On the first day of Independent Venue Week (IVW) its founder Sybil Bell (pictured) tells Access about the widespread industry support that has gone into the first, and hopefully last, digital version of IVW.

Today, 25 January, will see the premiere online screening of On The Road, a 90-minute feature documentary filmed over two years, celebrating small independent music venues across the UK.

Marking the start of IVW, the screening will take place at 7pm, with tickets priced £5.50. A live Q&A will follow, hosted by BBC 6 Music’s Matt Everitt alongside venue owners and musicians including Philip Selway of Radiohead, Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Dom Frazer, manager of Guildford’s The Boileroom (cap. 275).

Along with UK ambassadors Arlo Parks, Gruff Rhys, Jordan Adetunji and Amy Macdonald, this year’s IVW, taking place across 110 independent venues, will feature artists including Blossoms, Bombay Bicycle Club and Frank Turner.

On the Road includes input from myriad artists such as Fatboy Slim, IDLES and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd along with numerous venues including the Hull’s New Adelphi Club (200), London’s 100 Club (350), Brudenell Social Club (400) in Leeds, The Boileroom, Moles Club (300) in Bath, the Leadmill (900) Sheffield, John Peel Centre for Creative Arts (200) in, Stowmarket, London’s Bush Hall (350) and the Cookie (150) in Leicester.

What has it been like running the event online only this year and what have been the most challenging aspects of this?

I think not being together in the office is a huge challenge for us – we’re very vocal and work closely so us being spread out around the country just slows everything down because you don’t have the immediacy of speaking to people. The other biggest challenge is that IVW was set up as an antidote to everybody doing things on screen – the whole point was to get people off their screens and into venues with friends and groups and enjoying live music in a way that’s visceral and immediate. So organising IVW this year has been like the difference between doing theatre and live television – theatre is immediate and although there’s lot of planning, you have that moment and that’s what makes it special. Whereas with everything on screen there’s a lot more planning and more people involved and it probably takes ten times as long for a tenth of the output. So it’s been a learning curve and we’ve had to adapt and overcome. That was never not going to be the case, we were always going to run IVW and we had hoped to run some socially distanced shows, but the venues and everyone in our community have had to find different ways to approach things, so I think we’re just proud with the number of events and venues that are taking part this year and I hope that the public will respond by getting involved.

What has the response to the initiative been like from artists and the music industry?

Absolutely, people have been incredible. People are frustrated and worn down from having their plans changed, especially venues and promoters. But artists have responded in different ways since the pandemic – you’ve got Frank Turner with his Independent Venue Love campaign – he’s raising over £10,000 every time he does a streamed show for a venue which is outstanding. Kate Stables from This Is the Kit has been in touch, we’ve got some events coming up with her, and Young Knives are doing a caravan show session. We’ve had support from labels that we don’t ordinarily deal with in this level of detail. Artists still want to perform and even if they aren’t able to do a full performance, some of them are doing ‘In Conversations’. I just think people really want to get behind the week in a way that they would in person because it’s a good opportunity to say, “It’s January and everyone is feeling blue, so let’s just make this a week of celebration and remind ourselves just how amazing our community is”.

Has it inspired you to include more digital content in the event post Covid?

We will retain some digital engagement across our activity but our goal always has been and always will be to encourage people to go to gigs in person and bring footfall to the venues. We’ve spoken to a few people in our community with disabilities and they’ve been asking for some time for things to become more accessible and they’ve been told it can’t happen. Then, as soon as the whole world has the same issue of accessibility, the world responds more quickly. So the digital side of things certainly does open up culture, arts and music to people who aren’t able to go to venues. This could be people under 18, people with access needs, people in other parts of the world..so there’s always a place for it but it will never be a bigger part of what we do.. ever.

Have you had support from Arts Council England (ACE) and/or Creative Scotland?

We’ve had great support. It’s the seventh year in a row that we’ve been supported by ACE and that’s been a huge help alongside the Cultural Recovery Fund budget that we got. Creative Scotland has come on board again and they recognise the work that we’re doing, beyond just the live music but also the education side of things, which is really important to them. Both organisations have been instrumental and without ACE, we wouldn’t be where we are now. I think it’s been clear over the last year, and even over the last six or seven years, how much more significant the independent grassroots venue community is in people’s mindsets.

“I think it’s been clear over the last year, and even over the last six or seven years, how much more significant the independent grassroots venue community is in people’s mindsets.”

What has been the most rewarding aspect of the project so far?

How much people want to get on and want to help. There’s been some organisations that we’ve never really dealt with much, mainly because of our grassroots nature, but people have come on board. Labels like Caroline and Partisan have wanted to throw everything they can at this to help make it fly and I think one of the other highlights is just how supportive people have been to make sure we’ve got things going on across the week.

Tell us about your upcoming documentary On the Road.

We’re really proud of it. We’re proud of the story it tells – it’s not about music organisations and talking heads, and those interviews with industry heads, it’s about getting right into the heart of these communities and speaking to artists, fans, crew – people behind the scenes to hear their story. By showing it now, it’s a really good way or reminding people what it was like to be in a packed venue. This is why we do what we do.

“By showing it now, it’s a really good way or reminding people what it was like to be in a packed venue.”

What was the inspiration behind the documentary?

I’ve been trying to get the film made since 2014. One of the reasons I set up IVW was because no one was really championing or supporting the venue circuit – the only thing that came close was an annual competition for venues, which I hate because I don’t think there’s a place for it or that it’s relevant. I felt people didn’t really know the characters or people that we’ve got to know all around the country. I thought it was their time to shine. Every week they give artists a stage to perform on, literally, and the documentary is a chance to turn the tables and say ‘this is your time to tell your story’. As soon as you watch it you can see the experiences that venue owners talk about – the importance of community and how these venues have a social agenda. I think we kind of take these places for granted.

Do you think this attitude will change post Covid?

Yes, absolutely I do. I think when you take something away that people have as part of their daily lives – and it’s not necessarily about taking it for granted for the avid music fans – but to have lost that, it has been game changing for some people. It’s interesting that throughout Covid, the thing that’s kept a lot of people going is arts and culture, and especially music. I think as soon as people can get back into venues safely, and it is about being safe, we’ll see a huge resurgence of people going. I hope that is the case. I think everybody involved in our community deserves a chance to have a prosperous and busy few years ahead of them.

“It’s interesting that throughout Covid, the thing that’s kept a lot of people going is arts and culture, and especially music.”

The documentary is pay per view. How many revenue raising events are there during IVW and how are the funds distributed?

Ordinarily we would be promoting or co-promoting a lot of shows across the week. That’s not the case this year – we’re not charging for any events that are spoken word, interviews or panels. We have a code of conduct and any show during normal IVW has to be a paid ticketed event. We want people to understand there’s a perceived value in going to a gig but this year, as things are different, pretty much all music performances are donation led. The documentary is a paid-for event and it allows us to carry on the work that we’re doing. It’s been three years since we started filming so that’s a long time to bring a story together. Now we’re just excited to get it aired.