If the music scene in Exeter was a fruit it would be a pear – lots of excess weight in the bottom and middle, not so much on top.
From the 220-capacity Cavern Club to Exeter Phoenix (cap. 530) and The Lemon Grove (800), acts touring the emerging and mid-market sector in the city are spoiled for choice.
The area is also home to an ever-expanding festival scene, which includes Beautiful Days – now at a daily capacity of 17,500, up from the 3,000 at its inaugural event in 2003 – and a new addition this year, multi-venue event Lost Weekend.
At the top end of the market, however, it’s a different story.
Up at the University of Exeter, a perfect storm of expensive hire fees and a lack of investment have ensured limited use of The Great Hall (1,800), according to promoters.
In the past it has hosted shows by Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and U2, but now remains primarily a conference venue.
Meanwhile, the last show at exhibition complex the Westpoint Arena (8,000) was alt-J in 2015.
That fundamental flaw in the infrastructure, however, may be about to change, with Exeter City Council recently setting-up the New Entertainment Venue Advisory Group (NEVAG) to assess the need for a multi-purpose, city centre-based 1,200-capacity venue.
Estimated to cost up to £55 million, it is a venture that every promoter in Exeter believes is long overdue.
“We’re about a year into the project, and we’ve probably got about another year to go, before we really get going,” says Patrick Cunningham, director of the Exeter City Council-owned Phoenix, and one of those appointed to NEVAG.
It has, as Cunningham readily admits, been a long and, at times, tortuous process.
“There has been a campaign for a number of years to have a new theatre based up at the university,” he says. “However, there are a lot of people in Exeter who think the city should have a bigger theatre, and particularly one that is based in the city centre.”
As he points out, fate has also played a hand in proceedings, with a lengthy wait for a potential site – currently The Corn Exchange (500) – to become available.
“There have been some very long leases on the shops and various properties below the venue, and because these are running out in a few years’ time, the council is sensing an opportunity,” Cunningham adds.
This multi-purpose approach has proved successful for the Phoenix, which, as well as hosting shows such as The Hoosiers, promoted by Jan Ayers, The Amazons, Loyle Carner (both SW1 Productions), The Blockheads and Hunter and the Bear (both in-house), also staged up to 50 gigs for the Cavern Club (220) between September 2016 and last June, when the latter venue was forced to close following a fire.
Up to 60 per cent of live music shows are promoted in-house, with the venue generating 80 per cent of its income primarily from shows and bars. The remainder comes from Arts Council England (ACE) and Exeter City Council.
Also based at the university is The Lemon Grove, which hosts up to 20 live music shows a year, in addition to DJ events. The events manager is Rich Stafford, a former tour manager who worked with acts such as We Are Scientists, Funeral For A Friend and Example.
Having a ready supply of potential customers on campus can almost guarantee an audience, with Stafford pointing-out that every show at The Lemon Grove in the past two years has sold out. It also means he has to offer a varied programme.
“We’re one of the biggest venues for live music in Exeter, and over the last 25 years, has played host to some of the biggest live acts,” he says. “We have to be quite versatile, being on a university campus, and it’s not uncommon to see theatre, comedy or live sport such as boxing on our events list.”
Acts playing the venue include Sleaford Mods (AEG Live), Deaf Havana (Kilimanjaro Live), George Ezra (SW1), Blossoms (SJM Concerts), The Wedding Present (Cavern Club), Lower Than Atlantis (The MJR Group) and MistaJam (in-house).
Despite its relatively small size – the population of Exeter is less than 130,000 – the city continues to attract a wide range of acts, adds Stafford, helped, no doubt, by the fact the university’s enrolment stands in excess of 20,000.
“Exeter is a pretty small city in comparison to others and behind the scenes there are people that work hard to bring some of the best live acts to the South West and into the venues that support live music,” he says.
There are also major changes planned for the venue next year.
“The refurbishment is at an early stage but my plans are to bring up-to-date the facilities available at the venue including backstage and the main auditorium,” says Stafford.
At the aforementioned Corn Exchange, there are up to 30 live music shows a year, although its main business comes from other areas – primarily comedy and dance events.
For music shows, ticket sales are holding up well, says events, facilities and markets manager David Lewis.
“We recognise that music is an area we can improve and are always looking for partners to work with,” he says. “Once shows come to us, they tend to come back.”
Having a strong USP also helps when it comes to securing shows, adds Lewis.
“We have the largest-seated capacity of any venue in the city centre and that means that we will always be able to attract shows – at least until a larger venue comes along.”
Acts playing the venue include Kate Rusby (Pure Records), The Illegal Eagles (Dereck Block Promotions) and Rumours of Fleetwood Mac (CMP Live).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lewis is another venue operator who points out that the lack of a venue around 1,200-capacity is hampering the city.
“There is plenty of live music around but it has long been recognised that the city lacks a venue big enough to attract higher-profile acts,” he says. “The problem is, of course, finding someone willing to make the investment which might actually make it happen.”
Long a mainstay of the city’s music scene, the Cavern Club opened in 1991 and has hosted early shows by Muse, Biffy Clyro, Royal Blood and Mumford & Sons.
Others to have played the venue include Coldplay – Exeter is hometown to frontman Chris Martin – and Frank Turner, who played at its 25th anniversary party last year, several months before it was forced to close due to a fire.
“When you run a venue it’s all about the show you’ve got on next, so in many respects, the fire wasn’t as damaging as it would have been for other kinds of businesses,” says co-owner Dave Goodchild. “When we reopened, we managed to come back with a couple of big events, which really helped.”
This included, in conjunction with Exeter Phoenix, the music element of multi-venue arts event Lost Weekend. Loosely based on the multi-venue Texas event SXSW, with a similar mix of content – music, tech, art, talks – it also included film screenings, big screen gaming and workshops.
“The population is rising, there are always new restaurants opening, and there’s probably never been as much building work going on for student accommodation”
Acts performing included Public Service Broadcasting and Wildwood Kin at Exeter Cathedral, with funding coming from Exeter City Council, ACE and other sponsors.
“The cathedral holds about 750 if it’s seated but you can have about 1,200 in there for standing, which we did with Public Service Broadcasting,” adds Goodchild.
Acts currently playing the Cavern include Turbowolf, Tigercub, Hell is for Heroes, Eliza and The Bear and Spring King (all in-house).
While admitting the market can be tough at times, Goodchild points to a healthy DIY punk scene in the city, with Muncie Girls, Neurotic Fiction and The Cut-Ups ones to watch.
Now operating at full strength, the Cavern currently hosts up to 12 shows a month.
The other longstanding event in Exeter is Beautiful Days, held at Escot Park, 19 miles from the city centre.
This year’s headliners were Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbot, and Frank Turner, while other acts performing included Public Service Broadcasting, Lightning Seeds, Alison Moyet and the Levellers. With five stages for music, and adult tickets at £135, it remains one of the South West’s most popular events.
Festival founder Dave Farrow of DMF Music is another promoter who is keen to talk=up the city.
While his agency roster has expanded to include Damien Dempsey, Dreadzone, Levellers, Eliza Carthy and The Wayward Band, The Beat, Selecter, Turin Brakes and Exeter act Sound of the Sirens, he believes the market for live music in the area has never been stronger.
“A lot of my bands are playing in Exeter but I’m not actually running those shows because I’m giving them to promoters,” he says. Recent DMF shows in the Phoenix include Billy Bragg and New Model Army.
“Although that’s as much to do with the fact that I’m so busy with agency and management work, because there is still a good market here for live music and it’s well supported.”
There is, adds Farrow, other anecdotal evidence to suggest the market is growing.
“Acts that play Beautiful Days tend to do really well when they play Exeter in the spring or autumn,” he says. “There’s certainly a market down here, and it’s probably better than ever. The population is rising, there are always new restaurants opening, and there’s probably never been as much building work going on for student accommodation.
“I’ve never seen so many cranes across the city skyline … but it just desperately needs that 1,200-capacity venue that keeps getting talked about.”
Also in agreement about the need for a larger venue is Colin ‘Biff’ Mitchell of Fun Productions.
“Take someone like Alabama 3 that I recently put on in Exeter Phoenix,” he says. “That sold out four or five weeks in advance. How many could that have sold if we had that bigger venue?”
Other shows Mitchell is promoting at the venue include Gentleman’s Dub Club, Dreadzone, Dub Pistols and The Cuban Brothers.
According to Mitchell, Exeter loses out on a lot of shows for another reason, though.
“The biggest problem we’ve got down here is that the big boys get all the cream,” he adds. “So even though you’ve got an 1,800-capacity venue here there are not many bands, who are not being promoted by SJM or Metropolis [Music], that could fill that type of capacity.”
Mitchell is, however, one of those promoters who still puts on shows in The Great Hall, most recently a double bill of DMF acts The Beat and Selecter. It was a night that proved that promoters with the right acts can still do good business.
“We had about 1,200 people in there, which, given the fact that when we had both of them on separate nights [at Exeter Phoenix], we sold about 500 tickets for each, wasn’t too bad,” he says. “It’s really expensive to hire, so if we’d done another couple of hundred tickets in there we would have been really flying. In the end, though, everyone did alright out of it.”
Also doing well in Exeter is Katy Barnes of SW1, which, although based in Cornwall, has so far promoted 15 shows in the city this year.
“As well has having a better selection of venues, it also feels like the people have more of an appetite for new music as well as for established acts,” she says.
“Our shows tend to sell-out quicker in Exeter. People seem to engage a lot more on social media with event shares and local media, in particular student-run magazines and websites, are always keen to cover the shows,” Barnes explains.
So it seems that Exeter has a lot going for it, apart of course, from that badly needed, affordable, mid-range venue that could still be a few years coming.