Small Music Venues - Summer 2020

The Waterloo Music Bar, Blackpool

Dave Grohl recently said ‘There is nothing like the energy and atmosphere of live music’ and he is absolutely spot on. Whether it’s a stadium show or a band playing at your local pub, it can be an entirely exhilarating experience. However, there is something really special about seeing a show at a small music venue. Often run by die hard music fans, these venues have a capacity of less than 1,000 people and their relevance within the overall music scene can not be overstated. They provide a platform for new artists, an intimate environment for established artists to perform exclusive shows and also the opportunity for people to hear new music. The one thing that all stadium and arena headliners have in common is that they all started in a small music venue. You may be surprised to learn that there are around 500 small music venues in the UK but sadly those numbers are shrinking due to the unprecedented threats many face: increasing rents, unsupportive councils, uncertainties resulting from Brexit and of course the fact many have had to close their doors because of the impacts of the Coronavirus. This problem isn’t unique to the UK. It’s a worldwide issue and one thing is clear: without small music venues it will be impossible for many new and established artists to reach an audience and thrive.

Rock Today is therefore supporting the Music Venue Trust with their campaign to #SaveOurVenues by helping to create an awareness of why small music venues are so important. We share contributions from today’s most exciting artists and industry figures, and we hear directly from the fans themselves about what small music venues mean to them. But first we place a spotlight on a small music venue itself. Set up in 2015, the Waterloo Music Bar in Blackpool is situated a stone’s throw from the town centre. Over its 5 years of operations this 300 capacity venue has grown stratospherically to become a major player, hosting everything from rising talent to high profile international artists. This tremendous success has been achieved by the partnership of General Manager Ian Fletcher, Musical Consultant Steve Guest and, as the guys will soon proudly to point out, the whole of Team Waterloo. We catch up with Ian and Steve at the Waterloo Music Bar to get the full story of the venue’s past, present and future. Despite the doors currently being closed due to the aforementioned world events, we are met by 2 surprisingly very upbeat people filled with optimism and good cheer, the reasons for which will soon emerge throughout our conversation. With a clink of our pint glasses our conversation begins…

The Waterloo’s driving force: Steve Guest & Ian Fletcher

I want people to see the people behind the venue. You’ve been musicians and fans of live music for many years. Tell me about how your love of music began and the paths you’ve travelled that have ultimately led you to bringing us the Waterloo Music Bar.

Ian – My passion started when I saw The Ruts on Top Of The Pops back in 1979 – Babylon’s Burning, the first single I ever bought. My mother was in to Zeppelin, Sabbath and all that kind of stuff so I had no choice but to listen to all that in the car and at home. A friend of mine, Dave Foster, who I went to school with is the guitarist in Steve Rothery’s band from Marillion. He started a little garage band and they needed a bass player and as a 14 year old I thought ‘I can do this!’ even though I’d never picked up a bass before in my life. Our garage band played covers like Joan Jett and Billy Idol. This led to my band Dirty Work where we played covers as well as our own material. We had a strong local following and even went on tour a few times. My son Lucas began playing guitar and drums when he was 6 and this brought back the love of music. I became involved in Eaglefest, a festival putting on and celebrating local bands which started because of Lucas and his guitar teacher who sadly passed away. That’s how I ended up at the Waterloo. They’d had difficulties getting bands in, I was able to provide some support and influence and I never left! I’ve always wanted my own venue from when I was in my early 30s but I never thought it would happen. I kind of just fell into it not realising it was happening. Now some of the bands playing here are bands I used to see when I was Lucas’ age. It’s just been a whirlwind how it’s happened. 

Steve – I used to got to Eric’s in Liverpool when I was about 14 and travel down there on an old Ribble bus from Blackpool. I’d get a 50p matinee ticket to watch The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees – people like that – and then come back. It used to be about a 3 hour journey on the bus because it used stop everywhere and I would get the tea time bus back around 6pm. I thought Eric’s was the perfect example of a great place and it became an iconic venue. I think the Waterloo can be the same. 

So when the idea to create The Waterloo Music Bar came about, at the point where you realised it was a career opportunity for you, what was your vision for the venue?

Ian - At the start it was really just about local bands. I thought we might really just be a Saturday night venue. However, we had an opportunity to put Eureka Machines, a touring band and we thought it was great that we could potential entice bands like these to the Waterloo. What made me realise the quality of the bands we could get here was when we got offered Bad Manners. They were probably the biggest band to date we’ve ever had. They cost a lot more than what we were used to paying but we sold tickets for £10 and they flew out! This was also when I learned about the riders and contracts and more about the financial side of things. We didn’t make any money from the show but we didn’t lose any. That then pushed us in the direction of having to know how to deal with contracts etc because I’d have never thought of adding on for a rider, like I need to sell an extra 5 tickets so I can get them beers in (laughs!) or money for a the band to have a meal. So Bad Manners was groundbreaking for us. 

Steve – Since then we’ve had bands just as big or even bigger.

Some of the bands & artists....

Well let’s come on to that because in the few short years the Waterloo Music Bar has been running as the entity as it is, you’ve had incredible success. As well as showcasing some amazing new bands, you’ve hosted gigs by many heavyweight UK and international bands including Buckcherry, The Wildhearts, Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons, Chris Slade, Quireboys, John Corabi, Doug Aldrich, Terrorvision, Geoff Tate, Elles Bailey, Kris Barras. The list is huge and actually quite staggering. You must be incredibly proud of what you have been able to achieve. 

Ian – Oh, absolutely! 

Steve – We are humble with that as well. I don’t think we pat ourselves on the back too much because as quick as you can get success and get those sorts of bands in, things can come around the corner – like it has done recently – and bite you on the arse. It can all go belly-up. Although I think we’ve done well to get these bands in, you’ve got to keep grounded and keep realistic. We know our limit and where we can go to but we do try and go above that. Ian’s got great ideas and is hugely ambitious and if I know this feller, he’ll do it!

Ian – I don’t give up easy!

Steve – You’ve got to be ambitious and you’ve got to dream. Don’t ever put a lid on what you think you can do. Just go for it. When you read out that list, even I’m going ‘Wow!’, and we could add another 20 or 30 bands on to that. 

Ian – We are only here the once so why stop at Terrorvision? Let’s go above and beyond… and we will!

What do you think the Waterloo Music Bar offers music fans that is perhaps lacking with the larger more corporate venues? 

Ian – Intimacy. That chance to be up close and personal. Being able to mix with the bands that are actually playing, when they are walking up and down the stairs, when they are coming in and out etc. 

Steve – We’ve all been to arena gigs and those at bigger venues where you get nowhere near the artists. Here it’s completely different. They are walking past you. The stage is within about 20 feet of you.

Ian – Even when you are at the back you are at the front! 

Steve – 99% of the bands that come here are willing to talk to the fans, to say hello and to take a photo. You just don’t get that at bigger venues. But a major aspect is the community thing! We have a huge community spirit where more or less everyone knows each other. It’s like a hub where people come to watch bands and socialise. So it’s not just a music venue, it’s also a social hub which I think is important. We know people are really missing it already with the lockdown.

Ian – Family. As soon as you walk through the door you’re family. 

Steve – Another really important thing is bar prices. Unbelievable. We’ve been to bigger venues where they charge £5 - £6 for a pint of washy water. Here it’s an average of £3 for a pint of good quality beer. We also have lots of guest beers and everything here is affordable.

Ian – We’ve got musically-centred beers such as Motörhead Road Crew, Iron Maiden Trooper beer, AC/DC tequila, Rammstein rum, Marilyn Manson absinthe. We’ve got everything in a bottle that Motörhead promote! 

Steve – You’ve got to be inventive and imaginative because from a marketing point of view it works as well. As soon as you say ‘We’ve got Motörhead whiskey’ people are straight in there. So from a marketing perspective it works really well.

Lemmy’s Bar at the Waterloo

We are told that the futures of small music venues are under threat, whether this be because of rising rents, increased costs brought about by Brexit or of course the current impacts of the Coronavirus. This must be an incredibly uncertain time for you. How are you feeling at this time and are you having to rethink your business model to enable the Waterloo to survive?

Ian – Firstly, as the leaseholders for the venue we do have rent to pay but we do have a fantastic landlord. He is very, very reasonable and very aware of what’s going on and he’s looking after us as much as we are looking after him, so I have no concerns about the landlord. It’s very old school, there is a handshake agreement and job done. As far as everything else is concerned, what the Coronavirus situation has done, terrible as it is, it has provided us with an opportunity. Even though the government are kind of offering grants out and 80% of staff wages, which means I don’t need to lay any of the staff off, it has given us the opportunity to do the work on the building and to make the improvements we wanted to make to bring out the venues potential. We wouldn’t have had this opportunity if we were still doing 4 or 5 gigs a week. We have Lemmy’s bar with a new sign that has attracted over 70,000 views. We have also just done a Bowie wall. We’ve been wanting to do that for 12 months but it’s been physically impossible to do until now. It’s a fantastic tribute to Bowie. For the fans to come and see what we’ve done is going to be something really special! I can’t wait for when we open! Also, because we don’t have any money because we aren’t trading, without the amount of stuff that people have given us, donations such as paint, we wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing. We just hope things get back on track sooner rather than later.

Steve – The support has been excellent. 

Well, talking about support, one thing that has been wonderful to see is the outpouring of support that you’ve had from the community you’ve created at the Waterloo and all those who come to your shows. Just to give a couple of examples; one friend of the Waterloo, Chris Newis, using his own money set up an initiative to print and sell T shirts, the proceeds of which would go straight to The Waterloo. Another friend of the Waterloo, Neil Hunter, also set up a ‘go fund me’ campaign which has so far achieved £3,052 of its £3,000 target. These are incredible examples of support. How does it make you feel when you see truly heartfelt support?

Ian – Overwhelmed! It’s heartwarming!

Steve - It’s the only time I’ve seen this man cry! (Laughs!) He gets very emotional about the support we get.

Ian – I also cried when Lucas dropped my AC/DC tequila behind the bar and broke it! 

Steve – But the support we’ve had is so touching. We know what the place means to people.

Ian – We used to have that slogan ‘Team Waterloo’. It’s now ‘Waterloo Family’ because it’s not just about us anymore, it’s about everyone else who walks through the door. 

Steve – The response we’ve had from people has been incredible. They just want to help out. They can see what we’re trying to do and they want to keep it going as much as we do which is brilliant. We couldn’t be more thankful. The funding initiatives were set up by people other than ourselves and the fact that over £3,000 has been raised is incredible. That money will be used wisely to keep The Waterloo going. Without the people and the outside support of everybody we would probably have to close the doors.

Ian – They love the place as much as we do. Without them we’d be nothing. 

The Bowie Wall

Finally, what message would you give people to explain how they can support their local live music venue?

Steve – Come out and have a look. A lot of people say they will go and watch a band but they don’t. Just do it and see what it’s like. Experience it! Also, if you really like live music, this is grass roots music venue. It needs support. If people care about music in general come and support the venue because you will also be supporting the music industry as a whole. Come and support the bands more than anything. It’s so hard for touring musicians to survive. All we ask is that as well as supporting the venue, support the bands. More than anything come and enjoy yourself! Get away from your daily grind and come and see what we have to offer. 

Ian – You will also come in and make friends as well. You will discover new music that you otherwise wouldn’t have expected. 

As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect on the incredible passion and drive displayed by Ian and Steve and how through their determination to succeed the Waterloo Music Bar is now a premier small music venue with the strongest of reputations for bringing fans and artists the very best. Every nook and cranny of the Waterloo Music Bar has a conversation piece. Memorabilia, a Bowie wall, artist branded drinks and a dedicated Lemmy’s Bar are all examples of how their love for music extends to every aspect of the venue. What they also created is a community in the form of the Waterloo Family and the most heartwarming thing about this is that we can all be a part of it. Find out more about the Waterloo Music Bar at 

We hope this feature will have inspired you to check out your local small music venue. To find venues near you and for details on how to support the Music Venue Trust campaign to #SaveOurVenues, head over to In the meantime, check out what small venues mean to the artists, industry figures and the fans themselves below.

Elles Bailey

Elles BaileySmall venues are the life blood of the live music industry where artists can cut their teeth before moving on to bigger venues.  I’ve loved travelling the country playing unique and wonderful small venues, connecting with the crowds in such a personal way. It’s so important we support them now and have a scene to come back to and be excited about!

Wyatt Wendels

Wyatt Wendels, Planet Rock Radio: Simply put music venues, especially at grass roots level are the life blood of the music industry. Without these places to begin music careers and to flourish within them, I do believe that the live music industry will fall down on itself and may never get back up. It is a sector that must receive and have the appropriate support going forward in order to survive.

Phil Poole, Doomsday Outlaw

Phil Poole, Doomsday Outlaw:  Small music venues are so important to the music scene as a whole, it's where we all start. It's where we learn our craft, how to interact with a crowd and perform on stage. And even then when you start playing at larger venues there will always be a special place in your heart for the intimate gigs, the gigs where you can see the whites of people's eyes. That gives me butterflies just as much as being on a large festival stage. To put it simply, without the small venues up and down this country feeding artists and the publics need for somewhere to go and express themselves rock music will fade away into obscurity with only a small few able to break through. We all need to support them through these tough times to ensure that doesn't happen.

Jessica LynnSmall music venues have shaped who I am as a person, as a performer and as an artist. I started performing in small music venues all over when I was only 13 years old and I made a living ever since I was 18 years old working in a cover band, so I’ve literally grown up in small music venues. Performing in those types of venues has given me the confidence to do what I do and to get on those big festival stages and have the experience to do that which I never would have had otherwise. It really is incredible the amount of people who follow me as Jessica Lynn now that has watched me in my very first shows as a kid in local venues. I was 18 years old just starting to really get out there. They are really the foundation of the live music scene and of so many artists all around the world. I’ve experienced everything playing in small music venues and I feel like I can take on anything. I played a festival in France and they could not get their monitors functioning. I played an entire 2 hour concert with no monitor on a festival stage and I never in a million years would have been able to do that if I had not been in every type of live scenario throughout the last 14 years. Supporting small music venues is so important. 


Henrik Steenholdt & Did Coles, Empyre:  Up and coming bands practically never get to make a jump directly from the practice room to large venues, it just doesn't really happen. Most of us spend years playing small venues, enjoying some magical moments in them, and for several reasons they are the lifeblood of the new music scene. Without the grassroots small venues where else can up and coming bands perform live in front of a crowd of people? Where else can those bands work on their stage craft? Where else can they get the feeling of really connecting with a crowd? Where else can that crowd see those bands live and in the flesh? Streaming has brought about new opportunities for bands to remotely perform in front of their supporters, but the likes of Facebook Live and Twitch are not a substitute for a band and their fans being in the same room at the same time and sharing that experience together.

Anne Estella

Anne Estella, freelance music journalist: Now more than ever it’s so important to get behind our grassroots venues. Small venues are facing an unprecedented threat to their existence, which would ultimately have a devastating impact on the emerging artists and on the future of the UK’s music scene. Keeping rock alive and kicking means keeping our local venues open and thriving. For me, nothing beats the atmosphere and excitement of getting up close to my favourite bands and being swept away in an incendiary live performance. That’s where the real magic happens and it’s a crucial step in every musician's journey.

Rob Scaife

Rob Scaife, Sheffield: My small music venues mean the world to me. A place I can go with my mates, meet up before and after. Drink some beer, watch a great band, talk crap, reminisce and have a great time . Conversely I can go and see a band on my own and no matter what I’ll always see someone I know to have a chat and socialise with. Small music venues are the heart and soul of the music community..... long may they live and prosper. 

Nick Thompson

Nick Thompson, Derbyshire: For me, a small venue like the Waterloo offers me the chance to be up close with some of my favourite bands in what’s almost a family atmosphere with the loyal locals and fans from near and far. You can be sat chatting with the band just a few minutes before or after their performances. It’s just an amazing atmosphere with fans respecting all artists that appear. And every fan likes to recall the stories of when they saw the next big thing at that small location before they start playing arena only tours.