Ally Wolf: ‘No one chooses our industry for a normal life’
Ally Wolf first started working in events aged 18, when he was at university in Southampton.
A massive music fan, he formed the uni’s record label and booked live shows for local acts that the label signed to support releases.
When he graduated, he began running a small indie DJ club and bought a PA with his student grad loan, as well as building a stage, so he could book bands.
Those acts included the likes of The Maccabees, The Kooks and Maximo Park, before they had deals, but the bands stayed loyal to Wolf when he became a full-time promoter.
A move to London saw Wolf crash landing in Nambucca alongside Frank Turner, Beans on Toast and The Holloways, among others, with whom he formed lasting friendships, as he expanded his promoting skills.
Tours on barges to Oxford followed with an unsigned Mumford & Sons, Bastille and Kate Tempest, and many amazing times were had.
“Unfortunately, Nambucca burned down, and I took over a pub a mile down the road called The Old Queens Head, programming it and a few other venues for The Columbo Group until I caught the Bingo bug and took Rebel Bingo round Europe, America and the UK, selling thousands of tickets a night,” says Wolf.
“Whilst on the hunt for a magical new home for Rebel Bingo in London, I discovered the sleeping giant that was The Clapham Grand, which was, at the time, in a transitional stage of programming.
“So I moved myself and a new team in to revert it back to its original purpose – a grand palace of variety – but with a modern twist, and it also became the proud host of The Grand stage at Mighty Hoopla, the festival I founded and co-own with the teams from Sink The Pink, East Creative, Guilty Pleasures and Bugged Out.”
Wolf says his highlights from working at The Grand are simple. “Pre-Covid: getting the diary to the point where we have a constant weekly [schedule] of varied events, which cater for so many people to give them an incredible night out – from drag, to comedy, live music, bingo, cinema and clubbing.”
“We’ve created a blueprint for a business model when we reopen, of a hybrid between live and streamed”
Wolf continues, “We are like the Royal Albert Hall held together by gaffer tape, or the Barbican, for a tenner. It’s affordable, well-produced, pop-culturally referenced entertainment for people who want a great experience-led night out, but can’t afford the bigger venues, or want somewhere a bit more relaxed to let their hair down in.”
Post-Covid, Wolf and his staff have used their creativity to engineer a successful crowdfunding campaign that gave the venue’s supporters live-streamed shows, produced to a TV-standard, whilst also supporting other communities and organisations like Save Live Comedy and the Save Our Venues campaigns.
“We’ve created a blueprint for a business model when we reopen, of a hybrid between live and streamed,” he notes.
“In order to make the venue work, financially, we have to execute multiple events in the same day, which can be incredibly complex, organisation-wise. But with great forward planning and an excellent production team, we’ve been able to execute,” continues Wolf.
“There have been many occasions when we’ve looked at the auditorium before doors and wondered where the hell are we going to put all the flight cases and equipment, but as with life, we always find a way.”
One of the major challenges that Wolf is having to tackle during the enforced venue lockdown is the threat of The Clapham Grand’s permanent closure.
He explains, “Our landlord is still charging full rent during lockdown, and we currently haven’t been able to get a CBILS loan, so we were left in a position of having to crowdfund to cover our rent.”
That support, says Wolf, has secured the venue’s future until the end of August. “We are now applying for the various Arts Council grants that have [be]come available,” he adds.
“This isn’t normal, it’s just life. It’s thrown us a massive curveball and now we just need to work our way through it”
Wolf says the operation to reconfigure The Grand for the 28 July, Grand Aid Live – which featured long-time friends Frank Turner, Beans On Toast and Ciara Haidar – was a real test for venue staff.
“Turning a 1,250-capacity Victorian theatre into a 200-cap tabled space, with one-way systems, staggered arrival times and drinks service, was not easy, but we managed it. It all just requires greater planning and more cost, but it can be done.
“People understood the complexity of the situation and were just happy to work with us on making it happen.
“We had clear communication to our customers, artists and staff to talk them through the process in advance, and a great customer service attitude to facilitate any questions, etc, during the event.
“The product itself was still a great night out, which means we can invest in it moving forward. It didn’t feel like an experiment or an alien experience.”
With the threat hanging over The Grand ramping up the pressure during what is already an unprecedented period of stress, Wolf is remaining upbeat and shares some helpful thoughts for artists and industry colleagues around the world who also find themselves dealing with uncertainty.
“Just show positivity when coming back to see shows,” he says. “Work with venues on the rules and guidelines, be respectful of staff and, more than anything, have fun.
“Everyone is working overtime to get the industry back, and, most importantly, give customers what they have been missing, which is a great night out.”
He concludes, “This is not the ‘new normal.’ This isn’t normal, it’s just life. It’s thrown us a massive curveball and now we just need to work our way through it. No one chooses our industry for a normal life, let alone a new normal life!”
Clapham Grand holds UK-first socially distanced show
The Clapham Grand in London yesterday held the UK’s first socially distanced show in a music venue since the coronavirus lockdown in March.
The show is one of several being held as part of a series of ‘pilot’ (trial) performances in England, in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, ahead of the return of indoor shows on 1 August. The London Palladium, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-run theatre, held a similar pilot show with Beverley Knight last week.
Featuring Beans on Toast, Ciara Haidar and headliner Frank Turner, Grand Aid on 28 July saw the Clapham Grand operating at less than 20% of its 1,250-person capacity.
Ally Wolf, manager of the venue, stresses that the pilot was “a step in the right direction for the industry, but not without its challenges”, with the socially distanced show, as expected, making a loss for the venue. “It’s important to say that this pilot, though a successful and great show, is by no means representative of the wider live music venue industry,” he explains.
“We operated this evening on less than 20% capacity: from 1,250 to 200. This, paired with vastly increased operational costs to fit with Covid compliance, without a reduction in any of our fixed overheads, means that we are opening to a loss of revenue, which isn’t sustainable for the future.
“We operated this evening on less than 20% capacity … which isn’t sustainable for the future”
“We want to thank Frank Turner, Beans on Toast and Ciara Haidar for performing this evening, and all our staff for pulling tonight together to make something magical happen.”
He also shares the venue’s plans to make the most of its capacity while socially distancing is in place in the UK: “We have a unique opportunity – one that we realise isn’t available to the majority of other music venues – [in that] our layout and capacity potentially enables us to reformat our seating and events.
“We also need to increase our capacity via refurbishing the disused upper circle, which would increase seated capacity by 150 people. We also need to execute the plans we had drawn up for a roof garden to create the vital outside space the venue needs, but more than anything improve our accessibility for all our customers.
“This isn’t just about surviving our enforced Covid closure, or about reopening for one show, one week or even a month. This is about futureproofing one of the world oldest entertainment venues, to make sure in its 120th year the Clapham Grand is made secure for audiences to enjoy shows for centuries to come.”