Backstage at The Fox & Firkin

The secrets to running a successful grassroots music venue - according to those who know

The band Workdo recently performed at the On the Rocks night at the pub. Pic: Tomm Morton (The Lightscaper)

“That’s the boss,” says Gez, nodding towards an enormous Frenchman at the bar. “As I came down, I said to him: ‘I’m being interviewed about grassroots music – do you want to say anything?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, just tell them it’s fucked.’”

Gez, 24, has just clocked off at The Fox & Firkin, where he works in the office upstairs booking the music programme. He sips his Firkin lager from the new in-house brewery; “It’s pretty good, isn’t it?!” He’s right.

The Fox & Firkin sits behind a smart blue painted exterior on Lewisham High Street. The main pub is more like a hall, with vintage chairs and stools scattered across the wooden floor, and a beaten bar along one side. The long room leads to a thick yellow curtain at the back covering a large stage scuffed by the thousands of bands that have tramped across it.

“People make some crazy sounds in here”. Gez is explaining how the grassroots music venue is run behind the scenes. He has been in his post only five months – securing the job after the boss gave him a one-off chance to host a successful event – but has hit the ground running. He has created and manages four regular nights by himself, and also books artists for the four or five other nights of music every week.

Left of the stage leads to a sprawling beer garden bustling with tents and tables and eclectic decoration. During summer the garden becomes a second event space, hosting mini festivals every weekend. And running along the back fence you’ll find the Firkin Express – a 1950s train carriage that now seats punters rather than travellers.

Talking about his experience of starting up new music nights, Gez says: “It’s tough. The first one is the easy one. I’ve got loads of friends in bands I could book, and everyone comes to your first event. Consistency is the hardest thing.”

Gez likes to book four bands for a rock night, and on a Saturday might even have five. He says that it’s easier than one might think to find enough acts: “There are so many young bands in London, who are desperate for some gigs.”

More difficult is sourcing the headliners: “It can be hard getting the bigger bands down to Lewisham, especially because this venue isn’t famous for rock’n’roll – and there are venues in Brixton like The Windmill. That’s probably the main challenge.”

Even though there is a ready supply of eager budding bands around London, there is still a lengthy process in finding them. Gez does some of this through Instagram, but says: “The easiest way of scouting for bands is to get down to the local venues. I can tell if the band has got a good live presence.” Apparently, the best spots for this in the area are The Amersham Arms, The Shacklewell Arms, Sebright Arms, Moth Club and Oslo.

A large tent turns the outdoor area into a mini-festival space during summer. Pic: Fox & Firkin

Another thing Gez has to consider is the cost of paying the bands. If the fee is too much, then the pub could lose money on the night: “A Friday or Saturday night of music might cost around £2,000. It’s cheaper for rock bands and younger bands don’t get paid that much. You might pay your headliner £1,000, and then the others £100 or £150.” Lots of venues across London won’t pay the support acts, but The Fox & Firkin strives to pay every single artist.

Gez leans back in his chair as he begins to talk about the industry more widely. “I think everyone knows that independent venues are really struggling at the moment.” He insists that the problem is not “getting people through the door”, but rather that “everyone’s costs are rocketing, and we don’t want to put that cost onto the customer”.

One of the best things about grassroots music, Gez says, is that it is “accessible”. “We’re in the borough of Lewisham – we want the local community to be able to come. If that means only charging five pounds for a ticket, that’s what we want to do.” Increasing costs for the venue, such as utilities, is making it harder to maintain that accessibility and is squeezing profit margins.

There is a long-running discussion within the grassroots music industry about how best to deal with the financial problems. Campaigners, spear-headed by the charity Music Venue Trust (MVT), lobbied for the government to extend the 75% business rate relief for music venues, which they did. There are now calls for VAT on ticket sales to be reduced from 20% to 10%. Mark Davyd, CEO of MVT, says the move would generate “£2.5million that could be retained in the sector […] and many millions more at the top end of the music industry”.

Gez echoes these calls, but says that “the thing that needs to change the most is the music industry. The big dogs of the music industry are year upon year recording their biggest profits – it’s not like there’s no money in music.”

He uses the example of grassroots football to illustrate the point: “The Premier League does so much for grassroots football in terms of investment – the trickle down is massive. That never translates in music. Even though last year was one of the best for arenas and stadiums, you just don’t see that trickle down to us.”

So, the top end of the music industry should take notes from the Premiere League. One option would be to introduce a levy on stadium and arena ticket sales. In December it was reported that Scotland was “seriously considering” a £1 levy on these tickets, but so far no legislation has materialised.

The Fox & Firkin is renowned for attracting a lively crowd. Pic: Fox & Firkin

Didier, the owner, does eventually come sit down to talk.

He sinks heavily (reluctantly?) into a wooden chair – apparently, he is not a fan of the media. “Pat was just saying how much he likes the beer,” Gez chirps. A bushy brow twitches in acknowledgement.

A self-described “music person”, Didier is something of a legend in the grassroots scene. He first developed a venue in Battersea called The Magic Garden from scratch, before taking on The Fox & Firkin almost 10 years ago.

He says that five or six years ago he realised it was “going to be difficult” to sustain the venue on ticket and bar sales alone, so he started “developing new aspects” of the business. This includes the new in-house brewery, which he hopes will soon be supplying other local pubs, and the introduction of food businesses in the back.

Despite his robust Frenchness, Didier talks more optimistically than most – particularly about The Fox & Firkin: “We’re not in a bad position compared to a lot of the venues out there. We’re in a better position because we have the potential to diversify.” Gez agrees: “We’re not we’re not going anywhere fast. That’s for sure.”

The Fox & Firkin is an encouraging example of grassroots music continuing to thrive despite the many pressures suffocating the scene. Its success can be seen in the bands making “crazy” and “experimental” sounds, and in the “Rastas headbanging to a 19-year-old rock band” on a Friday night. The key to it all? “You have to really love it.”

Click here to discover more on The ELL Music Trail

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