Photography: Lucy McLachlan / @lucy_alexandra

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The case of Sarah Everard drew attention to women’s safety, especially at night. Downloads of location tracking apps increased, many music venues reiterated their safety policies and there was a flurry of advice, some of it addressing men and their behaviour on nights out. We at Where Are The Girl Bands? debated hosting an open discussion with men who are willing to learn more about the issue. In fact, we’ve wanted to encourage the involvement of men in our work and discussions for a long time, as our audience is inevitably female dominated. It can feel like we are somewhat preaching to the choir, and this is a time for men to engage. However, it’s a sensitive subject, essentially telling men how they ought to behave, and I don’t think there’s any right way to go about it. Instead, we turned to the idea of hosting an open discussion with gig venues open to people of all genders to participate with the aim of coming to a kind of plan.

We had conversations with the likes of Keychange, a global network looking to restructure the music industry in reaching full gender equality, and Girls Against, a non-profit organisation campaigning against sexual assault at gigs. We also looked into encouraging venues to undergo safety training with the likes of Good Night Out to prevent harassment and assault in their spaces. It’s still very much our plan to engage local venues in this discussion and point them in the direction of organisations doing fantastic work to ensure safety on the live music scene.

Bloom Building in Birkenhead contacted us offering a space to host events and provided a perfect opportunity. We’d test out some of our ideas around challenging conventional gigs and put some of the project into practice. We wanted to ask some fundamental questions: why do gigs follow that same pattern? Why are we stood up, holding a beer? Why’s it so loud you can’t hear your mate talking? Should we even talk over music? Is there any need for the amount of flashing lights they have? Does it need to be this dark? Do gigs even necessarily need to be at night? After all, there have always been gigs that think outside the box – look at the Great Gig In The Sky, or Max Richter’s eight-hour symphony performed to a sleeping audience. But these are still huge spectacles and not entirely normalised concepts.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good thrash around at a gig and I like them the way they are, but thinking about it, a lot of events are pretty inaccessible to a lot of people. A few discussions with our network led to an understanding of what people wanted to see more of – and less of – at gigs. We got an idea of what we could do to make ours safer and more accessible, kicking off with a launch event in July. Among the mentioned factors were disabled access, a lack of zero-tolerance policies and the presence of female security guards.

While easing back into live music, we wanted the gig to be tranquil and easygoing. We hosted discussions around accessibility in gig spaces, encouraging people to start conversations and feel more at ease. This was followed by a reiki meditation session led by the wonderful Lyndsay Price, which really highlighted that sense of intimacy and created a different level of engagement with the music that followed. The audience were seated or reclining on cushions and beanbags, as Sophie Bernice played a dreamy set of soft folk songs. It was a lovely evening, with audience members invited to give feedback afterwards, several remarking how different it was from anything they’d been to before.

“We’re facing a time of cultural and social readjustment after a rupture in our normal lives, and this gives us the opportunity to rethink some of our social conventions”

As well as looking at the format and the line-up, we ensured the venue was fully wheelchair accessible; gender-neutral toilets were available, as well as quiet spaces for people to use if they needed. We offered concession prices on tickets and established a zero-tolerance policy towards harassment. It’s small actions behind-the-scenes that ensure gigs are fully accessible to all; equality, diversity and inclusion checks as well as frameworks to prevent labour exploitation, and venues should be making checks on their accessibility and safety policies. If we’ve learned one thing, it’s that communication with your audience is the most important thing. This makes events more enjoyable and accessible to all and appealing to a wider pool of people.

We’re not saying ours is the ultimate solution and the quintessential model that everyone should follow. But, for many, it made for a successful transition back into live music. Equally, being public and transparent about real policies and genuine steps made avoids an air of performativity and makes gigs safer and more enjoyable for all.

Following our launch event, we also hosted a series of Development Days and workshops open to all. Over the years, our network has grown from musicians to other creatives working in the music industry – photographers, writers, artists, producers and more. In order to provide for everyone, we have been inviting local artists to lead workshops in these disciplines, bringing together the local creative community, encouraging networks and enabling personal and professional development and collaboration. Our hope is that venues reconsider how they use their spaces. A gig space, for example, can be used not exclusively for shows but to nurture the local community of creatives that use it and make it what it is.

The events series comes hand in hand with a survey, which we’d really encourage everyone who’s ever been to a gig to fill out. This is all about addressing the needs of the local community and scene, and Ella and I alone aren’t representative of that, of course. More than anything, we just want to chat about what works on the scene – it may be perfect and there’s not a thing you’d change – and what doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head for you. We’re also excited to be running a competition as part of the survey. Submit a gig idea to us – as radical as you like – and the winner will get their gig idea realised at Bloom Building.

Epidemics and pandemics are markers for change. Often, after a catastrophe, recovery is needed which often requires new discourse, new ideas and new modes of living. The impact the pandemic has had on culture is undoubtedly enormous. We’re facing a time of cultural and social readjustment after a rupture in our normal lives, and this gives us the opportunity to rethink some of our social conventions.

Although everything can supposedly legally go back to normal, and although I am thrilled that this means financial stability for venues and joy for audiences and artists alike, the reality of the experience of live music for some people will be far from that. Gigs and venue spaces still need to account for financial loss, new audiences, new technology and adapting to the pandemic itself. Music, after all, is for everyone – alternatives need to be made available. !

Visit bit.ly/watgbsurvey to fill out the Live Music Spaces Survey.

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