Independent Venue Week founder Sybil Bell talks 'quality and authenticity' for 2024's gig series

Independent Venue Week founder Sybil Bell talks 'quality and authenticity' for 2024's gig series

Independent Venue Week returns this month (January 29 to February 4) for a seven-day celebration of grassroots music venues.

Rising stars English Teacher are the ambassadors for the 2024 edition. The Leeds-based band will play a special IVW show at Hull’s Polar Bear Music Club on February 1.

BBC Radio 6 Music is the official broadcast partner for Independent Venue Week. Steve Lamacq and Huw Stephens will be on air from grassroots venues around the UK. IVW performances being broadcast include Ash, 86TVs, New Dad, English Teacher and Antony Szmierek.

The first edition of Independent Venue Week took place in 2014. Since then, more than a million tickets have been sold for IVW events. 

But it’s a tough economic climate for grassroots venues, with Moles in Bath the latest to close its doors. 

There are 205 venues confirmed for IVW this year which, after a decade of growth (apart from during Covid), is down on 2023 in terms of the number of venues. This time around, there’s a greater focus on venues who are actively programming new music and supporting Independent Venue Week.

Here, IVW founder Sybil Bell explains why numbers are not the only measurement for the venues initiative, reflects on the achievements over the past decade and looks ahead to this year’s edition…

IVW 2024’s Manchester launch was its first time outside London – why was that important?

“I live and work in London, but I've recognised for some time how important it is to get out of London. It's also really important to get out of the city centre, so it's no good just going to Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, we need to be getting to every nook and cranny of this country. That was one of the reasons for setting Independent Venue Week up. Even in the first year, I made sure we had one venue in each of the regions and nations to ensure that we were a national project. It's always been important for us to follow that, and we always talk about villages, towns and cities.”

How has it grown in terms of the number of venues?

“We had more than 300 venues last year, and more than 1,000 gigs. It's been lovely to see year-on-year growth with the number of venues [in previous years], but for us it's always been about quality and authenticity. I've never really been interested in those high numbers, because I think what you get then is a dilution. We have a code of conduct that spells out very clearly what we expect an independent venue to be. It's really important that the venues that are part of our community have shared values. They put on arts, culture and music, it's not about a pub with a microphone in the corner that aspires to be a venue. So that's been a really crucial part for us.”

You marked 10 years of IVW in 2023 – how would you sum up the achievements?

“Just raising the profile of the venue community in people's minds, the fact that we are so positive and celebratory. We're about the people, there's other organisations that are about the buildings and the lobbying. But we're very much about saying at the start of the year, ‘Why don't you come out to a gig?’ That's been the biggest thing, along with the fact that the venues feel part of something. For one week these people feel like they're all brought together as a conversation in the narrative, especially with the support from Arts Council England and BBC 6 Music. It's the community side that people are really appreciating, the fact that the stories are being told now. I think that’s what people love about it.”

We're there to support and celebrate the venues, they have always been our big priority

Sybil Bell

January is traditionally a quiet period in the live calendar, was that part of the idea for IVW?

“100%. Lots of new bands are being tipped. There's a hunger for something to happen. It's one of the reasons why so many people support what we're doing. January's a really tough time for venues. People aren't necessarily drinking, they're not going out as much. We’re also mindful of the economic conditions at the moment, and the fact that so many people aren't buying gig tickets until really close to the show. So we love the fact that we've got something at the end of January. We're there to support and celebrate the venues, they have always been our big priority.”

Are some acts using it as a launchpad for campaign activity at the start of the year?

“For sure, it's really interesting that they're either using it as a chance to get some warm-up shows in ahead of a spring tour, or they're actually using this as a touring opportunity. We’ve got acts like English Teacher, Skinny Living, TVAM, they’re all going out on tour. It's a chance for people to get out and start the year, but also know that there are music fans out there that really do want to go to gigs. So there's a good chance to get some strong audiences in and test the new material. What you're getting is an opportunity to get a bit of spotlight away from the busy touring circuit. But again, most importantly, you're helping the venues get people through the door and put some cash in their pocket. I cannot tell you how many venues have said to us that a strong Independent Venue Week sets them up for the next three to six months, and not just financially but also just in terms of connections, people coming through the door, people coming back to gigs. It’s a really pivotal time.”

Where do you find support from within the music business? 

“It's a real variety. Over the years, I've worked at the Featured Artists Coalition and Music Managers Forum, so I've got quite a strong black book that I've built up. I would genuinely like to see more support from within the industry. The recorded industry would do well to come on board and recognise that building up a fanbase is still very important done physically and in venues. So we're not seeing the level of support from the industry that I would like to see, and I actually believe would be beneficial for them. I'd love to see more labels doing showcases and partnering with us to deliver some of the community and education [initiatives].”

How about teaming up with tech platforms?

“It would be good to get more support from tech firms. [But] for me, going to a gig is like real life social media. You can go into a venue, listen to conversations, see what people are talking about. If you're interested in fashion, you can see what they're wearing. You can have actual conversations with real people. If you want to meet somebody who's got the same taste in music as you, stop going to dating websites and just go to a gig. There are so many reasons why going to a gig is just a really visceral, live thing.” 

Finally, how are you doing in terms of the genre mix for artists participating in IVW?

“We have always worked really hard on that. When we speak to our venues, we're always saying to them that it is a week where they can take a bit of a risk. We encourage them to apply for funding from the Arts Council, who are supportive of venues wanting to take more risks with their programming during IVW. We push really hard to make sure that we've got as broad a cross-section of programming, from jazz, hip-hop and R&B through to spoken word, world music and folk. A bit of electronic music would be great too. We work really hard to try and encourage the venue and promoters to do that. So it's never been about just indie guitar bands. I'd love to speak to parts of the industry that can help our venues programme more widely and open up new audiences to this music, and open up the venues to some new audiences as well.”


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