Band on the Wall in Manchester is one of the city’s longest-running music venues. This interview with its Chief Executive highlights some of the difficulties in running a small music venue in 2017 and shows that even Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisations are not necessarily immune to the issues posed by city centre development. It also highlights the importance of music in education and contains a useful list of the environmental sustainability initiatives in action at the venue. The text is based on a telephone interview with Emma Webster on 30th October 2017 and forms part of the UK Live Music Census project, on whose website the post was first published.
Band on the Wall is a very old Manchester music venue; it originally had a licence for music, song and dance in 1806 and has been a registered charity since 1982. We have a 340 capacity standing venue but can do 150 for seated concerts, 250 for mixed seating/standing and we can go up to 450 for club events because we have a few other small spaces. Part of the charity’s function is to get people more directly engaged in diverse musics; we’re quite outward looking so we tend to attract artists from across the world, and we showcase folk music from all sorts of different diasporas. We often deal with artists in person and we sometimes commission them to produce new work. In fact, we’re far more a producing house than a receiving house so we’re not just waiting for outside promoters to call. We also promote as many shows outside the venue as inside and sometimes promote whole tours of which Band on the Wall is just one date, so we have much more control over our programme than others probably do. We’re non-profit, we’re largely run and led by musicians, we’ve been part of Manchester’s cultural portfolio for a long time, and, because we are very clear about what our mission is, we can attract funding from bodies like Arts Council England and Manchester City Council.
The history of receiving funding from Arts Council England goes back a long way. The thing that we’ve always done right and which really helps us maintain a strong position with the funders is to have a really strong focus on what our remit is, which is: music of many cultures, diversity, and acting as an anchor organisation for producing rather than just receiving artists. But the most important thing is that we have always had a strong governance structure and we have an active and talented board. This gives funders the confidence that there is a level of due diligence from the board that they can rely on which allows them to delegate responsibility. The Arts Council will always say that you don’t have to be non-profit to get funding but to meet the criteria for the Arts Council or a local authority, you can’t just be an commercial venture which has a bar. You need a clear mission, and objectives, (in my opinion) supported by some kind of non-profit and have a vehicle with a decent governance structure and a strong board who commit to ensuring that this mission at the core of the organisation’s activities, and are willing to advocate for the organisation.
We don’t operate the ‘normal’ business model for UK small venues but it is fairly standard if you look to Europe. The ‘normal’ business model is that you tend to find a lot of enthusiasts within the small venue sector; quite often musicians who want to stop touring or live music enthusiasts who want to start up their own venue. Little do they know that though the business is small, it is very complex and making a success of it – depending on where you are – can be a challenge. People look upon small music venues are being easy: you put a band on stage and sell beer and tickets. We have some very talented, very active members on our board, including accountants and big players within the music industry and within Manchester, and they come to realise that while it’s not a big business, it’s very bitty and very complicated, much more so than they perhaps first thought. It’s quite difficult to really control your business; it’s not like a café where you can just change the menu if it’s not working. The power within the market is with the seller – the agent – and so now we’re in a world where you’re chasing content. Also, people don’t tend to just wander in to music venues to see what’s going on any more; they tend to know the artist and they want to be there; they are much more active than passive.
Manchester is a strange exception to the rule that cities are losing their small music venues. While we have lost some venues and there have been periods of decline, in the last eight to ten years since Band on the Wall reopened, a number of successful music venues have opened up. It’s a very competitive market, however, and we don’t always get what we bid for. SJM Concerts is in based Manchester, the largest independent promoter in the country, which is very good for the live music sector in general. SJM’s model is to pick up emerging artists that record labels / agents / journalists tell them are hot and put them on in venues across the city. I would say that 365 days a year there is probably an SJM gig somewhere in town, and Band on the Wall probably get about five or six shows off them per year. Also there is a massive student population in Manchester and it’s focused in a fairly small area—certainly compared to London—around Oxford Road.
Manchester is developing quickly. We have residential neighbours right behind our venue; the flats were built in 1981 but we opened in 1982 so we’ve always had neighbours. The PA is bigger than it used to be but we keep to legal decibel limits. Periodically we get noise complaints but the way that we deal with that is that we are really good neighbours. As soon as we get a complaint we take action. We’ve soundproofed the back of the stage, sandbagged the subwoofers under the stage, and we take photos of the work to show the neighbours, plus we invite them to let us know if there’s any particularly problematic nights. We’ve even taken decibel measurements in the flats and cut out any problematic frequencies from the front of house sound desk. We talk to the police and never have any confrontations with environmental health.
We’re on the inner ring road in the Northern Quarter so we were right on the edge of the city centre and it was all quite derelict for a long time but now there are flats planned over the road. We’ve made Manchester planning department aware of our concerns about having residents too close to us and it helps that we have good relations with the city – we know all the councillors, council officers, and planners – and that we get funding from the city; it’s always an open dialogue. Other small independent operators often don’t have that same mind-set in place, things like setting up an organisation properly, having child protection procedures in place, a neighbourhood relationship policy, and an environmental health policy. I personally think that there is a lot to be done in the small venue sector around skills development and knowledge. I am inundated at Venues Day by venues wanting to know how we do what we do – the programme, the funding, the support from the city. It’s a way of thinking, a mid-set. There’s a lot of capable venue operators out there who could do with some help about things like governance structure, ways of thinking, and best practice.
In some respects UK music is in a very strong place. As ever, we as a nation seem to engender and encourage creative practice. Even in an age of instant online gratification, kids still want to learn instruments and play music and they should be supported to do this. I sit here as the chief executive of a music charity saying very confidently that music practice transforms lives. I think that every school in the country should have a well-equipped music department and that music should be an absolute core part of teaching in schools. Learning music impacts on children’s aspirations, final performance at school, the ability to work with other children, and personal development. It drives me mad when my kids get to do barely any creative arts at school; there has to be a balance with STEM subjects. And there’s the economic argument as well: how much money has this industry earned this country over the years? More than probably any other country on the planet by a long, long way! So to under-invest in it seems ridiculous. But at the same time I would say that best practice has slipped away. The Arts Council is not going to fund venues unless the structures are in place.
Band on the Wall’s sustainability initiatives
- All our suppliers are ethical, which can be more expensive so we tender everything every year to ensure that we get the best prices; part of the tendering process is to ask how they demonstrate their ethical or environmentally sustainable credentials;
- We’re enrolled with Julie’s Bicycle so we measure our CO2 output every year and benchmark against other venues;
- All our staff are trained in how to think about reducing our carbon footprint to ensure that we are working towards reduction;
- It’s an energy-hungry building but we turn off the PA and lights when we’re not using them. We have low-energy lights and our light switches have all been replace with auto-off motion sensors so they turn off automatically;
- When we buy new equipment – a projector, for example – we do an environmental impact assessment to ensure that we buy the most efficient;
- We have a bike to work scheme for our staff and we put in cycle posts outside the building for their bikes;
- We provide information about public transport on our website;
- We even keep the office temperature quite low; other offices sometimes feel too hot but I just suggest that the staff wear a jumper!
For more about Band on the Wall’s environmental sustainability initiatives, see this case study on the Julie’s Bicycle website.