As part of a series in partnership with Arts Council England, TSOTA will be featuring several Northern venues supported by the Government’s Emergency Grassroots Music Venues Fund which was distributed by the Arts Council. The fund supported businesses unable to take income from their usual live music programme during the COVID-19 pandemic. This series will explore how some of these venues have navigated the lockdown, thanks to this funding.
In our first feature, we spoke to Matt & Phred’s, Manchester’s beloved jazz club, about how they have adapted, and persisted, through the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on many businesses and organisations: from subsidised theatres to high street shops, people have had to radically rethink the way they manage their business and generate income.
Live music venues and nightclubs are essential to the nightlife economy and the wider music industry has been severely hit, with iconic venues such as the Deaf Institute and Stoller Hall in Manchester and Liverpool Arena finding it difficult to keep things running. Not only are live music venues critical for the economy, but they also help to develop up and coming musicians and provide a platform for bands to reach new audiences.
The Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund included £3.36 million in an Emergency Grassroots Music Venues Fund to support venues that were struggling under the pressure of lockdowns and social distancing measures over the summer of 2020.
Despite the challenges, Matt and Phred’s in Manchester saw an opportunity for the club. Tucked in the heart of the city’s Northern Quarter, it is a favourite jazz spot for Mancunians and is recognised across the UK for its quality in programming and events.
We spoke to Claire Turner, one of the club’s owners, to find out more about how they saw this as a chance to not only sustain their interaction with audiences, but to also expand their reach and keep the ball rolling.
Matt and Phred’s prides itself on being a family owned business and, until last year, had supported itself without external funding. Of course, as for many venues, the pandemic changed this, with people no longer popping in for a drink or spending an evening enjoying the music. The club decided to apply for the hugely-welcomed Government’s Emergency Grassroots Music Venues Fund via Arts Council England; it also later applied for support through the Culture Recovery Fund.
“This funding allowed us to explore ideas outside of the physical,” Claire explained, “we could look at the existing blueprints in place at the club and think about how we could expand this.”
While it’s been difficult for people everywhere unable to meet friends in bars or relax with live music after work, we are fortunate to be living this pandemic through the digital age – and the venue recognised this.
Claire added, “If lockdown has taught the world anything, one of the key lessons businesses learnt was how truly powerful the outlet of social media can be in reaching a wider audience and how vital it is for staying both connected and relevant in today’s modern society.”
Claire is thankful for the club’s loyal supporters who continued to support it during the first lockdown – albeit online rather than in person.
“We needed to think about how we could live-stream music from home, and how this could generate revenue both for the musicians involved and the club as a whole. Our customers who have continuously supported the club made this all the more possible.”
At the heart of its work is the aim to keep musicians in the spotlight and give them a platform to meet and connect with new audiences.
In November 2020, Matt and Phred’s launched Almost Live on Friday nights – offering audiences the opportunity to see musicians live on the Matt and Phred’s stage, but from their homes. Charging a small fee meant that the club could pay the artists, and this did not deter its loyal fans who attended in large numbers.
A huge contributor in this success was the artists’ unwavering determination to continue performing. Matt and Phred’s opened the floor to both new and established artists and, through social media, were able to scout new talent.
As Claire says, “All musicians want to do is play, and we just wanted to make that possible for them. Because we have such a strong social media following, we can help independent musicians gain a wider audience whilst at the same time help people find new music.”
However, the club feels there is still more that can be done. “The reception was good,” Claire said, “but I know we have a huge mountain left to climb.”
She recognises that online concerts need to evolve to keep the audience experience fresh and, unsurprisingly, has a solution in the works.
“As well as being able to watch an online gig, you could also listen to the gig as a set list whilst working, cooking or even cleaning. Our wish would be to create a musical Netflix – something you are subscribed to but don’t always have to be present for. Days feel dark and scary right now, if we can keep music in people’s minds, then hopefully we are doing something right.”
The Almost Live sessions are currently on hold as the club plans for 2021, but there is pre-recorded content from December that will be released online later this year. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Claire laughs, “for now we are taking a little breather before launching our next move.”
When asked when that could be, Claire once again spoke fondly of the club’s support system. “We are so lucky to have such a loyal following and we are looking forward to sharing our next online series of great music with them.”
We look forward to seeing what Matt and Phred’s has in store for 2021 and, along with everyone else, are excited to see the continued expansion of online music streaming, made possible by the Government’s Emergency Grassroots Music Venues funding.
You can find out more about Arts Council England here.