Music

Folk music venue fights for survival after 'unfair' £99k bill from billionaire landlords

The egalitarian folk music community at The Harrison in London is under threat, after their super-rich landlords demanded £99k in back rent

Folk musicians playing at The Harrison in London

Folk musicians gather at The Harrison. Photo: courtesy of The Harrison

Right in the centre of London, a hop and a skip from King’s Cross Station and the British Library, lies the inviting grassroots venue and pub The Harrison. It’s a great spot for home cooked food, cask ales and even a Sunday roast. But the thing that makes it truly special is the folk music community that gathers there.

The Harrison has hosted performances from artists including Peggy Seeger and Bonobo, but it’s about more than the big names. “It’s incredibly open and accepting,” says landlord Paul Michelmore, a musician himself. “You can be as weird as anything, and you’re very, very welcome.”

Michelmore points to esteemed London bluegrass band The Vanguards as a classic story of what can blossom when you create a space for people to start expressing themselves. A while back, a solicitor and a computer programmer rocked up to The Harrison. They were interested in the music, “so we showed them the different instruments, how you hold them and start playing them. They got excited by it. Before you know it, they formed a little band. Then they’re studying in America, learning bluegrass music in colleges over there. And before you know it, they’re one of the best bluegrass bands in the country. I love it when it goes like that.”

That’s what folk music is all about, he says. “It’s for the people. It’s for the folks. Everyone gets involved and it’s really nice.”

It’s just £25 to put on your own gig at The Harrison, enough to cover “the PRS licence and the cleaner for afterwards”. For new bands trying to build a following in London, “it is a key part of the recipe to have a friendly venue” that’s central enough to draw people in from across the city.

But this egalitarian space has been fighting for its life since Covid hit. Unlike many other landlords, the Wellington Pub Company – owned by billionaires David and Simon Reuben, Tory donors and Britain’s fourth richest family – didn’t waive rents during the pandemic for their hundreds of tenants. Some of the bars affected have already closed. The company did offer its estimated 850 tenants a Covid discount, but only on condition that they extended their leases for five years.

“That didn’t work for me,” explains Michelmore. “I’d have liked another 15 years on the lease – I would have taken that deal. But five years isn’t long enough for me to pay off the money and make the investments I need to do on the building.”

He decided to go to arbitration, “which is meant to split the debt fairly between the two parties, according to their means. Obviously, it didn’t go that way.” Following a decision he calls “utter nonsense”, Michelmore was left with a £99,000 bill – the full rent for the entire Covid period.  

The Harrison’s community rallied round, donating over £12,000 to take the case to the High Court. Sadly, in October, they lost that appeal. Michelmore has until September 2024 to pay the whole £99k. An impossible sum, he says, given the total annual profit for the bar is about a third of that. And, as a sole trader it wouldn’t just be the business that’s over – he would personally be bankrupted too.  

“Pretty much every day it’s stressful, exhausting,” says Michelmore. “I split with my partner – I don’t think that’s entirely down to it, but it certainly didn’t help. It’s emotional. It’s nearly taken me down.”

But he’s still fighting – for his dream, for his team, for the community and for the music. “I mean, I’ve got about £250,000 invested in the business. I don’t really want to walk away from that. I’ve got staff that have been with me a long time: the longest for 18 years, five of them over a decade. We’re family, I owe it to them to do what I can to keep it going.”

Then there are the thousands of customers who love the place. “We’ve got relationships with all those people. And there’s the music. It’s a lot to give up, just for a stupid bit of money, won in an unfair court thing. So, I just keep finding new waves of energy. Each time we get kicked, I’ve got a few days angry, then a few days depressed, and then that fighting spirit starts coming in again.”

Michelmore is in the process of mapping a way out of the debt. He’s hoping for some backing from the Arts Council, and has plans to potentially offer a membership scheme to the many people who “got really romantic about the place” as a result of the threat it faced. It’s been a nightmare few years, but it’s important to hold on because once you lose a grassroots music venue, that’s it – for good. He doesn’t want to join the more than 120 venues who’ve already closed in the last 12 months.

“The problem is that it’s not commercially viable to set up a venue like this, a business like this. No corporation would ever do it. It takes an awful long time to build and grow,” he says. “Starbucks is never going to build a folk venue, you know? So that’s the sad thing – when these venues go, they really are gone forever. And that’s a real waste. It adds a lot of richness to the to the culture in the community, that you won’t get from a chain pub ever.”

The Wellington Pub Company declined to comment.

Buy tickets for gigs at The Harrison, London 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.

Venue Watch analysis: The Harrison, London

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

I think its safe to say now the amongst the main problems facing our beloved grassroots music venues, ‘Toxic Greed’ seems to be hovering at Number One on the charts. We already wrote about The Harrison near Kings Cross a good while back, but as you can see in Laura’s piece above… things really have got worse. As if having some grasping evil billionaires trying to screw you and the local community over wasn’t bad enough.

Feel free to write to the managing director of The Wellington Pub Company or even indeed to our two charming billionaires. You might like to ask them if they are enjoying destroying the life of the lovely Paul Michelmore, who’s put his heart and soul (and money) into the place! And are they having fun deliberately closing a community asset of value, as listed by Camden Council?

You may have seen our article just two days ago announcing the very sad permanent closure of Moles grassroots venue in Bath, who we profiled recently. Yet another casualty of Covid, the cost of living crisis and – of course – the lack of support from local councils or the government.

Recently Bristol Council completed refurbishment projects on Bristol Beacon (formerly Coulston Hall, but renamed as the guy was huge in the slave trade) and in Manchester they had the opening of the new Aviva Studios. The cost of sorting out the Bristol Beacon came to £132m and the Aviva Studios in Manchester came to £242m! Yes that’s right. Wow, eh? And they both look great and amazing spaces which of course is wonderful, but my question is: if just 10%, or even 5%, of those budgets had been given over to local grassroots music venues, we’d save lots of them right?

Now don’t get me wrong the Bristol Music Trust charity folks have had to chip in and fundraise and have to repay the council over 30 years. And, importantly, they have created a major venue and a range of education and smaller performance spaces too – so hats off to them and sign me up as their fan. It’s an amazing place, supporting a massive range of community-based groups too.

Aviva Studios in Manchester is even grander and brand new and very shiny and looks like a spaceship – the local council helped by the Arts Council and National Lottery giving over £106m pounds in addition to the council spend. And again, we have another brilliant new multipurpose music and performance space.

On behalf of every small grassroots music venue, I’m suggesting… maybe a measly £10m a year for, say, five years from the Arts Council and National Lottery to be set aside for a ‘Stop Our Music Heritage Destruction and Save Our Grassroots Music Venues Fund?’ Just imagine how many venues could be saved. Hundreds, probably. All of them, possibly? And all at your local level. For every single community across the UK. Just a thought.

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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