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The New Bosses 2022: Clara Cullen, Music Venue Trust

Continuing a series of interviews with the 2022 New Bosses, IQ speaks to Clara Cullen, venue support manager at Music Venue Trust (UK)

By IQ on 19 Oct 2022

Clara Cullen, Music Venue Trust

Clara Cullen, Music Venue Trust

The 15th edition of IQ Magazine’s New Bosses was published in IQ 114 this month, revealing 20 of the most promising 30-and-unders in the international live music business.

To get to know this year’s cohort a little better, IQ conducted interviews with each one of 2022’s New Bosses, discovering their greatest inspirations and pinpointing the reasons for their success.

Catch up on the previous New Bosess 2022 interview with Benji Fritzenschaft from DreamHaus here. The series continues with Clara Cullen, venue support manager at Music Venue Trust (UK).

Clara Cullen is the venue support manager at Music Venue Trust (MVT). She joined MVT in 2017 as a part-time administrator and this year is marking five years working at the charity. Alongside her work at MVT, she has worked as an arts production assistant at Festival Republic, involved on festivals such as Latitude and Reading & Leeds; a promoter rep at the grassroots level; and various artist liaison roles within the live music industry. Since 2017, Cullen’s role at MVT has developed, and she now manages the organisation’s Emergency Response Service, as well as providing support on MVT’s policy and advocacy work.


The Emergency Response Service has proved invaluable over the past couple of years. What is your favourite success story from the ERS efforts?
Getting to help venue operators when they’re facing challenges that might close their venues down can be quite an intense experience, and you end up forming lasting relationships. One of the people that comes to mind is the wonderful Pauline Forster who owns and runs the iconic George Tavern in London. Over the years, Pauline has fought an immense battle to save the venue against threats of redevelopment. She was one of the first people I met when I joined Music Venue Trust and is a total legend in the grassroots scene. Being a small part in the story of the George Tavern and helping ensure the venue survives is something I am proud of. Pauline’s spirit encapsulates the creativity, chaos, and courage that can be found in venue operators up and down the country.

Your work at MVT has put you in the spotlight on TV and even lecturing students. How do you prepare for such daunting assignments?
I have always been impressed by people who have a deep understanding of their field but are able to present themselves in a way that feels natural and off-the-cuff. That is a style that I am striving for but I think will come with some more practice and experience. I am also a big believer in knowing the basic points you want to make and then allowing for spontaneity to see where the situation takes you.

In terms of prep, first I try to always say ‘yes’ to these types of challenges because whilst I do find interviews and larger presentations daunting, by placing myself into these situations, I’ve become more familiar with their setup and actually started to enjoy them. I also lean heavily on the team at Music Venue Trust who are absolute pros. I am very fortunate to be able to draw upon their expertise, experiences, and advice.

Finally, I always remember that first and foremost my job is to represent the views and needs of Grassroots Music Venues whether that be to the government, students, or the general public. I tend to have a general idea of the points I want to make, sense-check them by running them past the team who have years of experience in the sector, and then try to leave room to just enjoy the process.

“I think much of MVT’s success stems from the fact that the organisation has always been very proactive”

I believe you studied history and politics at university. Are there any lessons from your studies that have been useful in your career?
I spent time at university learning about movements such as the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and Poland’s Solidarity campaign, which were grassroots initiatives. Learning about those campaigns rooted me in an early understanding that if you wanted to make meaningful change doing so at a grassroots level could be genuinely impactful. As a lesson, it’s something I draw meaning from, and I like to think that Music Venue Trust’s unofficial motto of ‘The people who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of the people doing it’ is a bit of a tip of the hat to that type of spirit.

MVT’s success in the UK has been fantastic. What advice could you give to people in other countries when it comes to helping the grassroots venue sector?
I think much of MVT’s success stems from the fact that the organisation has always been very proactive and this comes from the leadership of MVT’s CEO and Founder Mark Davyd setting that direction.

Since the pandemic, we have had more and more conversations with people from different countries who are interested in setting up organisations similar to Music Venue Trust. As one of MVT’s first full-time members of staff, it’s been really rewarding to see the recognition of grassroots music venues growing in the UK and spreading around the world. Taking a look back over the last few years, the advice I would give to anyone wanting to help venues in a similar way to MVT is to have an authentic understanding of the venues you are representing, a clear view on the challenges they face, the ability to react decisively to changing events and then the statistical data to evidence the arguments you wish to make. If you have those things, you can make a big impact.

As for live music fans wanting to help, this is a very practical thing: go to one more gig a month at a grassroots venue than you are currently doing. Doing this would have a substantial impact on the economics of the sector and its longer-term resilience. It comes down to a ‘use it or lose it’ mindset, go to your local grassroots music venue and take a risk on a band or artist you don’t know because they may just end up being your next all-time favourite act.

“At the moment, things continue to feel very unsettled for the grassroots music venue sector”

As a new boss, what one thing would you change to make the live music industry a better place?
I think as an industry we have a duty of care to make sure that the artists, crews, and venue staff we all work with are supported when experiencing issues with addiction and poor mental health. The fallout from addiction and the immense pressure that people are put under in this industry is something I have seen impact friends.

I read Ian Winwood’s fantastic book Bodies: Life and Death in Music and it underlined how the live music industry can at once be incredibly seductive and toxic. It starts with the acceptance that our industry is one of the only industries where alcohol is often more readily available than food. It shouldn’t therefore come as a surprise that this near-constant access leads to high levels of dependency in our industry. Recognising this as a fact and taking a pragmatic approach to how to deal with this in a compassionate way would be a start.

I think it starts with accepting that people working in the industry should be allowed to do what they want, we’re adults, and at the same time recognising our industry isn’t a passive actor in all of this. I think if there was an industry-accepted standard for alcohol provision, particularly on riders and at award shows, more non-alcoholic options and a wider adoption of initiatives such as The Loop, then it would go a long way in moving the industry into a kinder, more empathetic, and supportive place. These things to me seem like reasonable, sensible, and achievable steps that would make the industry a better place.

“I don’t think Mark Davyd will have any issue with me openly saying I am coming for his job!”

What has been the biggest challenge for you and the MVT team now that venues doors are once again open, post-pandemic?
At the moment, things continue to feel very unsettled for the grassroots music venue sector, which is a challenge for MVT. The increasing costs of living, in particular energy prices, have already had a number of direct effects upon venues and a wider impact upon key suppliers, stakeholders, and audiences. I think any talk of recovery in the live music industry is premature. The next few years will be focused on stabilising the grassroots music venue sector.

In the longer-term, the biggest challenge that the sector faces comes down to the issue of ownership. 93% of grassroots music venues are owned by landlords. The desire of venue operators and that of landlords are often in opposition. In order to ensure that grassroots music venues are here for decades to come, Music Venue Trust wants to address the issue of ownership of grassroots music venues. The Own Our Venues campaign that we launched is an attempt to solve this issue and ensure that grassroots music venues are placed into cultural protection so that their long-term future is secure.

Where would you like to see yourself in five years’ time?
I don’t think Mark Davyd will have any issue with me openly saying I am coming for his job!

What has been the highlight of your career, so far?
Watching Music Venue Trust patron Frank Turner perform on 19 July 2021 at The Clapham Grand. It was Frank’s first full band show after the government had lifted the Covid-19 restrictions. I was there with the Music Venue Trust team, in the venue’s Royal Box, which was surreal, and it felt like the show we had all been working so hard to get back to after what had been a truly relentless period of crisis management. During that period, it wasn’t at all certain that shows like this would happen again. Frank has lyrics in his song The Next Storm that go “rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed” and when he sang it that night I burst into tears. It was the culmination of all the work MVT had been doing and so to get to a place where shows could happen again felt like a personal highlight.


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