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23 January 2019

From the city’s largest venues to some of the smallest, there seems to be an enthusiasm for what this new year will bring, both in terms of successful events and new talent emerging though its grassroots scene. Allan Glen reports

Betting on the success of a new act is, and arguably always will be, one of the riskiest decisions in the music business, yet some regional promoters wouldn’t have it any other way.

This process of taking artistes from one level to the next at the right time is also one of the main drivers of growth in Leeds, according to Colin Oliver, MD of Futuresound Group (FG), which includes Futuresound Events (FSE).

“We’ve seen a great few examples this year of promoting artistes from the really early stages of their career and working with them to develop strong audiences in our city,” he says.

These include Oliver and the FG team taking Freya Ridings from Oporto (cap. 110) to selling out Leeds University’s Stylus (1,000), and booking Idles for a support slot at FG’s own venue The Wardrobe (400), and then watching them play two Live at Leeds performances in 2017 and 2018, followed by a sell-out at Stylus.

The latter, adds Oliver, was “one of the shows of the year”.

“Working with artistes in this way is what we, as regional promoters, do best,” he says.

One of the company’s main events is the aforementioned Live At Leeds, which takes place at several venues across the city, including the O2 Academy (2,300), Belgrave Music Hall (300), The Brudenell Social Club (400/300), Headrow House (150), Holy Trinity Church (300), Leeds Beckett University Students’ Union (1,000/300), Nation of Shopkeepers (150), Stylus, The Key Club (300) and The Wardrobe.

Colin Oliver

Among the 200 acts performing in 2018 were The Vaccines, The  Horrors, Idles, Peace, Ash, British Sea Power, Nadine Shah, Pale Waves and Sam Fender.

With inner city event Slam Dunk also in its portfolio, FG remains fundamental to live music in the city.

Venues used for Slam Dunk in 2018 included First Direct Arena, which as of this month has a new capacity of 13,781, more of which later, Millennium Square (7,000), O2 Academy, Civic Hall Car Park (2,000), Pop World (200) and Leeds Beckett, while those performing included Jimmy Eat World, Good Charlotte, Taking Back Sunday, Lower Than Atlantis and Reel Big Fish.

The company also promotes across Leeds, with forthcoming shows featuring Frank Turner at First Direct Arena, with tickets from £32.50, Neneh Cherry at Stylus, While She Sleeps at O2 Academy, Craig Charles Funk and Soul Club at The Wardrobe, and Nilufa Yanya at The Brudenell.

“The market for live music is going from strength to strength,” says Oliver. “This year is going to mark a vintage year for the company, with the outdoor events market showing strength and resilience.

“Slam Dunk will move to a new site at Temple Newsam Park [30,000], while we are also collaborating with Leeds United FC to celebrate their centenary year with a homecoming show for the Kaiser Chiefs at Elland Road [25,000].”

Flexible options

As well as its overall increased capacity, First Direct Arena, operated by SMG Europe, hosts up to 60 concerts a year.

Following a recent refurbishment, it can now accommodate 4,321 on its standing floor, which, says general manager Jen Mitchell, is a “major development” for the arena.

“In addition, we have developed some new configurations utilising our very flexible retractable seating system,” she says. “This allows us to accommodate even more elaborate production elements such as b-stages, thrusts and in-the-round seating.

Nikki Miles

“We are lucky to have a wonderful, modern venue with outstanding acoustics, perfect sightlines and a great enclosed atmosphere, due to our super-theatre shape. But the feedback that we get most frequently from artistes and promoters alike is that we are extremely accommodating.

“From the first enquiries about date availability to production changes on the day of the show, our team will go above and beyond to make it work.”

Among acts playing the arena are the Eagles, promoted by Live Nation Entertainment (LNE), with tickets from £70, Jeff Lynne’s ELO (£50), Kylie Minogue (£50), Westlife (£45) Bring Me The Horizon (£32.50) – all LNE; Andrea Bocelli (£50, Kilimanjaro Live), Mark Knopfler (£45) and Barry Manilow (£19.75), both Kennedy Street Enterprises.

Others include Culture Club (The MJR Group), Cher (Marshall Arts), Mariah Carey (Cuffe & Taylor), Shawn Mendes, David Byrne (both AEG Presents), Mumford & Sons, Jess Glynne, Little Mix and George Ezra, all SJM Concerts.

According to Mitchell, the music scene across Leeds is thriving.

“The venues here all have their own unique selling points,” she says. “We have fantastic smaller venues such as The Brudenell Social Club, The Wardrobe and The Key Club. If we could improve anything I would like the businesses and inhabitants to speak-up more about how great this city is for live music, and that we have something to be proud of.”

Civic pride

This sense of  pride in the city seems to be a thread that runs through the local industry, with O2 Academy general manager Nikki Miles adding that the market is “exceptionally healthy”.

“Leeds is a major city with a fantastic pathway for artistes, with venues ranging from 100-capacity up to the First Direct Arena, Elland Road (37,780) stadium and Roundhay Park,” she says. “We sit nicely in-between, as the hub for up-and-coming acts and established artistes playing a more intimate show.”

Located on the former site of the Town and Country Club, the O2 Academy is a Grade ll listed building, hosting approximately 120 shows a year.

“Its interior and exterior are visually stunning,” adds Miles, who points out the venue has a short-hall draping system in place to cater for standing shows with capacities from 600 upwards.

Among acts playing the venue are Rudimental, Cypress Hill, Rita Ora, Blossoms, Death Cab For Cutie, AJ Tracey, Gerry Cinnamon, Suede (all SJM), Enter Shikari (DHP Live/AEG Presents).

Campus history

Heritage and musical legacy are important for both Leeds Beckett University and Leeds University’s Stylus. As George Clark, entertainments manager at Leeds Beckett points out, while his venue has undergone extensive refurbishment work this year, it’s been important not to remove what made audiences want to visit, the venue in the first place.

“Despite renovation work in some areas of the venue we have managed to keep the old charm on the main events hall,” says Clark. “I think people enjoy coming to us for the nostalgia of the old days, and many still refer to us as ‘Leeds Poly or The Met.

O2 Academy, interior

“Although we have now been Leeds Beckett since 2014 we are still very much the venue people came to all those years ago.”

“We do, however, also ensure we cater to the new crowds and keep the venue and tech set-up as up to date as we can.”

One personal highlight over the past few years for Clark is a performance from Interpol in 2015.

“It’s not very often a band of that size plays at a venue like ours, and it was just pure excitement to witness that,” he says. “Earlier this year we hosted one of my all-time favourites, Friendly Fires. It was great to be a part of their comeback gigs, with them having been away since 2012.”

Working predominantly alongside national and local promoters as opposed to booking artistes directly, the venue remains popular. Among acts playing Leeds Beckett are The House of Love, The The (both FSE), The Story So Far (Slam Dunk), The Coral, Maximo Park, Nao (all SJM), Newton Faulkner (SJM/Metropolis Music), Mudhoney (Eastside Events), Pete Murphy and Belly (DHP).

“Promoters tend to use the venue repeatedly due to the fact that we have hard-working and dedicated staff, who work tirelessly to ensure that every show we have runs seamlessly,” adds Clark. “The cost to hire the venue is extremely modest for the service we provide.

“Other bonuses include an easy ground-level direct load-in, in-house lighting and technical assistance, parking and power for two buses, two en-suite dressing rooms and the fact we are licensed for all-age shows.”

Meanwhile, over at Leeds University, recent refurbishments include the installation of a removable wall.

“This completely closes off the top level,” says head of commercial operations Stephen Keeble. “This enables us to offer Stylus as either a 700-capacity or 1,000-capacity venue, which has really helped us attract more shows to the space.

“Promoters can book acts and see how the show sells before committing to either short-form or full capacity. There’s also the option of upgrading to the Refectory [2,100] if a show sells really well.”

The Refectory, Leeds University

Among acts playing the venue are Tom Walker, The Sherlocks, Neneh Cherry (all FSE), Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, The Lemon Twigs (all Brudenell), Mabel, King No-one (both SJM), Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish (both Slam Dunk), Stefflon Don, Young Fathers, (both AEG Presents), Jax Jones and The Struts (both LNE).

Century status

At club level, in addition to the Futuresound Group’s venues, The Wardrobe and The Key Club, is The Brudenell, which has been in Leeds for more than 100 years, and is classed as a Social Enterprise.

“The Brudenell was originally set up as a social club, so that any profits were always reinvested back into the business,” says owner Nathan Clark. “As a Social Enterprise we can apply for funding but with that comes certain restrictions.”

Following the opening of a new £750,000 extension in September 2017, financed by the business, not through any external funds, the second room now has additional capacity of 100.

“Technically we are a charity because we reinvest all the profits back into the business, and we do this to benefit the live music community,” adds Clark. “However, the biggest difference for live music is that we are now able to offer a higher spec, as we have installed a hi-tech PA. The venue now ticks all the boxes in every way.”

Forthcoming shows include Altered Images, Toyah, Mekons, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, The Rutles and The Icicle Works, all promoted by JFK Promotions.

Among the other independent promoters putting on shows at The Brudenell is Jack Simpson, who runs Eiger (300) and the Hyde Park Book Club (150).

Also using The Brudenell, and relatively new to the market, is Hayley Scott of Tally Ho! Promotions, who put her first show on at the venue in September 2014.

“I wanted to see a band called The Spook School and I noticed they kept playing in other cities but not Leeds, so I put them on [at The Brudenell],” she says. “I didn’t expect to do any more, but I was quite surprised at the success of my first shot at promoting, so I started doing it very occasionally as a hobby, but then it took over my life a little bit, though in a good way.”

Other acts Scott has promoted include The Rebel, Virginia Wing, Mush and Cowtown, all at Hyde Park Book Club, while she is also putting together a line-up for Popfest, Tally Ho’s first festival event, due to take place at Wharf Chambers (180) in April.

For Jack Simpson, who promotes around 500 events across both his venues, with live music making up to a third of them, watching the scene grow in the past 20 years has been one of the highlights of promoting in the city.

“In the mid-2000s we ran a lot of shows [at Eiger], putting on bands like The Pigeon Detectives, Milburn, allowing that great Yorkshire scene of bands to mix with more established acts and find audiences,” he says. “Today, the cultural scene in Leeds is incredible. The live music scene has still to get back to its heights of about 10 years ago but it is coming.

“You can feel it in the city, lots of great young jazz groups such as Tight Lines, Ben Powling, Aleks Podraza and Wandering Monster. The more straight guitar stuff, too – for the first time in years, I can hear interesting indie.”

Jack Simpson

As for the future, Simpson says the city would benefit from more young promoters, and better links to national and international infrastructure.

The last word on Leeds goes to veteran promoter John Keenan and his JFK Promotions, who is as much a part of the city’s music scene as any band or venue, and the man who suggested the name for LIVE UK’s older sister publication Audience 19 years ago.

“The scene is quite vibrant at the moment, with lots of venues,” he says. “Ticket sales have been good this year. I do a few shows at The Brudenell, the best mid-range venue in Leeds.

“Recently I’ve had healthy numbers for The Boss & The Beeston Street Band, Endorphinmachine, Ian McNabb, Theatre of Hate, Geoff Tate’s Operation: Mindcrime, Miles Hunt, Chuck Prophet, The Smyths, Limehouse Lizzy and Laura Cox.”

Other JFK shows across the city include Jon Langford, Andy White and Dan Stuart in Northern Guitars. “It may only hold 60 people, but it’s in the centre of Leeds and has a great atmosphere,” he adds.

Following the end of his popular singer-songwriter nights at Korks Wine Bar (110) in Otley, Keenan is keen to continue the tradition in central Leeds.

“I’m still looking for a small, intimate venue to host them,” he says.

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