As we crawl through the tenth month of life with Covid-19 in our midst, the UK's many beloved independent music venues lie dormant. With only a brief and financially unviable re-opening in the summer, Music Venue Trust reports that over 400 of our favourite places to hang out, eat, fall in love and discover new music are at risk of closure.
Each and every one of these institutions is an integral piece of this country's music industry - as Independent Venue Week, taking place 25-31 January, will show - but everyone has a favourite.
In the hope we can help raise more money to lift these venues out of the risk of foreclosure, here are our love letters to the places we can't wait to return to.
The 1865 - Southampton
by Vicky Greer, writer + student
The music scene in Southampton was, until March of last year, the vibrant heart of the city. The 1865, tucked away in the city centre, has been home to some of the best gigs I’ve ever been to, from YUNGBLUD’s acoustic EP launch (for which tickets only cost £12) to Fontaines D.C. lighting up the stage in December 2019. It’s a joyful place to be, where you’ll always have a fantastic night, even if you do get thrown all the way across the room in a New Years Day pit.
Between lockdowns and tier announcements, The 1865 has given music fans hope to hold on to that live music will rise again, hosting seated events with local heroes Salem and Sean McGowan in the brief windows that we were allowed outside. Although I know in my heart that some of the shows they have lined up won’t be able to go ahead, I know I’ll be back there someday, singing my heart out with 750 other people in a sweaty crowd. And I’m counting down the days until that happens.
Chameleon - Nottingham
by Cameron Sinclair Harris, writer
From Rock City to JT Soar, Nottingham has a truly impressive gallery of independent music venues; the Chameleon, however, is perhaps one of the most special. Hidden behind an alley, and above a card shop, anticipation is built before you even enter, and once you’re there, the venue immediately becomes another home away from home. The crimson-flanked stage has played host to the likes of Royal Blood, The Amazons and Blossoms long before they became household names, as well as local musical figureheads Sleaford Mods, Do Nothing and Kagoule (you can trace the further alumni from the writings and stickers next to the merch desk).
Additionally, the Chameleon is a venue that enthusiastically supports newcomers, with fresh-faced artists and promoters alike encouraged to put gigs on. The atmosphere and aesthetic are everything you could want in a DIY music venue; intimate, inclusive, friendly, welcoming and, most of all, an irrepressible celebration of life and art. When you next pay a visit to Nottingham, a night at the Chameleon should be an absolute must.
Clwb Ifor Bach - Cardiff
by Joshua Williams, writer
Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach is a magical place. Set in the heart of Cardiff on Womanby Street, Clwb (or ‘Welsh Club’ as others call it) is hallowed ground. Almost anyone who’s had even a taste of success, and even more who haven’t, has played it at some point. Bands like Coldplay, The Killers, Foals, and many many more have graced Clwb’s stage over the years before going onto bigger and brighter things.
However, Clwb is not only for the indie darlings of the world – it's the focal point of many of South Wales’ music scenes with the venue being the location of choice for many local bands’ EP and album launches. It holds a special place in the heart of almost every music fan in and around Cardiff. With expansion just around the corner, Clwb Ifor Bach is without a doubt one of the best independent venues in the country and will undoubtedly have many more future arena fillers tread its hallowed boards in a post-COVID world.
Bunker - London
by Dave Henderson, Glastonbury's William's Green booker + magazine director
Back in the punk wars, I rotated between the Nashville Rooms and Vortex; teen spirit was splashed everywhere in a community of idiots in love with music. It was the same excitement I’d had growing up up north at Wigan Casino and the Mecca in Blackpool; so, when Bunker in Deptford offered a non-techno night of Northern Soul a few years back I was in. The place was rougher than ready; the toilet is out of Trainspotting, the dance floor like a cobbled section of the Tour De France, but the music was magic. Deptford Northern Soul Club is a loose collective of pals, now a label, but the Bunker was the hub (cheapest G&T in town), a place for generation-traversing camaraderie – glued together by songs, a dingy cellar elevated by spine-tingling sounds. Tragically, club owner Annie died a couple of weeks back from cancer and Bunker’s future, like all small venues you call home, is in some doubt. But, if that battered door creaks open again, a celebration of heart, soul, handclaps and shape-shifting dance moves will inevitably erupt again. Keep the faith.
Thekla - Bristol
by Charlie Brock, writer
Thekla is undoubtedly my favourite venue in the UK. An old cargo ship that’s moored up in Bristol’s docks, it's been gutted and fitted with a stage, a bar and two levels for enjoying performances.
There is something totally romantic about enjoying a band in this venue. The low ceilings, the portholes and the unique acoustics add to the charm of the place. I’ve been lucky enough to take in countless gigs and indie nights aboard Thekla, all of which have a special something that other nights lack.
I was able to catch Black Country, New Road in Thekla on the cusp of the first national lockdown. The seven piece band were almost too large to fit Thekla’s tiny stage, in the same way the crowd are almost too large to cram into the sardine can. But, get yourself a can of Red Stripe and head down the front, because the acoustics, the lighting and the overall sense of novelty that comes with watching one of Britain’s best new bands in the River Avon is something that other venues can’t beat. Long may we be able to climb aboard Thekla to enjoy up and coming bands. They provide a great platform for artists on the cusp of greatness.
Deaf Institute - Manchester
by Michelle Lloyd, writer
Having resided in London for over 5 years now and having visited many of the city’s venues; nothing has ever come close to my beloved Deaf Institute in Manchester. Some of my fondest memories of living in Manchester were spent in that gloriously sumptuous, listed building. Its monumental mirror ball, velvet curtains and domed ceiling ensuring every gig feels like a private performance. It always felt like coming home every time I stepped through the doors with it’s friendly atmosphere and inviting interiors (the Dolly Parton wallpaper a firm favourite). But not only does it look the part it prides itself on bringing Manchester some of the most exciting new talent with some of the most revered artists having cut their teeth on that stage.
I was fortunate enough to catch Michael Kiwanuka there in 2011 on his first headline tour with only two EP’s to his name. The room was hauntingly silent, everyone transfixed on this rare talent. I left that night knowing he was going on to great things and that seeing him in such intimate surroundings was a real coup. I also remember Michael himself remarking that he had never played anywhere with such character. And that's why it's such tremendous news that it has hopefully been saved from closure after what looked like the end of it's reign last summer.
Electric Ballroom - London
by Ben Willmott, writer
You could never call it glamorous but for all the things it reeks of – stale beer, sweat, encrusted nicotine and sometimes worse – the Electric Ballroom above all reeks of history. The faded, battered framed posters on the wall as you descend the stairs to this subterranean haven nestling close to the platforms of Camden Tube station, mention literally everyone, from punk’s lords of chaos to the avenging overlords of metal. Prince and Paul McCartney have trodden its boards, sure, but what the Electric Ballroom does best is provide that step up for bands, essentially catch them at the moment where they’ve outgrown the pub and club circuit and gives them their first heady taste of the big time.
That’s certainly the feeling we got from witnessing Vampire Weekend there on May 13, 2008. Their eponymous debut album had been out less than four months and the band was still mainly the preserve of what we’d call ‘Rough Trade man’, the type with a RT tote bag and slightly superior air that tells you he’s listening to bands that you’ve never heard of. Said stereotype is usually content to skulk near the back of a venue disdainfully sipping from his overpriced beer, but tonight is different. Tonight, caution and plastic glasses alike are thrown to the wind as Ezra Koenig and co seem to breeze through a selection of songs each as brief as they are sharp – ‘Mansard Roof’, ‘Oxford Comma;, ‘I Stand Corrected’ and a triumphant ‘A Punk’, in the days before it had been used on every football and reality Tv trailer in town.
This writer’s memory is of the 1,000 strong crowd being almost one swaying amorphous mass, heaving this way and occasionally squeezing those on the edges of the hall right out into the low roofed bar area with its exuberance. It wasn’t long before VW became household names and started booking them into the Alexandra Palaces of this world, but for one glorious moment this clever, witty band bursting with energy were the underground’s finest.
Night & Day Café - Manchester
by Nile Marr, musician
I’ve always said when I die I want my ashes spread in amongst the rafters of Night And Day. I know it’s cliche to roll out tropes describing spaces like these as ‘so much more than their four walls and a roof’, but I feel like it’s necessary. It’s more than the UK’s CBGB’s, it’s been a home to so many for so long. Built by a maverick, it’s attracted characters that feel like they could only exist in those 4am stories you’ve heard but never believed. Night And Day’s gravity pulls different. A safety net for generations of dreamers unsure of what they want but sure they want something, safe in the knowledge there will always be some cash in hand to be earned while you wait for your next big idea. That doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by design. More than just a venue, I’ve seen amazing gigs and I’ve seen terrible gigs, all have value and all have their place. I’ve seen people fall in love, get married and I’ve been to more funerals than I’d like. All within those same tired walls, always with the same faces.
The Social - London
by Phoebe Scott, writer + Record Store Day publicist
Tucked a few roads behind the hustle of Oxford Street is a small yet welcoming musical hub for those who know it. Some visit specifically for the sweaty, intimate gig experience - they bop straight down the stairs and into the venue. They want to get a good spot to see a band they’ll undoubtedly become obsessed with, and maybe even hit their head on the semi-low ceiling for.
Others choose to walk straight through the corridor into the upstairs western-esque bar hoping to secure a big leather booth seat. Those lucky enough to be sat next to the wooden walls can usually admire the featured exhibition over a couple of pints and cheesy fries. Then some stand at the bar trying to shout over musical requests to whichever staff member has chosen to be the night’s resident DJ, whilst attempting to not get in the way of those heading to the loo.
Many who attend spend most of their evening passing through the corridor to stand out-front in the smoking area, usually bumping into familiar faces on the way too. Regardless of our different reasons why, everyone loves The Social. We miss you.
The Portland Arms - Cambridge
by James Parrish, press agent
The Portland Arms in Cambridge is the first venue I ever saw a “local gig”, back when I was in my late teens - and I’ve never really left since. It was the venue I sold my first zines in, promoted my first gigs in and, when I formed bands, played my first shows at. A lot of my memories and friendships are tied up in over twenty years of visits there. It has long been managed by the lovely Steve and Hayley who understand the importance of the venue to not only bands on the way up but also to a sense of community locally.
The way regular promoters, like the brilliant Green Mind, have rallied around the venue with fundraisers this last year just goes to show how important it is to many. The role The Portland Arms, and the also brilliant Blue Moon, play in small towns like Cambridge cannot be underestimated. Almost every band, no matter how big, starts by plying their trade to curious ears in their hometown. Bands need these venues, we all do. It’s a social thing, a place to belong, and about so much more than just the music.
The Victoria - London
by Sharon Lopez, photographer
It was the first summer that I settled in East London. My plan was to attend all the concerts that were held during the summer. It has always fascinated me that London never rests and there is always a concert to attend. Some friends were playing at the Victoria Dalston and I decided to go over there. At first I thought I was confused because at first glance it looked like a pub. I waited outside until I recognised some of the guys in the band and sat down with them for a drink. More bands were playing that night and I didn't know the rest. Suddenly, as if it were a secret door, the stage appeared and was filled with people. The atmosphere of that room captivated me and despite the fact that it was sold out, it seemed like a secret place where the lucky ones who knew it were enjoying a unique moment.
After that night, I attended a few more times. There was always a plan, and I started meeting there with friends who were still in town in the summer. I have a strong affection for that venue because it welcomed me that summer and keeps my best memories that today are invaluable. I know I have a place to return to.
The Leadmill - Sheffield
by Jessie Atkinson, editor
When Sheffield's Leadmill ripped up its thirty year-old dancefloor in 2017 I jumped at the chance to buy an off-cut. The venue had been a haven of mine at university, and the idea of owning a piece of a place that has hosted so many life-changing nights was something I couldn't pass on.
It's on the wall in my flat now: a fond reminder of times I've spent there, and an unassuming piece of wood imbued with the spirit of hundreds of thousands of pairs of feet. But that decoration represents the history of a dance floor past; not a venue. The Leadmill lives on with its shiny new flooring, and the day it opens fully again will be a heady day indeed.
Nambucca - London
by Laviea Thomas, writer
As a gig-goer and music fanatic, I’d give my life to small music venues. Without these we wouldn’t be able to see half of our favourite bands, we wouldn’t have the hilarious drunken stories, or have met some of our closest friends. Small music venues enable bands to play intimate sessions and interact with their audience more. It’s with these small venues are bands able to expand their journey further, without them the music industry really wouldn’t exist.
Nambucca is my go-to independent music venue: I spent many weekends there when I was at university and it became a place you’d bump into other writers or photographers that you just ended up befriending. Small music venues are such a comfortable and safe space for musicians and music fans. I can’t imagine the music industry working effectively without them.
Broadcast - Glasgow
by Ryan McConnell, writer
Glasgow is known for its vibrant music scene and Sauchiehall street is right at the heart of the action. After the loss of the much loved 02 ABC through a devastating fire back in 2018, things looked pretty bleak with many businesses forced to close for a number of months. Fortunately though, the street has no shortage of smaller venues who have kept this famous street going as a talking point for music. One of those venues is Broadcast.
The upstairs bar provides some great food throughout the day as well as a great pint, but it is downstairs in the basement the magic happens. Teaming up with grassroots heroes 'This Feeling' the venue puts on a consistent number of great shows throughout the year showcasing the best independent acts around. You get your money's worth and then some here! From rising Aussie stars PLANET to Glasgow's own Spyres, I myself have been in attendance for some very memorable gigs here. There really is no better feeling than discovering some hidden gems starting out on their journey before making a name for themselves and Broadcast is just one of many places in this city where you will find just that.
Spice of Life - London
by Harrison Smith, writer
Just around the corner from G.A.Y, opposite the Palace Theatre, right in the middle of bustling Soho you will be greeted by one of London’s most historic and important music venues, The Spice Of Life. Noted for being a key player in London’s folk music embracement of the mid 1960’s, the Spice of Life’s real charm is it’s Punk rock associations. A venue frequented by the Clash and the Sex Pistols, you can still feel the buzz of of mayhem and significance that occurred decades before. To this day, artists and bands queue for hours before to score a slot at the coveted Open Mic night, hoping to make their mark on an already historic musical church.
EartH - London
by Sofie Lindevall, writer
The neglected old picture house that was transformed into one of London’s most interesting and charismatic venues in 2018 (after mostly having been a home to pigeons since its closure in the mid-80s) is still somewhat hidden away on Stoke Newington Road in East London. Entering EartH through the anonymous looking doors that lead through to the raw and stripped-down multi-arts space feels like stepping through an ordinary wardrobe into the magical land of Narnia as much on the twentieth time as it does the first.
With programming prioritising artists attempting to innovate and push creativity forward, EartH hosts performances that span across all corners of music and art. However, going to a gig at EartH is not just exciting because of whoever is performing on the night. Home to both a 1,200 capacity event hall and a tiered 750 capacity seated theatre, you never really know what shape this chameleon of a venue is going to take to accompany the act you are there to see. From seated jazz concerts in the theatre, to soulful gigs on stages built in the middle of the hall and sweaty club nights on dance floors – every experience at EartH is something unique.
Boileroom - Guildford
by Charlotte Marston, writer
When a friend first suggested I make the haggard pilgrimage out from the safety of central London for a night out in suburban Surrey, I was dismayed. Not even the allure of some early evening intoxication and live music was justifiable ends to spending upwards of forty minutes crammed amongst weary commuters on a questionably slow South Western railway carriage.
But, after one reluctant trip to The Boileroom, I was hooked. Swaddled amongst hushed residential streets, it’s the glistening jewel in Guildford’s musical crown. Claustrophobically low slung ceilings and questionably sticky floorboards. Peeling, poster-clad brickwork and congested crowds. A beguiling, fairy-lit beer garden and a curfew early enough to ensure you’re safely tucked up in bed by 11pm.
It’s a venue. It’s a community. It’s a diverse and inclusive space for emerging artists and musical veterans alike. And I long to be stuffed amongst those flagging commuters again.
Find out how you can protect the UK's venues at Music Venue Trust here.
URGENT DONATIONS NEEDED: BOOM Leeds // Dryad Works Sheffield // The Boulevard Wigan // Hootananny Inverness // Woolpack Doncaster // Spiritual Bar Camden // The Railway Inn Winchester // Egg London // The Post Bar Tottenham // Venue38 Ayr // The 1865 Southampton // Alchemy Croydon // The Venue Derby // Gellions Inverness // The Hot Tin Faversham // Grand Elektra Hastings // The Four Horsemen Bournemouth // Strange Brew Bristol // Plot 22 Sheffield // The Waiting Room London // The Windmill Brixton