The work of a Leeds music venue is to be showcased in Independent Venue Week. The Yorkshire Evening Post spoke to its founder Richard Watson.
Richard Watson has a simple motto: “Make a difference, not a fortune.”
It’s a principle that has guided him through 20 years of promoting music and other events in Leeds, the last five years of which have been spent running the 360 Club, a showcase for up-and-coming musicians.
An industrial chemist by profession, working in refractories and ceramics, he had “always been passionate about music since being a kid”. As an adult with a good income, he collected records and travelled to gigs all over the country.
With his friend George Evelyn, later of Nightmares on Wax, he set up a club night, Funky Mule, which specialised in hip-hop, trip-hop and drum and bass. “We were putting on people like Roni Size when nobody knew who they were.”
As the Leeds dance scene grew, they started doing “massive one-off nights” at The Cockpit then a regular night at Cafe Mex, the club now known as Wire.
His success led to a consultancy role with Up Your Ronson, another group of dance promoters who also formed a record label, and soon he was managing events across the UK and overseas, especially Ibiza. “We were doing live broadcasts, MTV, Radio 1,” he recalls. “It was house music, hip-hop and drum and bass. I was very busy – I was out seven nights a week promoting.”
He brought US stars such as Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc and Kid Knevil to Leeds. Yet still, he says: “I was not thinking about the money. It was about great shows and music.”
When a friend asked him to help run his new cafe club bar Liquid – the Central Road venue now known as the HiFi Club – a whole new scene grew up in what until then had been a slightly neglected area of the city centre. Other similar bars grew around it and Watson and his associates published a magazine, Exchange Quarterly, to document this meeting point for creative types.
Leeds City Council invited him to promote the Exchange Area, through which he became “involved in a lot of the world’s media”. He worked with the TV production company Tiger Aspect on programmes in Ibiza, the dating show Street Mate, presented by Davina McCall, whose pilot episode was filmed in Leeds. “I worked with the Graham Norton Show and even linked up with the BBC Holiday Show when Tara Palmer-Tompkinson was on it.”
He helped found Leeds Food Festival and, with his late partner Tony Kostrzewa, founder of Red Rhino Records, he also became involved in Leeds Young People’s Film Festival, bringing David Wilson, the CEO of Eon Productions, and Anthony Waye, assistant director of Star Wars, Octopussy and Clash of the Titans, to an event staged at the Royal Armouries to promote the James Bond film Casino Royale.
An interest in mentoring young talent led Watson five years ago to found what became known as the 360 Club. Originally an “experiment” at the HiFi Club that moved a year later to The Library on Woodhouse Lane, the idea was to give young musicians more than simply the opportunity to play live. “I met a lot of bands and singer-songwriters who were telling me horror stories about pay-to-play gigs,” he says. “They did not have an understanding of how to promote themselves or about publishing, labels, agents, management or getting press.”
Because he was working on many other things “for nothing”, Watson insisted the 360 Club had to pay for itself. “I did not want to do arts funding or arts grants,” he says. “You have to jump through hoops and end up delivering something just to tick somebody else’s boxes.”
Through his network of contacts, he thought he believed he could help bands on a practical level. As well as putting on bills of four or five bands or singer-songwriters each Friday in a venue where the PA is “comparable to any in Leeds”, the nights are filmed and recorded to give performers something free of charge to promote their music. Talent spotters from the industry regularly attend and the shows have occasionally been broadcast by DJ Alan Raw on his BBC Introducing West Yorkshire show for BBC Radio Leeds.
The 360 Club’s best known protégés were Alt-J, winners of the 2012 Mercury Prize for their album An Awesome Wave. When Watson first met them they were a student band named after the newsreader Daljit Dhaliwal. “I was the person who said, ‘That’s a ridiculous name. Nobody would ever find you and you could run into problems if things do happen for you’,” recalls Watson.
The band’s alternative suggestion, Films, was also rejected on the grounds that it would be hard to find in an internet search engine. Finally they settled on Alt-J, the Apple Mac keyboard command for a triangle symbol.
In discussions with the band about recording a demo to take to record labels, keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton relayed some advice he had been given. “His brother told him, ‘The band should not pay for their own demo, somebody else should do it’,” Watson remembers. “I got frustrated and said, ‘What does your brother know?’ He said, ‘He’s the CEO of Polydor’. We’d been meeting for two years – this was the first time he’d mentioned this.”
Watson told the musician he was “an idiot” for not talking to his brother about his band. A week later Alt-J were invited down to London to record a demo and were introduced to a manager. By the summer of 2012 they were chart stars.
On Friday, January 31 the 360 Club will gain national attention. The club has been chosen to represent Leeds in Independent Venue Week, a national celebration of the “important role independent venues play for both artists and gig-goers”. A four-band bill featuring Allusondrugs, Forever Cult, Fizzler and Perfect Crimes, will be broadcast on BBC 6 Music.
Watson had been recommended to IVW co-founder Sybil Bell by Alan Raw. “He mentioned if she wanted to do Leeds she should talk to me. She thought what I do, championing unsigned music and working artists them to support them, worked with the ethos of Independent Venue Week.”
What will such exposure mean to the 360 Club? “It’s not really going to change much,” insists Watson. “I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. Profile-raising – that’s what it’s going to do. It’s not going to change the 360 Club landscape but the more I can raise the night’s profile, the more that benefits the acts that play for me.
“As Nathan Clark [who runs celebrated Leeds venue the Brudenell Social Club] said to me, ‘Your night is one of those nights that bands have to be seen to have played’.”
Needless to say, Watson is busy networking again. “I’m already talking to the Half Moon in Putney, they’re promoters in London who have the same ethos as me. They’re interested in helping send unsigned bands down from Leeds.”
The 360 Club is based at The Library on Woodhouse Lane, Leeds. Doors 8pm, admission £5 in advance; £6 on the door.
Star backs venue showcase
Independent Venue Week will highlight the work of 18 music venues across the country as seed beds of up-and-coming talent.
Other Yorkshire venues featured are The Leadmill in Sheffield and Fibbers in York.
The week is supported by PRS for Music, BBC Introducing, Drowned in Sound, Moshi Moshi Records, Domino Records, The Musicians Union and UK Music.
BBC 6 Music DJ Steve Lamacq will be supporting events through the week and Radiohead guitarist Colin Greenwood has been announced as its official ambassador.
He said: “I’m proud to be involved in the celebration and promotion of local gigs which gave us some of the best times in our musical life – The Joiners, King Tuts, Jericho Oxford – just to name three brilliant venues that are still putting on top shows today.
“They’re all crucial for the musical development of the UK because they provide local artists with places to hone their show skills and a window to other musical worlds when a tour hits town.
Some of my favourite musical memories are from these independent venues and the dedicated promoters and local crew who run them. Here’s to a brilliant week in January and see you down the front!”