A year in the life of an independent venue

Sarah Lavigne looks back at 2020 through the eyes of Bristol’s iconic venue: The Louisiana.

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Dua Lipa, Muse, The National, and Idles are only a few of the acts whose sounds have filled The Louisiana. Since last March, however, the small but iconic stage of this Bristol venue has been left untrampled, its cosy lounge-like room deserted of bouncing crowds. Like many sites across the UK, the health crisis of 2020 has pressed pause on The Louisiana’s live music playlist.

In a rollercoaster year of lockdowns, restrictions and curfews, grassroots music venues have had to find resilience, creativity and community spirit in order to ride out the storm. Multi-talented booking manager, Lor, explains how it went down for The Louisiana, and shares some insight into the heart-warming support from friends, musicians and the Music Venue Trust.

The beginnings

“Back in March, we had our busiest year ever planned. Everything was exciting. I personally was about to go on tour with a band [Nordic Giants], Mig [Schillace, musician and the son of The Louisiana’s owners] just got back from a European tour with his band Pet Shimmers, so we were worried about all of our hopes and dreams just bursting into flames.”

Hitting the UK shores at the end of January, Covid-19 rapidly swept through the country, shrouding the grassroots music scene in a mist of uncertainty. “We kept putting on shows. Touring acts were cancelling, but local bands were unsure what to do. We kept some gigs, cancelled some…”

But then, in mid-March, new guidance from the Prime Minister to shut bars, clubs and theatres added another layer of indecision. With the footfall down, some places closed. Others, like The Louisiana, remained open to hesitant customers, until later that week, a full lockdown was eventually announced. “We had a celebration the weekend before lockdown as we had a new PA system, and that was an absolutely lovely night. We didn’t really know what was going to happen as the media were kinda vague. So, we waited… and waited… And saw our busiest year of gigs slowly being cancelled, postponed etc… It was weird.”

A spring of crowdfunding

Unable to trade, but monthly bills still due, The Louisiana followed in others’ footsteps and launched a crowdfunding operation: a fundraising page and limited-edition printed T-Shirts, designed by bar staff and designer, Tom. “This was nothing compared to our year of trading, but we were really touched to see how many people loved and cared for The Louisiana.”

To connect with cherished audiences, albeit virtually, and to boost the scene, the venue kept active social channels, sharing livestreams, news and campaign updates. And when lockdown hit, so did the Instagram take-overs, where bands (whose earning opportunities also took a blow) could hop on the platform to showcase or discuss their work. “Our Instagram account (@louisianabristol) has more than 3k followers. It’d be rude not to give our favourite bands a place to expose themselves.”

At the same time, the Music Venue Trust (MVT) crafted a momentous campaign. Rallying musicians, audiences and industry players behind the #SaveOurVenues banner, the dedicated charity set up an emergency fund for grassroots venues. Inspired by Frank Turner’s Independent Venue Love sessions, the tide of support flowed in from the creative community and artists, whether internationally or locally renowned, livestreamed performances on behalf of their favourite venues.

(The fundraising continues to this day: so far, home gigs, virtual festivals and donations have raised over £3.8 millions, rescuing numerous places from imminent closure)

A summer of sunshine, hope and pizza

June and July saw the easing of some restrictions, hinting at a sunny return to freedom. As we slowly rediscovered social and commercial interactions, The Louisiana unlocked a new doughy revenue stream. “The family [who run The Louisiana] being Italian, making pizzas has always been in the corner of their minds. We all started making sourdough bread during the first lockdown, so Mig has made his very own Louisiana Mother Dough!”  In the absence of live music, it’s the ArtiStrokes and Florentina and the Machines that bring in the crowds – or one of the other pizzas named after bands who visited The Louisiana. “That’s currently our daily bread, being open as a takeaway.”

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In early July, good news dropped in the shape of the Culture Recovery Fund: after calls from MVT for a sector-specific rescue package and the #LetTheMusicPlay campaign led by UK Music, the UK government allocated £1.57 billion to the creative sector.

With this additional lifeline, MVT began guiding venues through applications and through the complex world of bailout schemes and grants. “Admin-wise, a lot of us didn’t really know what to do. We run places, we’re not lawyers. MVT did a fantastic job, and still does. We feel cared for!”

They also seem cared for on the local circuit, and the network of venues united in the face of adversity, “with Matt from the Exchange [another beloved Bristol site] being an absolute hero and helping us with the admin side of things. Running a music venue is a constant struggle even when times aren’t hard, so it was heart-warming to see that we were all in this together, working towards keeping Bristol’s music scene alive.”

Autumn/winter – a mixed bag

The sunny and carefree sense of hope began to fade in September, when Covid-19 cases resurged. The summer window of opportunity, which even allowed some venues to put on indoor gigs, was fast followed by curfews, then a tiered system of restrictions, assigned regionally. And by November, the whole country was locked down again. “It was quite annoying, but we were more ready this time, as we knew what we were going into.” At the Louisiana, the time was used wisely for a “badly needed” revamp!

It’s in lockdown 2.0 that the venue received their piece of the Culture Recovery pie.  “We were really at a loose end when this funding came, so it was such a relief! I think Mig got drunk, and he never drinks hahaha!”. As well as throwing them a lifeline, the grants allowed The Louisiana to plan for a resilient future: redecorate, employ some people, make rooms Covid-safe and install a streaming platform, with “some super high-quality cameras are being set up as we speak!”

Sadly, some locations were not as lucky, having not met all criteria for funding. And so, the community spirit persevered: “Mig took part in a crowdfunding music video called Save Our Venues”, while MVT adopted a traffic light strategy, shifting the immediate focus to “red venues” – those at risk of imminent closure.

They are still fighting for survival.

New Year, New Hope?

A few days into our third national lockdown, a return to immersive, unsocially distanced live shows is hard to grasp, but there are reasons to be hopeful for our favourite hangouts. According to Mark Davyd, CEO of MVT, the situation is not as critical as it was last April, when approximately 95% of them were threatened with permanent closure. Since then, progress has been made, grants have been distributed (round 2 funding applications are being filled now), and venues have adapted to new ways of working; the focus can shift to reopening safely.

The Louisiana are also preparing for their live music comeback, with the first bands currently booked from the end of February. Bristol’s own outspoken punk rockers, Idles, are due to make a spring appearance. There’s actually a bit of history between The Louisiana and Idles…  “Indeed. Idles have always been very inclined to support grassroots venues. That’s where they all come from. Joe [Talbot, vocals] used to work at The Louisiana as a (terrible) bar staff”, Lor jokes. “Dev [Adam Devonshire, bass] used to be manager at the Exchange, so we’re super grateful that they chose us for their unique intimate session in Bristol in April!” 

There remains, nonetheless, some degree of uncertainty. Recent surges in infection numbers, driven by highly transmissible new strains, restrictions around alcohol sales and a third strict lockdown are further challenges for the cultural sector to navigate.

What can we, music lovers, do? With most of the country under high restrictions, the first stops are online: showing up to a virtual gig, buying merch from venues’ websites or the Save Our Venues shop; shouting loudly on social media or emailing our MPs and local councils.

Then, when we can, “go to a gig! Buy pints! Get drunk! Come and watch a show if you don’t have anything to do. Get out, hang out, talk to your friends, families, city councils. We are as important as a museum!” We also have the power to help create a safe gig environment: follow the guidelines, protect our fellow concertgoers, save our venues!

Community is what grassroots music venues are all about. They are places where strangers become best friends. Where we connect with musicians and their art. Where the next Dua Lipa, the next Muse or the next Idles define their sounds and build their audiences. By shutting us in and shutting them down, 2020 has uncovered just how big a role they play in our lives and how prepared we are to fight for them. Let this be a silver thread lining the corona-cloud, as we crawl into a hopeful new year.

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