Exchange is a venue that has firmly occupied an important place on Bristol’s musical map since opening its doors in 2012. The live music venue has hosted a wide array of now-major artists including George Ezra, Four Tet, IDLES and Sleaford Mods, to name but a few, as well as being a regular home to boundary-pushing collectives like Young Echo and local indie labels such as 1% of One, Invisible Llama Music and Gravy Train.
Exchange has won the hearts of many of us here in Bristol due to its undying support for the city’s grassroots music scene
On top of a constant stream of genuinely-interesting events, Exchange has won the hearts of many of us here in Bristol due to its undying support for the city’s grassroots music scene and creative endeavours – the 250 capacity venue is also home to a record shop, recording studio and offices for local promoters and record labels.
Already registered as a Community Interest Company, Exchange is planning to take things a step further by becoming Bristol’s first community-owned live music venue. It’s an ambitious campaign to help secure its future, helmed by venue co-owner and manager Matt Otridge.
Exchange is planning to take things a step further by becoming Bristol’s first community-owned live music venue
Born and bred in Bristol, Matt got into music promotion from a very young age and has been peddling its spirit in Bristol ever since. On top of running Exchange, Matt promotes across a number of music venues in Bristol as one half of Deadpunk Promotions, and has been involved in many important projects over the years including Ashton Court Festival and Brisfest, as well as much-missed music venue The Croft. He’s played a major part in the city’s musical evolution and he assures us that he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
‘I started promoting gigs in 2002, as well as working at The Croft. After a few years, an opportunity came up with two of the owners to purchase a lease on it. The three of us started running The Croft in 2007, then a few years later another opportunity came up to buy Exchange, so we took that on too. My now-wife saw it on RightMove, as we were looking for a house at the time. We managed to use the reputation that we’d established at The Croft to borrow the money and we bought the building outright.’
Though unable to juggle both, sadly, The Croft closed down in 2013 after having hosted the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Imelda May, Dark Sky and Vessel, and going down as an important part of Bristol’s recent musical history.
‘I wanted to do something creative with my life and being a venue owner and promoter you get the creativity of being involved with something that’s culturally important and something that brings positive change to your community. I’ve met lifelong friends and particularly where I come from, which is the more punky, DIY culture, you meet a lot of likeminded people and it’s a good medium for discussing ideas. It’s been a really positive thing in my life.’
…adding fuel to the fear that this notoriously vibrant city is on the way to losing its soul to the rampant gentrification that’s already seen property rental skyrocke
However, despite being such an important cultural asset to the city, like many other grassroots venues in Bristol and across the UK, Exchange’s future is at risk.
Bristol’s nightlife scene has been facing an uphill struggle in recent years, adding fuel to the fear that this notoriously vibrant city is on the way to losing its soul to the rampant gentrification that’s already seen property rental skyrocket. Recently, we’ve seen threats to a number of iconic music venues including two high profile closures, The Surrey Vaults and Bierkeller. With more inner-city developments on the way, without significant pushback from the people of Bristol, it’s unlikely things are going to get easier anytime soon.
In a bid to fight back, Exchange have made a bold decision to become community-owned – selling affordable shares people interested in the both securing and having a say in the future of Exchange.
Exchange are hosting a Q&A with the current directors tonight from 7.30pm – 8.30pm followed by a free-entry event with live music from some of the acts who work or have worked at the venue
Applications to buy a share of Exchange went live today and they’ve already reached 5% of their total £250,000 goal. Exchange are hosting a Q&A with the current directors tonight from 7.30pm – 8.30pm followed by a free-entry event with live music from some of the acts who work or have worked at the venue.
The money raised by the community-ownership scheme will for the most part be spent on new renovations and improvements, with some set side to cover the costs of current assets and recent development. Importantly, Exchange also hoping to gain a huge network of co-owners who will have a say in the future of the venue.
‘First and foremost’ explains Matt, ‘what lead us to this idea is that we’ve been running venues for 12 years now. We’ve made great memories and friends, but it is a huge drain on your time and it’s difficult when you’re not really making any money. In order for Exchange to be able to exist for years to come, we can’t always rely on goodwill and people’s love of live music. We need to ensure the people who work here in the future are actually getting paid a living, because there won’t always be the people with the right skills available willing to do it for free.
In order for Exchange to be able to exist for years to come, we can’t always rely on goodwill and people’s love of live music
‘The other and major part of it is that we’re all getting older and we need the ideas of the future. We’re looking to the community for not just the initial investment but for ideas that will help carry Exchange through for however long, and hopefully this is a way of securing that longterm future.
‘Obviously it is about raising money as well, which will allow us to implement some ideas that we can see would make the venue better and more financially stable – which is a growing concern. It’s also about being aware that we need to take the reins on finding our own destiny, because there is so little funding left for venues in the UK.’
Without the aid of external stakeholders, Exchange have realised that nobody else is going to help them and that they need to find a longterm solution in order for the venue to exist for years to come. Matt is confident that becoming a community-owned venue is the answer and firmly believes that a number of engaged co-owners will allow business to thrive.
‘This is a way of finding a longterm solution and Bristol feels like a city that will embrace the community vibe of it all. We were already a Community Interest Company and we are already doing things to engage the community, so it seemed like the next logical step.
I’m sure the venue is prime real estate but we want more than that for Exchange. We don’t want to embrace the gentrification that went on in Stokes Croft and is beginning to happen over here
‘I’m sure the venue is prime real estate but we want more than that for Exchange’ Matt explains. ‘We don’t want to embrace the gentrification that went on in Stokes Croft and is beginning to happen over here. I don’t think that venues should have to keep moving because areas get cooler, they should be the pride of the city. They should remain in places for people to see and embrace, because they are important.’
For those wondering exactly what a community-owned Exchange will look like, Matt explains that everybody who buys a share, available from £250 upwards, will get one vote on all member decisions – no matter how much they invest. They will also have the opportunity to be voted onto a members’ board and, eventually, voted in as a director of live music. These positions will also carry a term limit, to keep things continually evolving far into the future.
Of course, people will also get a tax relief and percentage back on their investment, so those with more money to invest will see a greater return, although the one-vote system prevents Exchange from being gobbled up by any majority share corporate investor with less honest visions for its future.
the one-vote system prevents Exchange from being gobbled up by any majority share corporate investor with less honest visions for its future
‘We recognise that for some people £250 is too much money, however, if they still believe in the place and want to help, it’s all about spreading the word. For those who can buy shares, part of your money will go towards covering historical debts, fixtures and fittings, and the lease’ continues Matt ‘though the majority will be spent on improvements to the venue. We want to improve the outside area and rearrange the venue to allow our new owners and the wider community access every night of the week. We want to invest into sound, stage and the lighting to improve the gigging experience for bands and audience, and we will also be looking to improve venue accessibility.
‘We also plan to invest into green energy ideas, such as solar panels, to bring down our utility costs whilst also improving the venue’s environmental impact. We have also set aside some of the budget for ideas, to try out some new nights and support new ideas, promoters and initiatives.’
Despite the challenges that Bristol’s grassroots music venues are currently experiencing, it’s good to know that there are people out there like Matt who are determined to make sure the city’s arts and nightlife scene maintains its edge. When I asked why people should invest, Matt replies:
‘It’s about appreciating the culture of Bristol and live music venues in general. I think it’s a really good opportunity to make a difference. I think we’re the first venue whose main focus is live music to do this in England and it’s a great way to show that there are other ways of keeping grassroots venues alive, because the community is sick of seeing live music venues shut down all over the country.
it’s a great way to show that there are other ways of keeping grassroots venues alive, because the community is sick of seeing live music venues shut down all over the country
‘I hope that one of the things that comes out of this is that other venues see what we’re doing and turn to the community to safeguard their cultural assets.
‘I’ve just become a father and I would love to think that in 18 years’ time my daughter will be able to buy a share, because Exchange will still be here. And then she can also become part of its community. I’m not planning on going anywhere anytime soon, as I really love being part of the venue, but I’m also excited that one day other likeminded people can take on this project. It’s nice to know that the venue will be in good hands and that’s the good thing about this community benefit society – it’s not like somebody could snap it all up and change it into a wine bar. Like every venue, it will evolve but it will stay within the parameters of what the wider community think makes the place great.’
Tintype photography by Martin Thompson