The Boileroom Management Team [Interview]
As regular TMMP readers will know, Guildford-based music venue The Boileroom is currently facing the possibility of closure. To say that this situation stirred up some intense feelings is something of an understatement; artists as diverse as Jamie Lenman, Arcane Roots, Enter Shikari and Ed Sheeran have voiced their support for the small venue, while The Boileroom’s Change.org petition has attracted nearly 20,000 signatures from outraged live music fans.
In this exclusive interview, I sat down with Dom Frazer (The Boileroom’s owner and Director), Lydia Stockbridge (In-House Booker & Promoter), Duncan Smith (Assistant In-House Booker & Promoter), and Pip Ellis (Designated Premises Supervisor) to discuss their venue, its present predicament, and the reality of living life in live music.
How did The Boileroom come to be?
Dom: The Boileroom was first launched in September 2006. Previously to that I’d been the Creative Editor at a music magazine called Spill, which was an independent music magazine based in Guildford. We had been promoting at venues like The Star, as well as other venues throughout the country like The Joiners in Southampton, The Wheatsheaf in Oxford, and The Purple Turtle in Camden. And we just felt that Guildford was lacking a decent-size venue that could accommodate touring artists, but also promote local artists. It was a way to better facilitate what the magazine was doing; The Star is a great facility but it was always the back room of a pub. And we wanted a venue in Guildford that was more than just that. That was the real driving force behind this – to have a stand-alone music venue and arts venue, because we were interested in various other aspects of music and art.
Logistically, the venue itself needed considerable work, so we had investment and managed to knock out the walls that needed knocking out, and spent a considerable amount of money on soundproofing. We used a company called Hann Tucker Associates who are acoustic consultants; they looked at the building and told us what we needed to do to get to a level where we had adequate soundproofing for the music we wanted to put on. And we also worked with the Environmental Health department at Guildford Borough Council, so Environmental Health Officers would come and visit us while we were doing the work and monitor what we were doing, making sure we were on the right track. It took us about eight months of work. We have soundboarding on all the walls; the stage has a lot of insulation; the windows were secondary-glazed; there’s an interlocking door system at the entrance to the garden area that works using magnets, so you can’t open both doors at once. And then we have a double-door lobby system at the entrance, so you have to go through two sets of doors to get into the venue when you first arrive. Again, that limits the potential for noise breakout.
Overall, the work cost in excess of £80,000.
What was The Boileroom before it became a music venue?
Dom: On this site, there has been a pub since 1887. It used to be called The Elm Tree. A man called Robert Downes owned the site, and there were two huge elm trees nearby that got knocked down in a massive storm in 1906, during which two women died while sheltering under one of the trees. After the storm, the pub became The Old Elm Tree. So there’s always been a public house, in the broadest terms, on this site for a long time. We just put more emphasis on the musical aspect of it being a public house – but it is still a public house, because we have a bar and a premises licence.
What did you do before starting The Boileroom, or joining the team?
Dom: I was Spill Magazine’s Creative Editor, and worked in music. I got into live work, and that prompted me to open a venue.
Lydia: I interned at Brighton Source Magazine as their News Editor for about 14 months. Before that I interned at The Freebutt in Brighton whilst it was being run by Alex Murray at One Inch Badge, an indie promotions company down in Brighton. Andy Rossiter (who used to promote at The Joiners in Southampton), Tom Denney (a musician, formerly in the band Help! She Can’t Swim), and John Fischer took on The Freebutt; I was there as an intern between 2008 and 2009. They encountered problems with noise, were given a noise abatement, and eventually closed. The Freebutt had also been a public house for a long time; then it was a venue for roughly twenty years.
I’d organised a few of my own shows and interned and worked in the Brighton scene for about 4 years or so before coming back to Guildford and starting an apprenticeship with Dom. Now I do The Boileroom’s bookings and look after the diary with Duncan, organise all the private and promoter hires, and book all the in-house shows and external events as well. We do Guildford Beer Festival; we did Redfest last year; we’re involved in Staycation Live this year; and we’re also working on a few other projects.
Duncan: I’ve been putting on shows since I was about fifteen. I started at home in Cornwall; a couple of mates and myself, putting on acts that we thought were good. We also managed to put on a few nationally touring bands like Pulled Apart By Horses, Tubelord, and Turbowolf.
Being in Cornwall, it was a real community thing, because not a lot goes on there! People would travel for hours to come to our shows. When I moved up to Guildford to study Creative Music Tech at Surrey University, within my first couple of weeks here I saw Sonic Boom Six at The Boileroom. I’d already heard of this place when I was living in Cornwall because it was always on my favourite bands’ touring schedules – so I dropped my CV in and started interning in early 2012, coming in a few days a week to help Lydia. I deal with the diary, booking in local support bands, advancing all the shows, sending out contracts, and sorting out timings.
Pip: I’m the non-musical one! I’ve been working in pubs and bars and restaurants since I was 18, and then I moved into management. When I started at The Boileroom, the welcome of people who realised I’d come to work here specifically was amazing! Everything I know about music I’ve absorbed through working here, and it’s been really cool.
Dom: Pip’s our DPS – Designated Premises Supervisor. I’m a Personal Licence Holder; to be able to have a bar that sells alcohol you have to have a Designated Premises Supervisor, plus a Premises Licence Holder. It means that we’ve all gone through qualifications and the authorities recognise us as responsible people.
Missing from this group is Paul Hutcheon, who’s our bar manager and a Personal License Holder. His background includes studying at ACM, and also he’s a musician himself. Paul also puts on shows here as a promoter. Then there’s Olly Dexter, who’s our head tech engineer; he’s also a tour manager and touring engineer too. So Paul and Olly are also part of the core team.
Going back to the story of The Boileroom, how did the local community react when it opened?
Dom: Before we changed The Elm Tree into The Boileroom, we had a resident’s meeting. We invited everyone down so we could explain what we hoped to do. I was born in Guildford, moved away, and then came back. So I’m from Guildford, and Lydia was born in Guildford too. My family have lived in Guildford for hundreds of years – my great grandmother’s auntie used to have a fruit and veg shop in Stoke Fields! So we have a vested interest in this community, because it’s where we grew up. I went to school in Guildford, and it’s an important part of my heritage as well as my family’s heritage. Lydia and I are sisters, our grandmother went to Sandfield School, which is just over the road, and I went to the nursery school there when I was three. So as a family, we’ve been in this area for a long time, and we do have a lot of personal investment in the local area.
Initially, when The Boileroom opened there was resistance. I think some of the local residents saw young people coming in – my brother and myself – and thought it was all going to be loud music. And they were all a bit scared, so we tried to allay their fears by being very open, and trying to involve them in the process. For a lot of people that’s worked, and the relationships between the venue and the community have really flourished over the years that we’ve been here. We’ve been quite lucky in that respect. We’ve done a lot of community events to involve people so that they know that we are here to serve the community.
Has The Boileroom had its licence reviewed before?
Dom: Yes, we had our licence reviewed in May 2007. We’d opened in 2006, and for the first six to ten months we had considerable complaints from neighbours and local residents saying that there was too much bass breakout. So we had a lot of visits from Environmental Health, and we worked closely with them and a company called 24 Acoustics. Environmental Health ended up putting in an application to review our licence, and from that review we had a very slight change made to our licence. It went from saying that noise shall not be clearly audible at the curtilage of the nearest residential dwelling to saying that noise shall not be audible from the nearest curtilage as well as within the house as well. Curtilage is the curb bit outside the residence.
So just to clarify: It meant that they shouldn’t be able to hear audible noise either within the house or outside the house. And that’s what was changed in that review several years ago. What was happening was we were checking outside and not hearing anything. Since then we’ve worked really hard to carry on our sound checks; our sound engineers have sound logs and they check noise levels every thirty minutes. Since 2008 or 2009 we’ve had three complaints – at least until February this year. So I think that’s a testament to how well we’ve been working with regard to environmental health. The Environmental Health Department have had no issues with us, and neither have the police. We’re quite proud of that.
We also won an award from the Noise Abatement Society. It was a real honour to receive that award. And that’s helped us to continue our work in trying to cause the least amount of nuisance to others in the local vicinity. That award was really to do with the amount of work we’d done before opening as well as the amount of work that we continue to do within the local community to educate others about noise and what we’re doing. We’ve sent out newsletters to explain how we were improving the venue, so there’s been a real drive to communicate there.
Lydia: We’ve been given a grant from Surrey Police in the past to help us work on the venue.
Dom: We were granted some money to help in putting on under-18 events. They recognised that if children and young people are within our premises, and we are deemed to be responsible for looking after them in a safe environment, then it means that those children are not out on the streets, causing a nuisance.
Lydia: There’ve been problems with funding cuts though.
Dom: Yes – we’ve also had other funding sources over the years: Guildford Youth Council, and Guildford Borough Council. We’ve been fortunate that people recognise the work that we do.
The Boileroom is currently under threat of closure pending another licence review. What’s the story there? How did it all come about?
Dom: The way the Licensing Act currently works is, any local authority or any interested party can put in an application to review your licence. It’s a statutory process, so regardless of whether there’s any evidence or not, anyone can call for a review. Also, the application must be relevant.
So we respect that, and we will go through the process that we’ve been asked to go through. You get 28 days to put in representations for both parties, which is why we set up our Change.org petition, and then once the 28 days are finished Guildford Borough Council are under obligation to give us a hearing date within 20 days. And we will go to the Guildford Borough Council offices, meet with the Licensing Sub-Committee there, and they’ll hear the case and make a decision about what they want to do regarding the complaint that’s been received.
So we’re just going through the process. Our neighbours have called for a review, we’ll do what we need to do, and hopefully come out the other end and be able to continue with our business.
How does it feel to face closure, given the lengths and expense you’ve gone to over the course of several years to avoid noise-related problems?
Dom: Pretty horrific, to be honest. From a personal point of view, I’ve put in nearly eight years of hard work into this venue. And it’s not easy. It’s not easy getting agents to give you bands; it’s not easy putting events on so that you can include young people. It’s a real challenge to do all of this.
In our first year, we put on artists like Daedalus, for example, and we’d have about fifteen people turn up. So we’d lose money. But it’s always been important to me for people to have a platform to perform, and it is really hard work. And anyone who’s ever tried to put on any kind of show will know themselves, it is really difficult. Because you’re not fortune-tellers – you don’t know how people are going to react. You don’t know if other factors outside your control may affect your show. Maybe there’ll be a football match on, or a royal wedding; there are so many influences that are out of your control that may affect the success of your event. And for us to still be here as an independent venue and business that receives no consistent funding from the council or the Arts Council is a real achievement.
Lydia: People think it can be quite glamorous, being a promoter or a booker, and that it’s one big party – but the reality is that you do have to put a lot of hard work into it. It’s a lot of hours, so you really have to love what you do!
Dom: I think it’s only been in the last few years that being a promoter has become a professional career option. Promoters have always had this image as being cowboys with cash in their back pocket, no health and safety – but it’s not like that now. You can do degrees in event management; I lecture at BIMM (Brighton Institute of Modern Music) on the BA in Event Management. So it’s considered a valued career choice now, which it wasn’t when I got started in music.
Your Change.org petition has received almost 20,000 signatures. How does it feel to have that many supporters? How do you currently feel about The Boileroom’s future beyond the upcoming review?
Pip: I burst into tears when I found out it had been so successful! I don’t know if it was relief, like the realisation that people do actually want us here. I was gobsmacked.
Dom: I think people are getting so used to faceless corporations that they forget we’re actually a really small business, a family run business. Lydia and I are sisters; my brother used to run the business; and my father’s been involved in the past. We’re just a collective of people who have a love for music and art and putting on a good event. When you’re a promoter you get a buzz out of seeing people enjoying what you do, and the event you’ve worked so hard on. You sent out the timings, you organised the lineup, and the bands and the way you want it to work; so for us, you’re standing there and watching everyone enjoying themselves, and that’s the buzz that I get personally.
So for us, as a team, that’s what we’re about. If we wanted to make money, considerable sums of money, we wouldn’t be doing this job.
Lydia: I’d be an accountant!
Dom: And like I said, we’re not a faceless company. We’re people, just like everyone else, and we have feelings and emotions. So I think that if anything, this situation has brought us together more as a team and it’s engaging people that we never thought could be engaged in that sense. People who’ve visited the venue are telling us stories of their experiences here that we just didn’t know about – and that for us feels really good, because if we can make a difference in someone’s life such as, say, young Daisy Edwards, who wrote a great article for Radsound as a young girl not being able to get into many venues, starts coming to shows here and it helps her to find out who she is as a person, then we’re obviously doing something right. The way she wrote that article was so eloquent, and she’s said that she’s seen some of her favourite artists here when she just wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. London venues are all mainly over-18, and she was under 18, so she could call us up, ask us if she could come, we’d say yes, and that’s how it works really.
And then there’re families who’ve brought their kids here, and they say that their kids have had an amazing time, in a safe environment, and we get people in their seventies who’ve been on the stage through workshops and it’s a life-changing experience for them. They’ve never been on a stage, never played music before, and knowing that all of us have played an important role in someone’s life like that is why you keep doing it.
We had another guy who put in a representation who’s in a wheelchair, and he said that the fact that we have ramps and are easily accessible makes his life easier. I think some people have a perception that the only people who come to this venue are eighteen years old, and the petition has proven that this venue is valued by people from all walks of life. Old, young, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that people love music and they’re passionate about it. And I don’t know anywhere else within 20 miles, or maybe even further, that’s like us.
Every town needs something like The Boileroom, for sure. The Agincourt over in Camberley is a rock venue, predominantly. It wouldn’t necessarily put on folk or blues. There was the Tumbledown Dick in Farnborough, which was knocked down so they can build another McDonald’s. The Tumbledown was important for a lot of people when I was growing up; we used to go there a lot and see great bands like Reuben and Hundred Reasons. And the West End Centre in Aldershot is a great facility; it’s an arts centre, run by the council, and they put on some amazing stuff there. Barney, who runs the Westy, is a great creative programmer. He’s brilliant!
Duncan: We originally started with a target of about three thousand signatures. Then we had to increase it to ten thousand within a day because we just had so much support. So now we’ve upped the target to twenty thousand signatures. The amount of support we received within such a short space of time was just overwhelming. I had a lot of people call me up and ask what they could do to help out, and the support from everyone’s just been incredible.
Moving into a more general view of the live music industry, what makes a great live show?
Dom: Good sound. Interaction between the band and the crowd, and feeling like you’re part of a two-way process. Like the band’s appreciative of the fact that you’re there, and you’re appreciating that they’re there. Ice at the bar if you’re having a drink! Fresh lime, too. When I go to a gig, as soon as I walk in the door that’s what I look for.
Lydia: Friendly staff. It makes such a big difference if the people working there actually want to be there, and smile and say hello.
Pip: And occasionally break into dance routines behind the bar…
Lydia: You notice the difference when you go to shows that are much bigger, at chain venues. I went up to one bar and the barman was reading a book. He looked up at me with disdain because he had to put his book down and serve me. When people say “Hi! What can I get you?” it really makes a difference. You can tell that they’re happy to be there, and it makes the atmosphere much more relaxed. As a customer you feel welcomed and at home.
Dom: Our staff are always really friendly. And sometimes when you serve people and you’re really friendly, they’re taken aback a bit.
Lydia: It’s not uncommon for people to come to gigs on their own, and they’ll come and have a chat with the bar staff. And they’ll come back again, because they remember that.
Duncan: I think everyone who works behind the bar is really into music in general, and so there’s always something to talk about. Maybe the customer or the bar person is wearing a particular band’s t-shirt; as someone who wears band t-shirts almost exclusively, I pick up on that a lot.
As far as live shows go, the others have covered a lot of it. Personally, I think energy is important. Nothing’s worse than watching a band who might be really good on record and have good songs, but they get onstage and just look really disinterested. That’s a bit of a turnoff. A big energy that gets the crowd moving is great, because even when there’s a show where not many people turn up – say forty or fifty people – as long as the band can get into it and bring the crowd into it too, you forget all about how many people are there and you can just have a good time.
Pip: When Chesney Hawkes played, he must have greeted and taken a picture with everyone who came to the gig. And signed a lot of stuff too. That’s really great to see; some bands are like “I’m gonna get onstage and then get offstage and that’s it, load the van and then we’re off”.
Duncan: I think that’s something that smaller venues like ourselves can offer than bigger places can’t – that accessibility. You don’t have to hang around long; some people come offstage and go straight to the merch stall, and you can talk to members of your favourite band, which is something that I personally feel is important.
Dom: We also don’t take a percentage of a band’s merch sales, which a lot of venues do. I think bands, when they come here, even if they’re on tour and they’ve not been here before they expect The Boileroom to be just another venue. And they see, quite quickly, that we’re all really nice and we’ll make the effort to show them around, have their rider prepared, show them where all the important facilities are, and try to make people feel welcomed. It’s not difficult to do, but so many places don’t bother! Having been out with bands before, at many venues you do find that everyone’s just really grumpy and you have to wonder why. For us, we don’t even try to do what we do, really; it’s how we are. We’re fairly easy-going people.
Lydia: And we care about what we do.
Pip: Sometimes you’ll see the tour manager’s the first one in, and they’ve already put a wall up. So they’ll say “I want this, I want that,” and you gradually see them relax and melt a little bit when they see that we do actually care about getting things done and doing it right.
Dom: And I think all that shows by the fact that Ed Sheeran’s retweeted our petition tweet. And so have Enter Shikari, and You Me At Six, and other artists and DJs want to retweet it. Wolf Alice, Young Knives, Arcane Roots – they all genuinely care about it.
I’m sure that if we were just another big venue run by a corporation, it would just be one of those things. Like “Oh well, that’s it”. But I think they want us to stay here, and they recognise that we’re important, and we were important to their careers when they were coming through.
The first time Ed Sheeran played here, he played to about twenty people! And you think about however many shows he did, you have to multiply that turnout by his touring experience and look at him now, on the main stage at Glastonbury. The second time he played here, he sold out two nights in twenty minutes and crashed the ticketing websites. So it’s really important for artists to cut their teeth and hone their skills in smaller venues. Because without that, can you imagine if you just shoved Ed Sheeran on with Rudimental at Glastonbury for a first gig? It’d be intimidating for anyone, and this is how they build up their skills.
What can bands and promoters do to make sure their gigs are successful, make sure that the shows run smoothly, and build better relationships with venues?
Dom: From a band point of view – and I always say this when this question comes up – it’s important for bands to not overplay their local area. If they’re looking to build a fanbase, and eventually play outside their immediate locality, it’s important to consider that you want to give your fans value by not overplaying.
But from a promoter’s point of view, you’ve got to ask yourself why you’re putting on the show. If you’re putting on a show to just make money, then make sure you do your costings! Know that you need to make a certain amount of money to cover your costs and break even, and then everything else is profit. But really be honest with yourself about all of your costs, because your time is also a cost as well. And a band’s time is also a cost. For a band’s time onstage, are you going to pay them, or pay them food in kind, or is it about exposure?
With our top-end acts, we generally know how much we have to make to cover our costs, and can price our tickets accordingly. But every show is costed differently, with regard to everything from electricity, gas, our business rates here are really high, everything is costed from a door perspective so we have to break even with our ticketing income. And we don’t get it right all the time; we lose money on some shows, but thankfully we make more money than we lose money! So that’s why we can continue to be here.
It’s also important to know your market. What kind of music are you going to put on? To whom? Because there’s no point hiring out the Agincourt and putting on a folk club. Nobody’s going to come to it. There’re folk clubs out there already too, so you have to know what your competition is going to be. Are there other events taking place on the date you want your show to be scheduled for? It’s all kinds of stuff that you can find on the Internet now, competition details, costing sheets, making sure that your promotional activities start well in advance of the event date, six to eight weeks before your show…
Lydia: And for us, it’s definitely about building a good working relationship with other parts of the industry. For instance, if Duncan puts on a show of his own, as a promoter, we’ll give him as much information as we can to help him out.
What kind of information? What’s the process like?
Duncan: External promoters will usually get in touch with myself or Lydia with a proposal for a show; ideally some possible dates, line up, ticket price, that sort of thing. From our end we’ll then send across details of the hire such as hire fee, security costs, venue tech spec, etc. Once that’s all sorted and we have a date confirmed, I’ll draw up a contract detailing terms of hire, live music curfews, noise restrictions, timings, venue rules, just to make sure everything’s clear between both parties and to avoid confusion. Then we can put tickets on sale through our outlets, add the event to our listings and weekly newsletter, put posters up in the venue and start the ball rolling for a great show!
For in-house shows, the process usually starts with getting a headline act confirmed, which often will be Lydia’s work. From there it goes to me, and I look at what sort of music the headline act plays, and think about which local bands would be suitable matches for the headliners.
Once we’ve got our lineup confirmed, then I’ll get together timings for the evening. That includes load-in, soundcheck for all the bands, door time, stage time, set length for all the bands, and then live music curfew and load-out. The load-out is always after the curfew for obvious noise-related reasons. We don’t open the load-out doors until the show’s finished. So we then send those timings out to all the acts. Usually, if they’re an agency band (a band with a live agent as well as a management team) they’ll have just sent us a contract; with the support bands, we’ll send out those timings and a simple contract so that we’re all on the same page and there’s no confusion on the night. We’ll also send out ticketing links and Facebook event links along with details of the various venue rules that we have, a copy of the poster, and ask them to push it on Facebook. Although we do promote shows ourselves, there’re inevitably going to be people that the bands can reach that we can’t, and who might want to come to the show.
Lydia: It’s about working together. We’re not telling bands to promote the show because we won’t; it’s a group effort, and we all have a part to play in making it a successful night. Some local acts will go from opening slots all the way to putting on their own nights – Bare Jams, for example. They sold out their EP launch show back in June, and it was brilliant! Now they’re doing quite a few festival dates outside of Guildford and they’re doing some really great things, so it’s nice to be a part of that and say that we helped them on their way.
Pip: Bands need to read the stuff that these guys send them, so that they know what our tech spec is, what our capacity is, and what the laws are around live music. And be nice and polite and courteous when they’re here. If I treat someone in a certain way I expect it in return.
Dom: Be nice! It’s really important.
Lydia: Because we do a lot of things by email, bands might not know what myself, Duncan or Dom look like, so if you’re rude to the serving staff you could be insulting the promoter, or even the owner! It’s essential to treat others as you would want to be treated – manners cost nothing.
What is pay-to-play? How does it work, and what do you think of it?
Dom: Pay-to-play is disguised in lots of very clever ways by promoters. Basically, it means that the artist is parting with some money before – or sometimes even after – they perform. So they may have to purchase a certain number of tickets and sell them on to their fans, or it could mean that they have to write a cheque to the promoter in order to play. There are a lot of clever ways that promoters – especially in London – will disguise what’s going on, but it’s still pay-to-play, and the band run the risk of being out of pocket at the end of the night. The band might be lucky if they have enough friends who will buy tickets, but that still doesn’t make the situation right.
From a small business point of view, we might not always pay the artist, but what we are happy to do is pay them accordingly based on how many people come to see them. So generally, the local supports will get a pound for each person who comes to see them; if you bring thirty of your friends down, you get thirty pounds. We feel that’s a fair way to do it, because as much as we value artists who are performing, we can’t as a small business afford to just give money to artists when they don’t necessarily bring people into the venue. And we’ve had local artists, as they’ve progressed in their career, negotiating fees with us or we’ve given them two pounds for each person they bring. We’re open to negotiations, but what we don’t do is make an artist give us money in order to perform here.
Also, if an artist wants to hire the venue from us because they don’t want to get a pound per person, and they’re confident they can sell out a 250-capacity venue while charging five pounds per ticket, they can do that instead. So we hire the venue to artists if they want to put on a show themselves, but we wouldn’t consider that pay-to-play. That’s a separate kind of agreement. The artist keeps all the ticket money in that case. So we’ve always been very anti-pay-to-play; we’ve never done it here, which is something we’re quite proud of. We’re also recognised as one of the Musician’s Union’s Fair Play Venues.
Duncan: I’m not for pay-to-play at all. I don’t think it’s necessary and I think it’s quite a lazy way of working because it takes away the promoter’s risk. By doing pay-to-play you’re effectively pushing the risk of loss onto the band, which I don’t think is fair at all.
Like Dom says, we’ve never done it here; I’ve never done it for any of my own shows, and I’d never even heard of it until I came upcountry from Cornwall!
When it comes to promoting shows, who should take responsibility? The promoter? The band? The venue?
Duncan: I think a mixture of all of them. Bands inevitably reach people that the venue can’t, and vice versa. We’re called promoters for a reason, and for all our in-house shows we do highlights, flyers for what we’ve got coming up, posters for the shows, all that, and you don’t expect bands to do those at all. We take on all of those costs.
But it really does help when bands push a show to their fans, because there’s only so much we can do. We put on so many shows a month that we can’t focus specifically on just one show; we need to balance our attention between all of those shows. Having the bands help us push the event makes for a good mix and hopefully results in a successful show.
Lydia: I definitely see it as a group effort, really – with more emphasis on our part, but definitely a group effort.
Dom: It should be a totally holistic relationship. You can’t have one without the other if you’re working toward the same goal.
How do you feel about the current state of grassroots live music in the UK? What could be done to improve the lot of the live music industry?
Dom: As far as 2012’s Live Music Act goes, there was a report sent out about its impact, and it showed that the majority of venues and bars and promoters and so on didn’t even know about or understand the Live Music Act and how it could affect them.
They set up round-table meetings all over the country and talked specifically about the Act and what effect it’s had. If you speak to a lot of venues that are similar to us, destination venues, they’ll say that the Live Music Act hasn’t necessarily had the most positive effect on our business, because it’s opened the doors for anyone and everyone to put on live music.
We are quite heavily regulated, and we consider ourselves to be tastemakers. It’s a real skill to be able to do what we do. So much goes into putting on a show, as we’ve been discussing. And the issue is when you’ve got everyone putting on shows, there’s a question of how do people know which are the good places and shows to go to as well as the problem of bands overplaying and saturating their local market, as we mentioned earlier. We’ve found that local acts coming in and playing here, the amount of people they’re bringing to their shows has completely dropped off. When we first started here you’d get artists bringing in a good amount of support, because the show was a rare event. And it’s changed now; the number of people coming to see local acts is a lot lower and we can gauge it because we ask people on the door who they’ve come to see.
So from a national point of view it’s great that music is being embraced more and it’s more inclusive in the sense that people can access it easily, and as a business when the economic landscape changes you either adapt and grow or it doesn’t work out and you close down. So it’s a challenge for us. But in the same sense I think music venues at this level need some sort of funding from the government and we should be eligible for it. Whether we get specific help from the Arts Council, or The Music Venue Trust succeed in what they’re trying to do…obviously we’re a local asset, because otherwise almost twenty thousand people wouldn’t have just signed a petition to keep us here. So we really could do with some help, whether it be from the Arts Council or local government. Another problem is that we’re not allowed to put our posters up around the town and advertise our gigs that way.
Lydia: Also, there’re lots of young promoters, and like Dom’s saying there’s a lot of things you need to learn in order to do it right in terms of appeasing your neighbours, making sure you have the right equipment, and making sure that it’s safe. We work with a lot of first-time promoters here, and we try to help support them and educate them in how to do it the right way. If someone doesn’t know what they’re doing out there and things go wrong, anything could happen.
Dom: You could end up with someone not setting the equipment up correctly and a band member getting an electric shock off the microphone. The worst thing that could happen is someone could die. They could die at your show or your venue. It happens at big venues where they have to tick all the right health and safety boxes, so imagine what could happen if someone really doesn’t know what they’re doing.
When you’re putting on live music or promoting an event, there’s so much that could go wrong. And things like us having polycarb glasses instead of using glass, we have the skills and knowledge to take care of our customers and limit risk as much as possible. For somebody who’s starting out, they have to be really aware that there is a lot of risk. As a promoter you have a duty of care to everybody who walks in that door. And it’s your responsibility.
Lydia: One band we know turned up to a gig recently, and the venue didn’t have the right gear. So they couldn’t play.
Dom: They didn’t have a mixing desk. But it could be anything; some bands will have drinks on the stage, and then spill their drinks. I could spend all day listing the things that could go wrong!
Duncan: Going back to what Dom said earlier, funding would be good; I think that in mainland Europe a lot of places get government funding for music, and they do in Canada as well. So something like that over here would be immensely helpful. I think considering the challenges that venues such as ourselves face just on a daily basis, just making sure everything is maintained, there’s so much to take care of.
The Live Music Act is quite interesting. I go to a lot of smaller shows, independent DIY things, not even stuff that necessarily takes place at proper venues either; it might be the back room of a pub, which is a direct result of the Live Music Act. And it’s nice to see people who are passionate about the music bringing bands to an audience who’re ready for them. In Guildford, we’ve got Rose Coloured and GU1 PUNX, who’re doing great things on a very grassroots level, and it’s really cool that the bands they put on and that audience are collectively being catered for, because sometimes we can’t accommodate those bands here. So we might pass bands on to smaller promoters and see if they can help out. It’s all about a community spirit, people helping each other out.
How can bands, promoters, and venues work to improve things in the live music industry?
Duncan: I think it can be quite difficult when people only turn up to a gig to see their mates’ bands, and you end up with a lot of people in the beer garden while other bands are on. I think from a band’s point of view, a good way to support the scene you’re in is to watch the other bands’ sets. If you’re first on, it’s nice to see your mates afterward but I think it’s important that you watch the other bands when they’re playing. If you want people to watch you, I don’t know why you wouldn’t watch other people play! It shows respect to the other bands and to the promoter. People talking over other bands’ sets is a real pet hate of mine too.
In a more general sense, communication is a very important thing on this level. If you see it as a competition, it just won’t work. You’ve really got to realise that you’re all in the same boat; you might be trying to do similar things, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can work together; we do plenty of co-promotions here, we have external promoters come in and hire out the venue, and we let them know what we’ve got coming up and vice versa. We take on recommendations, take on each other’s gigs, just helping each other out and supporting each other. Because again, you’re reaching into new audiences and you’ll learn stuff from each other.
Communication and cooperation at this level is one of the most important things. And it can be quite easy to forget; if you’re putting on a great show, it can be quite easy to forget that there are other people putting on other shows that it might affect. So checking out what’s going on in the area and making sure you don’t double-book stuff with other people should be common courtesy really.
It’s about thinking ahead a little bit.
Duncan: Yeah, I think so. It makes a big difference when promoters and bands are aware of these things and take them into consideration when approaching us. We take them into consideration when approaching and dealing with other people; it just makes sense.
Dom: Interaction and communication between all the different elements is really important. Duncan’s got it. Bands need to be aware that they need to promote their shows and posting on Facebook isn’t enough.
There needs to be more interaction between all the different parties in order to make the show a good one. It’s important to think intellectually about how to engage audiences – sometimes these days it’s not enough to sell a gig ticket, and you have to sell a gig ticket with something extra. It could be a merch deal, or something more visual to provide a better experience, which we try to provide at most of our shows. You need to be thinking outside the box.
Lydia: With local bands especially, getting to know us really helps. Like with the Bare Jams guys, they’ve come up and said hello, and I’ve obviously been to their shows here, but just making the effort to say hi is appreciated. Duncan talks to a lot of local acts by email when he’s doing support bookings but he’ll come down and people can talk to him in person. It’s not really “networking” – it’s putting a face to a name, and if you get on on some level then you’re going to try and help them out more.
And also education; every other week we have a work experience person in here, and they might be from a secondary school or college or university, so we try to show people what we do and then progress from there. Duncan’s a full-time member of the team now, and he works behind the bar during shows too.
We try to get involved with education as much as we can, because we feel that’s another reason why we’re here. To help others on their way.
Dom: We have a responsibility to the next generation.
If you had to choose just one moment since starting or joining The Boileroom as a highlight of the journey so far, which would it be?
Duncan: The Bronx. That show was insane. They’re one of my favourite bands, have been forever, and they usually play venues much bigger than ours. I got to interview Matt, the singer, just before he went on, and I was really buzzing because they’re one of those bands that are just legendary. He turned out to be the nicest guy, we ended up just chatting out for half an hour and then they played an incredible set to a sold-out crowd. There were people crowdsurfing so high that they were walking on the ceiling! So that was a highlight, as well as one of the best gigs I’ve been to, anywhere.
Pip: When Boy Hits Car – one of my favourite bands ever – played here, I got to plait the singer’s hair! I was quite shaky after that…
Dom: I’m having a mild panic attack at the thought of having to choose just one. All the nights here are like my children! There’re just so many; asking me to choose one would be just impossible.
Soweto Kinch played in our first year, and he was amazing. He also had Abram Wilson, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. Hayseed Dixie have always been favourites here; they’re great guys. Brilliant energy and atmosphere. We’d ordered forty-five hay bales, had a cupcake tower, were giving out goodie bags, and before the show we were all blowing up helium balloons and Hayseed Dixie did their soundcheck with helium voices. They’re great friends of ours. The lead singer’s coming back here for his solo tour on the 5th of October.
Lydia: They were hanging from the rafters by their toes like bats, along with Paul Hutcheon, and had a sit-up competition.
Dom: Another one was Hugh Cornwell, from The Stranglers. I’ve always been a big Stranglers fan, so to have him playing some of the songs that I grew up with was pretty cool.
First Aid Kit were really good, and also Hackney Colliery Band. Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear were both awesome.
Duncan: Wolf Alice, as well. They were here for three years on the trot. They went from small crowds to a sell-out show here.
Dom: And Ed Sheeran, and Lewis Watson; although they were for a younger crowd, what Ed did at Glastonbury this year on the main stage, he did the same kind of show and hasn’t really changed as a person that much. When he played here, he got people clapping along and stood on a stool in the middle of the crowd and played there. Everybody was just silent while he did that.
The Martin Harley Band have been playing here for years, and they’re a really great local band.
Lydia: CeCe is a local artist that I really love. When we had our Independent Venue Week show, she was on first, and she was really captivating.
Dom: And Jamie Lenman, playing Independent Venue Week. He’s a close personal friend of mine, and I have total respect for him. He’s one of my closest friends, and having him here was great.
Lydia: Whenever Martin Harley plays here, all of our friends come down and it’s like a big party. He’s such a talented guy. I remember once he was passing through Guildford and came to see Pip; we were doing an open mic and he just got up and started playing! And everyone was like “Oh my God – it’s Martin Harley!” He just started jamming, and it was awesome. A real one-off.
Dom: Some other shows we’ve had recently, like Little Matador, they bought everyone in the crowd a whiskey. Nick Oliveri too, he really gave a good performance here. All really nice people, too; I think you remember when people are nice, good people.
Lydia: David Rodigan, too. He was such a lovely guy. After the set he came to say thank you, just for putting him on. I mean, he’s been going forever, really legendary, and he’s an MBE! He said “It’s community hubs like this that keep live music going. It’s so important; thank you for doing what you do.” It meant a lot to me to hear that!
Dom: And DJ Derek. To book him you had to call him on a landline number and write him a letter. He’s retired now, but just amazing. But there’ve been so many bands. Newton Faulkner played at our birthday event. Akil from Jurassic 5 pulled me up on stage with him and tried to get me to rap. It was a musical car crash!
But yeah, all of them have been really nice people, and that’s the running theme. Because we’re talking about eight years’ worth of shows…I can’t get over how many we’ve been through now! We worked out that we had about 25,000 people walk through our doors since 2013.
Lydia: Every show is different. We book a real mixture of things; it’s never one and the same. That’s what makes it fun.
A philosophical question to finish up: What does live music mean to you?
Duncan: That’s a hard one! It means a big chunk out of my bank account for tickets, records and band shirts! The first live show I can remember was probably a festival at Lanhydrock, a castle in Cornwall. It was a rock and blues festival, my parents took me, and it was headlined by Dr John & The Blind Boys of Alabama, which was really cool. I was probably about eight at the time, and that’s what I was into. There were a couple of local bands supporting as well, and I bought a CD from another group I was really into then, and they signed it.
The first gig I went to of my own accord was Reel Big Fish, and it was quite a nice completing-the-circle moment when we put them on here! It was all a bit surreal, because they were the first band I really got into in a big way, and I’ve seen them every year since I was fourteen. But I saw them in a local venue back home, and the fact that you could see a group of guys whose CDs you’d worn out and whose songs you’d learnt to play, see them up close and go and meet them – this show was in a similar size venue to The Boileroom – it’s got a kind of magic to it that I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over.
When I started putting on shows, just getting to meet my favourite bands and being the one to put them on was really fun! I’m the sort of person who doesn’t shut up about new bands that I’m into, so being able to bring bands into a town and physically show other people these bands that I’m into, being able to help the bands out personally, hopefully helping them reach new audiences, get people to buy their merch, get some extra exposure and pay them some cash, and just being part of that behind the scenes, and being able to give the audience a nice time as well, the magic of all that has never really left for me.
When you’re on Excel sorting out a load of spreadsheets it might not seem so magical, but if you take the Wolf Alice show for example, with a sellout crowd and seeing so many people enjoying something we spent so much time organising, it’s really rewarding.
It’s just great being able to work in something I enjoy so much. I still go to so many shows all over the country; it goes back to seeing bands that I’ve listened to for years or maybe just discovered that week, and seeing how it all works live, getting a chance to meet them, and experiencing a live show with other like-minded people…I just don’t think you can beat it.
Lydia: It means a roof over my head! Live music is really important, I think. Our parents are both musical, so I saw them play from a really young age. It’s always been a big part of my life, and I think it was really important as a means to feeling like you’re part of a community. And that’s what I always felt going to a gig; I made most of my close friends through music and it’s a passion that’s stayed with me throughout life.
Dom: Since Lydia and I are sisters, it was the same for me. My mum would sing us John Denver songs to get us to sleep at night, or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan, so it’s kind of like we’ve grown up being around live music. When our family get together, inevitably someone will get a guitar out and someone will sing. So it’s about having that moment, and I can’t imagine a world without live music. It would be a very sorry state of affairs.
Live music also brings people together for a common cause, and growing up at school being not a girly girl, to be able to find other people that were into the same things as you meant that you had other friends. I think a lot of the kids who come through here feel that, that they won’t be judged negatively for the music they like or the way they look.
Lydia: You feel like you fit in.
Pip: For people my age, we have fond memories of going to places like the Agincourt in Camberley, and fitting in. So if The Boileroom does that for young people around Guildford today, that’s really great.
Dom: Definitely. And ultimately, at the end of your life, it’s about all those memories.
This is the first of three pieces about The Boileroom’s ongoing issues. For updates, follow TMMP on Twitter.