'No mean feat': How Leeds grassroots venue The Wardrobe defied the odds to celebrate 25 years
Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign supports and champions grassroots music venues across the UK. This week we find out how the Wardrobe got creative to keep bringing 'good times' to the people of Leeds, in the face of very difficult times for grassroots music.
For almost a quarter of a century, The Wardrobe has been bringing live music and comedy to the heart of Leeds’ cultural quarter. Starting as a jazz venue back in 1999, it is now one of the city’s most culturally diverse spaces. Its 450-capacity room has played host to Amy Winehouse, Lewis Capaldi, Arlo Parks, Idles, Sara Pascoe, Tony Allen and thousands more.
In February, they will kick off a year of 25th birthday celebrations with a visit from indie heroes The Libertines. They promise many more parties and surprises to come. But before they start raising a glass to that incredible living legacy, venue director Andy Smith joined Venue Watch to tell us how – in the face of increasingly difficult times for grassroots music – they’ve kept an independent venue going.
“It is no mean feat these days!” Smith acknowledges. “We’ve just had to adapt and be creative. We’ve tried to do different things and fortunately, they’ve all sort of worked. There’s not just the live music and the club nights. We do a lot of comedy. A lot of Seed Talks. The guys do a lot of workshops and markets. We even have still life drawing.
“We have a really good creative team. So I’d put it down to the staff more than anything.”
The Wardrobe’s celebrations come in a precarious time for grassroots live music. Just this week, the Music Venue Trust’s annual report revealed that at least two venues are closing in the UK every week. In 2023, 38% of venues reported running at a loss. Increased costs play a huge role – energy bills have mushroomed, and their rents have gone up by 37.5% on average.
Of course, that same cost of living crisis is also hitting potential gig-goers. “I’d say the biggest challenge post-pandemic is how quiet the city centre is,” Smith says. “I don’t think that people tend to go into town as much as they used to. People will stay local, stay at home.”
Even on New Year’s Eve – the biggest party night of the year – Smith found Leeds quiet. At the Wardrobe, they had to innovate to give their punters a reason to come out. “Actually, we were really busy, which was great. But again, we’ve been creative with it. So we had comedy, a three-course meal, a brass band. And that means that lots of different people come to The Wardrobe. It was a nice mix, if you don’t want to be crammed in the corner of a nightclub.”
The Wardrobe has found a host of positive ways to bring people into the downstairs venue, but even so, they’ve had to take the decision to close their upstairs bar-restaurant space two days a week. Pre-pandemic, they served drinks and hot food seven days a week, now it’s five. Yet they remain at the heart of a melting pot of culture.
“We sit directly next to the Leeds Playhouse theatre. There’s Leeds Conservatoire, which brings through all these young musicians; the BBC; Northern Ballet; Yorkshire Dance. All these people come in and drink and they come to shows, and I think that’s what makes it special. It’s just full of different people of different ages, different ethnicities, every night.”
Leeds is lucky to retain a great network of grassroots music venues. As well as The Wardrobe, there’s the Brudenell Social Club, Belgrave Music Hall, Headrow House. Last year’s Live at Leeds festival – the annual event that has the city buzzing with new music every May Day bank holiday weekend – saw 15 venues hosting gigs at once.
“We all compete but we all get on,” says Smith, “and having that sort of relationship helps with the grassroots side, because then live music is more accessible for new artists and bands coming through.”
In 2018, Live at Leeds also gave Smith his favourite ever moment at The Wardrobe. “The music starts at midday and it runs all the way through till midnight. Everyone had just had breakfast upstairs, then they go downstairs into The Wardrobe. Idles come on stage at midday and completely rip the place apart. Everyone in the audience went mental,” he remembers.
“It was just before Idles got massive. And I’ve seen so many things. But seeing that atmosphere created in the middle of the afternoon that was one of my favourites.”
It’s a moment that shows a band on the cusp of great things, in the very action of grabbing hold of their big break. But in the audience’s reaction, it also shows another value of grassroots venues. “It creates moments for people,” explains Smith. “It creates relationships. It creates good times, doesn’t it? And I think people need that these days.”
Find out how to join Venue Watch – and nominate your own favourite grassroots music venue – here.
Venue Watch analysis: The Wardrobe, Leeds
By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur
I’s so heartening to find a good news story, like The Wardrobe in Leeds bucking the trend and being a successful grassroots music venue with a bright future. This, because they have used literally every trick in the book to stay open. And thank goodness they have, the word I hear is it’s an absolutely must-go-to venue if you’re ever in Leeds! Launching the stars of tomorrow regularly. Record companies please take note.
Now I’m going to take a slightly different angle this week and talk about a very disturbing new trend alongside us losing our grassroots music venues, and that’s the dismantling of our entire theatre and arts and culture framework in the UK. It doesn’t seem to be public knowledge. The culprits are our pointless and infighting government who seem to be deliberately starving all local councils of money to support the arts in any way (many councils are now announcing they are bankrupt).
Take Suffolk County Council for example – they just announced plans to cut arts funding by 100% – removing £500,000 from their arts and museums sector. They say they need these funds to provide support to children’s services and adult care.
Douglas Rintoul from The New Wolsey Theatre in the region told the BBC there was a “lack of an informed and open-minded willingness to accept that the arts can make a significant contribution” to the health and social care systems in the county. Owen Calvert-Lyons – artistic director of the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, said the removal of funding would be “so devastating”. The Theatre Royal currently supports vulnerable children and adults through its education programmes, but Calvert-Lyons added: “We can’t continue with all of that with this level of cut. We will have to make major changes to the way that we work. This is the very moment where you need councils to stand by organisations and support them.”
The Big Issue is pledged to fighting to end homelessness and tackle poverty so I’m very aware it might sound almost crass of me to be going about culture whilst people are on our streets and struggling with bills. But this flagrant disregard to our culture sector – a provider of jobs, better mental health, tax revenues, support for the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our communities and financial revitalisation for some areas – cannot be ignored or indeed overstated.
Just to draw an odd parallel, don’t even get me started for example on the colossal sums that have been wasted on cancelling HS2 and paying bloated corporation’s money for doing nothing, or the cost of buying, storing and destroying useless PPE equipment that cost the public purse billions during Covid.
The government is now clearly, officially, culturally deaf – as illustrated by Laura’s recent piece giving the latest report from Mark Davyd and his amazing team at Music Venue Trust pointing out, amongst other things, that 16% of grassroots venues have been lost in the past 12 months, with 125 spaces now permanently closed. All to the detriment of our entire society! The government make sympathetic noises but nothing else sadly. They just talk while we lose our heritage.
Please sign up to our Venue Watch campaign and join our fight. Very importantly write to your local MP’s and councillors if you can. They can all be found online. Imagine if every Big Issue reader wrote to their local MP saying save our grassroots music venues. Those who govern us seem to need reminding: it is our country, our music, our communities that are suffering from these losses. Go on whiz off a letter or an email. Don’t let them take away our joy! Let’s push back!
Musician Phil Ryan has toured with The Animals and is co-founder of The Big Issue and The 12 Bar Club.