Music

Atherton 'had everything taken away'. The Snug brought back music and community

Every week, The Big Issue's Venue Watch campaign highlights the amazing work of grassroots music venues across the UK. The Snug is Atherton’s most important remaining cultural outpost. At risk of being sold off for flats, their fortunes changed thanks to a radical new sort of community ownership

female fronted punk band on the stage of The Snug in Atherton

Punk band Loose Articles on stage at The Snug. Photo: David Hunter / www.davidrhunter.photoshelter.com

It started with parties after gigs in nearby Manchester – “crazy days” when everyone would pile back to Rachael Flaszczak’s house to keep the music playing. Friends nicknamed the little space ‘the snug’. A decade on, that kernel of an idea – inspired by community, celebration, great tunes and a warm welcome – has become Atherton’s premier cultural meeting spot.

No longer housed in Flaszczak’s dining room, The Snug is now to be found down a cobbled lane – a cheery sun trap of a courtyard leading into a music and cake paradise. By day, it’s a laidback local hub where people enjoy a latte while holding meetings or crocheting. At night, it’s a place to discover new music among like-minded people. It’s also the first grassroots music venue to be bought out under a new scheme that aims to revolutionise cultural ownership in the UK.

“You’re never going to be rich doing this,” says Flaszczak, now the director of the company. “For me, it’s about giving people jobs and opportunities. And I’d rather be rich in people being happy around me, and progressing.

“I’ve created something that I love doing. I just absolutely love live music. I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument. And I haven’t got the attention span to do anything other than create events. So I feel like running a venue suits me because I like to spin a lot of plates and to connect people.”

Just on the outer edge of Greater Manchester, Atherton is home to about 27,500 people. Formerly a coal mining and manufacturing town, Atherton has struggled with below average incomes and higher unemployment than the surrounding region in recent years. “There are bars and restaurants but other than that, we haven’t really got anything else. There’s no museums or art galleries or anything like that in Atherton,” says Flaszczak. “We feel that we’ve had everything taken away from us. They took away the swimming baths, the library.”

The Snug is Atherton’s most important remaining cultural outpost, its walls covered in art and original photography from gigs by the likes of Joy Division and Ian Dury. It’s a safe place “for everyone, not just for alternative people” – loved by residents from kids to pensioners, and particularly treasured by the LGBTQ+ community.

Local access to creative spaces means a lot, says Flaszczak. “We’ve got someone who comes in, he suffers from PTSD after being in the army. He won’t leave Atherton, this is his sanctuary. He loves live music.” When he’s in the venue, frequently turning up early to enjoy the soundchecks, the team can see the difference in him. “Just watching him, whatever the band’s doing, it’s great. Looking at him, you think: he’s why we do it.”

Flaszczak initially signed a three-year contract when she moved into The Snug’s current home. She’d always hoped to get a commercial mortgage to buy the place out at the end of the lease. But when that time ran out in the middle of the Covid pandemic, her dream was more out-of-reach than ever. Though the landlord gave her an extension, the clock immediately started ticking.

a band playing guitars and saxophone
Cafe Soul Collective play The Snug. Photo: David Hunter 

“He agreed to do another three-year lease on the understand that, if I’m not in a position to buy it after that time, then he’ll put it up for sale,” she explains. But getting a mortgage was so much harder than expected. Lenders wanted to see a history of successful accounts. The struggles of lockdown were a black mark.

“They want to see at least five years of things getting better and better and better. Because I haven’t got that history, I couldn’t get a commercial mortgage. And even if I could, they want a minimum 30% deposit. And it’s just not possible. There’s just no way, as a small grassroots music venue, we could ever get that together.”

Though Flaszczak has an iron cast belief in The Snug (“in my mind, I think we’d survive a nuclear bomb, us”) she started to worry this important community resource would be turned into flats, as so many local businesses already have been. Most of all, she felt responsible for her staff.

During Covid, Music Venue Trust (MVT) held “huge” Zoom calls. Up to 300 people piling in to find the information they needed to keep the UK’s network of grassroots venues going. It was the moment they found a common purpose, according to Flaszczak. “All these venues knew that we all need to work together and pull together.”

a crowd of people celebrating outside The Snug in Manchester
Celebrations as The Snug becomes the first grassroots music venue purchased under the #ownourvenues campaign. Photo: Music Venue Trust

Inspired by that growing collective urgency, MVT launched the ground-breaking #ownourvenues scheme. It offers the chance to buy ‘community shares’ and therefore aims to take ownership of the UK’s grassroots venues into the hands of music lovers. The Snug are the first to sign a ‘cultural lease’ with Music Venue Properties (MVP), an independent organisation created by MVT to act as the landlord to these community-owned venues.

When the team from MVT and MVP came to The Snug for the big announcement at the start of October, Flaszczak was uncharacteristically nervous. “I worried they were going to go, what’s this?” she says. “But they didn’t. They did the same as you, they walked in and they could feel it.”

Not only is The Snug protected from being sold off for profit to any highest bidder but, after years of putting her own money into improving the building (and therefore making the landlord’s property more valuable), Flaszczak now has a landlord who wants to invest in the venue.

MVP are going to fix the roof (at the moment, “it fills up like a bath”) and sort out proper insulation. They also have big plans for the future, including adding rehearsal spaces, a recording studio and maybe even classrooms to nourish the next generation of Atherton musical talent. “This is going to be something that’s going to be for generations and generations to come. It needs to be the centre of the community,” they told Flaszczak.

As scores of grassroots venues face similar problems with landlords who are not interested in the cultural importance of these spaces, the hope is that The Snug will only be the first of many to benefit. Indeed, MVP has just opened their Christmas gifting campaign, allowing anyone to buy shares as a present for the grassroots music fan in their life.

A change in ownership can be truly transformative. “It was like a weight’s been lifted,” grins Flaszczak, “the world has opened up.”

Buy tickets for gigs at The Snug, Atherton 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.

To find out how to “give the gift of ownership” through Music Venue Properties go here.

a rainbow over The Snug in Atherton
A brighter future for The Snug. Photo: David Hunter

Venue Watch analysis: The Snug, Atherton

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

Having seen The Snug being saved, it’s always very nice to be able to write about a ray of light in the darkness and shadows, now casting their gloom over our beloved grassroots music venues. We’ve said it before at Venue Watch, Music Venue Trust are right at the sharp end. And, bless them, they’re trying their best to battle against the economic and business forces determined to end our glorious musical heritage.

With that last point in mind, and just to cheer you all up, here’s a cheery bit of news. Now as you can imagine I struggle a bit, praising giant music industry corporations. But, just for once, I’m going to make an exception. Because, and I’m very happy to report this, the amazing people at Ticketmaster have stepped up to join us all in our battle to keep our grassroots venues going by doing an extraordinary thing. They have now added a ‘give money feature’ on their website when buying tickets from them, that sends any money you donate, even if it’s just a pound, directly to Music Venue Trust.

This money will come in very handy to try and help MVT in their mission to purchase as many at-risk venues as they can. Just like The Snug. And in a really lovely and decent gesture Ticketmaster will match every donation pound for pound. In other words, they’re putting their money where their mouth is. I know who I’ll be buying my tickets from in future. All other major ticket companies please take note.

In Laura’s article you’ll have read how the indefatigable Rachael Flaszczak’s epic fight to keep this beloved venue open had many fronts. Not least her own fight to stay positive and not simply to be worn away by everything. But, just to clarify for all of you that love to go gigs: small music venues aren’t goldmines for the hardy folk who run them. Shockingly, figures now available show that many grassroots venues are not only not making any money month on month, but many are actually sliding into the red.

Their profits were slim to begin with as you may not have been aware. Back in my day we made money at our venue in London but it was tight some weeks. Now, toxic high rents, high energy costs, high food costs, high taxes, high rates have hoovered up all the profits. We know these are all well-known parts of ‘the cost of living crisis’.

And to cap it all now a new one seems to have reared its ugly head. People simply don’t have the money to go out to gigs so much. This seems to be a worrying trend with no real answer. However, Christmas is coming and hopefully people will spoil themselves and get out to a gig. So, if you’re planning an office party why not choose your local grassroots music venue instead? Please sign up to our Venue Watch campaign and let’s see what we can all do together. For the love of music.

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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