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Unsung Hero: Clara Cullen, Music Venue Trust

IQ's latest unsung hero is Clara Cullen, a venue support manager for MVT which is working tirelessly to help grassroots venues survive the pandemic

By IQ on 15 Oct 2020

Clara Cullen, venue support manager for MVT

Clara Cullen, venue support manager for MVT


Raised in an environment where classical music was predominant, Cullen says her introduction to working in music came via Banquet Records in Kingston upon Thames.

“It became my haven and gateway into contemporary music, DIY ethics and independent culture. Through Banquet I discovered their live in-store gigs and records. I remember being genuinely blown away that acts like Bombay Bicycle Club, Ed Sheeran or You Me At Six would come and play.”

She started a music blog and made a deal with her parents: “As long as I kept my school grades up, they were happy for me to go to the in-store gigs at Banquet after school and interview the bands. From that point on I was obsessed, going to stores and spending hours in the record shop.”

Her interests grew, and persistence saw her land internships at Rock Sound and NME. “I remember sending the NME team an email every two weeks until they eventually relented and said I could come in for a two-week internship and I got to be at NME when the amazing Eve Barlow and Laura Snapes were journalists there.”

“Through this, I began to meet people in the music industry; continued going to gigs at grassroots music venues; and getting advice about different roles within the industry. This helped me realise how varied the roles in the music industry actually are. It makes me happy that ten years on there are still people in the industry that I met then who continue to act as mentors to me today.”

“As a music charity that does a lot of government-facing work, MVT really managed to coalesce all my interests into one”

Converting her interest into a paid career was challenging, she admits. “Despite living near London, where most of the music industry opportunities are, and having a supportive, if somewhat bemused, family, I was applying for paid internships with very little success.

“With no longer-term prospects, I decided to put a career in music on pause and go to university. Far from being a step back, this actually turned out to be the best thing for me as I discovered a love for politics and policy, which are topics I have been able to build on at MVT.”

A self-confessed “academic nerd,” Cullen’s main interests are politics and current affairs, hence her decision to study history and politics at Exeter University, before embarking on a masters in international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE).

“Once my course ended, I was at a crossroads between going down a more traditional career path into a job in politics, or following my gut and trying to break into the live music industry. It was at this point I was introduced to MVT. As a music charity that does a lot of government-facing work, it really managed to coalesce all my interests into one.”

Cullen states that one of her biggest champions has been the musician Frank Turner, who she first met as a teenager through an interview at Banquet Records. “Frank has very strong DIY ethics — you can find his email on his website, which he replies to directly. When I was leaving the LSE, I emailed him about not really knowing whether to keep trying to pursue a job in music or go down a more traditional career path.

“It makes me really happy knowing we have helped create a network of maverick and innovative people working in venues”

“Without prompting, Frank introduced me to the Music Venue Trust team. Given my interest in music and policy, he suggested I connect with them and help out at their Venues Day 2017 event. I did this and a few weeks later, a paid role came up as an administrator at MVT, which I applied for. In November 2017, after years of trying, I could finally turn around to 16-year-old me and say I had a job in the music industry.”

Justifiably proud of the work MVT does, Cullen says, “It makes me feel really happy knowing that we have helped create a network of maverick and innovative people working in venues. This is even more apparent during the Covid-19 crisis, with venues working together to share knowledge, best practices and support. In many ways, the crisis has acted to solidify the work MVT has been doing, and shows why having a representative body who can communicate with the government is so vital.

“In a time of crisis, our team has actually expanded, and this has allowed MVT to really rise to meet the challenge of Covid-19. For example, MTV’s Save Our Venues campaign started off as a small idea in one of our team meetings and has now helped to galvanise live music fans to rally around their local venues raising over £1 million in donations.

“Likewise, MVT’s lobbying of the government has, in my opinion, been the most effective of any organisation in the music industry. Getting the opportunity to work with the government, devolved administrations, and the London mayor’s team to ensure that support reaches grassroots music venues, and seeing tangible results in the creation of different emergency funding for grassroots music venues, feels both like a personal win for myself and also for the organisation. I think it shows that the boundaries of what people perceive to be ‘possible’ are never static and can move if you’re relentless in pushing them.”

In her role as venue support manager, Cullen runs MTV’s Crisis Service, which gives practical assistance and crisis funding to venues facing immediate threats of closure. “There have been cases I have dealt with this year where a venue operator also lives in their venue. The biggest challenge is to prevent the closure of the venue as it would also mean the loss of someones home. For many this isn’t just about where they work and what they do, it runs to the very fabric of their life.”

“Seeing tangible results in the creation of emergency funding for grassroots music venues feels like a personal win”

At the beginning of the Covid crisis, MVT predicted that up to 94% of all grassroots music venues in the UK were facing permanent closure within six months. As a result, it launched the Save Our Venues campaign and created a central MVT crisis fund, to which the public can donate. In London alone that fund has amassed £759,000 (€829,800) in direct donations.

“We also have the Passport Back to Our Roots events taking place,” she continues. “The concept is that big acts return to grassroots music venues where they first played when coming up in the industry. The public can enter a prize draw to win a spot at these gigs and they will take place sometime in the future when non-socially distanced gigs are allowed, with a portion of the money raised donated to MVT’s Crisis Service.

“We’re also working on plans to try and revitalise the live industry to get shows up and running again in the grassroots music venue sector. This will require funding support and buy-in from promoters, agents and artists. We hope to have more news on this soon.”

Citing some of the bigger lessons she has learned, so far, through the pandemic experience, Cullen says, “The key takeaway for me has been the need for direct lines of communication with local councils, regional administrations and central government, alongside a strong social media campaign.

“You need things to work in tandem if you want to influence policy at a local, regional and national level: direct conversations with policymakers, backed by indisputable economic analysis, a menu of practical options for them to consider, and a strong public narrative that can push your case, is the winning combination.”

Outside the everyday grind of trying to protect the grassroots sector of the business, Cullen has a passion for old-school film photography. “You can only take 36 shots per roll of 32mm film, so without being able to see the shots before they are developed makes every shot count. I find that this helps me to slow down and re-evaluate everyday scenarios. I am also very big into my Eastern European history and am currently reading Anne Applebaum’s brilliant Twilight of Democracy.”

Ever on point, Cullen concludes that more support is needed for MVT’s Save Our Venues initiative. “Whilst there is a lot of uncertainty, what we do know for certain is that live music fans have been incredible in their support of venues and have helped prevent the complete collapse of the grassroots circuit. We also need the larger parts of the live music industry to continue to work collaboratively with the grassroots sector to help get shows up and running. If we can do all of those things, then I believe our venues will be able to make it through this.”

 


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