Written by Caleb Allport.
COVID-19 has made 2020 one of the most devastating times for so many across the globe. Grassroots music venues are a group that have been hit hard by the pandemic, and for the most part, have been at the point of complete uncertainty since they were forced to close their doors in mid-March of this year. I recently had the chance to catch up with Ash Wall – General Manager of Stoke on Trent’s ‘Pilgrims Pit’, amongst other themes, he revealed their unique circumstances over the period of lockdown, here in the UK.
‘Pilgrims Pit’ is a venue and bar in Stoke-On-Trent, providing a stage for grassroots music, art and culture. Currently run by volunteers, the venue aims to bring the community together by providing a safe space for all to express themselves.
The origins of ‘Pilgrims Pit’ begin in November 2015, when a collective of volunteers led by Stoke’s finest ‘Average Joe’ – Joe Brenan Hulme, joined in collaboration with the areas ‘Artcity’ Project. The project aimed to reopen disused and abandoned spaces for the sake of building a creative and cultural hub for Stoke on Trent.
‘The Pit’ was born.
Ash told us ‘‘I’d been tipped off about this by ’ex-Pit’ neighbour and friend ’Norman Sole’, who knew I was a keen musician and thought I would be able to help create a music studio and jam space, so I showed up on the day the keys were handed to Joe and I painted the outside fence. This building was 114 Church Street, Stoke.’’
The new found venue went on to achieve packed-out weekend success, however due to a concoction of low weekday footfall in Stoke’s town centre and a takeover of new landlords for the building. ‘The Pit’ team decided it may be the right time for an upgrade.
Following this, Ash revealed ‘‘We stumbled upon our Hanley building which was in a great location (Piccadilly St.). The best street in Stoke-on-Trent and the price was right!’’ Ash elaborated, saying the price was right ‘’probably due to the terrible state the building was in,’’ but we’ll arrive at that shortly. Regardless, ‘The Pit II’ was born.
As we were previously made aware, ‘Pilgrims Pit’ operates as a volunteer-based venue. It poses its own unique scenarios. Ash told us, ‘‘We always hoped we would graduate from voluntary run, to having actual employees by 2020. The great thing with volunteers is that it brings your overheads down and you end up with folk who are passionate, as the only motive for them is for ‘The Pit’ to do well.’’
However, he said ‘‘Challenges come in the form of people being put into roles that they are not fully trained in. It allows us to learn and develop, which is great, but sometimes things don’t run as smoothly as they could on the night. I never dreamt I’d be running a bar until it happened.’’
The Corona Bit.
The timing of the global pandemic has handed out extraordinary scenarios for us all, for ‘The Pit’, this was no different. Ash explained – ‘‘We had a clause in our lease, meaning we had the option to leave (Hanley venue). Due to; structural damage to the building, a robbery which had rendered our fire doors useless and the Coronavirus, it was quite clear to us it was time to move on.’
Ash elucidated, saying since the announcement of ‘The Pit’s’ departure from Piccadilly St, Hanley, in early May of this year ‘’I feel it was the best move and I’ve still been very much involved with the strategies of a new venue. Now, without the worry of renting a venue, we really do have the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and see what paths we can go down to achieve our goals. Music venues are one of those places where social distancing just isn’t going to work.’’
Both locally and nationally, there are hopes and fears posed by COVID-19 in relation to the music industry. Ash, as both a general manager of a music venue and as a musician expressed his concerns, stating ‘’I don’t think we are going to get a true live music industry back until this virus is completely gone and things go back to how they were. I think we’re going to see an increase in digital media. Live streamed concerts + VR music experiences. My fear is that, especially at grassroots, when entertainment is waiting at a click of a finger instead of being controlled by what’s on in your area, it decreases the chances of your work actually being seen. It’s gonna be a long tough road, artists need to keep creating no matter what, and experiment with new, exciting ways to reach their audience.’’
The future of ‘The Pit’.
As it stands at the present moment, music venues and theatres are to remain closed. Therefore, even if there was a current, permanent venue for ‘Pilgrims Pit’ to provide a community platform in the manner they once did pre-COVID-19, it’s yet to be made possible. Nevertheless, the venue has continued to find new initiatives to remain active – ‘’We’ve set up ’Captain Beer Delivery Service’ – A drinks delivery service in Stoke-on-Trent provided by ‘’Pilgrims Pit’’ + ‘’The Coachmakers Arms’’. We are also currently trying to run more as a virtual venue. We have a performers live stream every Wednesday night from our Facebook page, and are currently getting together a DJ line up for Friday nights.’’
In addition, ‘The Pit’ are looking at ways to set up outdoor ‘pop up’ events. Ash told us they had ‘’So far involved going to markets and collecting equipment in order to be independent when it comes to travelling and making noise.’’
When the return of fully open grassroots venues become a reality once more, Ash stressed to us the importance of a healthy live music & arts scene in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent – ‘’Stoke is so connected with other cities by train and the M6, I think arts & music is a great way of bringing people in. Of course, there are many fabulous creatives in our town that need a place to practise and exhibit their creations on their doorstep.’’
I think everyone either recognises, or can at least imagine that the journey of recuperation for live music as we knew it is going to be a ‘’long and tough road ahead,’’ as Ash put it. But, for the venues and projects up and down the country such as ‘Pilgrims Pit’, It’s great that there are still indications of determination and aspirations going forward.
Ash also has his own personal goals and achievements set during lockdown, a new solo album currently in the works, and a further exploration into the depths of mixology and bar management. Suggesting ‘The Pit’s’ aims going forward, Ash said, ‘’I would like to see us get to a point where we’ve created a few paid jobs for the ‘’Pilgrims’’, to create a business around entertainment and hospitality that allow people to escape from anything that may be going on in their lives, and to ultimately enjoy themselves. To create a platform for artists to share their work and be seen, and overall, for our lives to be filled with great music, art and experiences.’’
As somebody that has had the privilege to perform at ‘Pilgrims Pit’, I say that it is a one of a kind project and succeed in their aim to unite people from all corners of the city’s musical and artistic spectrum. It’s down to hard working, passionate volunteers with a great vision to transform what would otherwise be just another empty building, into a hub that facilitates expression and creative vision for fellow members of the community.
‘The Pit’ pride themselves on ‘’making the venue a non-judgemental safe space to be, that allows people to create and become a hub for cultural and social change.’’ They 100% achieve in doing so.
I wish them all the best in their pilgrimage and In Ash’s articulated quote, ‘‘A healthy arts and music scene Is something that brings a community together, allows people to make lifelong friends, see and hear new, different things and brings money into the city. As the arts and culture sector grows, so will the rest of the town!’’
Written by Caleb Allport