It may have been UK City of Culture status in 2017 that raised Hull’s international profile, but it’s local promoters who are taking the city’s music scene forward. With two new venues opening this year alone – and one of its longest-serving clubs hitting the headlines this month, this is a city on the up. Allan Glen reports
It’s not every small venue in the UK that can achieve near official “national heritage” status.
Then again, it’s not every venue in the UK that is located in a row of terraced houses.
Anyone looking for a positive spin on the all-too-often line spun about the death of grassroots venues need look no further than the city of Hull and The New Adelphi (cap. 200).
It’s that legacy factor that has this month helped it achieve Community Interest Company (CIC) status, allowing it to use its profits for social purposes.
With its newly installed patrons –including Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker and Paul Heaton from The Housemartins – and under the stewardship of owner and newly titled creative director Paul Jackson, the venue is now able to apply for grants from public bodies, such as the Arts Council.
“Having CIC status is our way of the taking the venue forward,” says Jackson, more of whom later.
At the top end of the live music sector, Hull City Council opened the Bonus Arena (3,500) earlier this year, with SMG Europe appointed as operator.
In its first six months, it hosted nearly 20 music events, with rock, pop and heritage acts the most popular genres.
“The live scene in Hull has always been vibrant and varied and continues to be so,” says Bonus Arena general manager Dan Harris. “With many venues of different sizes and capabilities there really is something for everyone and the addition of a large capacity arena offers further opportunities on a different scale.”
Among the acts playing the venue are Jack White, George Ezra, Richard Ashcroft, Catfish and the Bottlemen, James, Madness, Courteeners, Rick Astley (all promoted by SJM Concerts), Van Morrison (Kennedy Street Enterprises, KSE), Culture Club and Boy George (Wrecking Ball), Boyzone (Triple A), John Grant, Michael Ball (both Live Nation Entertainment, LNE), Sheridan Smith (Cuffe & Taylor) and The Vamps (AEG Presents).
“The venue is a dynamic, flexible space that can accommodate various room layouts from fully seated at 3,000, to the full capacity of standing and seated,” says Harris. “It can also accommodate smaller capacities based on reducing the size of the room.”
There are also many positive features from a technical perspective, adds Harris.
“These include ample secure parking, flat level load-in straight to stage or arena floor, modular stage, extensive backstage facilities, including artiste catering with installed cooking area, laundry, large dressing rooms, production office and promoter reps office.”
It is also a venue that has fully embraced digital marketing, utilising all social media platforms for engaging with ticket holders, promoters and artistes.
“Our website is equally important, full of information about upcoming shows and what to expect from the venue when visiting, while we also send weekly promotional emails to an established database.”
Also doing well is Hull City Hall, where artistes include Erasure, (Kilimanjaro Live), Gary Numan, Travis, The Waterboys, Gary Barlow (all SJM), Beth Hart (DHP Live), Jools Holland, UFO (both in-house), 10cc (KSE) and Fish (The Gig Cartel).
According to general manager Janice Wincott, the city is still reaping the benefit of its status as UK City of Culture 2017.
“Hull is well known nationally for having a vibrant music scene with various venues of different capacities,” she says. “UK City of Culture 2017 contributed to establishing Hull firmly on the map as a destination for diverse, high quality entertainment and we continue to present world-class programmes.
“The versatility of the venue lends itself readily to hosting a comprehensive programme of diverse events including some of the top international names in the live music scene, headline comedy events, trade shows, conferences, national touring productions, sporting events and more.”
There is, adds Wincott, much to recommend the venue to promoters.
“Coupled with a supporting infrastructure that includes a dedicated marketing team, box office and technical support with competitive rates of hire, this makes the venue an attractive,” she says. “And not forgetting, of course, the loyal and ever-growing enthusiastic audiences that make events here so special.”
While concerts do take place, the 3,750 capacity Hull Arena’s as its core activity is ice skating, so live music does tend to be sporadic, as leisure manager Carol Neylon explains.
“The last show we had was The Libertines in September 2017,” she says, adding the show was promoted by AEG Presents, with tickets at £30. “The major barrier to us is cost as we are not a purpose-built venue.
“Having the new venue [Bonus Arena] has attracted a good number of events to the city, far more than we could cater for at the Hull Arena, so I would say that the music scene in the city is improving.”
Further indications that grassroots scene is far from on its knees comes in January, when multi-venue operator VMS Live re-launches The Polar Bear (200) in the city centre.
Someone very much aware of Hull’s growing status as a music city is Steve Forster, MD of VMS Live, which owns The Welly (600/ 350) and The Polar Bear, and operates Asylum (1,000) at Hull University on behalf of Hull Students Guild.
The company also owns ticketing website Hull Box Office, and operates Inner City Live (3,000), which takes place at Zebedee’s Yard on various weekends throughout the summer. Launched in 2017 to coincide with the UK City of Culture status, Inner City Live has featured acts such as Primal Scream, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Flaming Lips, Public Service Broadcasting, Happy Mondays and The Wombats.
“The live scene in Hull is really something special,” says Forster. “What makes it so is, I think, the closeness of the whole performing community and the spirit of collaboration.
“Front and centre of this is the institution that is the Sesh. With its weekly Tuesday slot at The Polar Bear, and its annual 40,000-capacity, two-day festival Humber Street Sesh, it is a platform for all the artistes in the city.
“The spirit of comradeship and the platform to perform and to watch others, has given countless bands the confidence to play and grow their music.”
Described by its new management as “an intimate, ex-local boozer right at the centre of Hull’s local music scene”, The Polar Bear reopens after a major refurbishment and is expected to host around 120 shows a year.
Acts playing the venue include Tide Lines, Larkins, BLOXX, All Mod Cons, Polo, The Wood Burning Savages, Amber Arcades, We Are Not Devo (all VMS) and Allusinlove (Futuresound).
While VMS has been programming live music at The Welly for the past two years, it purchased the building earlier this year.
“The Welly is a quirky, playful venue with the emphasis on music … loud music,” says Forster. “The management team and their staff thoroughly enjoy their work, and they always go the extra mile to make sure that every artiste is treated with respect and is made to feel at home. It’s all about the show.”
Acts playing there include 808 State, Deaf Havana, The Pigeon Detectives, The Hubbards, We Are Scientists, Black Grape, Skindred (all VMS), Enter Shikari (DHP) and Peace (DHP/Crosstown Concerts).
Over at Asylum, shows can be hosted with capacities from 200-1,000, with shows featuring Sleaford Mods (Crosstown), Embrace, Courteeners, Miles Kane, White Lies (all SJM), Peter Hook and The Light, The Sherlocks, and Buckcherry & Hoobastank (all VMS).
“The venue is situated in a unique campus which encompasses all of the faculties and the university’s student accommodation,” says Forster. “This makes for an exciting, vibrant venue with a close connection to its students and the wider public.”
According to Forster, what is missing in the city is an official on-street poster system.
“Hull City Council has long had a zero tolerance policy towards on-street posters and other related activities – we have often been on the receiving end of its wrath for poster infractions – but if we could set-up a fair system for local venues, artists and promoters to better market their events, this would really give a massive boost to the whole cultural landscape in Hull,” he says.
Also attracting a wide range of local and touring acts is 300-capacity O’Rileys, where performers include South Cave, Lifesigns, Erin Bennet Band, La Guns (all self-promoted), Adam Bomb, The Smiths United, Stillmarillion, Sabra Cadabra, Exist Immortal (all in-house), Limehouse Lizzy and The Vibrators (both Wrecking Ball).
According to promoter Darren Bunting, putting on shows at this level can be difficult.
“Crowds are down across the board, from tributes to original acts to acoustic shows,” he says. “Hull has plenty of good acts, but getting people out of their armchairs and to gigs is becoming even more of a struggle.”
The venue, however, has much to offer acts and audiences, asserts Bunting.
“We have an excellent lighting rig and powerful PA,” he says. “Our hire fees are very reasonable so promoters and acts can put on shows that would maybe not happen at a more expensive venue.”
In agreement with the challenges facing local promoters is Gary Marks of Wrecking Ball Promotions, which launched two years ago, and now promotes around 20 shows a year.
“It’s never easy promoting in Hull, but the City of Culture status helped a lot,” says Marks, who works in partnership with Shane Rhodes of Wrecking Ball Press. “We generally work with national touring bands rather than local acts.“
The company also promoted the premiere of the Holy Holy show at Hull City Hall, while other current events include Saxon, Uriah Heep and Michael Schenker, also at the City Hall, Sweet and Bootleg Blondie at The Welly, The Rutles at Fruit (300) and Nick Lowe at Jubilee Church (600).
Returning to the New Adelphi, in its 34 years as a live music venue it has hosted shows by such as The Stone Roses, Radiohead and Green Day, while Pulp played the venue nine times, and The Housemartins signed their record deal live on-stage in the ‘80s.
Among the acts playing are This Is The Kit, Bo Ningen, A Hawk and A Hacksaw, Jesca Hoop, Jessica Moss, Curtis Eller’s American Circus, Hamell of Trial and Ruth Theodore (all in-house promotions).
“I tend not to deal with agencies, I try to just deal directly with the acts in a DIY way,” says Jackson. “People ring me from all around the world asking for a show, knowing they will be well treated here.
“Some of the acts I put on go on to have bigger agents, and then it becomes a bit more awkward, though most of the agencies I work with are fine.”
For Jackson, the strength of the venue is in its simplicity. When asked what makes acts want to play the venue, there are no tales of venue apps or digital marketing.
“Acts get what we can afford – which isn’t very much,” says Jackson. “It’s also a very old PA, but when you tell the bands which acts have played here through that speaker system, they’re quite happy to say, ‘Well, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us’.”