Driven By The ‘Absolute Passion For Music’: Independent Venue Week 2023

Nova Twins Pic Bethan Miller The Moon Club The Moon Cardiff 2nd Feb 2022
Nova Twins performing at The Moon Club in Cardiff, Wales, during Independent Venue Week 2022, Feb. 2, 2022. (Picture by Bethan Miller)

Sybil Bell had the idea to launch an entire week for independent venues in 2013. Now in its tenth year, Independent Venue Week (IVW) is widely regarded as the event that kicks off the year in terms of live gigs, with hundreds of buildings across the UK participating, massive media coverage from broadcasting partner BBC Radio 6 Music, and high-profile artists supporting the cause as ambassadors. This year’s artist ambassadors include Beabadoobee, Radiohead’s Philip Selway, Young Fathers, and Adwaith. This year’s dates are Jan. 30–Feb. 5 (the U.S. sister event runs in summer). Pollstar caught up with IVW founder Sybil Bell and head of IVW UK Joe Kenway to talk about the event’s history.

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Sybil Bell, founder of Independent Venue Week, and Joe Kenway, head of Independent Venue Week U.K.

Having worked across different sectors of the live biz, including owning her own venue and promoting concerts, Bell noticed early in her career, “that running a venue is an almost invisible task. We take these places for granted or have done. Until a few years ago, it was just assumed that there’s always somewhere for a new band to go play.” Plus, running a venue is “really hard work,” not just because you’re cleaning toilets at four a.m. after the last patrons have left, heads buzzing from an amazing band they just saw. “It’s a way of life rather than a job,” said Bell, who felt “that the sector wasn’t really being recognized.”

Bell decided to change that. She took inspiration from the Record-Store-Day model, but knew she wanted to expand it to a whole week from the outset. “A whole week felt more natural,” she said, because it allowed the venues to put the full range of what they have to offer on display, from local bands to international touring artists to day-time programming etc.

When she started reaching out to venue owners with her idea in the summer of 2013, reactions were mostly positive, even if some thought, “it was crackpot idea,” as she remembers. Bell knew how important it was to include the entire UK. Her former roles at various trade bodies, which are all located in London, taught her how easy it is to focus on the big cities while losing sight of the rest of the country.

“It’s very easy for people to think that everything happens in the capitol, or at least in city centers. It was my mission to map the country and get a venue in each of the nations, Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, Wales, and achieve a good geographical spread across the rest of the country, Sheffield, Liverpool, Southampton, Leeds, etc. I went round and just approached the venues. Once I had managed to amass 17, I decided to announce at the end of November, two months before the project was happening,” Bell recalled.

One of the many conversations she had during that build-up period was with Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, who has a great appreciation for grassroots venues, having honed his skills in one of them himself. “It was a good opportunity to send him details of the project and see what he thought, and he offered to help by becoming [IVW’s] first ambassador. Back then, January was still a much quieter time for music, news, anything going on live, and Radiohead hadn’t done anything for a long time. So, there was huge interest in him being ambassador, and he did some fantastic interviews. The week came round, each venue put on their own nights, and we shone the spotlight. It was a huge success. I really wanted it to land on BBC 6 Music, and when [moderator] Steve Lamacq] heard about it, his team got in touch. We’ve had the most incredible ongoing relationship with 6 Music, who are now our official broadcast partner, every year.”

Buy A F%^$*% Ticket! Rev. Moose on 2022’s Independent Venue Week

Novelist at the Adelphi Club in Hull, England, during IVW 2019.

After the success of the premiere, Bell decided to open up IVW to all venues wanting to take part. In year two, 91 buildings came on board, and she had to hire freelancers to cope with the demand. “It’s grown every year, we’ve never really taken a step back. The locations we reach around the country, villages, towns and cities have grown, more people from the industry are willing to get involved. And here we are in year 10, with more venues than we’ve ever had before.”

304 venues signed up for IVW’s 10th anniversary in 2023. The UK edition is headed by Joe Kenway, who joined Bell’s team in 2021. Kenway used to work for two iconic grassroots music venues in Leeds, the Hyde Park Book Club and the Brudenell Social Club, being responsible for multiple areas of the business, including promotion, production, marketing, conference and panel organization, as well as livestreaming. He got involved in IVW, when Bell’s team had to expand its digital offering during the pandemic. For Bell, “the whole point of setting up Independent Venue Week was to get people off their screens, to get people back out in person engaging as human beings, having a night out and discover music. But when the second lockdown hit three weeks before IVW, and we lost all our shows, we knew that we had to see what we could do digitally. Joe was absolutely a knight in shining armor who came through. He was instrumental in making sure that we could still offer people a chance to connect and be part of a community. It made a really big difference. When I heard he was leaving Leeds, I asked him if he wanted to come and work for us fulltime.”

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Anna Calvi performing at The Windmill Brixton in London, England, for IVW 2020.

Kenway, who’s been on both sides of IVW, as a participating club as well as organizing team member, said, “what’s amazing is seeing how all the unique spaces around the country get together for this week and are celebrated for what they are, as are the people who work in them and are responsible for all the uniqueness you find in them.”

In the early years, agents were reluctant to let their clients play at the event. Bell can only speculate as to why: maybe they thought they wouldn’t get paid, which has never been an issue with IVW. “Part of our remit is that everybody gets paid,” she said. Maybe they first wanted to wait and see what IVW was all about. Bell didn’t mind, she had built enough industry contacts to approach artists and managers directly and was therefore always able to curate a great lineup.

“I would just go to people and say, ‘do you want to come back and do a show here where you played early on and support the community?’ Because it’s not about us, either. IVW’s never been about us. Everything is about going back and supporting the community and making that the focal point. And the reality is, I can’t really think of any instances where an artist said ‘no, I don’t feel like that about the circuit.’ If they can’t, if they’re not doing it, it’s because it doesn’t work with their schedule. It’s never because they don’t want to put something back. And I think that’s what’s made it an exciting proposition,” Bell said.

And she continued, “I think the industry, over the years, has seen the work that we’ve done. They’ve seen that it’s not about us. They know that young artists need these spaces. It’s important that we continue to support them, and for the bigger artists to put something back. All these venues operate in isolation, they don’t go on tour, the people come to them. But for this one week, and the venues have said this to us, they feel part of something that’s nation-wide, that everyone’s talking about. And the bringing together of people is such a big part of it. I think people do recognize that now, which is why more and more of the industry want to get behind it.”

IVW 2022: IDLES doing their thing in Glasgow.

Aside from the challenges that result from two years of COVID and a looming recession, there are other developments that may deprive grassroots venues from an audience, according to Bell, who said, “People, who used to go to gigs, get married, have families, and stop going, they suddenly feel these places aren’t for them. You’ve got a whole generation that’s grown up discovering things on screens. There’s a perception that a lot of the venues just put on grungy indie bands. Our job, collectively, is to change that narrative, change the perception of how people see these venues. That can come from broader programming, in terms of shows but also activity aimed at different audiences, underserved communities, the queer community, disabled community, young people feeling excluded. It’s about creating community programs for those groups at the venues during the day, so people can start to recognize that these are cultural community houses and open spaces.”

According to Kenway, the participating buildings make the most of the week by showcasing the full spectrum of activities they engage in throughout a regular year. “One night might be an Indie night, the next night might be a hip hop night, then you have some jazz, a comedy night, spoken word or an art exhibition. It’s all driven by the people running the venues. More people are realizing that these spaces are for so many different things, not just one type of thing. That’s really helped bring it to the mainstream.”

IVW has been receiving funding from Arts Council England since year two, which mostly goes towards helping venues program nights they perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily do. SEE Tickets is another important partner and supporter of the event. “It’s an opportunity to underwrite a show, to test the waters to their community and their local audience, to take that risk. At the same time you’ll find that more people are going to shows they wouldn’t normally go to, because it’s a celebration, people are more inclined to do it,” Bell explained.

And she added, “So many of these venues don’t open their doors till four o’clock or soundcheck. Meanwhile, you’ve got all these community groups around the country looking for spaces to bring people together. We’ve been doing this well before the pandemic, but certainly since the pandemic, trying to encourage people to get back out in person and meet like minded people. We’ve all missed it, and we all thought we’d all rush back to it, but, so far, we’re not in quite the same way. So, we’ve got a whole range of programs on the community side that we hope will help and encourage people to do that. If you haven’t been out to gig in January yet, this is the chance to go. And if you go and love it, just do a bit more of it throughout the year.”

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Wet Leg playing at The Joiners in Southampton, England, during IVW 2022 in February last year. (Picture by Jamie MacMillan)

Making people understand the value of meeting in person can be a task, especially after two years of meeting almost exclusively online. What is more, there’s an entire generation of young concert and partygoers about to come off age that hasn’t experienced a festival or concert yet. Couple that with the abundance of home entertainment options, and going to a gig by an unknown band in a building that may require some traveling doesn’t sound like the no-brainer most music lovers would interpret it as. As Bell pointed out, “Art and music fans and gig goers haven’t really stopped going to gigs. What we’re trying to do with IVW is broaden that and say, ‘these spaces are for you, too. Even if you come for a comedy show, you’re gonna see great posters everywhere, which might just tempt you to come back for a concert.”

Kenway said the pandemic brought the independent venue sector’s incredible resilience to the forefront, supported by crowdfunders and donations from people, who immediately understood the importance of these spaces, not just as cultural hubs, but incubators of the talent that will form the future of the music industry. If a venue disappears it has a snowball effect. “We’re here to say, ‘year in, year out, there’ll be different challenges, but we’ll keep celebrating and supporting these spaces, because we need them,” he said.

Bell thinks, people have become “much more mindful of supporting independent businesses, local communities. And you can have a little bit of fun with it. We run in January, a peak time for people joining gyms and dating websites. So, we say to people, ‘go to a gig, you’re gonna meet somebody there who’s got the same taste in music. And if you’re having a good night, you can burn just as many calories bouncing around having a good time as you would in the gym. If you haven’t been to a good concert for a long time, just go, because you really will have a great night out’.”

Bell’s and Kenway’s favorite part of the job is traveling around the country, seeing the countless unique and personalized venues, but especially meeting their owners and operators. And as unique and individual as these buildings and their people may be, the one thing that runs like a golden threat through all of them is their “absolute passion for music,” according to Bell, who said, “nobody’s there to be famous, nobody’s there to make money. God knows they’re not there to make money. These people are working hugely long hours, late into the night, giving up family time, and they do it because they care that there is music around where they live, and that there is somewhere where anybody can come to hear it.”

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