Q’s With Ben Lovett, Founder Of Omeara London: ‘You Have To Approach It With Both Sides Of The Brain’

Pollstar sat down with Ben Lovett, co-founder of Communion Music, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist of Mumford & Sons, and founder of Omeara, a live music venue, club and exhibition space in the heart of London.

Lovett met Pollstar in the venue’s 325-capacity auditorium to talk about its inception, the challenges for venue operators, ticket prices as well as the future of Omeara and grassroots music venues in general.

Georgina Jackson
– Omeara
The central London venue has a capacity of 325

Do you remember the moment you fell in love with live music for the first time?

Wow. Honestly, I think it was when I was twelve years old. I was at Brixton Academy, and I had been queuing for six hours to get in to see No Doubt, who were my favorite band at the time. I had a neon-blue Mohican. I was obviously pretty small, and I managed to make my way to the front of the barrier. The entire show was so good that the next day I went back with the same friend and we found a way to get another ticket.

That pure human connection that elevated what was, for me, great music, being able to see the people that actually came up with that music and wrote the songs: it felt very good to be alive.

Do you remember your own first gig, and which venue that was?

I’ve been playing gigs my whole life, literally, since I was nine, ten years old. There was a venue in Kingston called The Peel that a lot of us used to play at, which was an all-ages, fairly trashy venue, but that was part of its charm. I was in a band called ADHD, we were a punk band, I was on drums. I remember the gig pretty well. I remember it being really hot.

Ben Lovett
– Ben Lovett
Co-founder of Communion Music, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist of Mumford & Sons, and founder of Omeara

How important were grassroots music venues for the success of Mumford & Sons?

I don’t think Mumford & Sons would exist without them. When we got to 18, 19, Marcus and I had been playing together for six years by that point. And we were all at different iterations playing with different people around small venues in London. There was one place in particular on Kings Road, this little makeshift venue underneath a Cornish Pasty shop, which ended up being a pretty important grassroots venue. It feels even smaller than grassroots, but it was.

First time I ever saw Laura Marling was in there, first time I ever saw Noah and the Whale. And it was our first show that we went out as a version of Mumford & Sons. And a few other places like it. Sadly, they’re not around anymore, but these places tend to come and go. They exist on the energy of whoever started them. And as soon as that person runs out of energy, or normally money, that dream is done.

When did you have the idea to open your own place?

Probably four years ago now. That was when I genuinely started looking into the opportunity. I think it’s been a pipe dream much longer than that. I love hosting. I’ve always liked hosting parties. With Communion, over the years, we’ve managed to host a huge number of gigs and club nights and showcases and all sorts of things. I get a lot of joy out of providing for something great, a magical moment, to happen, for people to come together. So a venue is the ultimate version of that.

We have multiple things happening here every night. It’s not just one room, it’s lots of different ones, which gives us flexibility. I’ve always just wanted to be the instigator, and luckily I’ve had enough success to realize those dreams and pour back into the very thing that got me started in the first place.

What’s the biggest challenge in opening a venue?

I think you have to approach it with both sides of the brain. You have to be very creative and believe in the detail and the art of the venue, what you see and feel. But then, behind the scenes, you need to be very organized and do things in the appropriate way. And I think, sometimes you get one or the other.

People have launched a venue as a business without any kind of creative flow or desire, they do it literally just to try and make money. And those fail. More commonly you get people who are music lovers who just want to open a venue, but the behind-the-scenes-back-end stuff is just not taken care of with the same attention to detail.

I was very nervous, because I would say I’m more creative, but I’m aware of the business side of it. Way before even committing to the build-out of this place, I started seeking advice from people who really knew what they were talking about. There’s a guy called Mark Davyd, who runs a thing called the Music Venue Trust. He’s been very helpful. I met with him a few times, and he gave me the dos and don’ts. Make sure that you are honoring your license and being considerate of your sound and paying your bills on time.

It seems obvious, but you get caught up in other things, like making sure that the bands are happy. So I ended up putting a management team in place that is probably relatively oversized that can deliver this long-term, so it doesn’t just become something that is here for a few years. The real ambition here is to build a venue that is going to have an impact on the cultural history of London, and that people are referring to in 10, 20 years as being somewhere that really helped launch artists and was an important social landmark.

You mentioned Mark Davyd, who said in a recent interview: “We’ve built a model of work in this sector that doesn’t reward the thing we do,” referring to the fact that most venues operate to put on music but rely on bar sales to make it happen. How do you overcome such economic challenges?

The multi-room layout is a big part of it. When him and I were talking one-on-one that was one of his big pieces of advice. If we were trying to exist as a venue just with a small bar that we try to keep not particularly overbearing, tucked away in the corner of the venue, this place would have closed in a week. So we try to run things that also encourage people to come down and enjoy the food and drink offerings regardless of the live music component. That sustains the rent and the costs of all the equipment and anything that exists in here. If anything the venue runs against that.

Are tickets too expensive these days?

I would say no, actually, because of what the secondary market has told us. The majority of tickets actually gets sold for more money that initially defined by the promoter or band. Which means that the promoter and the band are losing out, that people are still willing to pay more to experience that. The market’s saying that tickets are underpriced.

Something I’m very careful about is hidden ticketing fees. I think that, especially in a venue of this scale, at the grassroots level, the majority of what you’re paying should be flowing through to the artist and not going through to a ticketing company. When you’re talking about a 15,000 to 20,000 capacity arena, which has a lot of complex allocations when it comes to how the seats work, I can understand high ticketing fees. It’s more of a burden on the ticketing company altogether. But at this level, a five-pound, six-pound ticketing fee on a 15-pound ticket just doesn’t work in my mind.

Does Omeara allocate to all ticketing companies?

We have a consistent one as a venue, which is a company called See, who are really good when it comes to combating secondary. They put in a lot of work to making sure tickets aren’t getting into the wrong hands. We also allow artists and promoters who come into the room to work with their existing partners.

Omeara is also a partner of the FanFair Alliance, which was in great part initiated by [Mumford & Sons manager] Adam Tudhope and is really targeting in on the secondary problem. It is getting worse rather than better, and we’re trying to figure out a way so people that transaction online now more than ever aren’t getting scammed.

– Omeara
A look at the empty venue

What’s your favorite small venue these days apart from this one?

There’s some basic principles that I learned from a venue in New York called Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side, where we’ve been hosting Communion shows for six years. Ken Rockwood, who opened that, has got just very high standards when it comes to the facility. The feel of the whole facility is that it’s kept like a museum when it’s not in use. They have really good technicians on sound and lights, it’s a place where I’ve promoted lots of shows and that I’ve really admired.

Here in London there’s a hand-full of places that I admire for their history and how iconic they are. Shepherd’s Bush Empire is a very important venue to me, it feels like it’s a rite of passage for artists to play it. And I hope that, over time, playing Omeara feels like something that internationally big bands don’t want to skip.

What’s your favorite big venue?

There are quite a few; a beautiful theater in Atlanta, The Fox. There’s this place called the Gorge in Washington State, which is a stunning outdoor natural amphitheater with a huge canyon behind the stage, similarly dramatic to somewhere like Red Rocks. I like it when there’s a degree of interplay between a natural environment, and amplifying that with a great Rock N’ Roll venue. The Hollywood Bowl’s a bit like that, the Waldbühne in Berlin is a stunning venue. Luckily, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing what it’s like to feel the energy at those places first hand, but I’m sure we’ll keep on discovering something new.

Are there enough venues?

I do think that we have to stay on top of the issue. I’ve noticed that just in my short life the emphasis on places, where people can discover and engage in life in a different way that goes beyond office, retail and residential, has diminished. I’m worried about what that’s going to mean for the future of creative spaces in general.

That said, I think that people are figuring out ways to make it work. I don’t think this is a one-off success story, and we are hoping to prove it by building more of these and show that there is a path to it. It’s obviously also dependent on people turning up and investing their own hard-earned money into this stuff.

You asked earlier about ticket prices: some people do think they’re too expensive, and sometimes a 10-pound ticket to see a band would be more attractive than a 15-pound ticket, and yet people are willing to be paying their Netflix subscription and are willing to spend a few pounds on a daily coffee. There’s a weird value system going on, where people will, for years of their life, pour into writing songs that can really inspire people. And then they invest into rehearsal rooms and gear and maybe a van to get around, and then they come up, and, at a grassroots venue level, they will probably just about break even on a show. And People are still feeling that things could be cheaper.

We can see in hard numbers how much people will spend on a ticket vs. how much they’ll spend on drinks or merchandise that night. The amount of people are willing to spend on a ticket is the least, and that needs to be worked on. People need to change their value system a bit and invest into the music they profess to love so much. If we get it going a bit better in the small to medium sized [venues], I think there’ll be more options for people to enjoy regular connection with music and other art forms, so they don’t have to spend 500 pound on a weekend at a festival. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. But maybe that’s just me.

What do you love most about your job?

The hosting. I grew up in a family of three siblings, so it was six of us in total, and I like being a part of a family. And, as I said, there’s whole team of people here, a whole new family of people that I’ve put together from various parts of my life. Most of them I’ve known for ten years. I just like that I have been an instigator of that happening. It’s great to see people enjoying themselves here, but, on a more nuts-and-bolts level, I also love job creation, figuring out a way to let people pursue their passion in life. Whether that be the bar or venue manager here or the person managing bookings – these people have been wanting to do that with their lives. And with Omeara we can now support a whole team of people pursuing their dreams.

Do you get nostalgic at all when working in this environment? Does it make you think about doing a grassroots venues tour again?
It wasn’t that long ago since we did one. It’s always fun. I think that the other guys felt that too. It’s pretty unique when you see the eyeballs of every single person. Maybe, if I can figure out a way of actually building venues all over the place that we could then go and tour, that would be the first thing to do.

Do you already have the next location for an Omeara in mind?

I would like to try and figure out a U.S. plan for Omeara next, that’s where my head’s at, and maintain this kind of venue offering in more cities than London.

This story originally appeared in VenuesNow