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Grassroots venue Off the Cuff is home to UK's biggest youth open mic – and it needs your help

Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign supports and champions grassroots music venues across the UK. This week we're in London with one of the Big Issue's Changemakers 2024. More than a thousand young people have taken their first steps on a professional stage at grassroots venue Off the Cuff. They're fighting for its survival

Band Hardillica have been performing at JOM for 2 years. Drummer Malachi has been performing as a solo drummer at JOM since 2019. His cousin Saffiyah is on vocals. Photo by Rod Main

Hardillica have been performing at JOM for two years. Drummer Malachi has been performing as a solo drummer at JOM since 2019. His cousin Saffiyah is on vocals. Instagram: @hardillica Photo: Rod Main

Housed in two railway arches beside Herne Hill station in south London, Off the Cuff live music bar is a mecca for young performers. For the last seven years, it’s hosted JOM (Junior Open Mic), the UK’s biggest open mic event offering opportunities to musicians aged 4-18. It’s where more than a thousand young people took their first steps on a professional stage, where countless bands were formed, friendships made, and confidence boosted. As the grassroots music venue finds itself under threat due to rent increases, the community is rallying round with a campaign to keep the doors open.

“JOM at Off the Cuff is important to me, because it’s given me so many opportunities and it’s the start of my musical journey,” says 11-year-old singer-songwriter Betty Ablett, who has performed at the venue 19 times since 2020 and is a passionate supporter of the campaign to keep it open. “If it were to close, I don’t know where I’d move on from here. There wouldn’t be anywhere else to perform.”

“It’s a cornerstone of our community,” agrees fellow young JOM performer Tony Holroyd. “It closing down – it would hurt me, it would hurt my friends, it would hurt everybody here. It has such a big effect. The music brings us together.”

The monthly JOM concerts are run by a pool of 20 parent volunteers, led by Andy Gray, a graphic designer who started JOM as a “hobby, that’s become a passion”. Just a couple of weeks ago, Gray was named as one of The Big Issue’s Changemakers 2024 for his work at JOM. There isn’t anything quite like these gigs in the UK. A typical session now features more than 70 artists across 7.5 hours. Young artists have travelled from as far afield as Cumbria to be part of it. Gray says that huge success is due – in large part – to the support of Off the Cuff. That’s why he and the JOM team asked Venue Watch to get behind their campaign to preserve this important community resource.

Everything In Mono at JOM Youth Open Mic, Off The Cuff grassroots Music Bar venue
Everything In Mono at JOM Youth Open Mic, Off The Cuff Music Bar. Debut single out now! Instagram: @everything_in_mono Photo: Rod Main

“Off the Cuff lend us their space and equipment for free, and pay for the sound engineer. I believe their kindness has been the main driver for JOM being so popular,” he explains. “These acts of kindness made me feel indebted to Off the Cuff in a massive way.

“I think that, despite all that we do as volunteers, the main driver for bringing young people to JOM has always been the venue. It’s small enough for very young people to feel brave enough to get up on stage. And it’s big enough for kids all the way up to 18 to think ‘this is cool’. I’ve seen so many kids get more and more confident and get better and better at performing on stage.”

The pressures Off the Cuff is facing are far from unique. Music Venue Trust’s latest report into the crisis facing grassroots music venues in the UK detailed a wave of closures – 125 in 2023 alone. Of the surviving venues, 38% posted a financial loss last year, despite increased ticket demand. For many, the costs are simply unsustainable – energy prices remain extremely high; rents for grassroots venues increased by an average of 37% last year.

On 18 and 25 February, JOM is putting on two huge days of live music to support Off the Cuff. Their Bandathon will feature celebrity guest appearances by comedian Jo Brand (acting as compere) and Guardian food critic Jay Rayner, in his lesser-known role as a musician. But the main draw will be 150 young artists from the JOM stable, including Betty Ablett, the award-winning Brixton jazz collective Youthsayers, BRIT school band Ramfunk and indie band Shut Up Sally (whose guitarist has been lauded by pop royalty Rick Astley).

Young guitarist Zayne has been learning guitar since the age of 3.
Young guitarist Zayne has been learning guitar since the age of 3. Photo: Rod Main

The gigs will be free to attend, but Gray is appealing to everyone who cares about our next generation of musicians to come down and buy a drink. “If you’re not thirsty, then buy a friend a drink. And if your friend doesn’t want a drink, then you could buy the volunteers a drink!” he says.

The JOM community is far from the only ones who’ve found a home in Off the Cuff. Every Monday for the past 10 years it’s been the venue for Jazz Jam, an open-invitation chance for aspiring jazzers to display their skills and gain experience, organised by local saxophonist Roger Humbles. 

The venue has also gone above and beyond for rugby fans in the area – during the 2019 Rugby World Cup, held in Japan, they opened the doors at 5am and set up a projector and a big screen, so supporters could come in and watch the games together. The rugby events were instigated by Tongan ex-professional player Paul Koloi, who lives locally and would dress up in his Tongan traditional dress to host the gatherings. Now the leader of the 12-strong Save Off the Cuff community group, Koloi will be donning his taʻovala once more for a series of Six Nations screenings with the aim of bringing more people in and helping secure Off the Cuff’s future.

https://youtu.be/x77jhykIUXQ?si=2RoTciSutZWdFJ3X

Save Off the Cuff have a number of plans to support the grassroots venue. But first up is their series of community events to bring in drink-buying customers and boost the venue’s coffers. “All these community groups would be in difficulty if Off the Cuff wasn’t there,” Gray says. “It is of extreme value to the community. No other venue would do what they do.”

JOM’s Bandathon is at Off the Cuff on 18 and 25 February 2024, from 10am to 11pm. Find out more about this and other Off the Cuff events at offthecuffbar.co.uk

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

Band of young female performers playing at JOM in Off the Cuff
Shut Up Sally – singer/guitarist Tahlia has performed at JOM more than 70 times! Instagram: @shutupsally Photo: Rod Main

Venue Watch analysis: Off the Cuff, London

Off the Cuff is so much more than just a grassroots music space. It’s actually a vital social service. One with a huge positive impact on thousands of youngsters. So, the big question is how exactly do you value that? In other words, where’s the money?

First, let’s look how the money trickles down from a smaller venue. Apart from attracting people to Herne Hill to use local shops and services, Off the Cuff offers a regular home for bands and artists (check out their line ups this month, featuring so many up-and -coming-artists). This means they’re directly feeding world-class artists to record companies, who go on to create millions in tax revenues. They’re a kind of band nursery.

Add that to changing youngster’s lives – again, the financial benefits ripple outward in terms of better health, lower social problems, revenue generation and creating a massive positive force for good. This place needs our help simply because it’s actually a valuable resource for the UK, just like The National Gallery or The London Eye, attracting visitors from across the country.

Now hold on to your hat as you read this next bit! The fancy ABBA Voyage Arena has had a massive local economic impact in its first year, contributing £322.6 million in turnover to the London economy in its first year of operation, according to a study by global research and strategy consultancy Sound Diplomacy and social value consultancy RealWorth. According to the report, ABBA Voyage “has had a significant and positive economic and social impact” on London and the local area.

Wow! Isn’t that amazing and wonderful? But now the most important part. Why don’t the lovely ABBA Arena folks follow the idea of our friends at Music Venue Trust who are currently asking for a ticket levy from the huge arenas – and maybe spread the love to help support all their local grassroots venues?

I mean I always loved the lyrics to Take a Chance On Me and Money, Money, Money! So here’s a direct message to ABBA. It’s time to be super troupers! Just point five of a percent off the Abba Voyage top line could ongoing grant support fund for local venues. Remember the winner takes it all. I mean thank you for the music and everything, but a cheque would be great too! So, Benny and friends why don’t you come and join us at Venue Watch. Small grassroots venues matter. For life without music is just empty.

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