emerging band,” indie duo Dolores Forever, who opened for pop band Bastille last year, agrees. “Those first few supporters are like gold dust and valued beyond belief, often following along with pride of having been there at the start.

“Our first Dolores Forever headline tour last year included venues such as Omeara in London and Oporto in Leeds, and we certainly made some core memories in those places. It’s always so inspiring to play these venues and see [all the bands who played there] when they were starting out. Nobody gets to the top of the ladder without that first important step on the bottom rung.”

For the music community of Leytonstone, east London, the Luna Lounge has been a haven for live performances for the past 20 years. Venue manager Declan Walsh joined the team three years ago, later taking over evening events when his business partner, founder Suja Luna Khaled, decided to step back. Tragedy struck when Suja died suddenly during the pandemic, leaving Declan left to run the club solo.

“It’s been a journey,” he says, “and I’m constantly learning along the way.” He’s set up a crowdfunder in an effort to help protect the venue, which is currently in a precarious position even as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.

“I feel that [grassroots venues] are forgotten about a bit, and just expected to always be there,” Declan says. “I hope that stories like the Luna Lounge might encourage people to think about what they can do to ensure these spaces are protected, because a lot of us are in crisis right now, and if we’re forced to shut down we won’t return.”

For other venues, the situation is less dire but still a challenge. Former teacher Michael Hilton opened the 150-capacity CWRW bar – a pub since 1758 – in Carmarthen, Wales, in 2019, as a craft beer pub that also hosted live music. They managed to thrive during the pandemic by selling their beer online then, when lockdown lifted, continued hosting live shows as well as supporting new and emerging artists through workshops and local projects.

CWRW in Carmarthen, Wales (Press/CWRW)
CWRW in Carmarthen, Wales (Press/CWRW)

Michael was eventually able to buy the building and therefore safeguard CWRW for the future. He acknowledges that few grassroots venue managers will have this opportunity, and backs the MVT scheme Own Our Venues, where spaces are bought through crowdfunding and placed under a trust. He is also vehemently in support of a mandatory ticket levy for stadiums and arenas, which would be fed back into the grassroots scene.

“It could be the saving grace actually,” he says. “Looking at the profits that corporations are making on these stadium tours, it is absolutely ridiculous. Something needs to change.”

Welsh band Adwaith performing at CWRW (Press/CWRW)
Welsh band Adwaith performing at CWRW (Press/CWRW)

Singer-songwriter Frank Turner, a two-time ambassador for Independent Venues Week and one of the most vocal champions of UK grassroots venues, calls them the “sine qua non of the popular music part of our culture… itself a significant component of our culture and economy”.

Frank Turner has repeatedly called for more government support of local music spaces (Getty)
Frank Turner has repeatedly called for more government support of local music spaces (Getty)

“They’re effectively an R&D department, allowing new talent to develop and find an audience, which can then go on to greater things,” he tells The Independent. “But they also provide a place for a whole ecosystem of less ambitious – but no less artistically valid – forms of artistic expression to thrive.

“Any society serious about its own art, culture and self-expression would treat them with the reverence they so clearly deserve; the fact that we broadly don’t is, in my view, telling.”