In the only well-lit corner of The Windmill in Brixton, a woman has been playing drums since noon – it’s now quarter to six at night. Surrounded by massive boards of wood to encapsulate the sound, she inhabits the intimate space that has played host to some of the nation’s biggest bands.
Bloc Party, Florence + the Machine, the Horrors, Biffy Clyro – these are just a few of the acts that have passed through The Windmill’s doors. With a foldback system of speakers resting atop an old carpet as the only thing separating the stage and fans, an immediate bond between the audience and band is born.
And yet, intimate venues like The Windmill build more than just rapport; it is the kind of place that can form a reputation – such as the Sex Pistols did at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 20, 1976. Though specifically The Windmill itself, intimate venues all over the UK are at danger of becoming a rarity.
Tim Perry, who has worked at The Windmill for over 13 years, is the band booker and calls the venue a “stepchild of the scene” due to the institution-like status it has garnered for discovering up-and-coming bands.
“It’s just the way society and capitalism goes,” Perry tells me. “The music industry has gotten squashed by others. It’s a little pet for movie soundtracks or commercials. A few years ago, people spoke about how live music was coming back and they weren’t going to be able to take it away… but they are.”
Still, Perry soldiers on to ensure bands are playing at the venue six or seven nights a week. He passionately emphasises the integral role of small venues within the industry: “You can’t divorce small venues from the music industry… you can’t divorce the music industry from society as a whole.”
This same passion permeates the Music Venue Trust, an organisation that believes these small venues deserve funding but are not receiving it because live pop venues fail to fall within any cultural classification. Founded by Mark Davyd and consisting of people involved in the small venue circuit, the Music Venue Trust is the first ‘trade body’ of its kind.
“At a local level, it’s working really well,” Perry explains. “There’s a voice towards the Greater London Authority. The important point made is that we are cultural. We get no grants and we get screwed on licensing,” Perry explains. With no help in funding, even installing a disabled toilet costs £6,000; a heavy price to pay for a venue as small as this.
Tiny but mighty, Perry is grateful to the big bands that come back. Fat White Family and The Vaccines returned to the Windmill after achieving great success, as did Frank Turner, who is also involved with the Music Venue Trust. But not all bands remember to look back: “Some of the industry lose sight of the grass roots,” Perry explains, noting that it is venues like The Windmill where bands are made. “It’s the passion! You can smell the bastards!”
Despite their talent-shaping potential, small venues such as The Buffalo Bar in Highbury, which hosted names such as The Libertines, The National and Bombay Bicycle Club, and Madame JoJo’s in Soho, have closed down, ripped away for their prime property value. But the real value lost? The musical playground provided by the small venue for bands to reach their full potential.
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Words: Daniel Mackay
Photography: Luke Cole