How Portsmouth's grass-roots music venue The Wedgewood Rooms is surviving the pandemic
Having had goodness knows how many beers, vodkas, wines and more spilt on it over the years, the floor at The Wedgewood Rooms is legendary for its somewhat sticky nature.
However, when the public is finally able to once again return to the Albert Road venue they may not even realise it – but that floor has been totally replaced.
And if you ever needed a story to encapsulate this storied building’s place in people’s affections, it’s this – one of the guys who put the new floor in met his future wife at a show there. So he took a square of the old floor home with him, had it framed and gave it to her as a Valentine’s Day present.
When The Wedge closed last March, the final call came so suddenly that the chairs were already set out for that night’s comedy show by Lou Sanders.
As the lockdown marched on, though, it became clear that this time actually provided an unforeseen upside – the opportunity to improve things that could never have been done while the venue was in regular use.
As a result they've redecorated the building from front-to-back, thrown out heaps of rubbish, painted the offices, replaced the floor, fixed a five year old leak in the roof of The Edge of The Wedge, and given the Edge a total overhaul – installing new lights, extending the stage, rebuilding the bar area and creating a new dressing room.
That’s not to mention creating a new website and introducing a new range of merch featuring clothing with the venue’s various logos from down the years.
Geoff Priestley, The Wedge’s manager for more than 20 years, says: ‘We've been working quite hard to do the place up, repair lots of things that were damaged off the back of fixing other things that were damaged, and trying to move us forward.
‘Weirdly, it's been quite a positive year for us in some respects – it's given us space to look at what we do, move the building forward, and historically, the thing we're always short of is time, now...
‘There's a whole lot of stuff that doesn't really effect the public, but it does affect how people do their jobs – there's been a whole lot of technical stuff that we finally finished off fixing from four years ago.
‘Putting the new floor in was supposed to be a week job – take the old lino up, put new lino down. But once we lifted the old lino we discovered that all the ply flooring underneath was rotten so we had to rip all that out too.
‘A week's job turned into a month's job, which we wouldn't have been able to do if we'd been open because we would have only programmed to be shut for a week. So we managed to do that and do it properly.’
A real turning point was the #SaveOurVenues crowdfunder in April last year which saw The Wedge smash its £12,000 target in a mere 12 hours.
The Wedge’s graphic designer Tanya Durrant says: ‘There was a sense of community, it made us lot feel very loved.’
Geoff adds: ‘It also made us feel very responsible – when you get that sort of outpouring of emotion. You always like to think in the fluffy world of rock'n'roll that you do mean things to people, but for people to a) divvy up their hard-earned cash, when there isn't a lot about, and b) it wasn't just the cash, it was the comments people were leaving. We were all on a Zoom call together reading them and it was all too much.
‘Without that initial support from Crowdfunder... it gave us the first step, and the hope.
‘Off the back of that, we got some matched-funding, and then when we applied for the cultural regeneration funding. An integral part of that application was proving that your community supported you, and now we had the physical evidence to prove that.’
The Wedge was awarded £147,372 from the government-backed fund to help cultural institutions survive the pandemic.
‘There's a responsibility to come back and a responsibility to come back better because you realise how invested people are in this place.
‘To do your job and find out that people really appreciate that is a really lucky and amazing thing and not to be dismissed.’
That isn’t to say the last year has been easy. The shifting sands of lifting and reimposing restrictions has made planning anything difficult. Last autumn proved particularly tough when plans to reopen had to be abandoned as Covid-19 cases and death again spiralled upwards.
‘We did nothing for about three months,’ recalls Geoff. ‘We'd kept moving up to that point, and I think we all got a bit demoralised around Christmas.
‘I didn't come into the building for six weeks, which I think is the longest period ever.’
The seven-strong team of core staff even stopped having their regular Zoom calls for a while.
‘We'd been doing them twice a week, just meeting up to talk nonsense,’ says Tanya. ‘Everyone was a bit meh. We're all mates as well, we're not just colleagues.’
The staff also used the building as somewhere to escape to.
‘I'd not come in for two days and I'd find that someone had painted a wall somewhere,’ says Geoff. ‘In lockdown the staff who work here have been using this as a space to get out of the house, somewhere safe.’
Marketing manager Matthew Tiller adds: ‘It's been lovely to be able to do that – we live in a tiny little flat without a garden.’
The Wedge was due to reopen on June 27 with that postponed show by Lou Sanders. However, the government’s decision to delay June 21’s ‘freedom day, again kicked that in to the long grass. They will however be putting on some socially distanced gigs before all restrictions are (hopefully) lifted on July 19.
Matthew says: ‘One thing we've missed a lot is engaging with the local bands and the community, we've been able to do bits here and there, and obviously we're very grateful for the support we got through the crowdfunder.
‘But reconnecting with those people is something we're very excited about.’
‘As much as it's perceived we're all about the touring acts, that's just a part of what we actually do, the bigger picture is about the local gigs, the charity gigs, and I think we've all missed that and being able to contribute positively to the local community.’
Geoff agrees: ‘That's the bit I'm missing. The touring stuff is there and it's important, but we do an awful lot of work with a whole load of community groups, favours for local bands and things like that, and it feels wrong that we haven't been doing that.’
‘Because it's not so focussed on sell, sell, sell, gig, gig, gig, putting out fires: “That show's not selling”, and so on,’ says Matthew, ‘we've been looking more at how we communicate with people, how do we put ourselves across?’
To that end, they have been using social media more to share updates about things that would have previously been ‘behind the scenes’
Matthew explains: ‘We’ve been communicating more information than we would normally have, and I think people have been excited to see things happen.’
With the venue unable to open, they instead used its windows for art exhibitions – of concert photography or for University of Portsmouth art exhibitions.
Not everything they’ve wanted to do has worked, though. There had been plans to livestream bands from an otherwise empty venue.
Matthew says: ‘There's lots of things we wanted to do that we hadn't been able to do or hadn't got around to, like me and Joe, the techy here, very early on we were talking about filming bands here and we did loads of tests, and we really wanted to do it, but every time we got ready, the rug got pulled.’
(Check out the video above to see a test-run featuring Wedge colleague and singer-songwriter Andrew Foster.)
Looking ahead, Geoff says: ‘Are we positive? Yes, we're positive, but the thing I've learned this year is not to get stressed about the things you can't control – and patience.
‘Reopening with Lou Sanders would have been a nice bit of symmetry, but we can't do that so we just have to move on.
‘The position we're in is that because we've had some support – we all want to open and do what we do for a living – but there is contingency built in to the last round of funding that allows for some flexibility.
‘In fact, most of what we've been doing is geared up for what we've got on from the beginning of September – that's when we cram two years of shows in to six months.
‘We do revolve around the touring season and July and August are traditionally our quiet periods anyway. So the shows for July, some of that is about trying to get us lot match fit again.’
Matthew adds: ‘Something we've never lost sight of is that this has been a huge traumatic tragedy, and as much as we all love live music and we want to push "Live music's coming back!", you have to respect that people are all reacting in different ways.’
But it all boils down to the intangible, unbeatable power of the live music experience.
Says Geoff: ‘In our case it's 400 people having a shared experience, but each one of them having it differently – and you can't translate that.
‘I'm looking forward to getting back into the swing of things when we're doing what we do, and what people want us and expect us to do, as well as we can.’
The role of the Music Venues Trust
Since lockdown began last March, the Music Venues Trust has come into its own.
The MVT was originally set up in 2014 to provide help and support for the independent venue sector.
It was the MVT which initiated the #SaveOurVenues crowdfunding campaigns, and it has helped keep the venues’ interests in the public eye.
In a more practical sense it has also been on hand to offer help in things like filling out the paperwork for grants and other funding.
Matthew says: ‘Venues were struggling before this and I'm sure they'll struggle after this, but it enabled conversations to happen – it made people appreciate a bit more what we do.
‘Reflecting on what venues mean to people, obviously it means a lot to us and not just financially because we work here, but symbolically what it means to them.
‘It's nice to know these spaces do mean a lot to people – The Wedge has struggled a lot over the years and it is amazing that it's still here.’
Last year, Geoff became the MVT south east regional coordinator. He says: ‘The MVT's been sat there for the last four or five years, finding its feet, sorting itself out, and then this crisis comes along and suddenly it's like it's been built for this. Membership increased from 600 to 900 venues.’
‘In the whole of lockdown there’s only been 10 venues gone, but all of them were either due to go anyway because there were lease negotiations due, or other factors – they're not pandemic-based losses.
‘Everybody's hanging in there still.
‘It's definitely made us part of the national conversation.
‘Grass-roots music venues have actually been mentioned in parliament for the first time, and suddenly after all the work everyone has put in from all these venues nationally, people finally get what we do.
‘It got us a seat at the table when cultural money was being handed out. It was something ridiculous like 94 per cent of the venues had never had any public money in any way shape or form before this.’
Keeping the team together
When The Wedge reopens, it will have the same core team as last March.
‘Sixteen months ago, no-one even knew the word furlough,’ says Geoff, ‘but it's been a godsend, it's allowed me to keep the seven core team members together – which has been important for when the time does come.’
Matthew says: ‘We are music fans first and foremost and it informs our identity, we work here for the love – it's not for the financial gain!
‘To have that removed forcibly has been very strange.’
Tanya adds: ‘We're all music fans here and we want to share that, and we have that privilege and opportunity because we work here – it has been taken away, and that has been rubbish.’
While ‘the magnificent seven’ have been kept on, there are all the casual staff who keep the venue running smoothly – from the door to the security and the bar (and the daytime cleaner!) not to mention the technical team.
When they return, none of them will have been in a venue since last March either.
Tanya says: ‘Having been out to a few pubs and that, I would urge the public to be tolerant – I've noticed that the staff are a bit fragile and up in the air – they've not worked for ages.
‘I have no doubt we'll operate smoothly, but there will be times when it's like "oh my god, what do we do here?" because it is going to be different.’
The past year has been tough for many backhouse staff in the music business. As freelancers many have fallen between the cracks of various funds or ineligible for schemes like furlough.
‘Our colleagues and friends who do work in the industry,’ says Tanya, ‘who don't work in venues, the tech crews, the lighting, I want to acknowledge the part those guys play too.’
Matthew adds: ‘The wider public doesn't know or care who works here, they just want this building to be here doing what it does because they want to maintain their attachment to it.
‘But it's those invisible people that make the magic happen.’
For more information go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.
The latest listings
When The Wedgewood Rooms shut its doors it had more than 80 gigs and events pending.
The constant rearranging has been a logistical headscratcher.
This is the schedule as it currently stands.
:: Was June 27: Lou Sanders – rescheduled to Saturday, September 11
:: Was July 1: Nature TV – rescheduled to July 14, socially distanced show
:: Was July 4: Sarpa Salpa – cancelled, but they are playing Golden Touch Festival at The Wedge on September 4
:: Was July 8: Hive Society – cancelled
:: Was July 10: Fast Trains – rescheduled to July 15
:: Was July 15: Flo & Joan – rescheduled date TBC, probably in August
:: July 16: Mr Ben & The Bens – socially distanced show
:: July 17: Fleetingwood Mac – evening show sold out. Matinee socially distanced show added, doors 3pm ticket price as evening. On sale to public 10am, Monday, June 21
:: July 18: The Smyths – two shows, socially distanced
:: July 24: B of The Bang reunion, benefit gig for Team Sexton
:: July 25: Jonny & The Baptists: Dance Like It Never Happened
:: July 31: Kojak’s Revenge, Summer Party
:: August 9: Open Your Mouth: The Return
:: Sept 4: Golden Touch Festival
:: Sept 5: Rock The Foundation with Who’s Who and The Rolling Tones
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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