As the UK celebrates Independent Venue Week 2024, figures from across the grassroots live music scene have spoken to NME about the need for operators to embrace youth, diversity and access behind the scenes.

Now in its 11th year, IVW has been running throughout this week with 205 venues hosting hundreds of celebratory gigs featuring everyone from globally-recognised artists to up-and-coming talent.

IVW ambassadors English Teacher and Picture Parlour spoke to NME about how these spaces are a breeding ground for culture and subcultures – with voices behind the scenes speaking up on the need for inclusivity across the board in order to keep culture in motion.

Dom Frazer is director of The Boileroom in Guildford, working with venue manager Char Goodfellow. The venue recently picked up the Grassroots Champion award at the LIVE Awards 2023, and has also been nominated for Progressive Venue in the 2024 Pride In Surrey awards. To them both, keeping the Boileroom going is an act of love both for live music and the local community.

“I’ve been coming to the venue since I was 15,” Goodfellow told NME. “The first show I saw at the venue was Wolf Alice. Venues like this – the only one in the area – and artists like that are the reason I got into this and wanted to work in music in the first place.”

Frazer agreed: “When you grow up in rural spaces – and there are many venues like us around the country – it’s a real struggle to find people that might be into the same things as you. We have to keep championing these spaces as they really are a lifeline for so many people. Especially at a time where people’s mental health is at an all-time low; we’re not providing entertainment for people, we’re more like a mental health community service for people. They feel like they’re part of a family.

“At a time when people don’t feel connected, we’re here to help people feel like they’re part of something bigger.”

In that same spirit, both Frazer and Goodfellow have worked to create a diverse team behind The Boileroom so that their staff “reflect the kind of people who want to come to these spaces”.

“Most of our team are neurodiverse, we’re a queer-safe space, and it has to be about taking up this space as women,” said Goodfellow. “When people come in and see women working there, it makes all the difference.”

Frazer continued: “As the founder of this space 18 years ago, it was always really important for me to provide a safe space and be an advocate so that other women can see that you can run a venue, you can be a sound engineer, you can be anything you want here.

She added: “Take up that space and have ownership of it. A lot more people would do that if the advocacy was there. It’s important that we have such a diverse team. When we look back historically on our team members, we now have people who identify as women who are now sound engineers on tours, and non-binary people out in the music industry that came up through our venue.

Dom Frazer of The Boileroom in Guildford. Credit: Press/Independent Venue Week/press/supplied
Dom Frazer of The Boileroom in Guildford. Credit: Press/Independent Venue Week/press/supplied

Speaking at Music Venue Trust’s Venues Day back in 2021, Bob Vylan frontman Bobby Vylan made an impassioned speech for a live scene that’s diverse and “represents us all“. The band found such a space when they arrived to play Guildford’s Boileroom.

“We had Bob Vylan play the venue, and on that night it was an all-women crew including a sound engineer,” recalls Frazer. “They made reference to that on stage – that they were please to see our diverse team. We need artists to amplify that with their crews too.

“Diversity needs to happen at source. Every person is capable, and that really is the message. In this day and age, gender shouldn’t be on the agenda. We should just have capable teams.”

Frazer pointed to Boileroom’s strength being in a “community where people really feel seen”. “That’s something that people in a lot of marginalised groups don’t feel,” she said. “Through no fault of their own, in music and spaces, white men take up a lot of room.

“It’s really about creating allyship between people so that they can step to the side and give a platform to somebody else to speak; having space in the conversation and in the room. We know when to step to the sides and gently encourage someone to step forward.”

She added: “The work is not done yet – there’s still a long way to go. Char and I are two white women in a position of privilege, and it’s important that we’re aware of that and know to continually push for progress.”

Immy Bawtree is the 27-year-old manager of Faith In Strangers in Margate. While she said that she loves her job and the community she serves, Bawtree confessed that “there have definitely been hurdles that I’ve faced just due to who I am”.

“Sometimes when I’ve been on the door or hosting, I’ve had customers come up and say, ‘Can I speak to the manager?’ and I’ve had to turn around and say, ‘Speaking…’,” she told NME. “They can’t really get their heads around how I’m one of the youngest people there and I have some sort of authority! That can sometimes be quite satisfying.

“I and a lot of young women still get a little bit castaway on presumptions that are made about our capability. I feel really lucky and want to be a good example for people in positions like that so that it seems approachable and accessible for people. These opportunities should be coming up a bit more now.”

Bawtree explained how being one of the younger people working in the world of live music was a benefit to the venue, especially as “recently, the audience demographic has tended to be older”.

“That could be that the cost of living is so extortionate so young people don’t have the disposable income to go to as much live music as they used to,” she said. “We’re really trying to bring in all these fairly unusual genres and backgrounds and trying to make them as accessible as possible.”

Immy Bawtree from Faith In Strangers in Margate with Steve Lamacq. Credit: Immy Bawtree/Faith In Strangers
Immy Bawtree from Faith In Strangers in Margate with Steve Lamacq. Credit: Immy Bawtree/Faith In Strangers

Through ambitious programming at Faith In Strangers – such as attempting to introduce classical music and techno to new audiences – Bawtree said that their mission was to “bridge the gaps of different ages and demographics” and close the divide between “high culture” and “underground culture”.

“In Cliftonville, we are one of the most deprived areas in the UK, so we do have a divide,” she said. “A lot of people who have come to Margate from London do have money and are looking for a cultural hub, but Cliftonville in itself is already rich with culture but has just been left and ignored like a lot of seaside towns in the UK. Now we’re really reliant on being built up – not gentrified.

“There’s a big difference between storming into an area and ignoring the locals to make your own little pocket to ostracise that community even more. Our whole mission is to the opposite of that so all these different groups can find some common ground. That’s all ages, all backgrounds and all demographics.”

Asked for what advice she’d share for women or young people wishing to enter the live music industry, she replied: “You have to know that you have to throw yourself out there, and you will be met with some preconceived ideas – the idea that you might not be good enough or you don’t have the experience. That’s all just a bit of an illusion because believing in your confidence and knowing that there’s a place for you goes a long way.

“It’s hard to not listen to that little voice in the background and knowing that you’re in a male-dominated industry, but that peer encouragement is invaluable. Seeing other people in positions who can be approachable breaks down the wall of this seeming exclusive. There’s a dynamic that has been set in stone for so long, but we can bring a multitude of skills, talent and knowledge to the industry.”

Katie-Lou Green of the Docks Academy in Grimsby. Credit: Katie Lou Green/supplied
Katie-Lou Green of the Docks Academy in Grimsby. Credit: Katie Lou Green/supplied

Another venue manager facing similar regional challenges is Katie-Lou Green of The Docks Academy in Grimsby.

“In our area, there’s literally nowhere to go and watch original and new music,” she told NME. “A lot of people would have to go to Lincoln, Hull, Sheffield or further afield. A lot of work has been done to give local musicians a platform. It’s been a slow progress to ensure that continues to thrive and that we offer opportunities for live music in this area.

“It’s amazing now that communities have somewhere here on their doorstep, and that we’re seeing the pivotal moment of people from other areas coming to visit Grimsby, which is amazing.”

Green said that while she “fell into this industry” when she started working at the venue after a history of working in arts events, her view has always been that providing access to culture to people on the more deprived parts of England’s east coast and tackling the regional challenges of diversity are “fundamental”.

“As a brand new venue, we’ve been able to establish our values of what we can bring to the area – not just in terms of music but also how it becomes an integral part of everything. More needs to be done with diversity. Because we’re based in Grimsby, it’s sometimes difficult to programme a diverse programme because it reflects the demographic of our area a little bit. It’s difficult enough to get the proportion of female artists to play in our venues, but what’s quite important is that there is an awareness of that.”

She added: “Over four years we’ve had to build an audience from scratch and build a programme that is suitable for that audience. To try and introduce new music, diversity and develop a new audience alongside that is a really challenging thing to do but there’s the awareness within the team and it’s something we’re proactively trying to build.”

Can't Swim live at Key Club in Leeds. Credit: Soph Ditchfield/supplied
Can’t Swim live at Key Club in Leeds. Credit: Soph Ditchfield/supplied

In neighbouring Yorkshire, Heather Dutton runs The Key Club in Leeds. Dutton said that one of the biggest gains for her venue in recent years was ensuring diversity, visibility and safety.

“We’re always looking for new things to add to the venue to make it safer, better and a venue where people want to be – not just in terms of the staff but the music we put on and the events we offer,” she said. “We don’t just want to stick to the same old routine of club nights. We’re always looking to bring in different genres and new audiences.

“In the last year, we’ve been K-pop nights as well as our indie disco. Everyone gets introduced to new ideas and gives them a try. Especially on a Friday and a Saturday – we see people from all walks of life coming together.”

Dutton added that evolving with the audience and having a community in the venue that reflected that was essential.

“Here in Leeds, we have international students as well as students who live at home and have grown up here – plus the usual people who have been coming here for years,” she said. “If you just so the same thing over and over, then people will stop coming or find elsewhere. We don’t want things to get samey and we don’t want to stop – especially in a venue like this as one of the only alternative venues in Leeds. Everyone needs to have a good time and everyone needs to feel safe.”

Niamh Robinson, Michael Ainsworth and Tom Townsend at Grayston Unity. Credit: Grayston Unity/supplied
Niamh Robinson, Michael Ainsworth and Tom Townsend at Grayston Unity. Credit: Grayston Unity/supplied

One way that Grayston Unity in Halifax helps their venue feel more open is by filling it with young team members – either through hiring as staff, training or apprenticeships. Michael Ainsworth is the owner, and has been putting on live music for 40 years.

“You worry that the audience can be full of 6 Music-listening people in their 40s and above – even with bands you’d expect to pull a younger crow,” he admitted. “I’ve also noticed that there are fewer younger people getting into playing music because the costs are so high.

“We come from a not particularly affluent area, and it’s not cheap to be in a band. There are issues around that, and there being fewer places to play. It’s about supporting the pipeline of talent into music – both onstage and in the business side of it. I can’t do this forever, and didn’t want all to stop when I stop. The way to address that was to find new blood. If there’s talent out there, then age is no barrier.

Tom Townsend is one of the young people to have benefitted from this approach, who is now working as venue manager at Grayston Unity.

“It’s great to be part of the next generation of people who are putting on gigs,” he said. “You’ll see the technical staff in a lot of venues often being of a certain age – but here I’ve got a team of young trainee sound engineers learning how it works. That new talent will help us expand our audience and grow as a business.

With a “young team leading the operation on the ground”, the Unity’s staff includes a fully-funded female trainee sound engineer working 10 hours a week at just 17-years-old, as well as youngsters operating in other corners of the venue from the bar to backstage. Another beneficiary is Niamh Robinson, who’s working as a Creative Content Apprentice at the venue, aged just 18.

“I wanted to do something in content and media, but it was really hard because everywhere you look at for an internship or experience demand experience of you before you’ve got any,” she said. “It’s a cycle, but here I was given an opportunity without having much on my CV. Now I’m loving it and really involved.”

Townsend said that having such a young team added “a great dimension to the energy of the venue”, as well as “a certain vitality reflected in everyone else’s attitude too” – not to mention providing future career prospects to a generation who may have otherwise felt locked out. He said that through their doors, the Unity has seen youngsters go from “pulling pints” to “putting on sound at huge shows in other venues”.

With a word of advice to anyone who wants to get involved, Townsend said: “Just be a good communicator. A lot of people come through our doors that might have an interest in production or how to run a show. If you want to shadow a show, just say. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Independent Venue Week founder Sybil Bell. Credit: IVW/press
Independent Venue Week founder Sybil Bell. Credit: IVW/press

Sybil Bell is Founder of Independent Venue Week, and explained how these gig spaces needed to open, inclusive and inspirational, and much more than “a pub with a microphone in the corner”.

“They’re providing a platform, taking all the risks, and making it possible for arts and culture to be active in their local community,” she said. “The people that own, run and operate these venues are doing it because they believe in the greater good of arts and culture. That’s so crucially important.

“We’ve got a whole generation of people who’ve grown up with digital communications in their pocket, but going to a gig is real life social media. You walk through the door, you hear conversation, you see what people are wearing, you discover new food and drink, you’re seeing art on the walls, different tribes of people – and that’s before you’ve even seen anyone on stage. Why do you need to discover that on a phone?”

Of the 205 venues taking in Independent Venue Week 2024, 65 are in villages and towns.

“Not everyone has the means to travel to go to a gig,” said Bell. “The travel infrastructure is shocking outside of most city centres. There is talent all around this country, and it’s really important that we’re there to unlock it, give it a platform, regardless of whether you’re in a major city centre of a tiny little village.”

Bell said that the UK needed to ensure that venues “not only survive but thrive in these areas”, and that artists are able to play in the lesser-visited corners of the UK not just to spread music but so that barriers can be broken down in inviting people into the world of culture and the music industry.

“We’re not just talking about talent onstage, but people who are obsessed with music and would make great roadies and sound engineers,” she said. “There are people normally excluded or from marginalised communities who don’t want to be in a formal environment, but can go to these places where culture is spotlighted and encouraged.

“In venues you’re encouraged to make mistakes, learn and grow. Everyone can explore and engage in a safe space. Some people don’t suit school or college but they can find a path in a venue. Venues provide mental health support, meet like-minded people and their tribe.”

She added: “They have the scope to take risks, but they need the support of the community to make that worthwhile.”

Independent Venue Week comes at a period of great crisis for small gig spaces, after the Music Venue Trust recently shared their full report into the state of the sector – pointing out the threats venues face include soaring energy prices, landlords increasing rate amounts, supply costs, business rates, licensing issues, noise complaints and the continuing shockwaves of COVID-19.

This follows 2023 as being described as “the worst year for venue closures”, with 125 venues abandoning live music completely and over half close permanently, including the legendary Moles in Bath.

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