The second Independent Venue Week in the US has just finished, with more than 50 cities across 28 states, and over 200 performances from a range of artists including Soccer Mommy and Cate Le Bon. So we thought it would be a good idea to catch up with founder Sybil Bell, and find out more about where they are, and where they want to be.
What comes across loud and clear is how important independent venues are for supporting grassroots music, artists and local communities, and how vital they are for supporting the next generation of the music industry.
For anyone who doesn’t know about Independent Venue week, what is it?
Independent Venue Week is a seven-day celebration of the small, music venues around the country that give the very best platform to artists to play live. Record Store Day has had a huge impact on the vinyl industry and also on record shops around the world. I think it's a fantastic celebration, and I thought we should be doing something like that for venues. People that run these venues are the ones that take all the risks and give artists their first break, but they never get any recognition. God knows they don't do it for money, because there isn't any in running a venue, they do it because they’re really passionate about music and they want to give people a start. Venues form such an important cultural hub, so it's not just great for the artists, it's not just great for the music industry, it's hugely important to local communities.
What made you want to launch Independent Venue Week in the US?
In the UK, we grew tenfold in terms of the numbers of venues we had from 17 to 169 by year five. And all through this time, I was looking at other territories. I'm terrible at languages, so it was always going to be America or Australia or somewhere where I could converse. I looked at Australia, and the time wasn't right there. They have a problem with their lockout laws and that was affecting different states differently. To me what's crucially important is that Independent Venue Week runs across a whole country. But because America is a huge territory, you'll be exposed at every turn if you don't get it right. So, we started it like we did in the first year in the UK: Pick around 20 venues, make sure it’s country-wide, ask each venue to do just one night, so everyone learns how it looks and feels. And from there you can grow. We’ve grown to 91 venues in year two. We say to the venues that if they want to run more than one night they can. But as important, if you're a venue in an area where there are other venues, work together. People think that venues compete, and on one level they do, but they all know each other. All they really want is for there to be a strong theme where they live, and I think that's what we're starting to see here.
People that run [independent] venues are the ones that take all the risks and give artists their first break, but they never get any recognition
Is that network effect an explicit goal for Independent Venue Week?
Yes. The overriding feedback that we get from venues is that they want to feel they are a part of something. I've run a venue before, it's a tough gig. Bands move on, they're touring, they're getting bigger, they're growing their audiences. The venues don't grow, they don't get bigger, with the odd exception of developing a new one, but they don't get bigger. The venues just chug along doing what they're doing. What they've said to us is for Independent Venue Week they feel like they're part of something huge, because we're a national project with a very local feel and that applies both here and in the UK. Some of them don't want the accolades, they don't want to be named, but they do like feeling that they're a part of something that acknowledges the work that they do.
How do you support music at the grassroots level?
We aim to reflect what venues are doing. If you look at what these venues have done for decades and decades, they give artists their first crack at being on stage. That experience of learning how to perform, how to engage with an audience, how to cope when things don't go right, they're vitally important. You can't go and headline a big festival or play a big arena unless you come through that process, because it's not authentic and it will come across as not authentic. The other area that people tend not to talk about, and we push really hard in the UK, is supporting the side of the industry that's not about performance. How do you become a reputable sound engineer, how do you manage some of the biggest bands on a global scale? That takes skill and experience, and you're not going to be able to walk into that job. You need to be on the ground learning. So what we try and do with Independent Venue Week is reflect how important the venues are to new artists, but also how important they are to people who want to work across the industry.
What are the biggest challenges for independent venues?
One is gentrification. We've seen this in the UK and I think it's happening over here a lot. You see it all the time in the UK, where venues have been around for 10, 20, 30 years, and some new block of high rise apartments get built or an old office building gets converted and people suddenly say, “Well, yeah I want it, but I don't want it right there.” I think we're also facing a lot of challenges with rent and rates. A lot of venues are shutting down because they just can't afford to keep open. And I think it's frustrating to see the price of the gate ticket not rise at the same rate as the cost of putting on shows and running venues. You can still go to a gig for five pounds; it costs you three times that to go to the cinema, and you're getting a live experience that is totally unique.
How can independent venues overcome these issues?
Some venues in the UK are opening up floors above them if they have them and turning them into small, creative businesses to run offices from. They're doing workshops. Over in the UK, we're launching Yes We Can later this year, which is our training education development programme for young people to learn about opportunities in music. For a lot of young kids at school, they don't know that there is a sound engineer or there's a tour manager. They don't know these roles exist, they don't know they can be a venue manager. So, we just want to strip everything back to its basics and say, “These are the roles that exist within the music industry. These are the roles that exist within the live music industry. Come and have a taste with some workshops.” We'll do them in the venue, so that we de-mystify what the venues are like, they can walk through the door, get to know people, learn about the skills that are needed, and then perhaps consider some of those careers for themselves.
What innovations are you seeing that could help independent venues?
We get approached by a lot of people who've got all sorts of widgets and gadgets and ideas and thoughts, and most of them don't really work. The simple measurement I've always had is, “Will it drive footfall for the venue? We were approached some time ago by a company called Rippla who said, “We stream gigs between Brooklyn, London, and South Africa.” And I was like, “Yeah, but I don't want to drive traffic.” They said, “No, no, no. We stream from a venue in Brooklyn into a venue in London and into a venue in South Africa,” and I was like, “This is interesting, actually. This we could get on board with.” And we worked with them a couple of years ago to stream a gig in Bush Hall in London to five other venues around the UK where the band wasn't touring. For venues it gives them a chance to showcase a band they might not be able to get through screening, and without all the band costs. What it also does, when you're doing it internationally, you have the kids in Brooklyn looking at what the kids in London are wearing and vice versa. And that's the bit that's more exciting. It's not just the music, it's about culture. It’s where young people want to go and experiment, meet like-minded people and bounce ideas off each other.
Do you think we’ve lost some form of connection and networking through digital music?
Absolutely. There's a whole generation that discover music through a screen. And that has its place, and it's really important, because people are discovering much more, and if they really love it then they may go and engage with it in a live setting. It's the cutting-edge people who recognize that if you're really going to absorb a lot of this and be a... I refuse to use the word 'influencer' here. I hate the word 'influencer'. But if you want to be a trailblazer, if you want to be somebody that sets the scene and embraces something and starts something, you don't do that stuck in your bedroom on a screen. Not in the same way as you can do if you're mixing with people who are bouncing ideas off each other, talking about stuff, sharing ideas, getting together, and exploring and experimenting with things. And if you're uncertain as to how to get into this world or you're keen to experiment, what easier door to open than that of a venue? Go and get a job on the door, go and get a job behind the bar, start mixing with these people. It's the easiest door to open, and I think if we can get more people going to venues, just to start to engage with each other and experience something first hand, I think we'll be doing a good service.
It's not just the music, it's about culture. It’s where young people want to go and experiment, meet like-minded people and bounce ideas off each other.
How do you want Independent Venue Week in the US to evolve?
What I'd like to see is more venues around the country, from the big city centres, right down to these small out-of-town places. And like we do in the UK, for them all to be treated equally. For them to have as much of a shot of getting a big band going back and playing a venue that meant something to them on the way up because it's in a tiny, little town. I'd like to see people acknowledging the importance and pivotal role these venues play in breaking new artists, in proving employment for people behind the scenes to learn their craft and in supporting a locally owned business in their community. What we'd all like is for people to recognise that and celebrate it, not just during the week, but use it as a starting point to celebrate it throughout the year.
How do you want to support that and make that happen?
Obviously, we would like to grow the number of venues we've got onboard. I'd like to see more partners coming on board, and for us all to collectively explore more innovative ways to make the week work. Something we’ve talked about publicly, and we'll do a proper announcement when we've started to marry people up, is that we would like to start twinning venues. We'd like to start pairing up venues that have a like-minded ethos. We'd also like to start to see a cultural exchange of artists. So, we'd like to see some US artists coming over to the UK and playing and vice versa. And if we've got venues twinned, then they can perhaps share artists from their local community.
What else is in the works?
We're finishing a film called The Long and Winding Road, which is a documentary on music venues in the UK, the people who own and run them, the artists that have played there, and gig-goers that go. Most music documentaries tend to be centered around decades, or genres, or events. But nobody has told this story about the venue owners and operators and the communities around them, so we're working to get that finished. Philip Selway of Radiohead, kindly, is fronting that. We've interviewed him for the documentary, and were watching him remember so much about what it meant to be out on the road, and he asked if he could go out of the road this year. So, he went off around the country in his own camper van and started interviewing people. We took him back to the Hull Adelphi where there's a Radiohead poster in the back bar. Paul Jackson runs the Adelphi. We managed to catch Philip on film walking into the venue for the first time in 27 years, and the two of them having a hug and Paul proudly showing Philip around and just talking about what it was like when they played then. It was utterly magical.
Would that be your dream for Independent Venue Week gig – have Radiohead play at an independent venue?
Yes! When Colin Greenwood was ambassador [in 2014], in my overly optimistic mind I thought they could go back and play the Hull Adelphi, and of course that's never going to happen. Colin makes a really good point by saying they would upset more people than they would please. You're going to have people spilling out onto the street, it's going to be very few people who get tickets. I get that, but you know what? There are hundreds of bands playing Independent Venue Week over the years, and they could be the next Radioheads. Look at IDLES, how amazingly well they've done and they were part of our very first outside broadcast. It was incredible, and they’ve wound up having the most well-deserved, brilliant journey now. This stuff goes on behind the scenes all the time, and if you want to get excited about music and be on board early, the independent venues are the place to go. Don't wait until they're playing Madison Square Garden. Catch them somewhere you can actually chat with them after.
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