Ben Lovett: Live biz ‘will come back stronger’
Ben Lovett says more than 250 shows are booked for each of his London venues in 2022 as the live business gears up to roar back from the Covid-19 crisis.
The Mumford & Sons musician has opened three grassroots sites in the UK – Omeara (320-cap), Lafayette (600-cap) and The Social (250-cap) – under his Venue Group umbrella since 2016.
And in the second and final part of his interview with IQ (see part one here), Lovett, who is about to make his first move into the US market with the opening of two new venues in Huntsville, Alabama, says the signs indicate the industry is “coming back strong” from the travails of the past two years.
“Our venues in London are already pretty much booked up for next year and that’s a great sign,” he says. “In terms of what other people are doing, I’m actually hearing stories about more venues being planned and opened than I’ve heard about in the last 10 years, so I do think there’s a general swing of the pendulum back to investing into the infrastructure of this industry again, rather than five years ago when every story was about another venue closing down.
“Equally, I’ve read stories about a new Cardiff arena coming; a new Manchester arena coming; Koko’s back with a crazy budget attached to it… So, on balance, you have to believe we’re building more venues than we’re losing, which is a great result.”
Lovett’s Lafayette project, which is set within the new Good Ways development in King’s Cross, opened with a special show by Dave in March 2020, only to be forced to close just 10 days after opening due to the pandemic.
We’re not going to hit a point with this pandemic where a light switch suddenly turns back on and everything’s fine again
“I wouldn’t have changed that Dave show for anything, because it was just amazing to be able to watch him perform in there the day after the BRITs,” reflects Lovett. “But I think for the team, it’s been a little bit strange, because we haven’t had that grand opening moment again. It’s been like a reopening, which isn’t quite the same.
“The general campus of King’s Cross is taking a minute to come back online – there are a lot of big companies there that haven’t had people come back to work fully yet, I think offices are 25 to 50% full, so it’s creeping back.”
The Communion co-founder continues: “I’m now of the mindset that we’re not going to hit a point with this pandemic where a light switch suddenly turns back on and everything’s fine again. It’s just going to muddle its way back to that point, which I think will reflect in the spaces that people are occupying as well.
“It’s not like, suddenly, everyone wakes up one day and says, ‘Right, I’m going to a gig again.’ I’ve been to some great gigs in the last couple of months, but I know other people who are like, ‘I’m just not quite there yet, mentally, I spent so many months being afraid to touch a door handle, that the idea of standing in a sweaty box with a bunch of strangers is a big call.’ They’re like, ‘I know I’ll get there,’ but it’s a little bit of a gradual re-entry.”
Omeara celebrated its fifth birthday last week with a night headlined by Gang of Youths. Lovett’s first venue, it has staged intimate gigs by artists including Kylie Minogue, Skepta, Beck and Biffy Clyro, along with a three-night stand by Sam Fender in November 2018.
“It obviously holds a very special place in my heart,” says Lovett. “Without that venue and the positive reaction towards it, and the conversations I’ve had with artists in the dressing room over the years – with Beck and Maggie Rogers, and certain artists I have vivid memories of talking to after their shows – I don’t think I would have been inspired to do the rest of it. It’s really that first child syndrome, and five years is both young and old.
“I really want to figure out how Omeara becomes a place like the Cavern or 100 Club, that people talk about decades later as being the place where such and such a band launched. We got Sam Fender’s first show in London. I think he’ll be around for a long time as an artist and it’d be pretty cool if, in 30 years’ time, Omeara is still standing and people are going into that room saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that Sam Fender once played here. Look how small it is, and now he’s doing stadiums.’
“Five years is an important mark on our way there, but there’s a lot more work to be done. I want us to continue to establish [Omeara] as a cornerstone of grassroots culture in London.”
This is a service industry to support people’s dreams and there’s something very beautiful about it
Lovett, whose London Venue Group received a £2.35m grant via the UK government’s Culture Recovery Fund to maintain the buildings during their Covid-imposed closure and explore streaming options in the future, was full of praise for the resilience displayed by the domestic venue sector.
“There’s a lot of creative adaptability in the DNA of the people that choose to get into this industry,” he says. “It’s a tough, resilient bunch that come up with ways in which they can make ends meet, even if it’s to tie over for as long a period as it’s been. But it’s always a little bit cyclical, we’re used to it, there are seasons of ebbs and flows.
“There was a fair amount of support given at the right times. Not comprehensive, but it definitely helped. I wouldn’t say that we’re fully back in terms of all the people that were there before, being there now, but the music industry in the UK is functional and it will build back stronger.
“In and amongst the pressure of it all, there’s been important conversations and collaboration; people opening up and breaking down some of those barriers that build up sometimes between theoretical competitors, and more of a sense of togetherness. And that’s more like the kind of culture and the personality of the whole industry in my mind. This is not like the stockmarket, this is a service industry to support people’s dreams and there’s something very beautiful about it. I think sometimes it just takes something shocking happening to remind people of that.”
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Ben Lovett talks Venue Group’s US ambitions
Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett has told IQ about his first move into the US market with the opening of two new venues in Huntsville, Alabama.
Lovett is CEO of Venue Group, which operates London’s Omeara (320-cap), Lafayette (600-cap) and The Social (250-cap). Last year, he announced plans to expand his independent empire with the 8,000-cap Orion Amphitheater in Huntsville, Alabama, scheduled to open in May 2022.
“It probably seems quite an exotic shift from London at first glance, but there was a whole sequence of events that led me to Huntsville,” explains Lovett. “It actually started with the London mayor’s office, funnily enough, and Shain Shapiro from [music market development consultancy] Sound Diplomacy, who did the whole audit about the night-time economy and why we need to keep culture in the centre of our cities, so they don’t end up becoming just a big bunch of flats and offices.
“We met at the launch of Omeara five years ago, then [Shapiro] did a similar study for the city of Huntsville, which is now the biggest city in Alabama. They have lots of great jobs and lots of people live there, but there’s nothing to do, and the conclusion was that they wanted to build a big outdoor amphitheatre.
“They put a request for people to come in to present their vision – it was like an episode of X Factor. And we were like, ‘If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to build something remarkable.’ And they liked the sound of that, so they gave us the contracts and we’ve spent the last three years designing this thing.”
Details of its 13-15 May opening weekend celebration, The First Waltz, were confirmed earlier this week. Acts will include Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Emmylou Harris, John Paul White, St Paul and the Broken Bones, and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes.
The idea is to build one of the best new venues in the world
The scheme is being managed by Huntsville Venue Group, a partnership between Lovett and industry veterans Ryan Murphy, Mike Luba, Don Sullivan, Jeff Kicklighter and Al Santos.
“The idea is to build one of the best new venues in the world,” declares Lovett, who reveals plans are afoot to complement the project with another ‘Omeara-sized’ venue in the city.
“One of the things that we learned was that you need to build a whole ecosystem,” he says. “There’s no point having just one big venue so bands from out of town come and play a handful of times, you’ve got to nurture local grassroots talent.”
The New York-based Brit suggests there is still much more to come on that front.
“We are going to try and figure out another venue in London before too long, and we’re having some interesting conversations with other cities in America,” he adds. “I’ve spent so much of my adult life touring America and I’m such a big fan of this country; I want to try and see where else we can build great venues here.”
Venue Group has offices in London, New York, Huntsville, Alabama and Austin. And the 35-year-old musician and Communion co-founder, who invested in D2F startup Planet over the summer, suggests the fallout from the cessation of touring during the pandemic has only strengthened his resolve.
“That hasn’t slowed us down,” he insists. “If anything, it’s actually made us more bullish – the reason being that we saw every man and his dog try and figure out a way to bring shows into people’s living rooms, and it just didn’t work. So if 18 months can’t break down the bond of the live music experience between fans and artists, then you better believe I’m going to go all in on this thing.”
Check out iq-mag.net next week for part two of our interview with Lovett.
London’s The Social joins Ben Lovett’s Venue Group
London venue The Social will reopen in 2021 after partnering with Venue Group, the Ben Lovett-led operator of Omeara and Lafayette.
The two-storey, 250-capacity venue, located on Little Portland Street in London’s West End, will operate under the Venue Group umbrella as part of a partnership that provides The Social with “stability and security” and assurance for its customers, according to the company.
The Social opened in 1999 and has hosted acts including the Chemical Brothers, Four Tet, Michael Kiwanuka, Florence and the Machine, Adele, Beck and Aphex Twin. It raised more than £145,000 in a crowdfunding campaign last year to stop its enforced sale.
“Ever since The Social announced that it was at risk of closure in 2019, I have been actively engaged in trying to figure out a way to prevent that from happening. We have been working together on a solution that retains the entire independence and ownership for the founders while teaming up together to ensure the long-term viability of the venue,” says Venue Group CEO and Mumford & Sons member Lovett, who spoke about his passion for grassroots venues at ILMC’s Futures Forum eearlier this year.
“Alongside Omeara and Lafayette, I hope that we are developing a path for artists of all shapes and sizes to develop and grow with their fans”
“I believe that The Social is one of the most important destinations in London, especially as a music venue, and alongside Omeara and Lafayette I hope that we are developing a path for artists of all shapes and sizes to develop and grow with their fans in one of the world’s most significant music cities.”
Robin Turner of The Social adds: “After the 2019 Crowdfunder, we knew we were realistically only halfway towards saving The Social. Though we were able to stay open for our 20th anniversary, we’d lost our long-time operating partners and needed to find new ones to help us move forward.
“When we met Ben, Greg [Lovett] and the Venue Group, we immediately knew they were kindred spirits: people who recognised the transformative power of a good night out, and were dedicated to offering audiences and bands the best gig experience possible.
“We’re extremely excited about The Social taking its next steps forward with them. Here’s to the next 20 years.”