A threat to close down Preston’s most iconic grassroots music venue has sparked a campaign to secure its future as a cooperative — and shown a real alternative to the for-profit model destroying local culture.

The Ferret in Preston is one of the city’s last remaining live music venues.

Since 2006, The Ferret — previously the Mad Ferret — has stood as one of the city of Preston’s most iconic venues. Once a standard pub on the arterial Fylde Road, the venue that sits opposite the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) campus has gained the loyalty of hundreds of bands and regular punters.

But in a city of over 140,000 people, it is one of the last remaining live music venues. Despite the venue’s solid social base, the Ferret had a bombshell dropped on it in the past year: their landlords intended to put the building up for sale. For those running the place, it seemed likely that the building would fall into the hands of property developers, putting the Ferret at real risk of closure.

The Ferret’s possible fate is far from irregular. In the past two decades, the doors have closed on 35 percent of grassroots music venues, with the majority vanishing due to rent hikes, property redevelopment and noise complaints. This year, the Independent Society of Musicians found that one small venue closes every month. These problems have only been compounded by Covid-19, unmanageable energy bills and the economic crisis, with a recent YouGov study finding that 50 percent of Britons can’t afford to go to gigs.

At a time when those who platform, create and enjoy live music need more support than ever, The Ferret — like too many venues before them — have found themselves falling foul of potential gentrification, with landlords placing profits ahead of the people and cultural landscape of Preston. Here, they have followed Edinburgh’s Picture House, which closed after owners sold the premises to Wetherspoon, which doesn’t play music. Across the Pennines from Preston, the legendary Leeds venue The Cockpit was forced to close, despite the city’s huge student population.

More recently, Manchester’s Night & Day Cafe were served legal notice by the city council after a single noise complaint was made by someone who moved above the venue decades after it had been well-established (and who has since moved out). As a result, the Night & Day and Manchester City Council are now in a legal battle, with the venue maintaining that the source of this problem was that ‘no acoustic consideration was given during the planning of the apartments next to the pre-existing venue.’

It is a bleak situation. Growing up in the North West, the fondest memories of my adolescence revolve around going to gigs, watching friends’ bands or dancing to DJs across Lancashire and Greater Manchester. They were formative: lifelong friendships were sparked late at night on sticky dancefloors over cheap beer in environments where many of us could find our crowd. Without these venues, how would so many of us have developed as freely, or have found the people we now cherish? These institutions, small as they were, made my world a lot larger, yet many have vanished — mostly because our prevailing economic and political system values landlords and wealthy flat-owners over those who offer something culturally and socially rich to society.

Access to grassroots venues is essential to any functioning music, comedy or arts scene. Without them, people have no space to perform, no platform to progress, and no method of engaging and encountering like-minded comedians and performers. If we continue to allow venue after venue to close unchecked, this will represent yet more serious decline for our country. Without the political will to stop this now, more venues will close and the communities that surround them won’t recover.

Turning the Tide

Having been all too aware that the closure of the Ferret would have been ‘very sad times’ for Preston and the wider region, the Ferret’s managing director, Matt Fawbert, took matters into his own hands. ‘If the Ferret goes, where can you experience live music in Preston?’ he asks Tribune. ‘Venues like this are the heartbeat of the local music scene. They’re cultural hubs, championing new music and young musicians, and bring experienced artists across the world to play for local communities who wouldn’t otherwise experience them.’

Matthew Brown, the leader of Preston Council, agreed. In the city, the left-led Labour council is well known for its success in putting social-democratic policies into practice through its Community Wealth Building strategy, and it was an immediate ally to the Ferret. Acknowledging its community significance, they managed to delay the potential sale of the building by granting it an Asset of Community Value, giving those running the venue six months to plan an alternative future.

They then turned to the Music Venue Trust, which was founded to help protect, secure and improve music venues. After hearing their case, they chose to include the Ferret in Own Our Venues, an opportunity for people to own, protect & improve grassroots music venues. Their aim is to permanently secure a future for venues, using a cooperative ownership model, with the Trust believing that venues should belong to those who care about them, play in them and frequent them.

They are looking for people to join Music Venue Properties, a ‘community benefit society’ that aims to purchase freeholds with the aim of renting them back to operators at affordable rates. The aim is ambitious and will require a total of £2.5 million to maintain all nine of the grassroots music venues it has set out to save. It is hoped that it will give community venues greater economic resilience against gentrification, as well as let them plan for the future, make necessary investments, and create community spaces where culture can thrive.

After being approached, Preston City Council showed their solidarity with the Ferret by loaning £150,000 to the campaign, with Brown explaining how the venue was ‘central to Preston’s music scene’ and that the council’s deeper democratic visions necessarily meant strengthening Preston’s cultural institutions. The Ferret also turned to traditional crowdfunding to bolster support offered by Own Our Venues, with people making £50,000 from nearly 500 supporters.

But the long slog doesn’t stop there. As Fawbert is keen to add, the Ferret is not out of the woods yet. ‘As is often the case with these things, legal and financial complications have slowed things down a bit’, he explains. But he assures that the plans to acquire the Ferret are ‘deep’ and that he has serious ambitions for the building to possibly become a community arts centre. ‘Our main goal was to save what we have’, he says, ‘but if we manage to save the whole building, it opens up a very exciting world of possibilities for culture in Preston.’

In not-too-distant Wigan, Music Venue Properties recently announced the first venue purchase under their public ownership scheme — The Snug in Atherton. After years in the making, this is a great step forward for the industry, proving public ownership of venues is viable. There is no doubt that it’s disheartening to see venue after venue fall under threat in this country, with very little in the way of solutions for communities to take control of their venues.

But what has happened in the Ferret has shown is that there can be a fightback. This small venue in Preston has proven we can resist — by involving progressive ownership, grassroots organising and intervention from socialists in local government, a different method is being opened up for society to function and for culture to prosper.

It’s clear that the current Conservative government or landlords can’t be relied upon to support our venues or our local culture, so matters must be taken into our own hands, using the greatest possible leverage and power. Should the fight of Preston City Council, Own Our Venues and hundreds of ordinary people win, a northern city will have the foundations not only to help a significant venue survive — but also thrive in its offers towards a new generation of music lovers.

If you can afford to, please consider becoming a stakeholder in Own Our Venues or donate to crowdfunders.

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