Music

Save Luna: London venue fights to survive in face of crippling costs and founder's tragic passing

Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign supports and champions grassroots music venues across the UK. So we know running a venue is hard. But when his friend and business partner died suddenly, Declan Walsh was determined to keep his dream alive.

A female punk singer plays to an impassioned crowd at London grassroots venue Luna

Punk band Split Dogs (@splitdogs) play at Luna. Photo: Daniel F Say @danielfsayphotography

Nestled in the heart of Leytonstone, East London, Luna is quite possibly the UK’s busiest music venue. The intimate rooms started out life as a curry house, but founder Suja Khaled always had a huge passion for live music. When he discovered a local punk collective was struggling to find a place to play, due to their appearance – face tattoos, ripped jeans and lots of piercings – he threw open his doors and started to put on gigs in the basement. Luna was reborn as a grassroots venue. Almost 20 years later, its motto remains “welcome to the society of misfits”. They now host live acts, from all genres, seven days a week – sometimes even putting on two gigs simultaneously in the main bar and the downstairs venue. Last year they hosted more than 400 shows.

But their future is under threat. Last week they had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to rescue the business.

For native Londoner Declan Walsh, the connection to Luna was immediate. He first came through the doors as a customer during that weird time towards the end of the pandemic, when bars and venues had just started to open again. “It was amazing,” he says. “I couldn’t believe I had never heard of it before.” Walsh was immediately struck by the atmosphere of the venue, and by its charismatic and welcoming host. Little did he know how the venue would soon take over his life.

Falling into conversation with Khaled on that very first visit, Walsh was fired up with the desire to help draw more people to this special spot. At the time, he was running a business roasting and selling coffee so, to draw in more trade, he offered to start opening the venue during the day to provide hot drinks.

The two men found that they worked well together. “He was managing the bookings and bringing in bands and I’d just manage the bar and the operation during the day. He’d show me anything I didn’t know. And for a couple of months there, it was really working.” Before long, the partnership developed to the point where Khaled proposed they officially become business partners, splitting the business 50/50. Things seemed good as they worked through the agreement. But then tragedy struck.

 Cotton Eye (@cottoneye_) onstage at Luna. Photo: Jordan Noon @jordan_noon 

“We had a meeting to go into the accountant’s office to finalise some paperwork,” says Walsh. “The accountant’s showing me some information and then the phone rang. They said, ‘He’s passed away.’ We couldn’t believe it. It just didn’t feel real. Everyone was in shock.”

Even as he reeled from the loss of his friend, Walsh knew he had to somehow keep Khaled’s dream alive. “We just knew this is his life’s work,” he says. “We have to make this work. We have to succeed.”

The obstacles are intense. As we report every week at Venue Watch, times are extremely hard for all grassroots music venues across the UK. Pressures due to the cost of living crisis, energy costs and rising prices for services and supplies mean it’s difficult for anyone to make these businesses work. In 2023, 125 venues closed their doors forever.

Walsh faced all of that, with the added complications of taking on someone else’s business while still grieving. Thankfully, the paperwork was complete to make him a director, but so much else – including bank accounts and the lease – was left undone. “So yeah, it was chaotic. It was stressful. It was emotional. And a very steep learning curve.”

Walsh worked 200 days straight in the immediate aftermath of Khaled’s death. “I’ve just been trying my absolute hardest to make this place as good as it can be, to amplify all of the work he’s done. He finally got the idea around the business right and I just wanted to make sure that we all did him proud.”

Almost three years on from Khaled’s death, Walsh is still trying to get Luna on an even footing. There are the rent arrears accrued during the pandemic. As the lease remains in his former business partner’s name, he has to pay off this debt and a whole year’s rent in advance to officially transfer the business. The building also desperately needs modernisation, including new equipment, complete rewiring, soundproofing, two new ceilings and accessibility features for everyone. He plans to convert Luna into a Community Interest Company, a not-for-profit that’s set up primarily for the benefit of its community. But they can’t do that without help.

“We need a minimum of £75,000 urgently to pay off looming debts threatening closure. This is not mismanagement; it’s the cumulative effect of economic recovery post-Covid, a soaring cost of living crisis, and declining spend per head,” Walsh says.

“We’re reaching out to you to breathe life into a cherished but outdated space that has barely survived a cost of living crisis. Huge, ridiculous energy hikes. Incorrect business rates. Massively increased costs on everything from utilities to stock. Multiple floods. It’s been a journey.”

A girl with blue hair playing a guitar and signing
Girls Like Us (@girlslikeusmusic) at Luna. Photo: Daniel F Say @danielfsayphotography

It’s exhausting, and Walsh admits there have been times when he’s considered throwing in the towel… but then he comes back to what Luna means to its community – musicians, customers and staff. “We’re a home for everyone and anyone, regardless where you come from or whether you are at the beginning of your career at the end of your career,” he says.

“And it’s not just the musicians, it’s the sound techs who’ve been working in Wetherspoons but now they’re able to do the thing they love, or someone who’s doing marketing for the first time or someone doing camera work for the first time. For so many people, the grassroots is their first step into their passion. I can give those opportunities because there’s so much going on here.”

For customers, Luna remains a welcoming space where punters can enjoy a huge variety of music every day. There are few places where you can mosh downstairs to the best new punk acts, then take a breather upstairs with a six-piece Ugandan folk group, but that’s what Luna does.

“The ethos, the mission statement, is to create a bubble for customers to come into and forget all their worries to have a great night. So, we make sure we put on shows that give people a great experience,” Walsh explains. “It’s also really quite special that people can come here on their own and have a great time. In an hour they’ll be talking to new people and becoming friends for life. It’s what London should be – it’s a melting pot.”

You can donate to the Save the Luna fund here.

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

The Luna sign outside the grassroots music venue

Venue Watch analysis: Luna, London

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

Sometimes you honestly wonder if any local council actually knows what’s happening in its own area. And in today’s piece, more than ever, it makes me believe every council should create a local ‘community asset rescue group’. The Luna in Leytonstone provides so much to its area, it almost beggars belief given its size and limited resources. So, you might think the local council would rush to help? Sadly not, so far as I understand it.

Therefore, let me explain how my ‘community asset rescue group’ [or CARG] would work. Firstly, a ‘community’ list would be created and set up (it might already exist) and if not, local colleges could take part in its creation as part of an easy to set up ‘social education scheme’. And of course, local people could nominate organisations and groups to be on it too. In fact, my own council here in London has something online and in the local libraries called CINDEX that lists local community organisations in very much the way I’ve described here. This is just an information list, but still very useful, I believe.

However, what’s missing from my council’s list (and every other one too) is them seeing how well these groups are doing, understanding their importance and impact, and – in these cost of living crisis times – checking on how are they faring? The council’s CARG would identify any group in its area that provided community cohesion, support or entertainment for local citizens. If they were found to be struggling, it could then reach out to local businesses and other organisations for financial support, centrally apply for Arts Council and National Lottery assistance, and even create small grant schemes itself. A dedicated officer could be employed as a kind of Financial Cultural Ambassador to run things.

So, to expand upon this point when people ask me why should this happen? At the risk of repeating myself (and its very true in the Luna’s case) it adds an economic and a health benefit to the lives of local people. One that I know is difficult to quantify! But, in practical terms, bringing people into Leytonstone to visit the Luna is like starting a financial ripple in a pond. Their very existence benefits local shops and businesses, local transport and cabs, by attracting customers. Highly importantly it cheers people up, reducing stress, adding health benefits, plus it gives a creative outlet for local youngsters (considering the complete gutting and closure of national local youth services over the last 13 years – the most stupid and retrograde action of any government in failing its young people).

Laura and I still see the terrible effect that Covid is still having on grassroots venues and we are often told of greedy landlords (some councils too) demanding back rent for grassroots venues that were closed during the lockdowns, plus all of them are still struggling with the complete loss of income for so long. So, like many others, poor Declan and his team are fighting problems that were none of their own making, and in this case set against the tragic backdrop of losing a great friend. But there’s plenty of fight in them and they’re continuing to battle to stay afloat. So, if you’re a local business in the Leytonstone area why not sponsor a night or two?

Once again, a big thank you for everyone signing up for Venue Watch, sign up today if you haven’t, it’s COMPLETELY FREE! and do keep that information from your local venues coming. Together we can save our precious music spaces. Losing them simply isn’t an option.

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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