How did Empty Shop, and the gigs in particular, start?
It’s evolved quite a bit in its time. We had our eighth birthday recently. It’s crazy and mildly terrifying. It started out with visual arts and we just put on an exhibition and that was it – there was no plan. I was using a literal empty shop as a photography studio.
It snowballed from there really. We just used empty shops in that kind of pop-up model and moved about a bit. Then about a year in we got this building and this was semi-permanent; we took it for three years, initially thinking that we would never actually be here for three years. And then three years came and we thought if we were going to stick around then it would be a shame to lose the building. Up until that point it was mostly just gallery space, but we were starting to get a lot of requests from musicians.
It was fine saying that artists had a space to hang work, but musicians also wanted somewhere to play. At that point, we decided to broaden it out into a cultural venue and just let that room be used for anything and everything. We started running events at night and it got picked up quite quickly by musicians. A lot of live music started to happen here on a regular basis. And I would say now, four and a half years in since we made that shift, it’s among one of the more popular uses of the space.
So it evolved quite naturally really. Durham doesn’t have a music venue. This is a nice little space. It’s definitely a small venue but it suits Durham perfectly.
I suppose it is quite a natural progression. Once you give people a creative space people will gravitate towards it.
How do you see Empty Shop’s live performances evolving in the future?
Live gigs are probably the biggest output that we have at the moment. I think that it will just get stronger and stronger, especially as it becomes more visible in that way. As we start to say this is a performance venue and push that more. rather than just labelling it as a catch all. The more people who come and think “Oh, this is great. I want my band to play here,” the better. It’s starting to get a really nice reputation in the North East for being somewhere that really interesting gigs happen. And that’s amazing because it’s very collaborative. We don’t really programme much here, we just facilitate others in doing that. Lots of promoters use it and lots of other people use it.
You do seem to have quite a wide variety of music on here. You hold jazz nights but then you also have punk bands on. So that mostly comes from other people contacting you?
It’s a bit of a mix but for the most part yes. To put it into context, last year we held almost 200 events. So realistically we just support people to put those on. We provide the space, we provide the ambience and support them where it’s needed. When it comes to the gigs there is such a huge variety. That isn’t all us; there are a number of different people that put on different genres. Collaboration is a huge part of what Empty Shop’s about and it has been from the get-go. We work with people; together we prosper. We’re a non-profit organisation. It’s very DIY and grassroots, it’s all about that kind of open source mentality.
Saying that, we do have our own gig series and we co-promote the jazz stuff. But, again, one of the few things that we do help with is in collaboration with the jazz co-op in Newcastle. We put on our own gigs about six times a year: they’re called Seagull and Circle. They’re usually held here, and it just allows us to play with that space in the same way that other people can. It’s great helping other people and watching them do so many amazing things. But then every now again we want to do our own shows too. Although, thinking about it, at least three of those have been in collaboration with other promoters as well. We’re just inherently drawn towards working with people.
Something I notice with a lot of North East bands is that they have a very DIY attitude towards making music. Do you feel like a part of that DIY scene?
Yeah, I feel like we’re twinned with that DIY music scene. We’ve always described ourselves as DIY in terms of arts. We’re a DIY arts organisation and there’s a lot of crossover in that mentality, in that attitude and way of thinking. The reason we did it was almost in response to the art scene at that time, which seemed very hierarchical and not very accessible. What we wanted to do was make it super accessible by just providing people with a space. Everyone mucks in and turns it into an art gallery, so it was quite DIY in that sense. Pretty early on, at the first Empty Shop, we met a lad who came in and asked for a gig, who’s part of a collective in Durham who are very DIY. So within a few months we made a connection with them and have worked alongside them since. They’re called the Equestrian Collective. They have an incredible output so they bring loads of amazing and international bands through.
In Durham, where there’s no visible contemporary culture, to have this amazing line up of bands who come through, and coming to Durham as their North East stop, instead of Newcastle. It’s become a bit of a destination.
Photograph: Empty Shop via Facebook