Sister Midnight: Lewisham arts co-op looks to create a grassroots music venue

‘You have to completely change your mindset to how businesses are run and how they should be run’

Lenny is a founding co-director of Sister Midnight, a community benefit society on a mission to create an accessible, affordable and inclusive grassroots music venue in Lewisham.

While studying fine art in London, Lenny passed a record shop and basement venue in Deptford, on a backstreet called Tanner’s Hill.

“I just thought, ‘that seems like my kind of place’. So I asked if I could volunteer, and they said yes.” Lenny volunteered at Vinyl Deptford while studying, and her focus shifted from fine art to music. 

She became increasingly concerned with understanding all the things that were leading to the loss of grassroots venues, which she describes as “the seedbed of the whole music industry” – so when in 2018 Lenny’s boss told her he was going to shut the record shop and venue down, and that someone wanted to turn it into a cheese and wine bar, she decided to do something about it. 

Related: Co-ops plug in for a new wave of music venues

Lenny got together the money to buy the rights to her boss’s lease and Sister Midnight was born. “It was originally just an attempt to preserve what was already there,” says Lenny. “We weren’t that well known, but I think we had a fairly significant impact in quite a short amount of time … It was just very different to how a lot of other places were being run in the local area.”

By different, Lenny means Sister Midnight was not focused on making profit, but making an impact in its community. “The priority was always affordability and what was best for the people who were coming there.”

Sister Midnight was already working in a co-op way, but it wasn’t until they lost their venue during the pandemic that they considered becoming a community benefit society.

“The reason that we did this is because of the Music Venues Trust,” says Lenny. “They ran a seminar during lockdown and said, ‘there’s this way that you can become owned by your community and raise money to buy your building so that your landlords don’t kick you out or raise your rent or do all these horrible things that are a massive threat to most venues in the country’. 

“I thought, that sounds great, but Sister Midnight’s not really big enough to raise the money it would need. We’re just a tiny venue.” 

But another co-op venue, Exchange in Bristol, put Lenny in touch with Dave Boyle from the Community Shares Company. “It just gave me so much confidence that I thought, ‘yeah, maybe we can do this. Maybe we should give it a try.’”

In 2021 Sister Midnight launched a community share offer to bring a Lewisham pub called the Ravensbourne Arms into community ownership. The campaign raised over £260,000 from 865 investors, but Sister Midnight has been unable to agree an offer with the owner.

“That building is not worth what they want us to pay for it, and so we can’t do it. Even if we had £3m sat in our bank account, there’s a really big question around the ethics involved with using investors’ funds towards significant private gain.

“We’re keeping a very close eye on the situation and it’s still a long term aspiration of ours that we would be able to bring that space into community ownership, but I think it’s just a very sad reflection on the state of the London property market.” 

The team is still looking for a local property but the business has had to change tack for now. “The economic situation has changed so much that taking on that kind of large loan funding doesn’t seem like such a good idea. With interest rates going up so significantly I don’t know whether it would still be affordable for us. 

“So we recently went to our investors and asked them if they would support us using the funds to set up a ‘meanwhile space’, to find somewhere that we can run the venue in the medium term and reposition the goal of owning our venue to be a more long term one.”

This plan has been supported by 97% of those who responded to Sister Midnight’s proposal, says Lenny. “In a lot of ways it was surprising to us how many of the investors came back and said that they’d actually invested on the basis of a community owned venue, not on this specific building,” she adds. “That was a really beautiful thing to see, that so many people have this greater understanding of co-op businesses and how they can benefit the community and they really want one no matter where it is. So that’s an achievement, if anything, just that people have this awareness now and this desire for it.”

Sister Midnight’s journey has also introduced them to a wider network of community-owned businesses, working together. “When we were going through the process of setting this up, so many people were willing to give us their time just to offer advice and help us out. It’s a much more supportive environment, which is something that I love, because even prior to discovering the whole co-operative movement, I’ve always been of the mindset that venues should be supporting each other, not competing with each other. We’re part of an ecosystem and no venue can survive by itself.

“We have a great network. And I’m really excited to build on that because I think there are so many interesting things happening co-operatively that people don’t know about.”

Sister Midnight’s story has already inspired a number of groups who now want to open their own community owned businesses, and they are beginning to support a number of fledgling co-ops take their first steps towards community ownership in order to help grow the movement. Sister Midnight also wants to expand its network of creatives, Lenny says.

“So many musicians have been amazed by the promise that this kind of project can have for music venues because most musicians are very, very aware of the problems facing venues – how difficult it is to operate and to survive. And so I think this is something that’s of really great interest to the whole music community.”

Sister Midnight will hold its fourth birthday party in Lewisham on 23 July. “It’s very strange to think about how far we’ve come in four years,” says Lenny, adding that it would be nice if, by their fifth birthday, Sister Midnight has a home. 

And to those considering the route of community ownership, Lenny recommends it, but warns that it is a big learning process and something you must be fully committed to.

“It’s not just a business structure. It’s a business culture, in a way. You have to completely change your mindset to how businesses are run and how they should be run. You have a lot more accountability to your community and to your employees. It changes things, but I don’t see that being a negative change. I think that’s a change that everyone needs to embrace.”

With thanks to Alice Toomer-McAlpine

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