In South London, Sister Midnight are campaigning to create a space for live music and creative community. Their project shares many of the motivations and challenges faced by music venues across the UK. Emerging from the pressures of lockdown with a determination to secure themselves against the precarity of the industry, they have championed the community ownership model as a means to creating a resilient space to foster their local music scene.
Elsewhere, established venues are being transformed into community owned spaces and demonstrating the value the model can provide. We spoke to Lenny Watson of Sister Midnight, and Matthew Otridge of Music Venue Trust to discover their story, and envision a future where grassroots music venues can become anchors of their local community with all the benefits that can bring.
What are the origins of Sister Midnight?
Originally we had a venue that I started before all of this campaign kicked off. There was this record shop and music venue in Deptford that was my local spot while I was studying for my degree. They were going to shut it down and there was a local businessman who wanted to turn it into a cheese and wine bar. At the time I was writing my dissertation about how the loss of UK music venues was having a massive impact on culture and nightlife. So it all just kind of came together in this weird way where I was like, ‘shit I should do something’. So I made him an offer to take over the lease on the space. That was in 2018. So yeah, I took on the space, decided to keep it as a record shop and music venue and renamed it Sister Midnight.
And that was where this whole thing started out. We were there for just under two years before the pandemic hit and forced us to close that space. But by that point we had built this amazing community around the space and we were having quite a big impact on the local music culture. So much so that people referred to all the bands and musicians that would play our venue and the community around it as the Sister Midnight scene. So we had quite a lot of momentum up to that point and we were selling out a lot of shows and it felt really sad that we had to close the space when we did. But I think because of that momentum I felt really driven to think about how we could take things forward, but in a more sustainable and community focused way. So that was how everything we're doing got started.
My dissertation was looking at nostalgia for historic music culture in the UK. I think it was a time when there was a real sense in popular culture that everything was very nostalgia-driven, looking back at the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s and rave culture in the 90s. And it just always felt like a kind of wallowing, rather than focusing on what was happening now in music culture, what was new? I was looking at a lot of postmodernist theory, and all these ideas about how the digital had changed what music was, and how the loss of all these venues and the physical places to experience music was changing what music culture was, and how that was having a broader impact on the sociopolitical power that music had historically had. I was looking at all of that through the lens of Mark Leckey's work. He's a British video artist and his work deals a lot with that element of nostalgia, particularly around music.
So I was exploring all of this and the whole essay just became another thing of wallowing in nostalgia and just feeling really sad about the changes that were happening and this seeming inability for people to have any power over that. I had no idea about community ownership or co-ops at that point and I wish that I had. When this opportunity came up to save the venue I just thought, well, maybe I should stop just writing and making art about it and just do it if it's something I care about.
How did you first come into contact with democratic business models and what was that process like?
It was a bit of a weird slow burner really. I did this fresh out of uni without any background in businesses or anything like that. So when we set up initially, it was as a sole trader, always with a sense that maybe we should be a charity and then I heard about CICs. That remained a bit of a distant plan – thinking one day I'd get my shit together and find some free time to convert us to a structure that felt more fitting for what we were doing, because there was always informal community involvement in the space and it was very much shaped by what people wanted and what they asked for. I had no idea about any of this, really, until during the pandemic and I was in a meeting with the Music Venue Trust and they introduced me to the community benefit society model, where the community owns your venue and you can issue these things called community shares, and maybe you could even buy your building.
Being in London, that was something we'd been thinking about in light of the instability of renting as a cultural organisation. I thought it sounded amazing but as a 50-capacity venue – essentially a dive bar on a back street in Deptford – we weren’t going to raise enough money to buy a building anywhere, let alone in London. Nine months into the pandemic, I figured I needed to do something. We decided to close the space permanently, and I spoke to Exchange in Bristol who are a Community Benefit Society (CBS), and they put me in touch with Dave Boyle, a community shares practitioner. As soon as I spoke to him and told him what I wanted to do, he said yes, a CBS model will work for that. Having that vote of confidence told me this was something we had to do, and I've spent the time since then learning more about democratic business models. Now I'm now training to become a co-operative practitioner myself [via Stir to Action’s Barefoot programme]. It's been a really long journey to figuring out that there's this whole world, this whole other way of doing things that I seriously wish I'd known about before.
What is the vision for the project overall?
I didn't have really high expectations for how this was going to develop and how much support we'd get. But now we have around 950 members and it's crazy to me that there are that many people in our local area who have been willing to support this. Especially given that most of these people had never heard of Sister Midnight prior to this campaign. There are all these people who are really motivated by the idea of creating something new as a community, and it's so nice to know that with effort and the right idea in place you can bring people together and get them rallied behind a specific thing. That's really cool.
There's so much that we want to do with this space. We see this as an opportunity to use live music as a lever for social change. We are going to do that by having an amazing multi-disciplinary arts programme because we know that live music has amazing benefits for mental health and helps people to develop their personal identities and to relate to the world around them. That is an amazing thing in itself but there'll also be opportunities for skills training and workshops that can help improve employability in the local area, plus we'll be offering jobs, which is a huge thing because there's not enough employment to go around, especially well-paid creative sector employment. We've got space for recording and rehearsal studios upstairs so we can act as a real creative incubator that can help to generate a pipeline of talent in the local area, and work with other venues and arts organisations to have a more resilient and connected ecosystem.
We have the community space downstairs where we can do all sorts of things – reading groups, parent and baby music classes – the whole lot. So we're really looking at every way in which this building can be used to deliver some kind of social benefit through creativity and live music. I think that's really exciting because we believe that the benefit of having a good local music venue can't be understated. It can be a truly transformational opportunity for people if it's done in the right way.
What issues endemic to arts venues and creative spaces can community ownership models address? What makes models like community benefit societies particularly suited to this context?
I think community ownership is such a huge asset in itself because you have a pool of local people who are going to be more committed than your average punter to seeing the space succeed. You've got a pool of skills and experience that you can draw on whenever you need, which makes it easier for you to engage with the wants and needs of your community in a way that traditional business structures have to work a lot harder for. It makes it a lot easier for community businesses to measure and understand the impact that they're having. It's quite common for arts venues to have little or no impact measurement and reporting. As a sector it's something we really need to upscale on, especially as policymakers, funders, and local authorities want to see very hard quantitative data about the impact that you're having.
What can people do to support you?
We've raised £300k so far, which is amazing. We're aiming to raise about £500k, so we're nearly there but we've got a way to go. Anyone who wants to support can buy a share through our website, and please go online and tell all your friends on social media that you've become a member and they should too.
The Sister Midnight team is Lenny Watson, Sophie Farrell, and Lottie Pendlebury. To learn more about Sister Midnight and support the campaign, visit sistermidnight.org/invest
Photography courtesy of Sophie Farrell @sophhfarrell
What are the practical benefits of community ownership models to music venues?
These community focused models allow operators better access to grants, cheaper energy prices via the Crown Commercial Services, and in some cases tax breaks on ticketing and Business Rates relief. I also think a common longer term issue within smaller cultural organisations is the lack of succession planning, and this is something that community ownership models – particularly Community Benefit Societies – help address by having a large membership of people who are able to get involved, right up to board level.
What examples can you point towards to indicate the impact of these ownership models in the short and long term?
I think Exchange in Bristol is a great example. Since becoming community owned it has managed to become the first grassroots music venue (GMV) to achieve gold on the Attitude Is Everything charter of best practice, install solar panels, put in a new state of the art PA, create a second live room for new emerging artists and invest into significant sound proofing to ensure that residential neighbours re- main happy. These changes have resulted in a significant increase in grant revenue, as well as generating surpluses that have been reinvested in the programming and interest payments to investors.
In your view, what do you think are the priorities for widening awareness and uptake of these models within venues and the arts at large?
There is definitely a movement within the GMV sector towards these models, more so towards CICs which is an easier transition from a "for profit" model which most venues go for initially because they don't know any better. I think organisations like Music Venue Trust, Co-Operatives UK etc. are helping to widen awareness, but often you will find the venues themselves are doing the same. Exchange found out about this model through Le Public Space and Komedia, who both received advice from The Bell in Bath, and have since given advice to Sister Midnight, who I know have helped Joiners Arms and the list goes on. I think it's important for venues to come to this decision on their own, because it can be a culture shock, and I think sometimes starting off with a CIC is a good way to test the water.
Matthew Otridge is the COO for Music Venue Properties (a CBS that purchases GMV freeholds and rents them back to community operators) and the Ownership Coordinator for Music Venue Trust. Matt previously was the founder of Exchange and led their Community Ownership campaign in 2020.