Independent Venue Week: this year’s ambassadors on their first-ever gigs

The initiative, now more important than ever, has moved online. Arlo Parks, Gruff Rhys, Amy Macdonald and Jordan Adetunji remember how they started out

We can’t be together at gigs right now, and who knows when we’ll be able to again? One thing we do know is that when the time comes, we’ll need grassroots independent music venues more than ever.

READ MORE: Restarting live music in 2021: gig and festival bosses on what to expect

Returning for its eighth year, Independent Venue Week – typically a series of live showcases – will be take place online later this month, with 110 venues from across the 12 regions of the UK hosting everything from ‘In Conversations’ with artists, labels, promoters and gig-goers (on the 25th, for example, you can catch up with London hardcore tykes’ Chubby and the Gang) to album listening parties, pre-recorded livestreams, comedy and quizzes. The broadcasts will be aired via YouTube and the IVW website, thwarting ‘rona’s attempts to keep us disconnected.

To help shine a light on these treasured spaces, IVW have signed up an ambassador for each home nation. NME 100 alumni and former NME cover star Arlo Parks represents England (and the campaign as a whole), Super Furry Animals legend Gruff Rhys is doing his thing for Wales, the multi-million selling Amy Macdonald is  standing up for Scotland and the much hyped alternative hip-hop pioneer Jordan Adetunji is here for Northern Ireland.

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“These venues nurture and encourage the growth of emerging talent – they’re the lifeblood of the live industry,” Parks tells NME. “All new acts will play their first gigs in these venues, making their first memories and gaining experience as performers. Each venue has such personality and offers a safe space for so many members of their respective communities. These venues are indispensable and I wouldn’t be the artist I am now without them.”

In that same spirit, we asked each of the ambassadors to look back on the first gigs they played in independent venues – and why they matter so much.

Jordan Adetunji, ambassador for Northern Ireland

Jordan Adetunji. Credit: Press
Jordan Adetunji. Credit: Press

“My first performance in an independent venue was unforgettable. It was opening for Coolio at The Empire in Belfast. It was such a great start for me. Coolio seeing my performance and bigging me up was crazy, then there was the way the crowd were matching my energy. It was such a good vibe. It’s such an iconic venue that hasn’t really changed over the years so it’s such a special memory.

“That night really shaped me. It taught me that it doesn’t matter how big or small a venue is, but you as an artist create what’s going on in there. The independent venues support you like no one else. They’ve got your back and really make it a collaborative experience. Playing in places like this really brought music to life for me. These venues, especially in Northern Ireland, they put in a lot of hard work to get gigs together as well as to keep things running. We need the opportunities they provide.

“My first real headline show in an independent venue was at The Black Box in Belfast, which is a charity venue that facilitates a lot of new artists. It was the first time that I put on a gig for myself to see if people would come for my music and my music alone. It was very personal, and to see genuine love made it a very big moment for me.

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“Not just for artists but for fans, venues are a big part of people’s day to day life and mental health. You need to party and have an escape from your problems. We need these spaces.”

Gruff Rhys, ambassador for Wales

Gruff Rhys has been announced as Wales' ambassador for Independent Venue Week, 2021. Credit: Press
Gruff Rhys has been announced as Wales’ ambassador for Independent Venue Week, 2021. Credit: Press

“I started playing gigs when I was about 13 as a drummer in the ‘80s. They were mostly in public and subsidised buildings and schools. A lot of the early gigs would be organised by political activists like the Welsh Language Society, playing benefits for the miners’ strike and those kinds of gigs. A lot of the organisers and bands were doing it voluntarily. A lot of people involved in music are doing it purely for the love of music, culture and their communities. Music communities evolve around small and independent venues. From there, seeds can grow and affect culture generally.

“The crowds were made up of fellow teenagers, excited to hear music played by their peers. Playing to them just gave me the confidence to carry on playing. Without realising it, you’re learning stagecraft. You learn how to handle an audience. At the time you’re just concentrating on something that seems quite difficult, but you’re always learning and growing.

“The bigger, more established venues couldn’t exist without the grassroots spaces. Without them, nothing would happen on the bigger stages. There’s a crisis point coming from the pandemic and the collapse of musicians from streaming – as well as property developers trying to turn cultural spaces into flats. Venues need our love and support to survive, so I’m proud to fly the flag for them.”

Amy Macdonald, ambassador for Scotland

Amy Macdonald has been named as Scottish ambassador for Independent Venue Week 2021
Amy Macdonald has been named as Scottish ambassador for Independent Venue Week 2021

“The first gig I ever played in a real venue would have been one of the open mic nights I did in local pubs. I had to do a lot of sneaking about because I was only 15 at the time. I got such a buzz from being surrounded by live music and new artists and actually having a stage.

“I remember one gig at a bar called Brunswick Cellars in Glasgow and the Scotland national football team had been playing at Hampden [Park, in the city] that day. They’d beaten The Netherlands, which was quite a big achievement. All the fans started to come in afterwards, so I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to cash in here’ and played ‘O Flower Of Scotland’. That was my first experience of having a whole crowd singing back to me.

“So many artists thrust into the spotlight have this instant success, but when it comes to playing live they don’t have the experience or know what they’re doing – yet they’re somehow expected to fill an arena. That’s completely nonsensical. It matters to start at the bottom and work your way up. All of those experiences I had in smaller independent venues are what made me feel comfortable and confident in who I was. After I got signed, I never had that fear of playing live. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without all those venues.”

Arlo Parks, ambassador for England

Arlo Parks Hurt single
Arlo Parks, 2020. Credit: Tamiym Cader for NME

“My first gig was at the Basement Door in Richmond. I think I was around 16 years old. I’d spent a year making beats in my bedroom and putting songs on Soundcloud and the venue was almost a rite of passage for teenagers making music in south-west London. I dragged all my mates from school down on a Friday evening and they were all having a little boogie in the front row.

“I remember playing with my buddies from school – we’d only practised in my friend Chris’ bedroom and for half of the gig I played backing tracks straight out of my laptop and did spoken word over them. There was something so free and innocent about the gig: there was no soundcheck, and no pedals for the guitars. I was singing songs about parties, putting xx’s at the end of text messages and GCSE results. I think I also covered ‘Youth’ by Glass Animals and ‘102’ by The 1975.

“That show was the first moment that I realised that music was made to be shared, that there’s something electric about baring your heart in front of people, being slightly terrified and feeling the drums in your feet. I think that first taste of live music really ignited a fire in my belly. I was determined to make tunes that people could collectively dance to, cry to and feel held by.”

Independent Venue Week takes place from January 25-31. Visit the IVW website for more information

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