How (not) to run a small venue

Recently, several Southampton poets, myself included, were asked to do a fundraising gig at a struggling small venue a couple of hours’ drive away. We said yes – good excuse for a road trip, meet some new people, perform to a new audience, and of course help out exactly the type of place that we spend our wordy lives in. We put together 20-minute sets, organised transport and off we went. We spent about three hours at the venue, until about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, after the start of the gig – by which time there was one audience member. One, a friend of a friend. So we had a natter, did a couple of poems so say thanks for coming, and went home.

Now, I know things happen, not every event is a success, and so on… but… it did highlight some of the more avoidable issues that affect some venues, including this one. I’ve kept it anonymous (hence no images) because it’s not about giving any individual or group a hard time, and some of these issues are more widespread than just one failed event – so please don’t ask where it was. It’s not about turning up and telling a bunch of people they’re getting it wrong, and I don’t pretend to know much about this venue, the people behind it, or why it got in financial difficulty in the first place, but that’s not important. It’s about sharing my thoughts (which you may of course not agree with, though the criticisms aim to be constructive, from the perspective of someone who works at another small venue) on what can be avoided in the wider small-venue scene, and focusing on the real difficulties like competition from chains, surviving increases in rent and rates, getting people away from Netflix, and so on… Anyhow, here goes:

  1. Signpost your venue. This one had no sign outside, and the door (which looked like the back of a shop) didn’t even have the name painted on it. There was a window grille but that had something else on it. We had the address and can map-read like bosses, but still had trouble finding it. If you’re down an alley, get a sign or an A-board pointing from the main street (you can chain it in place then bring it in at night). Make it easy for punters to find your place. There’s a reason why the sign is one of the first things businesses do.
  2. Advertise your events. Yes, you need a facebook event, but that isn’t enough and ‘likes’ do not equal punters. I looked for links to the event and found nothing. It needs to be shared everywhere all the time, not just on social media, but on local gig forums, in local gig magazines, event round-ups etc, and you need posters in windows – all the windows, and fliers in all the racks. Word of mouth among a small in-crowd won’t sustain your venue. So advertise. Promote. Shout about it. Loudly and often. It’s a lot of effort and can be a pain, but it’s part of the job.
  3. Do these things before you do the fun stuff like internal décor. Seriously.
  4. If your ‘supporters’ aren’t coming to a fundraiser that’s meant to help you stay afloat, why not? If they’re only interested in acts from your town, or seeing their mates perform, you need to expand your customer base considerably otherwise you’ll be empty and go bust when they get bored and move on. You also need enough customers with at least a bit of money to spend/donate. By all means, have entry-by-donation or pay-as-you-feel, but if they’re all skint, your venue will be too, and that helps no-one. Maybe have a suggested minimum donation, but be flexible for the unwaged/low-paid – there are ways to do this while remaining equitable and inclusive. However you approach it, you need to cover basic running costs even if you are pitching yourself to the DIY anarchist community. Oh, and by the way, if your supporters don’t come to an event designed to stop you going bust, then they aren’t supporters. Just saying.
  5. Get a drinks licence if humanly possible. If you really, really can’t or there’s a genuinely good reason not to, then at least make sure there’s a good range of non-alcoholic drinks. Make sure people know where to get drinks nearby – don’t assume they’ll already have what they want, even if the event is advertised as BYOB. Get a tea urn not a tiny household kettle. Get those big conference-centre push-top coffee flasks, not a teeny little cafetiere. Stock the bar with bottles – including mixers if people are bringing their own alcoholic drinks. Get a good range of snacks – not just a couple of packets of biscuits and a bowl of tortilla chips. Your venue needs to be somewhere people want to spend their time and enjoy themselves, following on from which…
  6. Make it comfy – seating, heating, non-hideous toilets. If you have a rodent infestation, get it dealt with. If your space is damp, sort it out. Just because a venue is not-for-profit, DIY, community-driven or whatever, does not mean it has to be cold, uncomfortable or unhygeinic. If the building’s a wreck, your location is awful and/or the tenancy agreement prevents you doing what’s needed, think about moving.
  7. Again, do these things before you do the fun stuff like internal décor.
  8. Act like professionals and respect your own project, otherwise no-one else will. When we got to the anonymous venue, the guy who let us in didn’t know who we were, or what the event was. He didn’t know who was performing or even that it was a poetry gig. He also didn’t know how to work the sound-desk. The second guy did know how to work the desk (eventually) but was stoned and then didn’t stay. I’ll repeat this – the people running the venue didn’t stay for their own fundraiser. Most, including the person booking it who presumably did know what the event was, didn’t even turn up. This was a masterclass in how not to do it, and could be a depressing comedy sketch. If you do it like this, you will fail, and no-one will feel sorry for you.
  9. Too skint to run a successful fundraiser? It’s a horrible Catch-22 situation but you have to get creative and put the time in – crowdfunding’s obviously an option (but is it the right one; what will you offer in return?), but you could go busking, auction donated things, do something sponsored, there are so many ways and a little cash can go a long way if you’re looking at being part of the DIY scene.
  10. All of this takes effort, and some of it isn’t fun. If you run a venue, you spend a lot of time advertising, doing admin, sitting in the office, instead of the fun stuff like being at gigs and painting peculiar murals. And yes, you might have to go to events when there’s somewhere else you ought to be. However, this is what you have to do, no excuses, but if you do it well you just might have a lovely thriving venue full of splendid events, so it is worth it.
  11. Because a good venue goes up to 11. Points 1-10 are just the basics – the absolute minimum – there’s more long-term, so get those big-boy/girl/other/non-binary pants on, you’re going to be busy…