Music

The unusual story of how one Lancashire venue rose like a phoenix: 'It's a place for everybody'

Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign supports and champions grassroots music venues across the UK. Across the country last year we lost at least 125 of these important cultural institutions, but in the Lancashire town of Darwen, Sunbird Records made a triumphant return

Two women on guitars - Hot Wax play Sunbird Records in Darwen

Hot Wax play Sunbird Records. Photo: Derren Lee Poole

We often say at Venue Watch that once a music venue is gone, it’s gone forever. In the last year, at least 125 venues have faced that fate. But in the spirit of the season, and for our last Venue Watch profile of 2023, this week we offer you a Christmas miracle. Sunbird Records in Darwen, Lancashire is that rare exception that proves the rule.

Born from the vision of local music legend Jonathan Lindley, Sunbird Records opened in 2016 with the aim of nurturing upcoming talent and giving the community an affordable place to enjoy live music from a wide range of genres. The venue has been widely recognised for its role in revitalising the scene in Darwen.

But they faced tragedy in January 2022 when their inspirational leader died at just 32. After a hard year struggling against difficult economic conditions – rising inflation, the cost of living crisis and the fallout of the pandemic – Sunbird Records was forced to close their doors. By early 2023 they were consulting with liquidators. But then Nathan Howard and Danny McDonough – both early collaborators and friends of Lindley – stepped in.

“We didn’t want it to fall by the wayside or just get taken over by somebody that would, in one way, take away the last seven years of our good friend’s life,” says Howard. “There’s a lot of music venues that have closed, up and down in the country. We didn’t want to be another one on that list. Especially because we were part of it from day one.”

Determined to secure Lindley’s legacy, the pair stumped up the money to buy the business and negotiated with the landlords to find a way to make it work. Like a phoenix, Sunbird rose again at Easter.

What made this story different from the scores of other closures this year? “I put a lot of it down to these two,” says Jamie Carter, the venue’s in-house promoter and booker (a role he does as a volunteer alongside his full-time office job). “There were two guys who were prepared to take a chance on it. They’re taking a massive risk. And that’s no small feat.”

Within six weeks of reopening, Sunbird Records was one of the main stages at Darwen Live, the UK’s biggest free music festival. “I think we did 28 hours of live music over two days, something stupid like that,” says McDonough. “It was just nonstop. That was a huge team effort. Thousands of people came through. It was amazing, the whole weekend was a blur.”

The challenges that closed the venue earlier this year have by no means disappeared – in the 2019 Indices of Deprivation, Blackburn with Darwen was ranked as the 14th most deprived area out of 317 districts and unitary authorities in England – but for now Sunbird Records is “washing its face”, says McDonough.

Sugarstone playing guitar and keyboards
Alternative rock band Sugarstone. Photo: Craig Szlatoszlavek

Making enough money to keep going is a balancing act. For both Howard and McDonagh, it’s important to continue offering free and low-cost gigs so they can be accessible to local people.

“It’s a place for everybody,” says Howard. “It’s a comfortable place for everyone to come in. We feel part of the community as a whole.”

That community ethos is obvious to everyone who comes through the door. “It’s a good venue because it caters to all musical tastes and you can feel how important it is to the people running the place to have a venue on our doorstep,” agrees avid local gig-goer, Sunbird fan and Venue Watch supporter Alex Turner. “They don’t charge a fortune. If it wasn’t for Sunbird, people would typically have to go to Manchester or beyond to see a show.”

And, Carter says, you never know where the act you see in a small venue might end up. “Back when I was 16, I got off the train at Brighton and bought a copy of The Big Issue,” he remembers. “Inside was an advert for The Verve. I went to watch them that night in a back room. There were 40 people there.

“That moment, that is what you want to create. In five years time, if someone turns around and goes, ‘I was in Sunbird Records that night, when such-and-such was playing.’ We can create that moment and that memory. That’s what I live for.”

Buy tickets for gigs at Sunbird Records, Darwen 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.

Witch Fever play Sunbird Records to one young woman's delight. Photo: Craig Szlatoszlavek
Witch Fever play Sunbird Records, to one young woman’s delight. Photo: Craig Szlatoszlavek

Venue Watch analysis: Sunbird Records, Darwen

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

I often talk about the fabric of our community music scene being torn apart in these past years, but doing their very best and holding it together with all their might, like beautiful gold and silver threads, is the wonder that is Sunbird Records in Lancashire. As Laura tells us, the story behind the place is riven with both sadness and love. And like so many of the grassroots venues we write about, it’s an absolute boon to local people. A place to go, to mingle and receive joy and brilliant entertainment often for free!

The good news is they’re currently OK but in this chilling cost of living crisis they need all the support, love and help and as they say ‘bums on seats’ they can get! They inject hope into an area that is, as we know, highly deprived. So please if you can, head to Darwen! Say hi to Sunbird’s inspirational business owners Nathan Howard and Danny McDonough and promoter Jamie Carter. And tell everybody you can in Lancashire to support Sunbird Records.

a band plays a Halloween party
Sunbird Records’ McNally Music Tuition Halloween student showcase. Photo: Derren Lee Poole

Well, in keeping with the positive spirit of the season I wanted to add some people to Santa’s Nice List. Top of the Nice List on our tree is Mark Davyd, chief executive of Music Venue Trust for his and his team’s amazing work protecting the UK’s music cultural heritage.

Clearly deserving of a present is the wonderful Saskia Griffiths-Moore, founder and CEO of Talent is Timeless, an organisation that recognises the huge contribution that older musician and performers play in our society – you can see her work at www.talentistimeless.com.

Next up for a hot chocolate with marshmallows is Marcus Davey for his monumental efforts giving young musicians an incredible chance to shine at London’s Roundhouse, though their youth programmes.

Next to pull a cracker has to be the force of nature that is Stormzy for his tireless efforts, not to mention huge personal financial commitment, to the cause of young Black British musicians and writers. My favourite quote being from William Rayfet Hunter, whose first novel People Like Us won #Merky Books’ New Writers’ Prize in 2023. Writing in The Standard, he said: “Stormzy dares us to dream. And in dreaming we create a new future. This is his legacy. This is The Stormzy Effect”. Clearly the UK needs some more Stormzys around.

It would be highly remiss of me not to send a card to Help Musicians who constantly support UK musicians all year round. A finer bunch you won’t find anywhere!

Gifts should of course fly down the chimneys of Frank Turner, Wolf Alice, Enter Shikari and Ed Sheeran too for all lending their voices (and money) to the fight as well.

It goes without saying that my favourite elves include every one of the amazing music venue owners and promoters we’ve been featuring in Venue Watch these past few months. Each one a stout defender of our grassroots music scene.

And to my colleague Laura Kelly here at Venue Watch – there’s a musical champion if ever I saw one.

Not to be Scrooge-like, the Nice List also features features MP Caroline Dinenage, chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which scrutinises the work of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and its associated public bodies. The former minister for digital and culture has announced a hearing and review into the current crisis facing grassroots music venues and will produce a full report of its findings in 2024.

In Santa’s sleigh department, travel app FREENOW have been donating a pound from every ride booked through them to the cause as well.

So, you can see, alongside us at The Big Issue lots of people and organisations really do care. A huge thank you to all of you who’ve reached out pledging support and it only remains for me to say get to your local venue as fast as you can and have a great night with them. So, from everyone at Venue Watch… we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Music rules!

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

Support the Big Issue

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