While there have been no stadium events in Leicester since Kasabian played Leicester City’s ground in 2016, promoters have been quietly working together to build a vibrant music scene and compete with its more dominant neighbours Birmingham and Nottingham. And they all speak of a hoist of new talent emerging. Allan Glen reports
With serious competition from major neighbouring cities such as Birmingham and Nottingham, promoters working in Leicester have found that working together is the best way to ensure a healthy market for live music.
“It’s always been tough here but it has a tight and collaborative community of venues, promoters and artistes that make it a really nice place to exist,” says John Helps of independent promoter The Robot Needs Home Collective.
“In the last couple of years there has been a really obvious crystallisation of the local DIY scene with a tonne of really interesting bands making their way out of the city under their own steam.”
Nowhere has this collaborative spirit been more evident – or successful – than Handmade Festival, now in its seventh year, and attracting headline acts such as Metronomy to the main room at O2 Academy Leicester (cap. 1,450, 450), and The Futureheads, who performed in O2 Academy 2 (500).
Other acts in the main room during the event this month include The Sherlocks, Black Honey, Pins, Saint Agnes, Whenyoung and Arcades, with Danny Goffey, C Duncan, The Snuts, Pixx and Magique playing O2 Academy 2.
What made Handmade special this year, says Helps, one of the promoters behind the event, is the range of venues taking part, which includes Dryden Street Social (400) – which hosted Jamie Lenman, Dream State, Decade and Can’t Swim – and The Shed (200, 80).
Acts playing the latter include Blood Youth, Puppy, Parting Gift, Superlove, Coast To Coast and We Give In.
The success of Handmade is clearly a source of pride for all those involved with the event.
“This year we moved to a one-day model spread over 10 venues throughout the city and it’s been really rewarding to bring all the independent venues under one banner,” says Helps. “We started as a city-wide festival in a few indie venues before moving to the O2 Academy, so we think this combines the best of both worlds.”
More of Helps, and others behind Handmade later, but in other major news, the recently completed refurbishment of De Montfort Hall (2,100) and its gardens, means the latter can now accommodate 6,000 people, with the venue’s Gigs in the Gardens due to take place during late August.
Among the acts performing are Kaiser Chiefs, The Vaccines, The Twang, Years & Years, Jax Jones and The Stick Men, Busted, Scouting For Girls, Bugzy Malone, Yxng Bane and Wretch 32.
The outdoor shows are seen as a highlight of Leicester City Council’s Summer in the City Programme.
“After considerable investment in infrastructure, we’re delighted to again share the bigger outdoor programme in the gardens with a wider musical audience,” says Hall’s general manager Antony Flint.
“It’s an exciting time to be bringing live music to Leicester, especially with the new outdoor programme which will complement the city’s already lively scene.”
The Hall itself hosts approximately 90 concerts every year.
“The feedback we get from bands playing De Montfort Hall is incredibly positive,” adds Flint. “The auditorium is a stunning place to perform and when it’s filled with people it’s second to none.
“We also look after our performers backstage, with refurbished dressing rooms and plenty of space to relax.”
Acts playing the venue include The Specials, Thunder, Anne Marie (all DHP Family), KT Tunstall, Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, Richard Ashcroft (SJM Concerts), 10cc (Kennedy Street Enterprises), Paul Carrack (3A Entertainment), The Vamps (AEG Presents) and UB40 (The MJR Group).
At the top end in the city is the King Power Stadium (32,312), home to Leicester City football club.
While the only shows to be held at the venue were two 27,000-capacity sell-outs with Kasabian in 2016, to celebrate the club’s Premier League title win, stadium management is considering hosting live music events as part of an expansion plan.
In the run up to the shows, Leicester City chief executive Susan Whelan said the first ever concert at the stadium “always had to be something special and there was only one band that would ever fit the bill”.
Over the past few years there has been other major investment in the city’s music infrastructure, with development work taking place at the O2 Academy and the re-opening of the Haymarket Theatre (1,000) as a multi-purpose venue in March 2018 following a £3.6m refurbishment programme.
At the O2 Academy, located on campus at the University of Leicester, this work has included significant investment in production.
“The Scholar  does not exist anymore due to redevelopment of the Percy Gee Building,” explains venues general manager Tom Turner. “This made way for a new venue development, where we completely transformed what was the old Scholar to make way for a new O2 Academy 2 Leicester, and a complete refit.
“We’ve invested significantly in production and undergone a major transformation and room re-orientation with stage relocation, two new bars and new backstage facilities. It’s now one of the best small gigs in the city, which we’re proud of.”
Centrally located and just 10 minutes from the city centre, the venues, which host approximately 120 shows per year, are easily accessible by all major transport links.
“The fact that we’re on a campus means we are fortunate to have a large student population on our doorstep, but we are not just a student venue,” says Turner. “Our gigs and events are for everyone.
“Being away from what is classed as the major city touring circuit – Birmingham and Nottingham – we get a lot of up-and-coming artistes, but also some high-profile ones, often playing their first shows ahead of going on major tours.”
Acts currently playing the main room include Gary Numan (SJM), The Struts (Live Nation Entertainment) and The Darkness (AEG), with New Hope Club (AEG), Steve Mason (The Cookie), Little Comets and Electric Six (Academy Events) performing in O2 Academy 2.
Home to five venues, ranging from the smallest 80-capacity mezzanine space, which hosts acoustic and jazz events, to the main-room at 1,000 capacity, the Haymarket Theatre has hosted 25 live music events since reopening.
“These have been across a number of genres, appealing to a range of audiences,” says artistic director Jed Spittle. “We see live music as becoming an increasingly important area for development in the future.”
As for the current state of the market, Spittle says there are several key areas that are helping to fuel growth.
“The music scene in Leicester is very exciting at the moment with a number of artistes such as Mahalia and Easy Life, and festivals such as Handmade, gaining increasingly higher profiles at national and international levels,” he says. “Their success has been built on a strong local base of promoters, venues and festival organisers working together. There is still much more potential, if it can become more co-ordinated and better communicated.”
He adds that the Haymarket has many features that appeal to touring acts, such as its technical specification.
“Visiting sound engineers all comment on the amazing sound quality at the venue and have noted that there is no need to bring your own rig,” he adds.
The venue boasts four DiGiCo mixing desks, a range of D&B speakers and in-house access to more than 200 moving lights.
“This combined with a flexible and responsive in-house tech team make us stand out as a venue that acts want to play. We have great backstage facilities, a really intimate 900-seater auditorium, and are right in the centre of an amazingly vibrant city, with on-site parking.”
Acts playing the venue include Show of Hands (Firebrand Music), Kat Rusby (Pure Records), Ólafur Arnalds (Robot), Navin Kundra (Hiten Ondhia Promotions), Serious Moonlights (Simon Gilory Promotions), Andy Abraham (Champions UK), Sam Bailey and Kerry Ellis (Paul Burton Promotions) and Uncle Frank (Funk Nation).
Another venue involved with Handmade and hosting shows across the board in Leicester is The Shed, run by promoter Elisabeth Carley-Leonard.
It hosts up to 260 live music shows a year, as well as putting on other events, including comedy nights.
“Live music is still the beating heart of the venue,” says Carley-Leonard, another who believes collaborative working is the way forward.
“The music scene in Leicester is so strong at the moment and all the venues are working together, giving a real community feel. We’re seeing more touring acts than ever come to the city, while local bands that are smashing it right now are We Give In, Jnctre, Easy Life, Spacetoast, Cabin Boy Jumped Ship and Earls.”
Being versatile helps with repeat business, she adds. “We can rearrange and rework the space to suit different genres and styles of events. We’re open six days a week from 3pm with something different on every night, which has allowed us to build up a group of regulars here who enjoy the space no matter what’s going on, which is really lovely.”
“Our staff are all event trained, and we have a 15ft LED screen that hangs behind the stage which bands can use for incredible visuals to add to their stage performances.”
Artistes performing in the venue include The Slow Readers Club, Fatherson, Press To Meco, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, Louise Distras, Electric Swing Circus and Conjurer (all in-house).
For John Helps, there is more of a general aesthetic to the shows put on by The Robot Needs Home Collective than a focus on any particular genre of music.
“We do about 12 shows a year, from 100-capacity clubs up to 900-cap theatre events,” he says, citing Grace Petrie, Kermes and Rich List, as emerging Leicester acts worth watching.
“We’re filling a niche for more unusual music in the city with modern classical being more of a focus now than it has been, while still serving up post-rock, experimental music and punk.”
These shows include Olafur Arnalds at Haymarket Theatre, And So I Watch You From Afar, TTNG and The Physics House Band at The Cookie (150), and 65Daysofstatic at Dryden Street Social Club (450).
Looking after the shows at the latter two venues is another of the city’s most active promoters, Nik Sharpe, who also organises Handmade, and promotes approximately 150 shows across the city annually under The Cookie banner.
“Leicester seems to have a real appetite for emerging bands,” he says. “We’re seeing a trend of strong ticket sales for really new bands. There is a big BBC Radio 6 Music following in the city and that’s certainly playing a large part in these early success stories.”
Shows promoted under The Cookie banner include Easy Life, Lucy Spraggan and Tom Grennan at O2 Academy, Mahalia at Dryden Street Social Club, and She Drew The Gun, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs; Snapped Ankles, Cabbage and The Murder Capital at The Cookie.
“We create a pathway for artistes from The Cookie and Dryden Street Social all the way up to the O2 Academy,” says Sharpe. “We’ve recently done this with Easy Life who have sold out all the venues in the past 12 months, which is an incredible achievement.
“We’ve held the diary at Dryden Street Social since 2017 and we’ve had some great shows there, including British Sea Power, Wire, The Temperance Movement, Easy Life, Mahalia and Senser.
“It’s provided a much needed larger independent space in the city,” Sharpe adds.