How our folk club made reopening a roaring success – at a price

John Kirkpatrick
John Kirkpatrick at the Music Institute, Guildford

At the end of my article in the last Folk London on reopening the Music Institute folk club in Guildford during the pandemic I promised to report back on how things were going and what lessons we had learned by the end of the autumn season.

In brief, the club’s reopening was a resounding social and musical success, but this came at a significant financial cost.

At the heart of both success and expense was our decision to significantly reduce the club room’s capacity to facilitate social distancing. We restricted audience numbers to 25 on our reopening night. This had increased to just under 40 by the end of our autumn season.

From the beginning there appeared to be no reluctance among our audience to return to the club and we sold out before each gig. At the end of each evening we invited the audience to report back, especially with respect to how safe they felt in the club room and whether they would be happy if we increased numbers.

Without exception the respondents stated that they felt very safe and were comfortable with us selling more tickets.

However, the organisers responsible for running the club on the night were not quite so unanimous in their response. Consequently the club decided to continue to take a cautious approach to increasing audience numbers, even before the arrival of the Omicron variant.

We had already decided to close during December, January and February for practical reasons – it is very cold with all the windows open for ventilation!

Having said that, we had no complaints. Our audience members came well prepared in heavy coats (and even rugs!) although we have heard reports of resistance to opening windows at other clubs.

‘We actually budgeted to lose a maximum of £1,000 on our first four concerts. In the event we lost just under £700’

One of our concerns regarding the restriction of audience numbers had been the possible impact on that unique atmosphere that makes folk clubs so special. Feedback from organisers and audience suggest that it was certainly different but rather finely so – it was as if everyone felt it was extra special to be part of a small audience at a live event.

The performers all appeared to be inspired simply by playing for a real audience. Clearly it is not quite the same as in a packed club room but those who came seemed determined to enjoy themselves.

One of the key ingredients of a folk club’s atmosphere is chorus singing, and unsurprisingly chorus singing happened – and it was a delight.
However, although everyone wore masks when moving around the building in compliance with the venue’s rules, very few wore them when seated or when singing.

Our guest performers seemed unconcerned and all praised the audience for their participation and adding so much to the atmosphere of the evening.

However, as mentioned above, all this came at a cost – restricted capacity equals reduced income.

We knew it would be a financial risk reopening with guest performers but the club has significant cash reserves in its bank account (significant for a folk club at least!) and we actually budgeted to lose a maximum of £1,000 on our first four concerts. In the event we lost just under £700.

Obviously this situation is unsustainable but we took several steps to minimise costs and maximise income and actually broke even on the final gig of our opening season. The steps we took were as follows:

Rent. The club’s venue had, like most others, lost a significant amount of income during the pandemic and was experiencing a reluctance among hirers and users to return. Consequently the cost of hiring the club room remained at pre-pandemic levels. However, after explaining the situation following our first two events they did agree to a temporary reduction in the rent.

Insurance. The club is required to take out public liability insurance as a condition of hire. We continued to use our previous insurers for our first four events but their premiums have increased significantly (and specifically exclude Covid!). We are seeking alternative providers.
Ticket prices. As we were uncertain about how many of our audience would feel comfortable about returning during the pandemic we kept the cost of admission at pre-Covid prices. However, once we realised the level of demand for tickets we increased prices by about 50%. In effect the cost of admission was on a par with a festival or concert venue. Nobody objected to this.

Raffle. For social distancing reasons we suspended “passing amongst the audience selling raffle tickets” but did have a voluntary raffle with a donation box. As a sign of how happy our audience were to be back in the club room our raffle income actually exceeded that in the past and people were even placing donations in the box at the end of the evening after the raffle had been called.

Finally, we have to some extent been victims of our success. Because of the high demand for a reduced number of tickets, particularly when we book well-known guests, we have taken the decision to give priority to our regular audience as they are the ones that kept the club solvent over the years and created the Music Institute’s special atmosphere. This has been especially the case since we reopened during the pandemic. Quite literally, without them there would be no club.

In conclusion, the reopening has been an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience for audience, artiste and organiser alike. Like everyone else, we are hoping that the current Omicron wave of infections will have burned itself out by the end of February and we are champing at the bit to reopen the club in March with Belinda O’Hooley followed by Kathryn Tickell.

For more details of the Music Institute see musici.club/musici.htm. This article appeared in Folk London 317, February-March 2022