Music

'You can have a life-changing experience for the price of pizza': Why Sneaky Pete's is vital to Scottish music

Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign supports and champions grassroots music venues across the UK. This week, we're celebrating a Scottish success story. In the last 15 years Sneaky Pete's has become a cornerstone of Edinburgh's live music scene. Here's how it makes gig-goers "tingle all over"

A packed crowd enjoying Fatherson playing at Sneaky Pete's

Fatherson get the crowd going at Sneaky Pete's. Photo: Cameron Brisbane

A little more than 15 years after it opened, it would be hard to oversell Sneaky Pete’s’ place in Edinburgh’s music scene, or its importance to Scottish music.

The sweaty, vibrant 100-capacity venue is a space where bands can take risks, and they do – to often electrifying effect. It’s been a launchpad for the country’s biggest artists, including Young Fathers and Lewis Capaldi, and is so significant to dance culture that DJ Magazine recently named it one of the most important clubs in the world, alongside Ministry of Sound and Berlin’s Berghain.

“We’re just trying to put on great music all the time. And it seems to be a hit,” says owner and manager Nick Stewart, when probed for the secret of his tiny, black box empire. “We’re now just after the 15th anniversary of changing the name of the venue to Sneaky Pete’s. So I guess we get to be known as a bit of an institution. I find that weird.

“Maybe I should have been doing something else by now,” he laughs. “It doesn’t pay well, I know that. But it’s very meaningful. And I enjoy it a lot.”

Stewart started Sneaky Pete’s back in 2008. He’d come to Edinburgh a couple of years earlier after a stint working as a chef, with a clear goal: “I wanted to really dive into working on gigs.” It quickly became clear wasn’t a glamorous move.

“I started working in music venue in my mid 20s, where I did every job that was available to do, whether it was working behind the bar or being the cleaner. Some nights I was DJing until three in the morning and I was back in the venue at 7am cleaning floors. I did everything there was to learn every aspect of the job that I possibly could.”

Recognising his talents, Stewart’s bosses gave him the chance to run the bar they were planning to take over round the corner. He did such a good job, they decided to put the now-successful business up for sale. Stewart was about to be out of a job. “I said, ‘Well, what can I do about this?’ ‘Buy it off me.’ I went, ‘OK’.

“It turned out they didn’t want very much money for the lease. So I got myself a business partner and my dad got a bank loan to, in inverted commas, ‘buy a kitchen’. From that, we just had the shell of a bar and we could try and do what we could.”

Sneaky Pete’s was born. “It felt very DIY for a long time. It still does, it has that very personal touch.”

Packed most nights of the week, Sneaky Pete’s is beloved among music fans in Edinburgh and beyond. It was nominated for inclusion in Venue Watch by writer Peter Ranscombe. “One of the best things about Sneaky Pete’s is they’ve embraced the age of streaming. You can listen to track previews on its website, and it’s all over social media too,” he says.

“I stumbled across Quiet Houses – an Edinburgh-bred duo now based in Manchester – on Spotify, and clocked that they were playing a gig at Sneaky Pete’s later that week. Hearing Cold Water Swimming live made me tingle all over.”

a crowd of people enjoy a music duo on stage
Maranta at Sneaky Pete’s. Photo: Laura Kelly

That visceral reaction is hard to quantify, says Stewart, but it’s what makes grassroots music venues so incredibly special. “You can make economic arguments about why grassroots music venues should exist and cultural arguments for why they’re really important, but at the end of the day they just are one of the most uplifting things you can have happen in any given place,” he explains.

“They make huge differences to people’s lives. For the price of a pizza, you can have a life-changing experience. There are not many types of buildings in the world where that can happen. Sneaky Pete’s, very luckily, is one of those places.”

There’s been a lot of bad news recently around the epidemic of closures in grassroots music venues – it’s the reason why The Big Issue launched Venue Watch for fight for these vital cultural spaces – but Stewart is keen that our profile of Sneaky Pete’s is celebratory. “I think still having some good news stories in there just really matters,” he says.

Nonetheless, he acknowledges the Edinburgh institution is not immune to the winds that buffet the industry as a whole. “Things are getting harder for us. There’s no question about that. We got as busy as we could possibly be and have sustained for at least the last decade. It’s still always full, but it has to be always full to work. As costs continue to increase, what’s the next thing that’s going to make sure we’re sustainable?”

Nick Stewart at an awards in front of the Sneaky Pete's logo
Nick Stewart accepts the Music Week Award, naming Sneaky Pete’s the UK’s best small venue. Photo: Music Week

He’d like to see a small levy introduced on mega-venues (where ticket prices frequently reach the hundreds of pounds) with the money going to an investment pipeline for the grassroots, as advocated by Music Venue Trust. There’s some hope we may soon see some progress on this front in Scotland, as Angus Robertson, cabinet secretary for culture, said the proposal of a £1-per-ticket levy was “worthy of further consideration”.

As the UK’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee prepares to review the grassroots live venues sector, Stewart would also like to see business rates cut for venues, and VAT reduced on ticketing. They are both moves that would see the UK move closer in line with the rest of Europe.

It’s only by securing the future of venues like Sneaky Pete’s that we can keep music and culture diverse, he argues. “There’s definitely a class issue there, in the approachability of culture, but also the affordability of creating culture.

“One of the current points of crisis is not so much the venues that close – it does happen that businesses will always turn over. It’s, who in their right mind would open a grassroots music venue right now, when the challenges are so steep?”

Stewart says he was lucky he was “young and dumb” when he started out. You’d have to be “absolutely minted” to do it now, he fears. “I don’t see the next me coming along in Edinburgh. I’m often flabbergasted, but the longer I do it, the more I see the obstacles that would make it so hard for anyone to be able to do it now. I don’t think that the best culture is going to come from people who’ve got money from the bank of mummy and daddy. That’s not how we’re going to get really amazing culture or build communities.”

Buy tickets for gigs at Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh 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.

Sneaky Pete's from outside on Edinburgh Cowgate
Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh. Photo: Laura Kelly

Venue Watch analysis: Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

Hello and welcome to 2024! Over the next months you’re going to be seeing even more activity from us at here at Venue Watch. So, to start things off on a very positive note I’m going to quickly give a shout out to Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh. It’s very heartening to hear they are thriving and putting on an eclectic music mix that’s dragging the crowds in.

But by now you’ve probably seen that both Laura and I regularly point out that, despite these success stories, pretty much all of our grassroots music venues are under threat. Yes, even at the splendid Sneaky Pete’s, they still have their challenges. It’s a familiar story across the UK. All of them now, in 2024, are watching their very slender profit margins being sliced away month on month. And at the risk of stating the obvious (once again) it’s that perfect storm of rising food, drink and energy costs, coupled with people having a lot less money to spend to go out.

However, another very important issue that the fantastic Nick Stewart mentioned I wanted to quickly dive into – and that few people may not know about – is our terrible system regarding people actually creating new small music venues. A multi-level red tape and toxic combination of greedy landlords demanding ridiculous rents; local councils’ ever-inflating business rates; an immoral and poorly monitored, out-of-control insurance industry tripling insurance costs; and finally our zombie main banks unwilling to lend small businesses and startups money at less than mafia extortion rates is putting would-be entrepreneurs well and truly off. And can you blame them?

Alongside the ticket levy and VAT reduction ideas, I believe we now – more than ever – desperately need an immediate special Startup Grant Fund (possibly with money from the Arts Council or maybe the skinflint dragons currently guarding the billions held at The National Lottery, or even from the major record labels). With this type of low-cost, easy-access funding, in an instant we could save not only our current heritage and history, but get local communities galvanised into creating local community music spaces.

However, setting that all aside, what can you do about helping your local venues? Well for one thing you can support them by actually going. Secondly, if you work at a local company you can think about sponsoring a night, plus these grassroots venues are great places to host business events and get-togethers in the daytime. Remember, countless of music champions across the UK that Laura and I have told you about regularly host community events FOR FREE!

So please don’t forget to sign up to our Venue Watch campaign (it’s completely free, folks) and contact us about your favourite local venue under threat – or doing brilliantly – because we’ve learned that when we publicise their plight and their existence, lots of you wonderful people step up to go along and give amazing support. A huge thank you to everyone who has joined us and just to be clear – this year the gloves are coming off!

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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