Independent Venue Week: why your local venue needs you, but not as much as you need it

What makes a small venue great and how do we save them? We talk to Anna Calvi, Radiohead's Philip Selway, and the boss of Independent Venue Week to find out

“Before we were signed, we hardly played outside of Oxford,” Radiohead drummer Philip Selway tells NME of the band’s early days. “So when we did start touring, we were just wet behind the ears. Playing at these small venues like the Adelphi up in Hull and the Charlotte in Leicester allowed us to learn our craft.”

From ear-bursting showcases at the tiny Jericho Tavern in their hometown of Oxford to headlining Glastonbury and stadiums around the world, Radiohead had their DNA forged in basements, backrooms and pub corners. That’s why Selway has been a vocal and active supporter of Independent Venue Week; signing up last year to play in many of the small, beloved sweatboxes that Radiohead hadn’t set foot in for about 30 years.

His aim, like the other artists returning to their old stomping grounds, is to spotlight how important these spaces are – not only to touring musicians and gig-goers, but also to the fabric of our culture and to the future of young talent.

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Radiohead
Radiohead, back in the day.

As Selway found both as a drummer and a solo artist, these places are much more than bricks, mortar and a PA system – they’re a labour of love.

“We always had a good welcome wherever we went, but we didn’t appreciate how much goes into making these places work,” says Selway. “From the owners to the technical staff, you don’t realise how much of their lives have gone into it. Go and visit somewhere like The New Adelphi up in Hull and meet someone like Paul Jackson – he’s still running it after all these years. I walked back into that venue, which was the first time I’ve been back for 35 years or so, and you notice that the smell and the feel of it are exactly the same.

“Every gig leaves its mark on the place” – pHILIP SELWAY, RADIOHEAD

“Every gig leaves its mark on the place. That’s over 25 years of Paul Jackson’s life – nurturing these bands, providing focus for the musical community, and providing countless good nights out.”

Adelphi Club, Hull. Credit: Gary Calton / Alamy Stock Photo

To keep those good times rolling, Independent Venue Week 2020 sees over 200 venues across the UK putting on special one-off shows and events this week to remind you of the joy that can be found in the live music scene right on your doorstep. Artists involved include IDLES, Goat Girl, Nadine Shah, Toyah Wilcox and this year’s Independent Venue Week Ambassador, the triple Mercury Prize nominee Anna Calvi.

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“I was playing in places like this for about 10 years,” Calvi tells NME, ahead of her special IVW gig at the Brixton Windmill on Friday January 31. “I wasn’t confident when I first went out and started singing in a three-piece punk band. Over those 10 years, I became much more of a singer and completely changed the style of music that I wanted to make. You have to play live to find out what turns you on.”

“You have to play live to find out what turns you on” – Anna Calvi

But while listing the places she first cut her teeth, Calvi notes how many are no longer with us. “I was sad when Madame JoJo’s went because it was such an important place for me,” she remembers. “It really makes a difference as a small artist to just be playing somewhere with a PA that actually makes you sound good. I remember The Luminaire in Kilburn. It was like a David Lynch scene – you went in, there were these red curtains and the sound quality was really good.

“There was a venue called The Verge in Central London too, and that’s where I met my bandmate Mally Harpaz. She was the drummer in another band, we met in the toilets and got talking. That completely changed the course of the rest of my life.”

Anna Calvi performs on stage at the Monto Water Rats on July 21, 2009 in London, England. (Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns)

The meeting of like-minded people in these intimate spaces cannot be underestimated. “When we first started touring, it was about going out and talking to people at the gig afterwards,” Selway remembers. “We had these little yellow stickers with the Radiohead ‘r’ logo on them. We’d just hand those out and build up those relationships and get to know people who’d come back again and again. It’s about the immediateness of that point of contact”.

“Playing those small shows is a good measure of the substance in a band” – Philip Selway, Radiohead

With Radiohead’s attitude towards their fans forged after tiny club shows, we ask Selway if he sees a direct correlation between giving fans little red stickers outside and tiny venues and allowing them to pay what they wanted for ‘In Rainbows’ in 2007.

“Yeah, absolutely!” he replies. “That’s where we started building up the relationship which is what we have in our fanclub community W.A.S.T.E. now. When you’re going out and playing live, that’s the aspect that you have the most control over. You can’t predict how your stuff is going to be received in the press or by record companies, but there’s something about the instant relationship that you have with an audience that works for genuine reasons.”

Radiohead philip selway stage collapse
Radiohead’s Philip Selway

Selway argues that without these places for artists to grow, we’ll experience a glass ceiling with it comes to the development of talent. How will a young singer-songwriter graduate from their bedroom to an arena or truly know their voice if they can’t try it out first? “These are an end in themselves because they are great venues to play,” the veteran concludes. “But the other side is that they are stepping stones.”

So what is to be done about small venues being crushed under the weight of extortionate rates and rent? How many more will close their doors because of noise complaints due to new nearby developments? Is it just a matter of time until your favourite spot shuts up shop to be turned into luxury apartments or another Nandos?

Anna Calvi, live
Anna Calvi, live. Credit: Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images

“I feel that the government should step in,” declares Anna Calvi. “Music is such an important artform, and the entertainment industry generates a lot of money for the UK. Music doesn’t feel like it’s valued by those kinds of people, but it can be life-changing for people to have a space like that.”

It’s still not enough but there does seem to be hope. Last year the Arts Council pledged £1.5million to the Supporting Grassroots Live Music programme, and the Music Venues Trust have been working tirelessly to drastically cut the 35% closure rate of the last 13 years. The Trust also recently successfully won their campaign to have business rates slashed by 50%. Not only that, but you may seen the headlines that the world’s oldest music venue, London’s iconic 100 Club, has been “permanently saved” after being granted “special status” by the council.

“The government should step in. Music doesn’t feel like it’s valued by those kinds of people, but it can be life-changing” – Anna Calvi

It is hoped that this will spark a precedent. “Local councils now have the power: you have to act now,” says the Music Venues Trust’s Mark Davyd. “Stop saying you support your grassroots music venues, get off your arse and actually do it!”

Whether or not politicians can bring themselves off their arses remains to be seen, but we do seem to be amidst a sea change for the fate of UK venues.

“We’ve worked really hard to move the conversation away from the closures,” Independent Venue Week founder and CEO Sybil Bell told NME. “I think that the external factors that we’re seeing, like the extortionate rates and the lack of empathy among some government sectors, is starting to shift. Every part of the industry should be doing far more than they currently are to support the circuit.”

Industry aside, some may question if the demand is really there. Well, it turns out it is. Insiders are reporting that there’s been a diversification of the genres on offer at local gigs – and that it’s people of all ages attending them, despite money being scarce.

“Some of these venues have been around for 30 or 40 years,” says Bell. “As we go through this global recession and depression, belts are tightening. You could spend £70 on seeing a band at a big arena, or you could go to 10 small gigs that are £7. To dispel some of the nonsense, if people do their research then there’s a really good story to be told. I’m not saying there aren’t challenges, because there are.

“Stop saying you support your grassroots music venues, get off your arse and actually do it!” Mark Davyd, Music Venues Trust

“What keeps the good venues going is when they have a good relationship with the community, when they’ve got a great programme and artists they want to support. They’re the ones taking the risks and putting on good nights in well-run venues. I don’t think that has ever changed.”

Venues are certainly doing something right. Taking part in Independent Venue Week this year are five that didn’t exist a year ago – with new ones opening at a faster rate than the UK has seen in a while. So why do we still need Independent Venue Week?

“I think ‘need’ is a funny word, because we aren’t there to campaign or lobby,” Bell replies. “For so long these venues have been taken for granted, and things are only on the up because people are still realising what’s on their doorstep. There’s never been a better time to get behind that.”

Your local venue needs you, but not as much as you need it. Streaming has made a universe of music freely available – but there’s a big black hole in it that can only be filled by the going to that sweaty little room down the road. This is where you play a part in the evolution of your new favourite act, where you help create the festival headliners of tomorrow, where you’re the centre of a culture and community, where you add the human element back to music, where you’re among the lucky few who can look back and say ‘I was there’.

“There’s something much richer about listening to a vinyl record, there’s  something much richer about going to a gig in a small venue” – Sybil Bell, Independent Venue Week

“Just like there’s something much richer about listening to a vinyl record, there’s also something much richer about going to a gig in a small venue,” Bell concludes. “I don’t think that seeing some of these artists at bigger gigs or at festivals has anywhere near the same impact. If you really are passionate about music, then you’re going to want to be the person that discovers a band and then gets on Twitter to tell all your friends about it.

“There’s something very empowering about the whole experience that’s never gone away.”

Independent Venue Week runs nationwide until Sunday February 2. Visit here for events, tickets and more information.

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