Emma Warren meets the handful of resourceful people in Liverpool, Bristol and London making space for music venues despite discouraging realities
There is a guy strolling through the Kazimier Garden in Liverpool, past the bar and the corrugated iron roof punctuated by colourful lightbulbs and bedecked with greenery. It is a popular meeting spot, with communal benches and a tiny 80-capacity venue housed in an old stock room. New blocks of bulk accommodation sit hard against the sides and the back of the garden, rising high into the skyline.
The Kazimier operates in the gaps, quite literally. It was previously a much larger and much-loved DIY venue where you might find three-day improvised comedy marathons, grassroots music, or purposefully LGBTQ+ friendly late nights alongside touring big names. The land was sold to developer Elliot Group – hence the flats – and it closed on New Year’s Day 2016. An abandoned plot of land out the back became the Kazimier Garden.
“It’s a very strange sensation to miss a building, to not be able to stand in a particular spot, because it’s been demolished,” says George Maund, who started out working behind the bar and went on to programme events at The Kazimier. “I can go to my childhood home, if I want to, because that still exists. Without getting overly sentimental about it, it really did hold a unique position in the city,” he says.
21% of UK nightclubs closed in the year to December 2018 – over 520 venues
“It was defined by an octagonal dancefloor, a stage and a balcony, nooks and crannies. You could ambulate the building on the first floor, overlooking what was going on below. You could ornately drape and decorate it. I might have made it sound like any other place that’s closed, but perhaps that’s the formula right there – for somewhere that means a lot to people.
“What’s been lost is ease of access, proximity and a mid-tier 400-ish capacity venue so touring acts can come to Liverpool.”
Kazimier is not alone. In May this year the International Music Summit published a report showing that 21% of UK nightclubs closed in the year to December 2018 – over 520 venues. The Music Venue Trust report that 36% of live music venues had gone by 2016, alongside 18 pubs closing each week in the UK. Viability is less of a problem elsewhere, says the Music Venue Trust: in mainland Europe the average level of government subsidy for grassroots venues is 36% of gross turnover. In France, it is more like 62% as venues are funded to create gathering places and to protect and maintain the French language.
It is not just nightclubs, pubs and venues – it is much of our communal space: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that councils have sold 12,000 public spaces since 2014/15 and City Hall reported that over 100 youth centres have closed in the same period. This is relevant: these places helped influential and economically powerful genres like grime germinate. Dizzee Rascal made his musical debut at his local youth club, and you could argue that without London’s youth clubs in the early 2000s there would be no Stormzy, with all the money and cultural capital he generates. The Inclosure Acts enacted between 1604 and 1914 took 6.8 million acres of land out of common ownership and it’s hard not to see the current scenario as a form of social enclosure.
The discouraging realities around communal space are not stopping a handful of resourceful people making space in the gaps. Take Adam Gerrett and Dom Spillane from Matchstick Piehouse, a people-generated, volunteer-run artspace in a south London railway arch, which offers theatre, burlesque, cabaret, old-school reggae sound system events and the culturally famous Steam Down jams. Upstairs there is a rehearsal room, which you can hire cheaply or in exchange for a shift.
They started running parties and theatre in a “very dirty” Farringdon arch and were replaced by a wine bar. Relocating to New Cross, they ran events in a community centre where they met sculptors, musicians, and drag artists, all of whom were struggling to find space. They decided to set up a co-operative to support different types of art. “We wanted different people from different art forms supporting each other, and taking communal responsibility for the building,” says Gerrett.
“All the boring, lame shit that has to be done – licensing or fire restrictions – can be found online. You can take responsibility”
A realisation descended: if they ran enough events they could cover the rent, even though rent was inexplicably extortionate everywhere. They located a semi-derelict arch and spent six months rebuilding it, using the carpentry and DIY skills within their community and scrupulously addressed their official and legal responsibilities by reading up on regulation and legislation without spending huge sums on consultants.
“One of the reasons spaces are inaccessible is because people don’t think they can do it,” says Gerrett. “I discovered that you can do stuff legitimately and DIY. All the boring, lame shit that has to be done – licensing or fire restrictions – can be found online. You can take responsibility.”
Theirs is a seriously bare-bones operation. They opened with two loans in July 2018 and ran an event every day for three months to make enough money for the next quarter’s rent. The pair put in 70 to 100 unpaid hours a week alongside jobs tutoring and working as life models, working with 30 volunteers. Collectively, they have to bring in around £200 each day, five days a week. “Progress is deeply dependent on free labour. We want to create a system that benefits people and ultimately pays us, but that feels unbelievably far away,” says Gerrett.
Like many people who take on the physical and emotional labour of making space, Gerrett’s voice contains a backnote of bitterness alongside his clear joy at having created something so valuable. “If you want the control, take some of the responsibility. More artists should be asking these questions and collaborating.” The existing systems, he says drily, are not working.
Much of what happens at Matchstick Piehouse is recognisable to Mark Davyd, venue owner and head of the Music Venue Trust, which advocates for the nation’s small-scale musical powerhouses. “This entire circuit is built on people identifying a gap locally, filling that gap with whatever is available, then finding ways to keep it going despite the lack of any kind of commercial return,” he says. “People who run grassroots venues are extremely inventive. It’s written into their DNA. Right from the outset, they’ll be thinking about how they can be viable, even when it’s not really viable.”
Venues matter, he says, because of the cultural and social aspect. “Interacting through digital space doesn’t have the same long-term health, social and networking benefits. It’s the Stone Age camp fire, isn’t it? Having a place where people can gather, communicate with each other, is fundamentally important. It’s difficult to monetise something like that.”
It is not easy to make these arguments when people are obsessed with finance. Davyd says that it is easier to quote the simplistic figures: that for every £10 spent in a grassroots music venue, £17 is being spent elsewhere on the broader night time economy as people buy kebabs or take trains and taxis.
The Music Venue Trust’s 550 members include venues that are based in boats (Thekla in Bristol), the end of a terrace (The Adelphi Club in Hull) and a toilet (Davyd’s own Tunbridge Wells Forum). “The creative industries are very inventive. It’s the other side that lacks imagination. A music venue has negative connotations to developers. You tend to talk about the noise, people causing mess, people who want to smoke outside. Our members are incredibly inventive.”
“When poverty hits, culture and creative are the first things to go”
In Bristol, four promoters have managed the almost impossible: crowdfunding £45,000 for a new venue, Strange Brew, and getting the relevant permissions. Like the crew at Matchstick Piehouse, Kerry Patterson and her co-promoters are making space in between full-time jobs: in her case, homelessness prevention.
Their collective, named Dirtytalk, has been running parties and events in the city for nine years. They estimate that 20% of licensed venues have closed in the past seven years, equivalent to 10,000-capacity-worth of bars, venues and clubs. So for the past three years they’ve been looking for their own venue. They had previously operated from the Motorcycle Showrooms, a place run on peppercorn rent where they built a bar, a stage and a DJ booth and which has since gone the way of many venues – closed down, awaiting redevelopment. “We wanted to put roots down, so it wasn’t so precarious,” she says. “We wanted to create a venue that could be lots of different things. There’s less and less space, and the space that does exist is being taken over to make way for more flats. Space for the public, or for entertainment or culture is shrinking. I’m feeling hemmed in.”
A big factor affecting creative spaces in Bristol is student accommodation, she says, and the relaxation of planning laws allowing developers to turn office buildings into flats without going through the usual hoops. “Student flats are not subjected to the same regulations as other residential buildings so it is a no-brainer – an easy way to acquire buildings for developers for maximum profit.”
It sounds like simple stockpiling: many of the new residential buildings, says Patterson, are bought by companies registered in tax havens. Popular venue Blue Mountain in Stokes Croft is about to close and be redeveloped into student accommodation, while legendary venue Motion is under serious threat from two major developments. Pre-austerity, the council had a ‘meanwhile project’ which matched groups of artists with empty buildings for peppercorn rent. “When poverty hits,” adds Patterson, “culture and creative are the first things to go.”
The obstacles are replicated country-wide. Back in 2015 the Music Venue Trust was commissioned to write a report for the mayor of London. It listed 22 reasons for the decline, including gentrification, land value, police cuts and issues with licensing and planning permission. “There’s one factor that’s often cited that I just don’t believe,” says Davyd. “Which is that people aren’t interested in seeing live music.”
Having slogged its way over the initial hurdles of funding, licensing and planning permission, Dirtytalk is now getting the venue built. “It’s been empty for nearly 10 years and it’s never been a venue. There are dead rats, crap to clear out. We need to do the plumbing, the toilets, literally everything. We’re going to do it properly, but it’s not going to be polished. If you can have a wee, have a drink, and if there’s a sound system, we’ll open,” says Patterson.
All things being equal, Bristol will have a new venue that will allow grassroots culture to develop and will provide a space for people to gather. It is a small ray of light amid a much darker picture. The Music Venue Trust is already seeing the economic impact of music venue losses. “We [the UK] were previously producing two or three multimillion-pound-selling festival-headliners every year, but we’re not producing that any more. We’re starting to see a long-term economic and employment impact,” says Davyd.
“When you have nowhere to congregate, you’re at risk of losing people and talent – the things that make a city interesting”
Back in Liverpool, the Kazimier’s George Maund is cautiously optimistic about keeping the garden going, even with the spectre of noise-phobic new arrivals moving in above and around their venue. “We’re survivalist adapters. [We’ll be here for] another 10 to 15 years, if not longer. I left for two weeks and a fancy bar opened opposite, and a weird quasi-apart-hotel turned its ground floor into a bar, so the area is going to see more of this stacked approach to use of space.”
They have evolved into a larger operation, with Invisible Wind Factory, in Liverpool’s North Docks, taking over an old warehouse to generate three venues, multiple studio spaces, a workshop for in-house builds and commissions, a tech lab “where lighting arrays and other vibe ideas are tested”, and office space. Maund is proud of what he and the team have achieved: “It’s a remarkable turnaround from doing a lot with a little.
“Without sounding like I’m justifying gentrification,” he says, “when people have to operate in the margins, they do get shit done – on their own terms, almost undisturbed.”
It is a lot of work, so why are these resourceful people bothering? “We feel there’s no other option,” says Patterson. “When you have nowhere to congregate, you’re at risk of losing people and talent – the things that make a city interesting. I feel like we can do it. It is possible.”
Emma Warren is a journalist and author of Make Some Space, a manifesto for creating musical communities in the 21st century