5 Minutes With Sybil Bell - Founder of Independent Venue Week

Independent Venue Week 2022 returns next week from Monday 31st January to Sunday 6th February. This year over 485 events will be taking place across the nations offering gigs, Q&A interviews, comedy shows and films.

Over 210 venues have signed up for Independent Venue Week 2022, from across 93 different villages, towns and cities. 56 of the venues are taking part in IVW for the first time, 180 of venues are outside London, and 47% of venues are outside major cities.

Ahead of IVW 2022 kicking off, we caught up with founder Sybil Bell to discuss the fantastic work they do, how hard they've been working behind the scenes with venues and their staff, and her best tips for breaking into the music industry.

What's the reaction been to the announcement so far in terms of the artists and venues that you've sort of booked to play across Independent Venue Week?

It's been so, so positive. The thing that we're getting from everybody is just how excited people are to be back in person. I know in person shows have been going on over the last year or so, but a lot have been stop start and those that have happened have been really low turnouts. That’s tough for the artists playing to low capacity crowds, for the venues and promoters taking a hit financially as well as just having less people in the venues and for the audience in terms of atmosphere.

I think when people were going back to shows when venues reopened there was still some trepidation, and as much as people were desperate to get back out to shows, the reality for lots of people was ‘hang on a second, how do I feel about being on public transport and out in a busy room?’

So the end of last year was tough especially as people wanted to be safe to be with family for Christmas.

We got off to a shaky start in Jan with restrictions still in place but we were quietly hopeful that by the time IVW came around, we're going to see some in person shows.

So to see all restrictions lift in all the nations has been a real boost and we've been hearing from agents, promoters, venues, artists, managers, and labels, just how buoyed up they are that Independent Venue Week is happening in person.

We hope people will get behind our community, head out to shows and support the venues, promoters and artists and enjoy a really great week of live shows all around the UK.

There has been sort of a big lull over the past 18 months of people not really wanting to go out, so January seems to be the perfect time for IVW to happen – especially considering artists such as Jane Weaver and Porridge Radio who had great a 2021 are involved?

I think people did want to come back out, but when the reality of the practical element came to it, there was that uncertainty. We've had a period where people are adjusting and going back to shows.

I know a lot of people have either done dry January or there's not been many gigs to go to so the end of January into the beginning of February feels like it's the perfect time to say, ‘I'm going to start now - this is it!’

Our research shows if you can get people out into venues to gigs at the start of the year, they are much more likely to carry on going to shows for the rest of the year. That’s what it’s all about – if you normally go to one gig a month, go to two, if it’s once a fortnight, go once a week.

A night out at a gig will always be better than a night in front of the TV or discovering music online.

This makes perfect sense – and I think it is an opportunity to kickstart a year of live music and try something a bit different, maybe part of it is due to the ‘lack’ of their usual tastes?

One of the reasons I set it up at the end of January was exactly that. We've been asked over the years by different partners and potential sponsors to move IVW to different times of year because it doesn't always fit with their agendas, but we're doing this for the venues - that's what it's about. Venues need the big uplift at the end of January because a lot of people haven't been out for a month.

Jan is a time when lots of new artists are being tipped and in between award seasons so it’s a great way to bring those artists to life in venues up close and person.

The timing is also important from a gig-goers point of view - lots of people get paid just before Christmas, they don't get paid again till the end of Jan so we look to time the start of the week after that pay day – the first Monday after the last Thursday.

What’s happened over the last nine years is more shows are happening early, because there is a market for it. So many of our venues see people returning year on year, especially those who go for the first time during Independent Venue Week because for a lot of people, it's the first time they'll go to a gig or the first time they'll have gone to gig in a long time.

They may be parents that used to go gigging a lot and haven't been back out, or it may be people from a much older generation who previously might have felt that grassroots music venues are not somewhere that is for them – but as soon as you walk through the door, you find very quickly it is for you.

There are no barriers with grassroots music venues at all. They're open to everybody, and they want everyone to come through the door. We've worked tirelessly over the last nine years to increase the type of music that goes on in venues during IVW, making sure that we get a broader representation on stage as possible in terms of genres of music so there’s something for everyone.

We're not there to tell the venues what to program across the week - we're there to reflect what's going on in the venues throughout the year and highlight that. So, seeing venues broadening their activity with documentaries being screened, quiz nights, and even comedy means we reflect that so those nights are now official IVW shows and that's great because it has really opened the doors for a lot of venues for some people. Doing seven nights of live music is second nature to some venues, even in January, but others might like a slower run in, so screening a documentary or hosting a quiz or putting on some comedy offers different kind of night and it is sometimes easier to setup.

It is interesting to hear that IVW doesn’t have to be music – do you feel that by allowing venues to have a free reign of sorts, it benefits not just the venue, but everyone involved?

It is very open actually! We have code of conduct which we write every year and take any learnings and feedback we've had from the previous year. One of the things that became apparent was that it wasn't compulsory to put on seven nights - we've never said it was, but I think a lot of people felt that they had to. If you want to put two nights on or even one night, that's totally fine. If you just want to be part of the week, we'd love to have you, but you don't need to be programming a full week of shows. We want you to do what's comfortable for you, there's no pressure.

We have other venues at the other end of the scale who are so overwhelmed with artists wanting to play that they run all day events on the Saturday and Sunday just to get all the bands through. Somebody like Tim at The Windmill in Brixton will not have a band play a show for Independent Venue Week unless they've already played at his venues. He won't let anyone have a shoo in and come and play - you must be part of the scene there.

I think that's reflected around the country. It is important that the week is there to shine a spotlight on those people who give others a stage and it's not about jumping on the bandwagon. It's about being supportive year-round, Independent Venue Week may be a week by name, but we do a lot of activity and are always there to support the venues and champion them all year round.

How much input do you have in terms of setting up venues and how you’d like them to not only represent themselves, but also how IVW’s branding comes across?

We are there to make the week exciting and enjoyable for the whole community, whether that's the venues, promoters, the artists, or the gig goers. For the venues and promoters, we have a code of conduct that they need to sign up to in order to be part of the week. It means everyone is following the same process so everyone is equal which is really important.

The venues that we work with are all independent venues and all independently owned small businesses that bring a lot to their local economy and their local community. We understand, like they do, what it means to be independent and that matters enormously to us. In the past, we've decided not to work with some brands who've come in and insisted that, for example, all venues do something that they wouldn’t do normally – that doesn’t feel authentic to us or our community. So, one year a beer company wanted all the venues to take all the beer out of their fridge and all their draft beer off and only have their beer on offer and I said ‘absolutely not’. What we wanted to do is work with partners who want to fit into the culture that already exists in these venues – not come in and change things, and I think people do appreciate that we value their independent spirit.

There are some bigger venues that don’t need campaigns like Independent Venue Week – do you feel like there is a ‘rivalry’ of sorts, or do you think both parties can see the necessity of each of their ‘competitor’?

They do have a remit and they do have a purpose, but as you can see in our documentary, On The Road with Independent Venue Week, that is currently BBC iPlayer until March, there are passionate people talking about the character and the personality of these places. Artists say things like “I went to Hebden Bridge Trades Club and they had Yorkshire tea with fresh milk not UHT milk,” so it is these little things that really matter. Other little things that make a big difference include food from various venues coming straight from the kitchen, so it is not necessarily what's on the rider but actually it's home cooked and that means a great deal to the artist.

That's what people love, and that's why these venues are so important and for us. It's not about volume - of course we try and get more venues signed up each year - but we don’t want venues for the sake of them. We won’t take venues that have multiple interests, are owned by somebody that owns many venues, are pubs with a microphone in the corner that aspire to be a music venue or when music isn't the key part of what they're doing. I think an important distinction is these are genuine, independent, grassroots music venues programming more original music than anything else – we don’t want to devalue those places for whom this is their lifeblood.

Would you agree that it is the passion of these venues that keeps the independent music scene? Not only with the owners or managers, but also the ‘punters’ that turn up to most shows?

Working in our industry is never a job - it's a way of life. I've owned a venue before and that experience and what it means to people really sticks with you. Nowadays, when you go to a town centre and walk down the high street - you could really be anywhere with all the chain shops, but I will always seek out an independent store to go and buy a cup of tea or lunch from.

Nobody else is backing these organisations saying it's all right if you lose money on this show because we’ve had a good run on another of our venues so we can balance everything out. They are taking the biggest risk by putting on artists very early on when they might not have a strong fan base.

If these venues and fans don’t take a chance on artists at this level, they don't get to go on to bigger venues or even go on tour at all. Everybody starts here and there are benefits for the fans that come down, like getting to meet the bands at the end of a show or buying the merch directly from the artist. It's all these little things. It's those nuances that really matter to people and that's why Independent Venue Week is important - because it gives everyone a chance to be reminded of that experience..

Would you agree that being part of your local scene and getting involved with people like IVW is the best way to get into the music industry?

The easiest door to open in the music industry is the door to your local independent venue because you walk in and instantly find somebody there on the door. Then, there will be a promoter that's put the show on, a sound engineer, and/or a venue manager. You’ll see somebody talking to the band that’s part of the crew - whether it's the driver or the manager or the tour manager. So there's always an opportunity to talk to someone and find out more about what they do and if there’s any jobs going at the venue.

It is as easy as saying ‘I'd like a job on the door – how can I get involved?’ That's how a lot of people start – so many big tour managers started out because their mate was in a band, and they'll need a driver for one show and 30 years later they are a tour manager working with the biggest bands in the world. They can be earning huge amounts of money, but that’s not the motivation for them – they absolutely love their work and it's interesting to be on the road with the crew for most of the year.

IVW reminds me of being at a festival and trying out something new – then being able to do the ‘humble brag’ later down the line when the band you saw in a tiny surrounding become bigger – is that a fair comparison?

It is exactly that! We shouldn't be too dismissive of the big shows and the big venues because that's what the artists aspire to and as mentioned earlier, they do serve a purpose. However, the artists will only get to this level by starting in these smaller venues and people having enough interest support the work the venue have done to put the show on locally. If you ask any musician worth their salt, you can either have a two-year massive career where you’ll tour big stadiums around the world and then that's it; or you could have a 30-year career and tour the world playing shows and meeting audiences - every single one of them would choose the second option because that's what matters to musicians and that's what matters the venues.

IVW has evolved from being a UK only event into something that now happens across USA as well – how did the opportunity to tap into that vast market come around?

It will be the fifth anniversary of IVW in the US this year, which feels like a real achievement because it's a huge territory. In fact, when I was exploring where to take IVW I wanted to leave the US until we’d tried another territory and worked out how to make it happen.

I've known Rev. Moose, who runs Marauder – the agency that runs IVW in the US - for 15 years and he's somebody I trust implicitly. His ethics and values are very much the same as ours, and when you create something like Independent Venue week you want someone who shares those values, taking it to a new territory

They had two years to grow IVW in the US in the same way we did here but by year three COVID hit. The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) organisation has been incredible in the work that they've done. They are supporting, saving, and championing not just grassroots music venues, but stages all across the country. It is the biggest single bill to go through Congress ever. It was huge, and I think one thing that COVID has taught us over here and globally is how much creative industries are driven and propped up by a community of small businesses, freelancers, and people working in project cycles - not people with regular jobs that are paid all the time.

It's exciting that it is their fifth anniversary this year, then six months later will be our 10th anniversary, which feels surreal on many levels - like a long time and also that it’s all happened very quickly, in equal measure. I think we will continue to go from strength to strength especially with our new community program but there is so much love for these spaces and the people that keep them going and they and the spaces are exactly why Independent Venue Week was set up.

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Hey - I'm Callum. Fan of The National, collector of vinyl, season ticket holder at Leeds United, owner of Dougal the cat.

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