Women In Music Awards 2022: Live Music Inspiration Sybil Bell

Women In Music Awards 2022: Live Music Inspiration Sybil Bell

At the Women In Music Awards 2022, we celebrated the achievements of 12 game-changing executives and artists as the industry came together to honour their work.

Music Week has spoken to all 12 winners to tell their stories.

Interview by Anna Fielding 

Sybil Bell is the founder of Independent Venue Week (IVW), the UK/US celebration of grassroots music venues. Marking its 10th anniversary in 2023, IVW UK has grown from modest beginnings to become a permanent fixture in the industry calendar - involving hundreds of venues across all regions of the country, building long-term partnerships with the likes of BBC 6 Music, Arts Council England and See Tickets, as well as backing from IVW Ambassadors such as Wet Leg, Arlo Parks, Anna Calvi, Wolf Alice and more. Since 2014, more than one million tickets have been sold to IVW-branded shows.

As a result of these successes, Bell has now launched Independent Venue Community – a brand new initiative that delivers a range of music-based activity for underserved communities in venues, during the day, throughout the year, across the country.

The programme unlocks the potential of venues and the talent of the communities around them by developing new skills, opening up opportunities to engage with like-minded people to enjoy arts and culture, and creating greater local community spirit on a national scale. 

Bell is also the creator of Independents Day, a stakeholder industry event for the grassroots venue and community sector.

Across her career, Bell has been an artist manager, label manager, tour manager, studio manager, event promoter and venue proprietor. She has consulted at various trade bodies including UK Music, the MMF and the FAC, and has coordinated international networking events at SXSW for the Department of International Trade. 

Here, Sybil Bell reflects on her multifaceted career to date…

You founded IVW in 2014, almost 10 years ago. What does this award mean after so much hard work for such a brilliant and worthwhile cause? 

“At first I thought they’d said the wrong name. Do you know that neither I nor Independent Venue Week have won anything in those 10 years? But I also think it’s a sign of our success. Because when you do something like this, it shouldn’t be about Independent Venue Week as an organisation and it certainly shouldn’t be about me. It should be about our community. So it will take me a while not to feel incredibly awkward, because that’s who I am, but I’m obviously hugely flattered. There are some incredible women it could have gone to.”

Using this award as a milestone, how do you reflect on what you’ve achieved so far?

“I really want to enjoy what's happened; there are still some people who don't really know what Independent Venue Week is, that it was started in the UK by a woman and that we've been running for five years in America. We are so grateful for the Arts Council, and See Tickets and the other partners that we have supporting us, but we're not where we need to be and it's tough financially. So maybe I need to use this opportunity to say that, if you want to support the next generation and help us unlock talent, then come and talk to us so that we can deliver something around the country.” 

Do you feel the wider industry pays enough attention to the work that IVW has done? There have been more than 10,000 events now, with one million plus tickets sold…

“I mean that’s a million tickets over 10 years… But I see so many ridiculous sponsorship deals and large budgets being poured into spaces that are there and gone. Some festivals do things well, but a festival is not an environmentally friendly, sustainable set-up, coming into these green spaces and spending an eye-watering amount of money on something that will only be used for three days. And if brands just want their name splashed everywhere then fine, but if you really want to support this community and the next generation of artists and tour managers and sound engineers… if you want to support places that are cultural hubs, then we’re here. People should know about that. 

“We shouldn’t wait until venues are under threat before rallying round. If sponsorship comes in early, at grassroots level providing genuine support, then people will remember as the community, the scene grows. It can generate an enormous amount of goodwill. Here we are with all of these venues supporting the next generation and it’s almost like they are unseen.”

How has the landscape for women in the live sector changed since you’ve been doing IVW? Do you have a message for young women and female-identifying people who want to get into it?

“I do think the landscape has changed. I know there’s always a question around events like Women In Music like, ‘Should we need it?’ But there’s still a long way to go. I still find it challenging. But I think women’s voices need to be viewed as industry voices first and foremost, rather than specifically as women’s voices. 

“That said, we still don’t have many women at the coalface of our industry. I can count on two hands the number of women that own venues. I’d like to see that change – and that’s about the perception of business women and financial backers… I think that what we try to do with Independent Venue Week is make people feel that anything is possible. 

‘So, if we’re talking about what advice I give, then I would say if you feel strongly enough then go ahead and do it. If you meet barriers, find ways to overcome them. You’ll find support in the most unlikely of places. In our office, there’s a collective belief that we have each other’s backs. We all look forward to coming to work even on the down days. I think you've got to find your tribe, the people that share your belief and your passion. And they're not always going to be like you. But collectively, if you can come together, and you've all got the same goal, you've got a really good shot of making it happen.”

You do a lot of activity around accessibility too – what would help the cause most in this area of the work you do? How can government and the industry support this? 

“It’s about listening and representation. We always strive to be representative. Our first non-artist ambassador was Jeff Johns, Big Jeff from Bristol, who is such a well-known gig goer. I watched him doing a round table with Steve Lamacq, alongside Nadine Shah and Adrian Utley. And Jeff was saying how going to gigs had changed his life, that the need to hear live music was so strong that even though he has learning disabilities and anxiety and other challenges, it wasn’t enough to stop him wanting to go. 

“After that I asked him to be an ambassador because I thought it could change lives and encourage other people who thought they were shut out of live music. He is one of the most knowledgeable people on the topic of music. It’s an honour to have him as part of our family.”

Live music is still emerging from the pandemic, into a cost of living crisis. How has that affected Independent Venue Week? 

“The thing with Independent Venue Week is that we don’t see ourselves as a lobbying and campaigning initiative. Not because we don’t care, but because we don’t have the capacity. We have got involved in the debate, we have been asked our opinions. The world is in crisis at the moment and it is really tough for our community. But before all of this happened, the vision for Independent Venue Week was, let’s have a week where we can celebrate, where we can all take a deep breath and look at what we’ve achieved. 

“It really does help to say, ‘Go to a gig, go this week.’ Because it’s not just about supporting live music, it’s about supporting local businesses, putting back into the overall economy, enriching your life with arts and culture. We're aiming to support the venues by bringing in new audiences, encouraging them to open their doors for longer and to welcoming communities that wouldn't necessarily go to those spaces or even think to use them. That feels like a really productive way that we can help. That just fits really naturally and authentically with what they're there to do.”


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