Fund Our Fun is a series celebrating the UK’s music and nightlife industries, and a rallying call to protect them. Read more here, and check out our interactive map of at-risk venues here, to find ways to help your local spaces.Big-tech can talk all the smack they want. The fact is: no one plays an Instagram Live and then sells out the O2 Arena without playing a bunch of small venues in-between. These hole-in-the-wall havens are the stepping stones that take acts from their bedrooms to the world stage.
It’s these warm little hovels across the country which help to stop the live music industry from becoming an amalgamation of legacy artists, TV contest winners and the latest substance-less vapour to be farted out by the major label machine. Pretty much every well-adored act began their career by playing the same small venue again, and again. These spots are the piss-stained, sticker-covered bedrocks of the music community.But enough from me, the faceless voice from behind the laptop screen. Why not hear it from the artists themselves. Illustrating the depth of formative artistic experiences provided by small venues, here are 16 top-of-the-range acts from across UK music on their most pivotal show in a small venue.
Jason Williamson, Sleaford Mods – Chameleon, Nottingham, 2014
The week we released Divide and Exit, we sold out the Chameleon in Nottingham. Up until then we were playing to 50 capacity venues, but this was around 200. I remember all sorts of people queuing outside: football hooligans, clubbers, students. Normally with gigs, if it’s 50 people turning up, most of them you know – but with this one, I really didn’t know anybody. People were trying to get on stage because it was so rammed, and were trying to dance near us just so they could have a bit of space. It felt like we’d achieved that moment you see in people’s biographies where they’re starting to come up.
Anton Newcombe from Brian Jonestown Massacre got in touch on Twitter that night. It was incredible, really. Is the Chameleon a classic venue? In the sense of an independent one, yes. In the sense of one where we learned our trade? Definitely. We did about five or six gigs there [prior to this show], and selling the venue out was an accumulation of all of that. I always view that place as Nottingham’s CBGB’s. It’s a place where stars are born [laughs].
Nao – Corsica Studios, London, 2013
I played here in 2013 when I was a vocalist for an electronic artist called Debian Black. We were supporting another artist called Moko, and the person who ended up being my manager was in the audience that night. I wouldn’t be where I am today without playing that show, because after then we started working together. He called me up the next day, like, “Who are you?”We met each other at the right time. I’d been a backing vocalist and a teacher, and I was ready to start singing and creating my own music, so when I met Sam [Stubbings, Artist Manager] it was at the very beginning stages of me making my own music.The small venues are the places where you’re going to be able to meet and rub shoulders with managers, booking agents, A&Rs – which you just can’t do at big venues. It’s very unlikely you can walk into a record label’s office, like, “Hi, I’m Nao, sign me [laughs].” These small beginning gigs are when people are out and about, when you can put a face to a name. That doesn’t get to happen so naturally anywhere else in this day and age.
Lias Saudi, Fat White Family – Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, 2015/16
This show had a biblical, doom-laden, Old Testament vibe about it. It was howling outside and there were flood sirens. Our pal in London had given us a load of changa, and things ended up turning gnarly. Somebody in the crowd was pushing someone around and Dale Barclay [our guitarist at the time] cracked him across the head. I think it descended into a brawl. But the changa fused the band beautifully. Everyone was in a nice pocket, psychologically.It’s a really old venue, with period features, a little bar – it’s a hole in the wall. They give you a home cooked meal – they were making us Malaysian cuisine or something like that. In some places you get a trendy burger served on a cardboard plate or something, but this was homely. Everybody was glad about the whole business. It’s a real jewel in the middle of the north – it’s one of those places where the love is reciprocated. Lots of established artists will stick that on their route. It’s a place you savour.
Daniel Avery – Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh, 2013
Scotland always has incredible crowds, but imagine distilling it to the 100 most hardcore fans around. I’ve played at Sneaky Pete’s many times, but one show in 2013 in particular stands out, when I played back-to-back with Twitch from Optimo. He’s a hero, particularly in Scotland. It was one of those moments where I looked around and it felt like home.
The atmosphere was wild. People were climbing the walls. It was so hot that when the show finished I had to throw my T-shirt away. One guy over-enthusiastically spilt an entire beer over one CD-J and blew it, so me and Twitch went back-to-back on one CD-J and a computer, which created an extra energy in the room.I don’t play anywhere else in Edinburgh now – my last gig was my tenth time playing there. The energy [in that place] can’t be topped, and that comes down to the grassroots level of the people who run it. Nick, [the boss], couldn’t care more about the scene and community. I have a hundred incredible memories from that place. I’d recommend it to strangers in the street.
Poppy Ajudha – Peckham Liberal Club / Steez, London, 2017
When you’re starting out, small venues are how you survive and meet an audience for the first time. My headline show at Liberal Arts Club was the first time I’d got 200 people in a room together – it’s stuff like that that propels you to bigger moments.If I didn’t choose the Liberal Arts Club, I’d choose a Steez event in Lewisham, which is where I played my first ever gig. That was a place where every jazz musician you know about now met, collaborated and found their sound. It’s where Moses Boyd played his first solo show; Archy [King Krule] played there; Nubya [Garcia]; Yusuf Dayes; Sasha Keable; James Massiah used to do his poetry.
Anyone from the south east [London] scene was working out their sound there. It was a really really important time. This place is where I learned about music, what I wanted to sound like, what I liked and didn’t like. It was a space for community. There was art, music, live drawing – you would go every two weeks to see your friends and experiment with what you love.
Big Zuu – Birthdays, London, 2017
I booked all the acts on the bill – YGG, Tiatsim, Lozzy C. I had no manager them times, no tour manager – nothing. It was me on the ground. I sorted out the rider. I did that for three shows in a row. At the time, Birthdays was doing shows for a lot of underground grime MCs. When I headlined, knowing that 200 people in the room were there for me – there are videos of the whole room jumping and singing – it was the first experience I had of having fans. Like, real fans. These venues are stepping stones to practicing your sets, understanding crowd control, the way that a night works, doing soundchecks – if you can do it all on the low level, when you get to a higher level it’s going to be less daunting.My first project had just come out [at the time] – I was gassed. It was a new journey for me. Will Poulter was there. He was in The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s very well established, and he came to watch me in Birthdays in Dalston. That venue was that vibe – it gave a space for people to come together that wasn’t Instagram Lives, or sponsored by Nando’s, do you get what I mean? It was just pure love for underground music and it attracted loads of different people. With small venues shutting down, you’re not getting that – it’s just the VIPs in one corner. In Birthdays, there was no VIP, you get me? Everyone is there in the crowd together. Little things like this help you become a musician.
Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai – Nice and Sleazy, Glasgow, 1994-97
I played my first ever gig here before I was in Mogwai, with a group called Deadcat Motorbike, but it was also really important for Mogwai. We got around a lot locally, but it felt like an event to play and was a bit bigger than the other places we were playing. It’s an important venue in the Glasgow music scene.When we started out, we were playing, Arab Strap were playing, The Yummy Fur – all those kind of bands would play or hang out there. It’s a central place for people to watch and listen to music. It holds about 150 people. Back then, we’d play a gig in Glasgow every six weeks or something. It’s such an important time, because you find out what’s good about your band and get a sense of identity. It also helps people find your music, either through word of mouth or booking shows through like-minded people.These venues are the lifeblood of that. The average person who goes to two or three gigs a year in Academy venues might not be aware that, bubbling beneath every band who plays to 1,000 people, [there’s a venue like this]. Bands don’t just play to 1,000 people. They have a whole other existence before that point.
Toddla T – Fez Club, Sheffield, 2006/7-ish
Growing up in Sheffield, when I tried to DJ out in high-street clubs, I could only ever get away with playing really obvious music to crowd-please, and it used to wind me up. As a music nerd, I wanted to play stuff that I was into, or new stuff. I remember so vividly walking to my studio and being really fed up having to play music that I didn’t love – I was thinking, ‘This is doing my nut in.’
[Back then], there was a club night in Sheffield called Scuba. It was Saturday nights, it played tech house, and it was one of the only places to go. At the time, Sheffield on a Saturday night was either pop and R&B, tech house or bassline at Niche. That’s all people could listen to. Then Scuba set up a sub division called Tonic at the Fez Club, which was a bit more alternative.One night, the main DJ [Chris Duckenfield] couldn’t play and they asked me to stand in. I’d played a few small parties, but not a club. I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” but I was bricccccking it for weeks. Not only was I playing a proper club, but it was traditionally a tech house night, where people were expecting to hear 4x4, stripped back tech house. I remember being so anxious about the whole thing for weeks. I walked to the studio and thought, ‘If I can’t play the music I want at that night, I don’t know if I can do this DJ thing anymore.’Anyway, it was one of the best nights of me life. The music clicked, the ravers clicked and it was one of those perfect set-ups in terms of things aligning. If that show hadn’t gone well, I don’t think I would have quit, but I would have definitely gone, ‘Fuuuuck this DJ thing.’ That little club in Sheffield, cap of 300, was pivotal to that moment. Places like that are the breeding ground for new music.
Marika Hackman, Sebright Arms, London, 2013
I’d just written Cinnamon and it felt like there was a shift in sound. But the reason I remember this show is because, the night before, I’d played a show and someone had stolen my guitar. It was a new guitar and I was really excited because I was “moving on to electric” and it was a “really exciting time”, and someone nicked it.
The day of the show there was an online uproar and it got back to the thief that everyone was looking for my guitar. And he actually sent it in a cab to the Sebright Arms, where I picked it up and walked straight on stage. It was in Drop D, the strap was too long – that’s how little time I had. But it’s a special memory for me. It was such a stressful day, but there was a release of getting the guitar back and playing the show. The crowd were amazing. It felt like I was at the start of my career. Also, do they still do those burgers upstairs? Because those were fantastic, if I recall.
Yannis Philippakis, Foals – The Cellar, Oxford, Pre-2008
You need the [right] architecture for music to thrive, and for us, The Cellar was an all-in-one space to make friends and have lots of formative experiences housed in one room, whether it was meeting people, playing music or learning how many shots you could have in one night without disgracing yourself.When we used to play there it was 150 capacity – 200, max. Those types of spaces are so important – there was something about being able to play a show there and it turning into a nightclub at 2AM. The venue was underground as well, which added a bunker-esque [vibe]. It was like entering a portal into a filmed idea of what your youth should be like. We played there in our bands before Foals – I remember playing there once, and I arrived to soundcheck in my school uniform – and with Foals too. There was one show shortly after the hype train picked up around the band, where we returned from SXSW, and the queue was around the block.
The venue had a low ceiling too, which is really important. The importance of a low ceiling shouldn’t be overstated for having a fucking great night. You want to be punching the roof and stuff.
Ben Thatcher, Royal Blood – Hope and Ruin, Brighton, 2013
Growing up, me and Mike were in so many different bands. As soon as we could play in bars, we were in them. We’d write a song, and that same week we’d play it in one of these smaller venues. It was a social thing – going out, having a drink – and live music is so enjoyable to have in the middle of all of that activity. There’s a magic behind going to see someone play live and see them do it – hearing their voice coming out of the speakers. You can spend so much time working on the details of your voice when recording, but when you go out and sing live, you’re going to have imperfections that you can’t go back on. For Royal Blood, we spend so much time living on the edge of doing something wrong. When we do, we laugh at it – but [the people watching] experience something real.
Smoke Boys – Village Underground, London, 2016
This show impacted our career a lot. We were still up and coming, but we were popping. This was our first tour. With Drake coming along and being such a small venue, there was a lot of suspense. Compared to playing Brixton Academy or The O2, it doesn’t feel the same – you’re closer to the fans and you can see their reactions. We used to bring out surprise acts at our shows, because we were close with Stormzy, Skepta, Chip – lots of people – so people knew we’d be bringing people out. That same day we saw Drake land in England – I think it was the first time since Wireless that he’d come back [to the UK] – and our manager was like, “Message him, message him,” as he’d already co-signed us.
We messaged him and was like, “What’s good, bro, what are you on and that?” He was doing the BRITs later with Rihanna, and they were like “link him at the after-party”. But we said we had a show, so we couldn’t go. He was like, “Where’s the show?” We sent him the address and whatever, then he must have sent his number and we gave that to our manager. After that, we didn’t know what was happening – nothing. All we know is we were on the stage, we turned around and Drake popped up behind us. It was crazy. It was a good feeling to see the reaction we brought to everyone. That’s a night that everyone in that building will remember.
Sam Gellaitry – The Mediterranean basement, Stirling, 2017
The clubs where I’m from, in Stirling, aren’t worth mentioning. Having said that, there is a restaurant called the Mediterranean which has a basement space that’s great for a night out. One of my relatives brings his sound system in there and sets it up, and it’s a really good night. If this faux club wasn’t there, I would have had no way to enjoy going out because there’s nothing else of substance in Stirling. There was a point pre lockdown where people were getting booked there constantly – if you went to the pub, you would usually end up back there. Playing in Edinburgh is fun, but Stirling is where I grew up. It’s a different context hearing the music I was making there. Trap is really mainstream now, the influences are everywhere, but back then it wasn’t. It’s helped me associate and bridge the gap from night out I’ve had in Europe with shows back home.
Lava La Rue – Westway Studios, London, 2019
I did a show here with my collective, Nine8, where we converted the venue into our full experience, from the walls to the flooring. The venue used to be a place where old Rastafarians in 90s west London would have chilled, and you could catch them smoking big spliffs inside. Then it changed into an art and gallery space, and now it’s a blank canvas. Spaces like that are good because they can facilitate you doing what you want.Big Piig played there, Mac Wetha, Labaan, Bone Slim, Nayana, Nige. We decorated the venue with our logos and had our own screen printing machine where you could print your own merch. In the daytime we had a stage where we did a panel talk live-streamed through Red Bull Radio, and then in the evening it turned into a full event with a moshpit and everything. Having spaces like that in west is so rare these days. There used to be so many, and there isn’t really anything like that now.
Graham Coxon – Lots of venues, London, early 1990s
Blur didn’t do an awful lot of shows before we got picked up by Andy Ross, from Food Records, but the venues we were playing at that point, in the early 90s, were The Lady Owen Arms, The George Robey, The Cricketers at Oval, The Powerhouse in Angel. There’s quite a lot of film footage of us playing in The Square, in Harlow [back when the band were called Seymour, not Blur]. I came straight from art school, wearing my stinking overalls, and I think a pint went over the back of my amplifier and blew up during the evening – they were very, very chaotic shows.All those small venues were full of bands. They were grubby and unpretentious. You chucked your boxes and cases on the stage, set up, and then off you went. It was about a camaraderie – you bumped into bands at your gigs that you played with the other day. There was always a network. After that, it gets a little bit official. You're onstage or offstage, you go to dressing rooms, you don't talk to anybody, you sit bored in your dressing room rather than mixing with anybody. These were the places where you could just sort of take a risk, and people would look at you like you were mad, but it wasn't the end of the world. It was funny – you’re a little bit tipsy anyway, and it kind of didn't really matter. There wasn’t the pressure. [Playing those early shows] was a playground.
Arlo Parks – The Basement Door, Richmond, 2017
This was one of the first gigs I ever played as Arlo Parks. I had no idea what a soundcheck was, I didn’t have pedals for a guitar – we just rocked up, myself and my three friends from school. We played the first version of “Super Sad Generation” and some covers. All the young people from west London who were starting bands would go there every Friday evening.I remember performing there and feeling at home on stage, learning how to command an audience, learning how to get the songs from my little bedroom and onto a stage and learning what to do in those silences. It cemented in me that I wasn’t just a musician, but performance is a big part of who I am. I remember walking out of there and thinking that music was something I wanted to pursue seriously. The venue is run by volunteers and they do work experience for people who want to become sound engineers and all of that. When you’re young, you’re not sure how you get on the bill for a gig, but Kevin, the guy who runs it, is very open and excited. There was something very organic about playing there – everyone who is part of the venue has a genuine love for music. @ryanbassil