When the Covid-19 pandemic forced arts and entertainment venues to shut in the spring of 2020, many of them turned to music fans and artists for support.
The legendary 900-capacity Sheffield venue the Leadmill sought help from the Arctic Monkeys, who played many early shows there, including on the night before the 2006 release of their seminal debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The band’s frontman Alex Turner put one of his guitars – a Fender Stratocaster – up for auction, raising more than £120,000 for the Leadmill and other grassroots music venues. In September 2020 the venue reopened, hosting live entertainment for the first time in six months.
After surviving multiple lockdowns, the future of the Leadmill is once again uncertain. On Thursday 30 March the venue issued a statement on its website: “our landlord is trying to evict us, forcing us to close.” The venue, which opened in 1980 on the site of a former derelict warehouse, is the city’s longest-running music venue and is renowned for hosting early gigs by bands including Coldplay and the Kaiser Chiefs. A swathe of artists and music fans took to social media to share their despair at the news, tweeting with the hashtag #WeCantLoseLeadmill.
“This had better be an April fool’s joke,” said Jarvis Cocker upon hearing the news. His band Pulp played their first gig at the Leadmill in August 1980, and a plaque commemorating the occasion is attached to the venue’s exterior.
“Everybody knows about the Leadmill, it’s part of the furniture,” Kiaran Crook, the lead guitarist of the indie rock band the Sherlocks, told the New Statesman. He said that in 2016 his band, who are based nearby, were the first unsigned act to sell out the Leadmill since the Arctic Monkeys did so over a decade earlier. “Sheffield is a great music city, but it’s not rammed with music venues. You could count them on one hand. That’s why the Leadmill is so special.”
Rebecca Lucy Taylor, who was born in Rotherham and is now based in Sheffield, last performed at the Leadmill under her pop moniker Self Esteem in November 2021. She also highlighted the importance of local venues in nurturing new talent. “Art is made in the small venues, the midsize venues,” she said. “If you make art only for huge conglomerate-owned mass-market robot rooms, where do artists get to make their mistakes? Where do they get to experiment? Where do audiences get to have their ‘I was there’ moment?”
Since the Leadmill’s announcement, its landlord, the London-based Electric Group, has issued a statement saying that it will not be closing the venue. The group, which owns and operates the Electric Brixton in south London and SWX, a nightclub in Bristol, is currently refurbishing the former O2 Academy Newcastle, which it will reopen as NX in October 2022.
Electric Group’s CEO Dominic Madden tweeted: “for avoidance of doubt, we are music people, we spend our lives running independent music venues and the Leadmill will continue to operate as a special music venue. The management may change but the song stays the same.”
In a statement Electric Group clarified that the Leadmill’s tenancy runs until March 2023. Mike Weller, head of music at the group, said that a planned refurbishment “will make the room better equipped to accommodate the modern wants of live music and club nights, for audiences and performers”. When the New Statesman asked Madden whether the change of management will result in a change of venue name or staff, and why evicting the current leaseholder was the right move, he declined to comment.
A change of management at the Leadmill remains a concern for many, including Taylor. “To run it as a venue without the name, history or cultural relevance renders it yet another space that could be anywhere,” she said. “I fear if it stays as a venue it will have no sense of community or heritage and simply be a profit-focused venture – something that in my opinion is another enemy of good art.”
Crook also emphasised the importance of the venue’s history. “The Leadmill walls are full of so many memories,” he said.
Despite Electric Group’s insistence that the Leadmill will not close, the news has shaken many within the music industry. There were already huge concerns regarding the number of live entertainment venues in the UK before the pandemic, particularly over independent establishments. Between 2007 and 2015 London lost a third of its grassroots music venues. National figures are not known, but the list of music venues lost is long: the Arches in Glasgow, the Point and the Barfly in Cardiff, the Picture House in Edinburgh, Bierkeller in Bristol. Numerous others have come very close to closure.
Research carried out by the Music Venue Trust (MVT), a charity that represents more than 270 small and medium-sized venues in the UK, shows that 93 per cent of grassroots music venues are tenants, and the average operator has 18 months left on their tenancy. The charity argues that the issue of ownership underlies almost every other challenge that venues have faced during the past two decades (gentrification, noise complaints, under-investment and an inability to plan for the future).
The CEO of MVT, Mark Davyd, said that the Leadmill case proves that the issue of who owns the premises of venues is paramount to ensuring their security. “The answer is that not a single venue in the country, no matter how important, is safe until we own our own venues. Not even the Leadmill.”