The global pandemic has hit many industries hard – and the entertainment industry harder than most.
Between lockdowns and tier restrictions many venues have barely been able to open for most of the past year.
We wanted to talk to the cultural entertainment leaders in York and hear from them how Covid-19 and the lockdown has affected their industry, and how they are adapting.
Our first interview is Chris Sherrington, owner of The Fulford Arms – the independent grassroots live music venue.
Chris, alongside Harkirit Boparai from The Crescent, is also the regional coordinator for North East England for The Music Venue Trust.
Chris has been involved in gigs and club nights for over 20 years. Here’s our conversation.
New plans for the Fulford Arms
How has the pandemic affected your venue?
We shut back on 12 March, and since then we’ve not actually reopened the doors. We normally host about 250 shows a year as a grassroots venue. So all those plans have been cancelled, and everything’s been pushed back and rescheduled. The pandemic has taken away all of our income but it has given us an opportunity to kind of focus on what’s important and make changes from there. We applied for Arts Council DCMS funding, from the Cultural Recovery Fund, and we were successful in that.
In what ways have you adapted?
We’re normally about a 150 cap venue and even under social distancing, we could only fit like 20, 25 people in. So we focused on looking at ways in which we can provide online aspects of what we do, like recording people’s shows. It was nice to be able to present things to an online audience but also it was a really good opportunity to get some local bands and capture what their performances were like at this point in time. That’s something that we’ve also been looking at at the moment is trying to capture people’s memories. That’s something that we want to continue to do, both throughout the pandemic and afterwards.
We did some socially distanced shows outside in the autumn with the National Centre for Early Music, the ‘Songs Under Skies’ programme that we did with The Crescent. We’re just looking at the moment of doing that again in the spring, and hopefully have a programme of shows that we can announce in April.
The other thing is to look at our income streams, because we have always historically relied on general things venues do: selling tickets and selling beer. I think people have missed venues, and also questioned as to how the venue survives. Why are we relying on selling alcohol? That seems like a really weird model to rely on. It should be that people are getting paid for performances through ticket sales rather than things like that.
What have been the most difficult and most uplifting experiences from the past 12 months?
I think the most difficult thing for me personally has been not seeing gigs. It’s the aspect of life that I really enjoy, going to see gigs and putting on shows, and the regular audiences that come down. That’s been the hardest thing, not having that. Because it is the reason why we do this.
I think as well seeing tours getting cancelled for artists that I care about, and seeing their careers have to take a hiatus, that’s been really difficult to see.
I think on the uplifting side of it it’s been good to see people miss us. Live music has always suffered from being seen as being a popular thing, but it’s also not seen as necessarily being very culturally important. Being recognised that that’s an important thing has been really good. Besides that, seeing the gigs that we’ve managed to put on and seeing people responding to the live performances again, that was really good to see, I really enjoyed that.
What have you learned from the pandemic? Will you do anything differently going forward?
I think personally, for me, not getting too lost in the day to day stuff. We always have plans for things that we want to do, and they always get put to one side, because you’ve got the next show. So I think, for me, the main thing from the pandemic has been to take a step back and look at what’s important. Making it not so much about where the next pound comes from, rather, looking at what’s important to the customers and the artists and to ourselves.
It’s been nice to kind of help empower some of our staff as well. It’s been really good to look at skill development, which is something that again, you don’t always get a massive amount of time to do, unfortunately.
What’s next for The Fulford Arms?
We’re currently looking to repurpose the upstairs of the venue, which was previously mainly residential, and putting in interview spaces and some more studio space. When people do come to gig, from an artist point of view, that we can really make use of that time. So they can look at recording the odd song, or they can do some interviews with local journalists, and make better use of those facilities.
Also looking at other projects that we can do with the local council around outdoor entertainment. Whilst it’s still having to be socially distanced, outdoor seems a bit safer than indoors at the moment.
We are about to release a merch line as well which is something that we’ve been meaning to do for years.
We are going to be looking at how we can reopen. But until we start getting back towards full capacity it’s going to be really difficult. The other challenge is how do we then work with that, do we look at ways in which you can have testing on the site, things like that.
How will York’s cultural scene have been changed by what’s happened?
I think there’s been a real sense of more cooperation between not just venues but across the entire cultural scene.
Short term, I imagine there’s going to be a bit less focus on tourism. With travel restrictions, I think there’ll be a bit more focus to local residents and meeting their needs. Which is something that I think is important for York, because whilst we are a very tourist based city I think we rely a bit too much on it.
My real concern is around things like the volunteers and the community aspect of things, because a lot of those spaces that people were hosting community events aren’t open or run by volunteers. Hopefully, we’ll see more venues able to cater to their local communities and encourage them.
What have been your cultural highlights in York?
I enjoy things that happen in spaces that they shouldn’t happen in or that you wouldn’t think they would happen in. So a couple years ago, my friend Joe Coates put on a show at the York Minster with Ben Leftwich which was really good. That was wonderful to see that space being used. The work that The Crescent have done in the past, they put on a show at the Merchant Adventurers’, for example, which was fairly recently. Even a few years ago, there was someone running a festival at the railway museum as well. Those kinds of events are really good.
Also York Cultural Awards, which was a few years ago, it was really nice to see the culture of the city being celebrated. As well, for me, seeing bands come through from the city such as The Howl and the Hum.
What do you think York’s cultural scene is missing – or what would you change?
My simple answer to that is another venue. I think that we really need a space, which can function as a good mid-range live music venue in the 400 to 500 cap. Also I think there’s a real need for a good nightclub in the city. The nightlife aspect of the city is slightly lacking in that point at the moment, I think since the closure of Tokyo.
It’s weird the knock on effect that has because talking to the universities, they’re really concerned at the moment around admissions, because of the fact that students, to them a nightlife in a city is as equally as important as the course itself. So I think having that would be a massive bonus. Hopefully, we’ll see that economy develop in the next few years. The council are very aware as well and they’re really pushing to try and sort out something so we’ll see what happens.
What are your hopes and fears for York’s cultural scene in the future?
The council have just announced the launch of their cultural strategy for the next five years, and I hope that a lot of the things that are being talked about in that will get implemented, and there will be new spaces. I really hope the council will continue to develop the cultural aspects of the city, and encourage creatives to work together.
My biggest fear is that creative talent will begin to get stagnant in the city as you won’t get new people coming through. It’s really difficult to foster that talent. People have to really want to put on gigs, they want to have to really be in bands. I do worry that if people stop coming to the city for whatever reasons, to come and do these things it’ll get a bit quiet.
Also people not surviving, from a business point of view, through this. If a business shuts in Leeds or Manchester, it doesn’t have as big an effect. Whereas in York, if one of the cinemas or theatres closes, they are one of only two or three in the city.
Anything you would like to add?
The council have been really good, it’s been really good to take part in things like the Cultural Leaders Group and things like that with York City Council, and trying to make real differences. Hopefully, there will be quite a lot of activity going on when we do get back to being reopen.