While Danny Morris’ day-job is with a Bristol-based music promoter, he’s never lost touch with his Lancashire roots, in recent times giving over his spare hours to the independent music and arts venue in Preston where he gained his first experience in events promotion.
The 29-year-old returned late last year to The Ferret, just across the road from the University of Central Lancashire’s sadly-mothballed 53 Degrees venue, to help fairly recent arrival Sue Culshaw’s new chapter for the pub, instigating a number of higher-profile bookings and helping draw up plans to get the venue back in the game. But matters moved on in another direction recently of course, with Danny now helping front her crowdfunding campaign to save this grassroots live music spot amid the COVID-19 crisis.
In one respect, this is very much a local story, but it’s pretty much a national one at that – The Ferret just one of many UK venues with an uncertain future right now amid the lockdown. But the team behind it are determined to see their way through and their campaign is already proving a success.
This week they passed the £6,000 mark in their ambitious £7,000 fundraising initiative, with a couple of weeks to run. And Danny – who initially became The Ferret’s events manager in 2014, now working as an international concert promoter for TEG MJR – is pleased with that but keen to crack on.
“We’ve also got two benefit shows we’ve sold out, so there’s an extra three and a bit grand added to that total. There’s still £3,000 to find, but there are more ideas and more shows in the pipeline which should sell out in quick succession, T-shirt sales, and that sort of thing.”
As well as fundraising events, involving back-to-back sell-out shows by Preston turned national phenomenon and 2014 WriteWyattUK interviewees Evil Blizzard, Danny is promoting other high-profile events, such as the latest sell-outs at the venue for returning Manchester-based Doncaster three-piece The Blinders, and a Britpop acoustic night featuring Nigel Clark, frontman of Dodgy, Mark Morriss, from The Bluetones, and Chris Helme, from The Seahorses, that trio also selling out last time they visited. And just as I was going to press, he told me that the latest to confirm future bookings were former WriteWyattUK interviewees A Certain Ratio, plus Louis Berry and Tide Lines.
For those Evil Blizzard shows, the 200 capacity (100 seated) is reduced to 150 over two nights to ‘help give it that intimate feel and keep that demand up’. And as Danny pointed out, ‘That’s three grand straight into the fund’. Of course, with changing situations week to week, those dates can only be pencilled in at present, but the special guests remain committed to the cause and Danny remains hopeful that smaller venues like The Ferret will be allowed to open before bigger venues around the country when restrictions are finally eased.
“Those shows will go ahead, at the moment scheduled for November, and there are more I’m trying to get over the line. And the back end of this year – if we’re allowed to open again by then – is looking very healthy.”
Danny also mentioned how local artists and illustrators had pitched in with the campaign, providing designed art prints of the venue, being sold to help the fund, while bands are releasing live sets, with ‘100% of their profits towards the crowdfund’.
And what was it about this venue that inspired Danny – formerly part of local bands Vox Population and also The Youth Anxiety, who after his first spell at The Ferret went on to book acts for the Live venue operating across the city at Preston Guild Hall – to return?
“Growing up in Preston, when I was in bands there were more venues, such as 53 Degrees – downstairs and upstairs – and three venues at the Guild Hall. But now everything’s shut down, and there’s really just The Ferret, The Continental and a couple more that sometimes put gigs on.
“The Ferret’s the heartbeat of the city as far as I’m concerned. It’s more than a venue. It’s where bands cut their teeth and where you find bands. A lot of my favourites I listen to now were discovered there. While I don’t work in Preston anymore, I still try to put shows on there.
“It’s important to me that the city still has that output and the potential to put those bands on the map. And it’s important for the fans. You can tell by how people have come together for this, donating money and their time and hard-designed artwork. Its personal to people. It’s important.”
Like city neighbours The Continental (as featured on this website via an interview with Rob Talbot in mid-January), it’s certainly a venue with a reputation for nurturing talent, keen to support local young musicians starting out, while attracting emerging touring artists, showcasing new acts on the alternative music scene as well as in world of performance art, spoken word, plus experimental sound and art. Many of its diverse events are free to attend too, The Ferret keen to offer an alternative approach among other pub venues hosting bands.
Their main aim is to offer young talent a place to develop on a stage with professional PA, lighting and a talented sound engineer, to responsive audiences, whether that be about hip-hop, indie, blues, jazz … you name it. And The Ferret has hosted up to 200 shows a year, past name acts including Ed Sheeran (you’ve heard of him, right?), Blossoms, Royal Blood, Wheatus, Rae Morris, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Idles, Working Men’s Club, Girls in Synthesis, The Orielles, She Drew the Gun, as well as the afore-mentioned Evil Blizzard and fellow past WriteWyattUK interviewees Jeffrey Lewis and The Lovely Eggs.
In fact, word has it that when Ed Sheeran played in 2011, his audience included One Direction frontman Harry Styles, who then referenced the venue as ‘The Stinky Ferret’ live at The Brits. But that’s probably another story.
It’s also a venue for the annual Preston Arts Festival, and works with the University across the road and nearby arts groups to host events during the annual UCLan-improvised Jazz and Music Festival, and more recently working with arts promoter – and former workmate of this scribe – Garry Cook to host monthly performance and spoken-word events.
What’s more, UCLan music students showcase their bands at The Ferret each term, the venue also working closely with the uni’s graphics arts department, offering wall space to students and hosting social events for its graphics and music department, while supporting arts graduates with photography and music tech students using the space. So as you can imagine, the shutdown of the uni too has had a big effect on the place, irrespective of everything else.
Then there are regular events such as quiz nights, open mic. and open deck nights, its Last Band Standing competitions and its annual three-day music and performance festival, Glastonferret (see what they do there?), during which the venue is cloaked in real turf and straw bales. Meanwhile, The Ferret offers space to recycled clothes markets and a regular charity evening raising money for Cuban musicians and a Cuban medical charity, one of many charity events throughout the year.
But the past few months have provided major headaches, the venue struggling before the coronavirus restrictions. Sue, on board at The Ferret since April 2019, told me that enthusiasm for live shows had ‘fallen off somewhat since Danny moved on, petering down really to just local gigs, the venue on the verge of going bankrupt’. That was something she was keen to address, reinvestment and refinancing initiatives following, Danny soon returning in his new booking role, Sue and her team – including manager Ian Cauwood – determined to continue ‘helping promote emerging talent’, often drawing in acts also playing in Liverpool and Manchester, enticing them in from those bigger cities.
“Between us we’ve been trying to get it back where it should be. We were making a lot of progress, but then came the Adelphi regeneration work (involving extensive road closures around The Ferret) – which will be great when it’s finished but has caused a hell of a lot of problems in the meantime. Then we had the wettest February on record, after a traditionally quiet January, bands not tending to tour in that first month. We were looking forward to all the plans we had for the year, through Dan and ourselves, including art and spoken word, poetry and comedy, building a wider brief really.”
Those acts have included revered performance poet Mike Garry, who has regularly toured with John Cooper Clarke and who I first caught live at 53 Degrees in 2013 (with my review here), and recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Lee Mark Jones, his show – after a Ferret performance at last year’s Preston Fringe Festival – among the first cancelled as coronavirus restrictions kicked in.
“UCLan uses us a lot, for tech shows and graphic art students, and all that’s gone too, as well as all the graduation parties and end of term shows we usually cater for. That’s been quite a substantial loss really.”
As Sue put it on her fundraising page, “The Ferret adds so much to the city’s arts and culture scene, its loss would be a tragedy to the community that love it. We really need to be able to support our sound techs, retain our staff and promoters and keep The Ferret operational, even if only at the media level when the inevitable happens and we close our doors, so we can ensure we rebound from this with a functioning venue and a dynamic programme.”
She adds, “The intention is to put most of the fund towards providing paid employment to musicians and artists to give The Ferret a much-needed lift, through painting, murals and a general upgrade while it’s closed. If more money is raised, it would aid upgrading of the outdated sound equipment.
“The worst thing for us having worked so hard over the last 12 months would be for the Ferret to decline and be unable to reopen. We welcome the Government’s help, but it is not enough as the future and timescales are so uncertain. We need The Ferret to stick around and will do everything we can to try and ensure this, but we can’t do it alone and need help. We promise to match any money raised in order to provide an even better resource for Preston.”
It seems that the campaign has hit a nerve too, and it’s become apparent how much The Ferret is valued as a community venture.
“Absolutely. It’s never going to make money. It’s not about that. We’re about keeping financially solvent and being able to put great stuff on … because we love it. It’s a passion.”
“Not really. I’ve retired, but we’ve always been interested in the arts, and my husband Gary is a professional, freelance jazz musician, working in music since he was about 12. His Dad ran dance bands, so he’d be out at weekends, took it from there really. He‘s also known for Free Parking, which he started in 1984.
“And it’s a musical family, with my brother-in-law’s Paul Birchall playing keyboard in M People and with Heather Small over the years. I’ve always been involved in music, and helped my son, who had The Continental. And this grew embryonically really. I got involved because no one else was doing it and have a lot of ideas. It’s just grown and now it’s like an addiction. And Preston can’t lose this place. It’s too important. Too many people go there.
“I don’t want to be rude. Lots of other places put on gigs, but The Ferret’s different, with a reputation for finding emerging talent and supporting lots of arts and creative people. The Conti has to provide a much broader spectrum, including cover bands, but The Ferret is what The Ferret is.”
Being from outside town, I initially saw The Ferret more as a venue to grab a pint before heading to 53 Degrees across the road. And that’s something else you’ve lost, traffic-wise.
“Absolutely. That’s a good point. That was a nail in the coffin a couple of years ago when that stopped being a regular venue.”
I’m guessing you’ve been touched by the response to this campaign. You’ve got a fair way to go, but it’s been a real eye-opener as to the strength of feeling for this venue.
“To be honest, it’s almost become more about the response than the money. It’s been utterly amazing to hear the messages people have been putting out there. I’ve cried a few times. This place matters. That’s really been the theme.”