Laura Fedeli speaks to the people who’ve kept small Welsh venues in Cardiff, Newport, Rhayader and Wrexham running, through the good and bad times, and finds out how they did it as restrictions took over…
Wales is known as the land of song and our grassroots music venues are an essential ingredient to a vivid canvas of culture. Throughout the regions, you can find these hives of creativity thriving – but two years ago, live music venues across Wales were forced to close their doors due to lockdown restrictions.
Their absence within the creative community showed how vital they are to those who enjoy frequenting and performing in them. They are a safe space to perform new music, find new artists and socialise. Without them, many artists may not have ever picked up a microphone, especially in rural towns where – compared to the capital city of Cardiff – opportunities to perform are thinner on the ground.
Due to the various venues’ sheer dedication, and the support of Music Venue Trust, not a single Welsh grassroots venue closed for good as a result of lockdown, an amazing statistic. Undoubtedly, though, it was a tough time for all involved and most are still feeling the effects of the temporary closures today.
To fully understand these venues’ roles within our creative communities, we caught up with four venue owners from across Wales to discuss their reality of working in sometimes chaotic environments.
SAM DABB, LE PUBLIC SPACE
Newport, south Wales
Capacity: 100 for live events; 200 overall
Grassroots music venues are completely vital to the Welsh music industry. Without them, there would be no Catatonia, no Super Furry Animals, no Manic Street Preachers. Le Pub is great because for 30 years we’ve supported homegrown talent and also bought bands from all over the world to Newport. When we closed, we knew we’d open again – we didn’t know when but we knew we’d be back. What we do is too important to Newport. Failure to survive the crisis was never an option.
We actually took advantage of the lockdown and took the time to make some really great improvements. We built a recording studio in the basement! The Welsh government’s response to COVID was incredible – within four weeks, emergency grants had been given to venues across Wales. The application for CRF [Cultural Recovery Fund] was far easier than in other nations across the UK and far more venues were successful.
As far as grassroots music venues go, it would be difficult to have asked for more. They made some mistakes around lockdown procedures, the curfew and the COVID pass had no real impact on transmission, but as far as support goes I’m very happy.
These days everything is pretty normal! Bands load in around 5pm, doors are 8pm and then at 11pm our alternative DJ comes on and plays until 3am. In the bar people come and go for drinks and to meet with friends. Our customers are all ages and come from all backgrounds; the gigs we promote don’t fall into any one genre, so we really do get everyone in.
LEN CARTER, THE LOST ARC
Rhayader, mid Wales
Capacity: 185 standing; 65 seated at tables
The venue is run as a Community Interest Company by a family who are passionate about good music and good food, with a small team of local directors. We never had a grand opening as such – we started with a near-derelict building in 2014 and brought live music in at the earliest opportunity once we had a roof on to keep us dry! We wanted to show the community our intentions from the outset; every time people visited, they could see progress, and that meant that people have become very invested in the venue.
Bands from all over the world have tracked us down with requests to play – there is an obvious desire from artists to have performance spaces off the beaten track. Our rural venues are so important, and without them so much will be lost from these communities. In Wales, we are blessed with so many talented musicians but without promoters and venues, they won’t have anywhere to hone their talents.
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After the first six months or so of the pandemic, our sector has been relatively well supported through furlough and the CRF. This has been thanks to pressure from various organisations, including the Music Venue Trust, but there are still venues out there that missed out on funding assistance. That needs to be looked at.
Restrictions changed so fast, and without a lot of warning, that although it was a relief to be able to welcome people back, we hadn’t been able to book ahead with any certainty and took some time to catch up. We started back with some acoustic seated shows; the first unrestricted standing gigs, with people able to move about and dance, had a real celebratory feel but it is also still tinged with nervousness. We need to keep our audiences as safe as possible and some previously regular visitors still don’t feel comfortable enough to attend live events, which is a shame.
LIZ HUNT, THE MOON
Cardiff, south Wales
We took over the venue in 2017 – April will be our fifth birthday. It used to be The Full Moon, where myself and Carly [Curtis, co-founder] worked, programming live music and managing the bar. It went into liquidation under the previous owners; we didn’t want another live music space to close so we organised a quick fundraiser to help towards the initial rent, legal costs and help get the venue up to scratch in three weeks. We decided from the start it should be a community-focused space for any genre of live music, accessible, and affordable, and that we’d try to support those who are often overlooked in our local music scene.
We weren’t sure how much government support was out there before the pandemic, but during lockdown Music Venue Trust ran some huge campaigns resulting in a real shift towards funding venues. It feels like people have started to recognise the contribution grassroots venues make. If we hadn’t received support from Creative Wales and help from MVT, we wouldn’t have survived at all. We’ve had a chance to rethink everything, restructure ourselves and hopefully put ourselves in a better position for the future.
Lockdown was confusing – difficult to plan anything – but we were able to do a lot of work on the venue, including replacing our floor, refurbishing the toilets and setting up a small kitchen. We’re grateful there was so much to distract us during such a heartbreaking time – each of us had really low periods, but hopefully, we’re through the worst of it now.
MORGAN THOMAS, TŶ PAWB
Wrexham, north Wales
Tŷ Pawb opened in April 2018 as a re-purposing of Wrexham’s former People’s Market building, with a vision of bringing arts and markets together within the same footprint. Our first ever live music gig was with Gwenno, and it was a packed night. We want to champion exciting, up-and-coming original new music in Wrexham, Wales and beyond; we have a commitment to embracing diversity and the Welsh language.
Wrexham is in a really good place geographically – getting visitors from Chester, Manchester and Liverpool is really important in developing the scene and boosting the evening economy. There’s a real wealth of musical talent in Wrexham and across north Wales, and it’s important good music venues exist across Wales, not just in Cardiff.
In early March 2020, we finally felt the venue was starting to thrive, so it was a huge shame when we had to press pause on our operations. The first gig we had to postpone was Ani Glass’ album launch. We host a lot of community-led groups and are home to over 25 independent market traders and food stalls. Even though it was a difficult time, many of us thought we’d be able to open the building back up again in no time, and that now feels incredibly naïve!
As a venue that operates within the framework of Wrexham County Borough Council, our position was under less threat than a private company or charity. Our staff members weren’t furloughed, but some of us were redeployed into other areas – I ended up working as a contact tracer. The biggest difficulty was not being able to plan anything properly as it was so uncertain regarding reopening. Like other venues, we started livestreaming via Facebook and YouTube, which gave musicians an opportunity to perform. A success, overall, but nowhere near as enjoyable or viable as live events.
We have three stages, plus the box office, at Tŷ Pawb during the FOCUS Wales festival every year. Over 10,000 people come into the building over three days, which gives a great boost to our traders. FOCUS Wales is probably the biggest annual event that takes place in Wrexham and puts it on the world stage. You can’t underestimate its importance to the town.
words LAURA FEDELI