Sally Ann Oakenfold, Hope and Ruin: “We all need each other now more than ever”

This Saturday four of Brighton’s best punk bands will be bringing a little bit of The Hope and Ruin onto The Dome’s famous stage. We spoke to Sally Ann Oakenfold, The Hope’s creative director – and key force behind creating Live is Alive – about the event, the strength of the music community and the intangible wonders of live music.

Are you excited for your bands to take the stage this Saturday?

Yes, I am very excited indeed. I went to the first Live is Alive last Saturday ( 17 October with Yumi and the Weather, Immersion, The Barstool Preachers and Bakk Lamp Fall) and it was great. It was really exciting to see some live music even though it was socially distanced, the tables were spread out, you were sat down etc. But through technology people around the venue were all communicating, commenting on the show, so you still had that connection which was great.

It was just really, really nice to be indoors, sat down with a beer and watching some live bands. I already missed live music massively, but I feel seeing it made me realise even more how much I miss it, and how important it is.

So seeing it drove home the space that it had left?

For sure. It is such an important part of people’s lives and is so important to their mental health and general wellbeing. It felt great just to go out for something, go out with just a handbag which I haven’t done for about six months, it’s not going to work so you don’t need a laptop or whatever. I’m sure some others have done this, but the only place I’ve really been out to is The Hope and Ruin for work, so it was great to just be going to a show, going out for an evening. 

I feel it has resonated with a lot of people too, and you could see it in the crowd. Despite everything that was in place people were still cheering and clapping and showing their appreciation, it’s obviously difficult with everyone sitting down but everyone was still doing their best.

Was it a strange experience?

In a way, but it was just really, really nice overall. The Dome is an amazing space and you actually had time to really take it all in. When you go to a sold out show there you don’t really have time to mingle with other friends, or even take the setting in, so it was nice to be able to fully appreciate the setting.

It is such an important venue for Brighton to have and it has been wonderful that they have helped the event happen. There were so many staff to help, so many measures in place to make sure that it all went ahead, and it’s great that they saw the value in the proposal and have been able to make it happen. Whilst you couldn’t obviously go and speak to all the people around the event was always about live music and showing that it is such an important part of our culture and our city, and that’s what the events are really showcasing really well.

Do you feel the events really ram home the importance of live music and the venues that support it, especially with so many people coming together to make the whole event happen?

Yes for sure. It all started in a Zoom meeting as part of What’s Next back at the start of lockdown and Andrew Comben from The Dome was straight away open for pitches on how the space at The Dome could be used to help. So with all the other venues and groups I put an email together and pitched the idea of a fundraiser for #SaveOurVenues with a big list of bands that have played at Green Door, Hope, Albert and that have then gone on to play at The Dome, and I feel like that really illustrated that without the smaller venues there are no headliners at The Dome. That’s a crucial part of the music scene and a crucial part of live music in general. 

Andrew Comben took that all on board and then what was going to be a one-day fundraiser evolved into four shows across four weekends with multiple venues, trusts and groups all involved.

Brighton is a city that has such a rich live music culture, do you feel that it maybe gets taken for granted that it is always going to be there? When in fact it is so often in need of support?

Yes. That’s why we formed the Music Venue Alliance Brighton between The Hope and Ruin, Green Door, Latest Music Bar and The Prince Albert in the first place, to really illustrate that. Particularly in terms of having a voice and showing that we are not just venues full of unruly students getting pissed up, we are a really important part of Brighton and Hove’s economy and culture – as much as The Dome is, as much as The Theatre Royal is. We all do what we do because we are knowledgeable about it and we do it because we really appreciate what it means to so many people. The amount of money that these venues have raised from crowdfunding and from the Cultural Recovery Fund really shows that by banding together and banging on about how important we are, it has worked, it is being recognised now.

Nobody knew a pandemic was round the corner of course, but the amount of money the venues have raised on their own I think really shows just how passionate people are about these places and how localised this real deep support is.

When people come down to Brighton they don’t just come watch a band and leave. They go and look round the Lanes, go into independent shops, have dinner at a small restaurant, get some drinks in a bar, maybe stay in a hotel of an AirBnB, park in a car park – these visits may be about going to see a band but these people spend money all across the city, with so many businesses, shops and what have you. It is so, so important that this aspect is recognised. This is what we were working on pre-pandemic, and if there are any positives that have come out of the pandemic, it is that we have proven without doubt the importance of Brighton’s live music scene to the entire city, not just the places where the gigs happen.

Do you feel like venues and live music were hung out to dry in the early stages of lockdown, overlooked?

I think without the Music Venues Trust things would have gone very different. They have been crucial for getting music venues into the public spotlight and highlighting the issues of required funding. I feel that without their help there may have only been a handful of local venues that would have been successful in applying for the Cultural Relief Fund grants, but because of MVT and the help that they provided you have seen more than 80 percent of applications resulting in funding. 

Music Venues Trust has also been able to financially help those that were not successful from all the money that they themselves have raised for the cause. Between the grants and the MVT money so many venues have been saved and they have played such a massive part in this.

Don’t get me wrong, applying for the grants was hard, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes, but the help from Music Venues Trust was invaluable. They employed an entire team of fundraising experts to help people with the applications and ensure that they were in the best shape that they could be. It was such a help to have a professional eye going over it, and that’s why so many venues were so successful.

Is it important, in the wake of these funding victories, to not lose sight of the issues remaining – primarily the future of staff associated with venues forced to close? 

There are still so many people associated with venues, many of whom are freelance, that still require assistance. The Cultural Recovery Fund has ensured that venues themselves can keep existing, but it doesn’t go the whole way to protect all the people that have been affected by their closure. The funding can top up those places that have been able to open in some capacity, to serve drinks and such and it essentially pays others to stay shut, but this still doesn’t solve the problem facing staff members, and of course, these venues don’t exist without staff.

Take Concorde 2 for example, it’s a historic venue and one of the bigger ones in the city, but without a sold-out gig and then a club night afterwards, operating at present isn’t practical in basic terms of staff costs, opening and such. I know they’ve done some events over the summer, but it’s really hard for everyone right now. 

Do you feel like both in terms of the overall pandemic, and specifically organising Live is Alive, that there has been a real community coming-together within the music sector?

Yes, I think so. Music venues in particular have always worked together to make things work, be it sourcing a house drum kit on the day of a show, or mics and such. It has always been done like that, people going the extra mile to help each other because they all love live music, and that is something that has really come out strong during all of this. We all need each other more than ever, we need all the venues to be working towards the same goal, which is helping each other. Not just in Brighton, there are lots of places throughout the UK where there may only be one venue, and if that goes it will probably never be replaced, so there’s a collective need to protect all venues throughout the country as we are all part of the same whole. 

It is crucial not just for the people that work with venues and the bands that play them, but these places are cornerstones of communities, they are crucial for so many people. Some people go and watch football, or go cycling, I go and see a show and so do many others. There are so many people who’s entire social life has been built through going to shows and finding like minded people. This is something that the Music Venues Trust has hit upon, that we are as viable as art galleries, opera houses and concert halls. Live music venues are equally as critical to culture, equally as viable as businesses and equally as important to the country and the people in it.