Music

Inside the grassroots music venue where Oasis, Pulp and Ed Sheeran cut their teeth

Every week, The Big Issue's Venue Watch campaign tells the stories of the UK's incredible grassroots music venues. Without places like Moles in Bath, we wouldn't have today's festival and arena headliners. As these venues struggle through the cost of living crisis, where will tomorrow's stars come from?

Robert Smith of The Cure, Ed Sheeran and Morrissey leading The Smiths on stage in Moles, Bath

The Cure, Ed Sheeran and The Smiths playing in Moles, Bath. Photos: supplied

Manic Street Preachers got signed after a gig there. The Cure played before there was even a stage. Ed Sheeran only just sold it out, The Smiths could barely get 30 people through the door, and Oasis supported now-all-but-forgotten Scottish band Whiteout. A picture of Supergrass in the dressing room appeared on the album artwork for their debut album I Should Coco. When Radiohead took the stage in Moles, Bath, in 1992, they’d already had such a good time with the free beers in their rider their manager denied knowing them and the band could barely remember their set. 

Moles has been the essential core of Bath’s scene – and an important site for UK music – for almost 45 years. To call these rooms storied is to do them a serious disservice. Legendary might just about cover it. Other acts who’ve come through the 200-capacity grassroots music venue on their way to greatness include Blur, The Killers, Pulp, Fatboy Slim, Bastille, King Crimson, Gabrielle, Eurythmics, Tears for Fears and George Ezra. “It’s almost like a list of who’s who of these big headliners. They all have definitely started at the grassroots,” says the venue’s operations and programme manager Liam Baker, a Moles stalwart for 13 years.

The live music industry, as a whole, is experiencing a boom. Last year was its biggest ever, this year looks set to top that. Elton John’s long farewell became the highest-grossing concert tour ever – bringing in an eye-watering £765.5 million. Taylor Swift will be aiming to challenge that by the end of 2024.

But at the grassroots, in venues like Moles, it’s a very different picture. Having survived the paralysing Covid shutdown, they’re struggling with a changed landscape. “The dynamics of people’s lives have changed. Sitting in and watching Netflix had become quite normal for some people. Their mindset changed. And more important than all of that is finances. People have less money, they have to be more savvy when they are spending it,” says Baker.

B&W photo of Pulp playing Moles in 1992
Pulp play Moles in 1992

A recent study commissioned by FREENOW in association with Music Venue Trust (MVT) showed that, faced with rising prices on everything from housing to food and transport, 68% of people had cut back on the number of gigs they are attending. The result? The latest figures from MVT show we lost 125 grassroots venues in the last 12 months – that’s more than two per week.

“People are obviously having to make sure the rent and bills are paid and the food is bought before they can consider a treat, something like live music. It’s completely understandable,” says Baker. “You’ve got to keep a roof over your head, then you can look at what you can spend your money on after all of that.”

Even the giant music venues are starting to recognise the essential role of the grassroots in shaping the future of the live experience. Swansea Arena has just become the first venue of its size to partner with MVT, affirming a shared commitment to the preservation of grassroots music venues and the nurturing of the local music community.

Graham Coxon playing guitar
Graham Coxon playing with Blur at Moles, 1990. Photo: supplied

At Manchester’s new conference Beyond the Music earlier this month, Gemma Vaughan, director of sales and marketing at AO Arena – Europe’s biggest indoor venue – told The Big Issue they are starting to see “natural stoppages” as a result of too few acts coming through the talent pipeline.

“Do we need to support grassroots venues? Absolutely, yes. Yes, we do,” she said. “There are only a number of artists that can headline festival stages. Unless we work tirelessly to support grassroots musicians through the infrastructure that we have, then we will see more of those natural stoppages continue to happen.”

Back at Moles, Baker agrees that the big venues would be “doing themselves a favour” if they supported grassroots venues. “It’s mixed feelings when you see reports about arena-size capacity venues reporting their biggest year yet. Because, go live music! It’s awesome that people are watching gigs, maybe there’s going to be some trickle down. But it’s also like, we’re struggling,” he explains.

“Without us, there are no big venues, there are no big tours, there are no artists. They all started at places like this. We helped them hone their craft and build their skill.”

Moles offers opportunity to students from Bath and Bath Spa universities, as well as Bath College. It’s a thrill for the next generation of talent to feel connected to an illustrious past, he says. “People are like, ‘So, Ed Sheeran stood here? Fatboy Slim DJed here? Liam Gallagher has sung here? Annie Mac’s DJed here?’ Yep, you’re standing where they started too. That’s such a buzz for them. These people become attainable – they started here, and I’m here now, so I could have that same trajectory.”

Smaller venues can build supportive communities in a way no arena can hope to. Baker’s proud that Moles is a welcoming space for all. It certainly was for Lucy Reynolds, a member of the Bath University music society who came to the venue through her love of live shows and their rock and alternative club nights. She went on to “become a beloved member of staff”.

When she died in 2020, the Moles community rallied round. “It was devastating to lose her,” says Baker. “And it highlighted something that we could help make awareness for, while celebrating and cherishing the memory of Lucy.” They now run an annual Gig For Lucy, raising money for transgender charity Mermaids and Suicide Prevention UK.

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

Sign up to join The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign and get regular updates here.

Annie Mac wearing headphones with her decks
Annie Mac DJing at Moles in 2015. Photo: Soul Media

Venue Watch analysis: Moles, Bath

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

This week’s venue being highlighted is the wonderful Moles in Bath. So, just briefly try and put yourself in poor Liam Baker’s shoes as their venue – having survived Covid and the obscene rises in energy and food and drink costs – now faces the cost of living crisis throwing yet another spanner in the works.

People simply not going out. Not buying a ticket. Not buying a pint. So if you’re in Bath or even near Bath go check it out! They need your love. By now you’ve probably realised that every grassroots venue in the country is pretty much financially struggling in different ways, according to the rather grim figures gathered by the fantastic folks at Music Venue Trust.

Their recent Venues Day gathering pointed out that over half the venues staying open are now making zero profit and many are in fact making a loss. Back in the nineties when I ran a Central London grassroots venue, we faced none of these problems (the golden years, as I like to think of them, although the wind was turning colder in other ways for working musicians – more of that in the coming weeks).

So once again we need to find some solutions if we are not to watch our precious breeding grounds for talent close down. Once that happens there is no next generation of tried and tested artists. None. A sobering thought that only now it seems the higher end of the music business is waking up to.

Here at Venue Watch we often talk about financial and cost of living crisis issues. We also show you the brave people working their hardest to give us great nights out. But it’s now recognised that across the music industry as a whole, there is an ever-growing mental health crisis. Simply being out of work, watching your venue slowly dying, exhausted road and sound and lighting crews. The list of triggers is pretty long.

The huge pressures now facing people in the music industry is starting to take its toll. So, my champions of the week (there are others in this category you’ll meet soon) are an organisation called Tonic. Tonic are a brilliant mental health campaigning and support body (their strapline is Music for Mental Health) and they’re getting out there and really helping people.

Over the past years they’ve registered 432 individuals onto help programmes, they’ve delivered a whopping 487 courses, groups and workshops, even conducted 292 free individual mental health sessions and provided 153 essential hours of one-to-one counselling, psychotherapy and support sessions.

Their founding patron was the legendary Terry Hall from The Specials who was so bravely open and candid about his own mental health issues. Alongside the dedicated team there are also Tonic ambassadors ranging from Jeff Horton of London’s world-renowned The 100 Club and broadcaster Gary Crowley.

I know you understand these problems and I’m sure you’d love to help, so join our Big Issue Venue Watch campaign. Together we can save our music scenes. Together we can save our friends.   

Musician Phil Ryan has toured with The Animals and is co-founder of The Big Issue and The 12 Bar Club. Read more about Tonic at tonicmusic.co.uk.

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