“One of the best things you can do to find out what it’s like to run a music venue is fix the toilet.” We talk to The Fulford Arms in York
Brilliant daylight flits through large windows bringing an air of a quaint countryside pub to the empty bar area. The silence is interrupted by happy whistling as the effervescent Steph puts a shine on the floor and furniture back in place. It’s at odds with the metamorphosis which takes place in this hugely popular York hostelry in the evening. Daylight is replaced by spotlights, silence by music, and order by visitors from near and far eager to support live music.
On the edge of the city but in the heart of the community, The Fulford Arms has established a reputation for nurturing young talent and welcoming surprisingly big stars to its stage (recently hosting The Wildhearts, Wayne Hussey from The Mission, Mark Morriss of the Bluetones, Idles, Spector and many more). But how did co-owners Chris Sherrington and Chris Tuke make it all happen?
“A typical year is 260 gigs averaging five shows a week, all original bands, multiple band bills and ticketed shows,” says Sherrington who books, promotes and works with other promoters, venues and music initiatives to safeguard the Fulford’s future. “Chris [Tuke] pretty much runs everything else that happens here on a day-to-day basis. Everything from running the bar to fixing the toilet. In fact, I still think to this day one of the best things you can do to find out what it’s like to run a music venue is to fix the toilet, find out how to turn off the water that’s flooding your venue. It’s about not being too proud to do any of the jobs it takes to make the venue function.”
As for some of the other practicalities behind making the venue work, Sherrington adds: “People come to this place for many different reasons, a night out, catch up with friends, see bands or indeed to work. They come to a space where they feel happy and safe and it’s about managing that. Chris T does this well, helping people whatever the situation and supporting everyone. It reminds me of one of his favourite films, Roadhouse starring Patrick Swayze, as the bouncer with three rules. One, never underestimate your opponent, expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside, never start anything inside the bar and three, always be nice.”
The premise has an interesting past. The Barrack Tavern was built as an extension to the Cavalry Barracks in 1801 to entertain the troops. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that a concerned landlady changed the name following IRA bombings in England. Over time it became more of a community pub and guesthouse albeit retaining a soldier’s entrance and police presence from the station next door.
“When I moved to York some 20 years ago it had a reputation as a rough pub, somewhere you went to fight a squaddie,” recalls Sherrington.
Within a couple of years of relocating to York for university, Sherrington began putting on club nights, goth nights and post-punk events. At his first gig, he met future business partner Tuke playing in the band Screaming Banshee Aircrew. “I’d been living in London trying to make a success of the band but ran out of money and returned north,” says Tuke.
Both had ordinary jobs in York before Tuke left to join a new venue, The Duchess. “I thought I was going to get a job as a sound engineer but ended up running the bar for eight years,” he laughs.
Meanwhile, Sherrington did bar work for The Duchess as well as bookings and promotion for another local venue, Stereo, also leaving normal work behind to focus on running a newly established festival across several music venues in the city. On taking over The Fulford Arms, he says: “We started here in 2014. We’d looked at running Stereo but the opportunity arose to run and then redesign the inside here. After building a new performance area we brought in the sound system from The Duchess [which was closing due to redevelopment] and lighting and audio-visual equipment that rivals a much larger music venue. We’ve always tried to be over-specced so that when we host a big artist, we’re set up for them and they know it’s going to be a good experience.”
Tuke adds: “Production-wise we have the advantage that the people running the place are well qualified, one is a sound engineer the other a lighting engineer. We’re really fussy about how we want the sound and light to be and probably are the most over-specced venue in the city, quite possibly in Yorkshire, for our size.”
Talking about the ethos of the venue, Tuke says: “We knew hefty fees were a problem for bands trying to book gigs elsewhere and for promoters as well. They needed help to get it working.” Sherrington agrees. “Often it’d be more niche genres of music and we just wanted it to happen here in York. So, it was very much a case of no matter how we make it work. We’ve always been too clear to bands, customers alike that there is a cost to putting on entertainment. We don’t do free entry shows where people get paid from bar takings.
“I’m uncomfortable with making the link between alcohol sales and gigs, making that where you make your profit. It also limits up-and-coming bands because if you just put on gigs based on beer sales, you’ll never put on an under 18 show. So, we decided we’d be perfectly frank. We want people to always pay to see music. Every show now has an entry fee. We’re saying irrespective or not of whether you drink at the bar, you pay for the entertainment and whatever is involved in putting that on.”
So how do they get the balance right between making a living and putting on so many gigs?
“We’re still working on that,” admits Tuke. “We’ve learned a lot from watching others. What works, what doesn’t. We’ve worked in the environment for a long time, seen that for example paying a big fee to bring a big name doesn’t always pay back. You’ve got to be clever.”
What makes this all worthwhile? For Sherrington it’s listening to gig-goers talk about the show, including what they have enjoyed, and seeing bands flourish. “Bands who played their first show here or met here before going on to great things. Backstage moments like watching Les Carter [formerly of Carter USM] and his partner taking selfies with two fezzes we had lying around when Ferocious Dog played here. Seeing Steph in a job she enjoys, being able to support her family. Meeting and working with so many different people you make nice friendships. We’re not getting rich off this, no way, not financially. But socially, you’ve got a fortune.”
And the downsides? “When people don’t get it and aren’t supportive,” says Sherrington. “Putting our business at risk in whatever form that takes. I don’t think people do things maliciously, but we’re clear about the terms of our license as we have no restrictions. You’re always wary putting on underage gigs. People bringing their own drinks, bringing drugs, anything like that that puts us at risk. Noise considerations. We have some very warm gigs, but we don’t open the doors in consideration for our neighbours. When people don’t appreciate there are reasons. This isn’t our first show, there’s a reason we do things the way we do. It’s difficult when people don’t get that. Not handling their drink, not respecting artists or other paying customers.”
And how is the future looking? “The last year in York has been really good,” reflects Sherrington. “We’ve been a part of the conversations people are having about protecting and developing the music scene in York. It’s not just us, it’s places like The Crescent and other promoters as well. Dealing with these things at a more strategic level including nationally with Music Venue Trust on things like legislation for new property development and getting involved with setting up [the initiative] locally. We’re helping one another put on shows and promote them, sharing best practice and there’s been a lot more discussion with the council about development as investment is made in the city.
“We’re making sure the scene today is understood and the implications and indeed the benefits of development are considered.”
Main image: Co-owners Chris Sherrington and Chris Tuke, The Fulford Arms. Credit: Marc McGarraghy. Unless otherwise credited, all images by Marc McGarraghy.
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