‘We need to radically change our conversation around the night-time economy in York’

7 Feb 2021 @ 2.37 pm
| Entertainment

What next for York’s arts and entertainment industry? In a series of interviews with the city’s cultural leaders we’re asking how they’re adapting to the ‘new normal’ – and their plans for the future.

Our next interviewee is Harkirit Boparai of The Crescent

The Crescent Community Venue recently celebrated its 5th anniversary in October 2020, though it was not the celebration they had planned.

In that five years, the team has transformed a former working men’s club into a unique community venue and performance space.

Harkirit Boparai is the Crescent’s manager. Together with Chris Sherrington from the Fulford Arms, he is the regional coordinator for North East England for The Music Venue Trust, and the co-founder of the York Music Venue Network.

Harkirit is also a promoter for Ouroboros and Jazz in York.

Kris Barras Band performing at The Crescent in October 2019. Photo: Simon Godley

How has the pandemic affected your venue?

Obviously the pandemic and live music aren’t the best of companions. Our industry is really built on putting a lot of strangers into a small space and getting them quite close to each other. Social distancing is not something that any of us were even contemplating as a thing.

So I think everyone was trying to feel their way around it in the first few weeks. There were a lot of discussions with agents about when should we move this gig to? Should we move it? And most of us were having to work throughout it all, and constantly juggling the same gigs around the calendar. There are gigs now that we’ve moved four times, for example.

It’s obviously massively affected our income. One thing that’s interesting about our industry is, it’s not really the actual music that’s makes money, it’s the sale of beer. How reliant we are on alcohol as our main kind of revenue actually brings up a lot of really interesting questions about is that the way we want our music industry to work.

We had our five year anniversary in October. I think it was the last six to nine months that we were thinking we’ve created something here that’s now on a trajectory to become a really successful project. We’re hitting our targets, we’re getting the kind of gigs that are drawing a lot of attention to what it was that we were doing, bands that maybe wouldn’t otherwise be playing York. So it really felt like we were just about to hit this kind of peak of our trajectory, and then it’s all been snatched away from us.

In what ways have you adapted?

One thing we’ve adapted to is writing funding applications. We were successful in getting cultural recovery funding that the DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) announced. We’ve just submitted another one for the period after this one, because obviously, it’s going on much longer than anyone anticipated.

Our sector is very used to not thinking that the funding was for us. And again, there are structural issues – I think the Arts Council is not the greatest organisation out there.

We’re starting to understand the hoops that you have to jump through, the terminology that they like to see, and the roundabout ways you have to write applications in order to justify what it is you’re doing. I would like to see a massive, massive reform of that system. I think that could be a really productive thing to come out of it.

Other ways we’ve adapted, like selling merch was something we weren’t doing before. We did a crowdfunder, which was amazing. Another aspect of what we’ve been doing is streamed gigs. That’s presented its own challenges as well, it’s a new area of operation for us.

In December we reopened again before we entered into this other lockdown. We did a series of socially distanced gigs with mostly local acts in December, and that was strange. I don’t like going and telling people that they can’t mix with their friends, or they can’t sing along or dance. I got into this business to throw parties, not tell people to behave themselves.

Wolf Solent performing at a socially distanced gig at The Crescent in December 2020. Photo: Simon Godley.

What have been the most difficult and most uplifting experiences from the past 12 months?

Those first few months were very difficult. A lot of people were really feeling that depression, like ‘What have I done with myself? I’ve tied up all my own personal money in something that, at the drop of a hat, now I’m liable for all of this, and I’ve got bills to pay.’ People got very, very distraught about it in our industry.

So when I started working for Music Venue Trust at the start of this pandemic, (I’m) ringing up venues asking them how they’re getting along, are they getting the grants, helping them with funding applications and so on – the most difficult part was hearing the fear in people’s voices, and the feeling that they’ve been let down by the government. 

The flip side to that, is that the most uplifting part was those conversations. There’s an unprecedented level of communication happening with each other now in our industry.

 In September, we did a series of outdoor shows, in partnership with The Fulford Arms. Also, with the National Centre for Early Music. It was really nice to have the opportunity to work together with them, they have this beautiful church and outdoor space. 

In York, we started a York Music Venue Network, about six months before the pandemic. That’s worked really well for us, making an advocacy with the council asking them to consider us as culturally important as the theatres and so on. And they’ve been listening to us. So we’ve been thinking much more about how do we replicate that regionally. How do we make it into a model that can happen in other cities as well, and use a bit of this downtime to build capacity and cooperation between venues?

One of the streamed concerts we did during November lockdown was at The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. It was a beautiful space to do it in, and what I’m trying to do is present these concerts in beautiful historic spaces in York. Had it not been for the pandemic, we almost certainly would have not had that conversation. You know they would be open every day, they would have visitors there – it wouldn’t have been feasible to film the thing in the first place. 

On the one hand I want to get back to throwing parties, and I still do genuinely fear about the state of our industry, and what it’s going to take for us to recover. On the other hand, a part of me is like we’ve been able to experiment in doing things in different ways. It’s certainly brought us together closer as a team as well.

What have you learned from the pandemic? Will you do anything differently going forward?

One thing that’s come up a lot is something that almost no one in our industry was doing, is keeping reserves. It’s really shown us the importance of keeping a rainy day fund. So that’s one thing that we’re going to try and build into our financial forecasting moving forward.

Fundamentally, I don’t want to do anything differently. I want to put 300 people getting drunk in a room dancing their nuts off to good music. I want to get back to that.

There’s things that we’ve certainly learnt around minimising our costs, budgeting, forecasting, about writing applications; obviously we want to do all that stuff going forward as well. But am I radically gonna want to do anything different? No, not really. We want to get back to putting on quality entertainment, fundamentally.

Harkirit Boparai. Photo: Simon Godley.

What’s next for The Crescent?

It’s very hard to say at this point. We’d like to get back to doing what we feel we do best, which is putting on live music and bringing a diverse range of artists to York.

Beyond that, we want to take a more central role in shaping culture in York as a whole. So it’s been really good to be more involved at a council level of helping shape the cultural strategy.

And really just want to try and make sure that live music and music in all its forms is really seen as a cultural asset to the city. When we talk about tourism or culture in York, we’re not just referring to the Minster or the Theatre Royal we’re talking about a culture for everyone, rather than just a select few.

In the immediate future, we’re going to carry on experimenting with some streams until we are allowed to get open again. We’ll probably do some more socially distanced gigs. Even though personally they’re quite bittersweet for me, it’s really important for the artists who have not been able to earn much money over this time, and for our freelance sound engineers, for all our freelance staff, and promoters, and so on.

It’s waiting to see when we can pull the trigger on those plans, and start to build up to a point again where we can have full capacity gigs back. In the meanwhile, we’ve been doing a lot of work trying to renovate the venue, on a shoestring, but it’s come a long way actually. So we’re pretty proud of that as well.

A lot of discussions that I have with agents or bands around gigs – they just feel so hypothetical. Though I’m a big believer that once we can get to a point where the majority of the population is vaccinated or safe through whatever means, people are gonna want to come out and party. So we’re working hard to make sure that when we’re able to, we’ve got a really incredible programme, not just of the rescheduled gigs but new up and coming music as well.

How will York’s cultural scene have been changed by what’s happened?

Either you’re a cultural or creative person who has been able to sustain themselves through the pandemic or you’ve had to pivot to doing something else to earn your income. That was always the case – that scale of where that boundary is has moved completely now. I wonder whether they’re going to be able to reenter that creative market in the same way, and I think it’s very hard to actually assess the scale of that loss. The loss is not the loss in the moment, but the loss of potential futures. Who were the bands who haven’t even been formed yet who won’t form because of the pandemic?

Beyond that, I think that when we look beyond people, and we look at spaces, that’s where it gets really concerning. We’ve seen developers buy out Fibbers, we’ve seen the same developers buy out Falcon Tap, Salvation is going to shut down – whether you consider it cultural or not, it serves a role within the night-time economy. So I think we’re gonna see a lot of changes because these places are getting snapped up by developers whilst the timing’s right. It’s hard to say what’s specifically because of the pandemic.

There is now an amazing level of cooperation and support coming from other cultural leaders in York whether it’s the Theatre Royal, whether it’s Accessible Arts Media, we’re having conversations with the Barbican that we never would have had beforehand. So that could lead to some really good stuff around working together to have a cultural recovery. So my fear is around those who are not attached, those who are freelancers, or spaces that are going to be even more a premium after the pandemic. That is a fear. 

Indie York have been really good in terms of disseminating information to businesses. Make it York do newsletters with ‘this is available, that’s available’ and so on. So I hope that people are engaging with these industry bodies, trade bodies, representative bodies more.

What have been your cultural highlights in York?

A highlight for me was the YO1 Festival. It happened three times, twice on the Knavesmire. It was a really close friend of mine who put that on, and I worked on the production team for him. I felt so proud of that because we were bringing in a really diverse line-up, like it wasn’t just you know, Westlife. We brought some real calibre, cutting edge artists to play on the Knavesmire, and I felt so proud of that because we were a small independent team from York. That’s what I want to see more of in York.

Personally, there’s been bands that have played at our venue that is just a bit mind-blowing, like, if 16 year old me could look at this now. Benjamin Zephaniah, he came and did a performance with this live band he put together and that was quite mind blowing, as I remember studying his poems in GCSE English, and just falling in love with him because it was so different. Putting on DJs, like Leftfield was a massive inspiration for me. Sometimes you just dare to dream and then it pays off.

I’d say another cultural highlight was the York Mediale Festival. We helped programme the music for the first one. We had an incredible show in the Theatre Royal, which was one of the first times we were in a different space that we were adapting.

It’s inspired me to think outside the box around spaces, how to use them and trying things in different spaces and so on. We’ve got gigs we’re doing now in the Citadel, which was the old Salvation Army place on Gillygate. So things like that, that make me think that so much more is possible.

Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band performing at The Crescent in September 2019. Photo: Simon Godley.

What do you think York’s cultural scene is missing – or what would you change?

It’s missing a venue in between the size of us and the Barbican. Nightclubs is another big issue. We’re losing Salvation, Kuda’s gone into administration.

It has a knock-on impact. If there’s nowhere to go out for the generic student in York, people will stop coming to York. We need to radically change our conversation around the night-time economy in York.

We need to have a really complicated conversation about what we want from the night-time sector in our city. I’m not denying that there is problems with stag parties and hen parties and so on. I think there are other ways of addressing that, rather than just having a blanket ban on new ventures.

A more prominent voice for the night-time economy is certainly needed in York. What I’m calling for is more engagement around what kind of vision do we want for the night-time economy in York, not just how do we deal with pissed people.

It’s about if you’re a student coming to York you’re like I want to come to York because there’s loads of cool gigs, and there’s a nightclub scene, a drum and bass scene and jungle scene, rather than I’m going to come to York because it’s 30 minutes away from Leeds on a train.

What we’re doing to this place, we’re sucking it dry. Not deliberately, but through neglect, through not caring, through thinking that the night-time economy is not an important thing.

What are your hopes and fears for York’s cultural scene in the future?

What am I scared of? Not recovering. What am I hopeful of? That cooperation and working together to enable us to flourish, and explore different ways of working together as a more cohesive cultural community in York. And I really do feel like that’s happening. It needs to happen for everyone, not just someone who’s managed to write an Arts Council application. It needs to filter down to be a recovery for everyone.

Anything you would like to add?

The #SaveOurVenues campaign that the Music Venue Trust has done has raised millions now, it is genuinely going to venues who really need the help who weren’t eligible for funding. I think in a lot of other businesses – like eight, nine months into the pandemic – would have thrown in the towel, but it speaks volumes to the commitment of these guys who are basically a bunch of punks. It’s been so inspiring the passion they have, it’s not even really been a consideration ‘Let’s give this up’. They have so much passion, and that has been inspiring.

And that’s the reason we’ve not seen the loss of more venues. It’s through the work of the Music Venue Trust, the #SaveOurVenues campaign, and the cultural recovery funding has certainly helped. But really it’s the passion of the people who are running these venues. None of us got into this to make money. We do it because of the love of what we do. That’s what’s been inspiring – having those conversations with other people who are really passionate about what they do, you know?

For more information about The Crescent Community Venue visit their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.