May 26, 2017

MelloMello: Averted Closure?

'MelloMello' on Parr Street, Liverpool (Mark Jones Images)

MelloMello is a grassroots music venue and down-to-earth cafe located near the ropewalks of Liverpool city centre on the corner of Slater Street and Parr Street, nearby to Wolstenholme Square.  In recent years it has become an increasingly important meeting point for Merseyside artists of all types and regularly presents high quality local, national and international emerging alternative, jazz, indie, noise and world music acts

With its homely atmosphere complimented by fourth hand, well-worn furniture, a collection of newspapers and board games with friendly staff always willing to oblige.  MelloMello – a long rectangle of a space with a modest stage and bar at alternative ends – is located on a quiet street and so might be missed by day trippers and visitors; nonetheless a strong and loyal following has recently displayed outrage towards recent local government attempts to close the venue.  So in order to find out the finer details and the outcomes of an appeal to prevent closure I met up with MelloMello staff member Laura round the corner on Bold Street.

Laura – originally a volunteer at the venue before it became formally a business – was very open to express her experiences and hopes for the future of MelloMello which of late has received a dose of local media coverage and words of support from further afield even including Queen guitarist Brian May. At first I was keen to ask about the formative, early days of place:

MelloMello was always the hub of the arts organisation their kind of brainchild of Greg [Scott-Gurner] and other people […] They started off in other buildings in Roscoe Street but MelloMello was always the idea that it would be a little coffee shop / meeting space where all these artists and these creative types would kind of gravitate and meet there.

This was around 2007 up until April 2010 when the venue became an independent business from the CIC (Community Interest Company) arts organisation that originally spawned it; as a nearby resident of Liverpool I remember the building around this time when it first opened as it was markedly different, much shabbier than what it has become today.  I asked Laura to reflect on what level of condition she recalled it being in back then:

The stage part was where the front door used to be; it had no central heating; all of the windows were boarded up or they were just broken; there was this horrible weird tar all over the floor; there was strange things on the roof: it was all just, it was horrible, it was a really horrible, derelict, depressing place and the only thing that made it really were the people who were in there and working to create what it is today.

Dirty, cold, uninviting – perhaps not the most ideal condition to launch a hopeful music and artistic hub for the city, yet creative types began to frequent MelloMello even though the stiffest drink available was a coffee.  So what type of actively went on to begin with?

It’s always been open to a lot of different strands, and lot of different creative practices […] I think the nice thing about Mello is that there are a lot of different communities overlapping.  It has stayed to its hub kind of routes in that, you know the whole building you know is a reflection on the rest of the area and how they come together in this one little bit.

Naturally, any mention of music and its relationship with Liverpool drags out the spectre and tired discourse of Mersey Beat, which amongst many regional artists acts as a noose around their necks, creatively.  Mello on the other hand embraces a diversity of genres within its jam packed programming: was this a progression from its initial inception or a gradual appeal towards more populist tastes?

I would say it has become more diverse definitely; I think the amount of people using it has just shot through the roof really […] That said, compared to its heady days – although we didn’t have a license to do anything – we didn’t recognise the sort of things we should [have been doing], any sort of laws, it’s like: yeah let’s just do it! And so in that respect it was just like this kind of crazy, hedonistic, very diverse place.  But that was kind of a real special big thing if we opened up the whole building and had some massive art performance, exhibition, party and whereas I think now the amount of participants we get, the amount of users […] [means] we are probably a bit more limited by rules and regulations.

In due course Mello gained all the required documents to be a bona fide arts venue, not so much out of necessity but because Laura and Rob agreed to take on the venture from the original artistic occupants of the building who sought to move on to other projects.  With low rent down to the dilapidated state it was found in, very few overheads helped by limited staff numbers and a small kitchen to boot the initial investments were manageable but at times sometimes stressful, which is only natural for a business starting up.  Certain factors such as music licenses are mandatory today, so how did this charge impinge on the budget?

It’s been manageable because I think the bar has done well to establish itself; it’s a good revenue stream, it’s our main income […] it’s now working quite self sustainably, it’s working well, it’s got its own wheels; so you know the income is there, it doesn’t mean every week is gonna be good: some weeks are terrible, some weeks are good […] It was quite shocking when, you know the PRS call you up and say: “You play recorded music?  That’s £1900 please” […] There’s some other things like our insurance is low because we are classified as an arts centre […] As long as you know how to assess it and how to put your business across without kind of under selling or over selling it.

That said, when funds are not being diverted to pay staff or keep Mello’s door open they have been invested in modifying its facilities; the venue now has a rehearsal space, a recording studio, workshop rooms and dance studios, but are there plans to further expand and improve on what it already offers?

I mean we definitely want to progress and become much more of an institution I think I think we would all like to be a cemented staple on the “map” and I say the “map” like when I speak of the “man”: there’s the Liverpool map of places to go, places to hang out, things to do and see in that respect.  I maybe compare it a little bit to FACT in terms of 25 years ago, I think it started off in an office block somewhere on Mathew Street or something, and now it’s, you know one of the north-west’s primary cultural and digital media centres and that is amazing! […] I would love to see Mello in the long term, become that kind of iconic status; in the short term I think we’ve done amazingly well with the bar and the kitchen, and I would really like to see the structure of the building and get some serious investment into it to really kind of open the doors to all walks of life.

As well as assisting or facilitating creative endeavours at Mello, Laura also expressed and accepted the underlying importance of the functions of the bar and building generating a comfortable and welcoming environment to encourage positive socialisation, in a city which still is replete with male-dominated, dingy boozers.

Nearby is the Kazimier club which Mello has strong, personal associations with, and over recent years has somewhat encouraged more cross-fertilisations of audiences in Liverpool (its city centre at least).  Laura reflected that not only have the two venues have positively promoted one another – which has proved mutually beneficial – but that it has strengthened places like the Wolstenholme Creative Space and other venues that sit close by:  by collaborating and appealing to broader taste cultures, Mello has avoided becoming devoutly about any one genre or art form and thus sustained its existence.

Nonetheless, the main purpose of this chat was to ascertain how and why Mello was under threat from closure after so much success up until recently.  Laura stated that the Liverpool City Council business rates and the changes to council’s reduction rates for Mello were to blame:

Through the arts organisation up until like when we started in 2011, we received a 100% to 80% discretionary relief.  So our building is valued at about – what we have to pay for business rates – is just over £30,000 and we’d already received a massive discount from that.  2011 to 2012, they said: “no you have to pay the full amount” […] At the beginning of the year we sent off an appeal, Rob sent off a brilliant appeal, I mean it was absolute evidence that we met their full criteria, and there was kind of no word from them […] It was quite a stressful time we had just spent a load on the stage and the kitchen.

They eventually discovered that they had been rejected for their reduced rates as the Council did not deem Mello to be of high enough importance; Laura conveyed that the team might have been slightly naive that whatever initial support was provided would last indefinitely.  Being played for time and given the silent treatment, Mello made the decision to make their appeal very public which predictably became viral, fast: press releases were sent out, interviews were given, a petition was produced and signed by thousands of supporters.  It is uncertain whether the Council will maintain a communicative dialogue with the venue and leave the opportunity for Mello’s business rates to be contested; considering the recent uproar surrounding busking licenses in the city and other dubious attempts to dismantle, fragment live music in Liverpool Laura rightly noted that these elements “give you the fabric of a city” and depressing such qualities is actually economically dangerous for this area.

If anything, MelloMello has become a brand in the local vicinity: perhaps it may be presumptuous to declare it as a 21st century version of the Cavern (in terms of rapidly growing popularity, presenting both commercial and niche genres) as history, although resembling similar attributes does not repeat the past.  Nonetheless it is tempting to draw similarities: the original owner, Alan Synter intended the Cavern to be a purist jazz and blues club, eventually giving into demand and presented Beat groups frequently; Mello original started hosting totally experimental artistic ventures before settling into a more commercial vein of acts.  Both instances were economically wise decisions and responded to local market demand: the output of bands in Liverpool has far from lessened other the past half century as demonstrated by the colossal amount billed earlier this year at the Sound City festival, for instance.

It seems sadly that even gems of brave vision and best intentions are subject to the brutality of regional politics and balance sheets; what could be the long term future of this humble joint?  Methinks make the most of it whilst we still can.

 

Mark Jones (MA)

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