Music

'Against the odds': How the Lubber Fiend made Newcastle's music scene exciting again

Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign supports and champions grassroots music venues across the UK. This is not an easy time to keep a venue open, never mind launching a new one. Yet amid the growing crisis, the Lubber Fiend in Newcastle harnessed their community to create a DIY hub 'like no other'

a young woman performs on stage at The Lubber Fiend in Newcastle

The Lubber Fiend has made Newcastle's underground music scene "exciting again". Photo: courtesy of the Lubber Fiend

In early 2022, the UK was still reeling in the wake of pandemic lockdowns. Bars, clubs and venues had been closed for months, and social distancing measures made it hard to reopen. During 2020, independent music venues experienced a 90% drop in revenue, according to UK Music. For the grassroots, it came on top of an already difficult climate. In the preceding 20 years, 35% of independent venues had already closed.

In common with many towns and cities across the UK, the music scene in Newcastle upon Tyne had taken a serious hit. “The feel was quite grim and battered,” says Sarah Rose Johnson, bassist and singer in punk band Muckle. Yet against this unpromising backdrop, the local community united to create one of the UK’s most exciting community grassroots music venues – the Lubber Fiend.

“All of the local venues barely made it through Covid,” Johnson continues, “but the Lubber Fiend popped up against all odds and it was a much-needed push in the right direction. It made the music scene in Newcastle exciting again and provided a real DIY, community-charged space for bands to play that is like no other. It made new bands pop up and old bands play live again. After Covid, if that place didn’t open, I think the music scene in Newcastle would not be as diverse and experimental as it is right now.”

A regular at the venue, both as a punter and a performer, Johnson nominated the Lubber Fiend for a Venue Watch spotlight to celebrate its role in revitalising the Newcastle music community. “It really is an important place for underground bands and local creatives,” she says.

Sarah Rose Johnson performing in punk band Muckle in front of the Lubber Fiend banner
Sarah Rose Johnson performing in punk band Muckle. Photo: Nostalgia Kid

As well as offering an affordable place for gig-goers, promoters and bands alike, the non-profit venue (named after a helpful household goblin in English folklore) is home to Slack’s – a community station that brands itself as ‘Tyne and Wear’s weird radio’. “The Lubber Fiend is more than a venue, it’s a DIY community hub,” Johnson says. “It’s always full of amazing creative people coming in and out and collaborating, with a strong community bond you can’t get anywhere else.”

The venue is the brainchild of Newcastle music scene stalwarts Sam Booth, Tom Hopkin, Stephen ‘Bish’ Bishop and Slack’s founder Jon Cornbill. Its story started with Booth and Hopkin just looking for somewhere for their band to play. When they couldn’t find somewhere locally that ticked all the boxes for size, quality, atmosphere and – importantly – cost, things “snowballed quite quickly”.

“Basically, we went from ‘where can we play’ to ‘why don’t we try and find a space that we can run ourselves’,” laughs Hopkin.

two men playing guitar and drums at the Lubber Fiend
The Lubber Fiend is really important to the hardcore scene in Newcastle. Photo: courtesy the Lubber Fiend

It soon became clear there was an appetite for their independent, DIY vision. In May 2021, their GoFundMe swiftly exceeded the £5,000 target needed to pay for initial building work and a PA system. “That suggested what we were offering was really needed and wanted and it wasn’t just an idea in our heads,” says Booth.

When they got started with the hands-on labour of making their vision a reality, that support only grew. Their electrician volunteered his time to totally rewire the space for free, strangers showed up to get the place painted, a fellow venue in Sheffield donated part of their old stage. And then there was all the grunt work that makes up so much of a renovation.

“We had people volunteering to just move stuff from A to B, which is 90% of any kind of building work,” says Hopkin. “It was clear quite quickly there was an appetite for this thing to happen and people would put in their own time and resources to get it over the line.”

The venue eventually opened in May 2022 and quickly established itself at the centre of Newcastle’s underground community. Nonetheless, it remains a challenge to keep the Lubber Fiend going amid increasingly difficult conditions for grassroots music venues. According to the Music Venue Trust’s annual survey, 38.5% of venues made a loss in 2023. Covid restrictions may be behind us, but the continuing cost of living crisis hits venues from all angles.

“It was a risk, and it still is a massive risk,” Hopkin admits. “Things aren’t getting any easier. All our costs are going up and people’s disposable income continues to go down. It’s very hard to justify any of it in financial terms.”

Just this week UK Music, the collective voice of the UK music industry, urged Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to slash VAT on gig tickets to throw the sector a “vital lifeline”. Their interim chief executive Tom Kiehl called on the chancellor to use his budget on 6 March to cut the current 20% VAT rate on tickets to 10% in a boost for consumers, music professionals and venues. At present, UK gig-goers must pay 20% VAT on their tickets – almost double the EU average (10.3%) and around triple the rate in countries like Belgium (6%) and Germany (7%).

Of course, the Lubber Fiend was never really about the money… but the VAT reduction would help them keep ticket prices lower, while making enough to pay ever-increasing bills. “We have to make ends meet. If we don’t remain open, then we’re back to square one,” says Booth. “But we do try and keep ticket costs down. And no one is turned away for lack of funds.” They know their audience “won’t take the piss”.

“There’s a value in music that’s inherent,” Booth explains. “Everyone should be able to experience that.”

Buy tickets for gigs at the Lubber Fiend, Leeds here. Remember, this is the best way you can show your support for any grassroots music venue!

Find out how to join Venue Watch – and nominate your own favourite grassroots music venue – here.

Inside the Lubber Fiend - a cosy room with a glitter ball and people enjoying themselves
Inside the Lubber Fiend. Photo: Amelia Read Photography

Venue Watch analysis: The Lubber Fiend, Newcastle upon Tyne

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

It’s been a mixed bag of news this week really, with campaigns and press releases entreating the government to reduce VAT on ticket sales in music venues. Plus, the amazing Mark Davyd at Music Venue Trust has been popping up across the country at conferences ringing the alarm bells about the issues grassroots music venues are facing.

But happily, at the Lubber Fiend in Newcastle, despite all the pressures, they seem to be holding their own. So far, that is. In a way, the venue is a mirror of so many of the vital community and creative grassroots music spaces we have in the UK. You might say there’s a pattern. A group of individuals coming together after identifying a need in the area. Crowdfunding, fundraising, begging and borrowing until – BAM! – an area has a new wonderful and, importantly, popular creative grassroots music hub. Quickly, a loyal following builds, and now musicians and audiences alike have a new home in the area and a low-cost night out.

But. And there is a but! Through all of this setting-up process they receive no help from local or national government whatsoever. None. Zero. In fact, if anything they receive the opposite. Business Rates. Noise constraints. Over-zealous regulation. You’d almost think there was a deliberate policy to try and close them down.

In Europe, small venues receive tons of support, as both local and national governments give lots of assistance, tax breaks and even financial support. But we in the UK are a miserable bunch doing exactly the opposite. So please get yourself to the Lubber Fiend if you can. It’s a precious place, with exciting new talents!

Now as you can imagine, I often struggle as I write my section, as it seems – while everything else in the UK crumbles, like public services, the NHS, the railways and roads – it’s now obvious we are about to face the biggest crisis in the arts sector for decades. And I really need to shout this from the rooftops.

This week, Birmingham City Council announced £300 million worth of cuts to their budget, after last year becoming the latest local authority to effectively declare bankruptcy. The new budget included a 100% reduction in arts funding. Yup, 100%! Theatres, libraries, youth club, arts training programmes, the lot. All potentially facing closure. Forever! It’s really beyond terrible. Artists from Duran Duran to Napalm Death criticised the decision saying it will “devastate” the arts ecosystem in Britain’s second city.

Birmingham is not the first to respond to a perilous financial situation with 100% cuts to their arts sector. There have been similar proposals from both Suffolk and Nottingham. This week, a Local Government Information Unit survey revealed over half of senior council figures in England believe they are likely to be unable to balance their books at some stage in the next five years. A third of councils said they are planning to make cuts to arts and culture.

I think it’s time to write to your local MP and start voicing your opposition to all of this. Amid all this misery we need places to entertain us and fill us with joy more than ever. Please support your precious small grassroots venues. Think of some of the great nights you’ve had. Think of how good the music was. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Sign up to Venue Watch and make your voices heard!

Musician Phil Ryan has toured with The Animals and is co-founder of The Big Issue and The 12 Bar Club.

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