The Ferret: Preston's iconic music venue could be saved by community shares plan

An ambitious bid has been launched to drum up the cash needed to guarantee the future of Preston’s only certified grassroots music venue.

Monday, 23rd May 2022, 12:02 am
Updated Monday, 23rd May 2022, 1:00 am

The Ferret is one of nine gig spaces nationwide in which locals - and the music industry itself - are being invited to buy shares in order to ensure that they are not left at the mercy of the landlords who own the buildings from which they operate.

The Fylde Road venue - where artists including Ed Sheeran have appeared at the start of their careers - went on the market back in March and is being promoted as ripe for conversion to residential use.

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Can you help save The Ferret? It has been entertaining music-loving audiences from its Fylde Road home since 2006 and general manager Matt Fawbert wants that to continue

In an effort to stop the much-loved stage from falling silent, The Ferret’s operators applied for - and were last week granted - a special status which means that the planned sale must be put on hold for six months so as to give a community group the chance to buy it.

The Post can now reveal that The Ferret is taking part in a pilot scheme which aims to raise £3.5m to enable a newly-formed organisation to purchase and protect a handful of similarly-minded ventures across the country in perpetuity.

Music Venue Properties (MVP) is a charitable community benefit society which has been set up by the Music Venue Trust (MVT), the body that seeks to support the grassroots music industry.

It is today launching a community share issue in an attempt to find the funds to buy The Ferret and eight other venues.

Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, believes that venues like The Ferret need to be based in buildings owned by a landlord committed to live music (image: Music Venue Trust)

Matt Fawbert, general manager of The Ferret, told the Post that if MVP were able to take ownership of the building, it would “take away the worry” that the businesses will be evicted from its home when its lease expires next year - and enable it to carry on providing a crucial platform for the next generation of talent, as it has done since it opened as The Mad Ferret back in 2006.

“The Ferret is a place for people to learn and hone their skills. We have people who have only just started playing guitar or singing - and they get to try out a bit of mic and then they might graduate to a different band or perform solo or be a support act.

“And going up the ladder like that makes us a really good starting point for anyone just setting out in the industry.

“It’s a fickle business, but we’re often a stepping stone to the next stage - even just for mid-level bands that get to play the big festivals or tour the world. It's a great time for them - and we’re always glad to see them go on to bigger and better things.

Could The Ferret be the focal point of a new creative hub in Preston?

“This plan would give us a bit more security in terms of investing for the future. It’s always in the back of your mind, when you are investing in the building, that it’s not our place.

“We’d still be leasing it, but from a friendly landlord who wanted to keep it as a venue long term. A private landlord is not there to nurture a music venue, they are just there to rent the property out - and we understand that. But it doesn't give us any security,” Matt explained.

As part of the MVP initiative, anyone can invest, provided they can purchase a minimum of £200 worth of shares - or £100 for the under 25s. The ideal recommended sum for the average shareholder is £500, but larger investors can put in up to £100,000 - or even more in some cases.

Although there are no guarantees regarding a return, the aim is to start paying three percent interest on investments from the second year. However, MVP stresses that the community shares it will issue are “fully at risk” - meaning that people should not invest money which they cannot afford to lose.

Matt Fawbert hopes The Ferret can look to the future with a new landlord which wants to operate live music venues

The share issue is expected to be open for six months and the money raised will be put into a pot to purchase the nine venues which are forming the pilot. That means investors will be getting shares in the wider MVP scheme, rather than The Ferret itself.

Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, says that the practical reason for that approach lies in the fact that it would be difficult to raise enough cash locally to buy each of the venues as standalone entities.

It is also why he is calling for “an alliance” between the local communities who value the venues on their doorstep and the £5.8bn music industry - to which, he says, places like The Ferret should be considered equally important.

“We’re the bottom rung of a big pyramid in which, at the top, you've got people like Ed Sheeran and Adele.

“I don't think it's impossible to imagine that, through that pyramid, there are enough companies, agents, managers and artists that are making enough money [to help us to raise] the incredibly tiny percentage that we need to protect, first, these nine venues - and then hundreds more.

“But we also really want people in each of these locations to become part of the shareholding democracy we’re creating.

The Ferret has been providing a stage for live music in Preston since 2006

“Across the UK, there is a huge community [of live music supporters]. We saw that during Covid, when we raised £4.1m to give out to venues from audiences that were just worried that their local venue would close down..

“But I think everybody in our sector understands that it’s not just their local venue that matters. If The Ferret was the only one we saved, there still wouldn't be any touring bands - we need a network.

“We’re trying to raise £3.5m to protect the bottom rung of the ladder that provides all of that talent,” Mark told the Post.

The six-month moratorium on the sale of The Ferret - conferred by the asset of community value status which Preston City Council awarded it last week - came just in the nick of time.

The venue had not been due to be included in the pilot, but the Post understands that it is one of the venues now likely to be given the highest priority for purchase should the initial MVP community share issue not raise the full amount needed to buy all nine buildings. The Ferret is on the market with a price tag of £795,000.

Matt Fawbert hopes that Preston City Council will be able to “get involved”, in some capacity, in helping to secure the future of the venue - although the authority said it was unable to comment at this stage when approached by the Post.

Matt says that because The Ferret occupies only part of the building which MVP ultimately hopes to buy, there is the potential to create a wider hub for the city's creative community at the site.

“We have had all sorts of brainstorming sessions. There is room for a larger performance space and the potential for theatre space, music studios, practice rooms or arts studios.

“A general community hub built around creativity and music - that would be the dream, but it wouldn't happen overnight and would require a lot of investment.

"[Music Venue Properties] is a great scheme - and they're aiming it at music fans and ethical investors.

"But we've had offers from people already saying they’ll chip in [to help buy the building] - well, this is the thing to chip in to in order to make it happen," Matt said.

Community share issues are an established concept, but shares in a community benefit society operate in a different way to those held in companies. They do not attract dividend payments and are not able to be sold.

Instead, the shares can be withdrawn - but each year, the board of the society will have to consider whether it can afford to allow such withdrawals and, if so, how many, MVP's share offer document explains.

Mark Davyd says he believes the scheme will strike the right note in places like Preston, both with people who love music - and the place they live.

"I think people feel incredibly strongly that Preston needs The Ferret.

"Landlords want to make profits from the properties they own and that’s a perfectly reasonable position - I just want them to do it somewhere other than the music industry.

"[This scheme] will give The Ferret the chance to do the best work they can - put on the best artists they can find and support the local community, as they do already.

"They can acquire permanent ownership [of their building] - it will never be sold. Long after I’m gone and the current operators of The Ferret have gone, there will still be a Ferret in Preston run by the people who inherited it and everything that it stands for."

Meanwhile, Matt says that the venue could ultimately have the scope to stage more established acts for a city audience, like when The Buzzocks played there recently, but he added that the focus would always remain on grassroots music and the smaller touring bands which have helped make a name for The Ferret - and vice versa. Catfish and the Bottlemen and IDLES are just two of those to have performed there early in their careers.

“We’re still trying to reach out to young bands from places like Cardinal Newman College. It’s great to see a young crowd that are really into their mates’ band, coming out and supporting them. That was me in the late '90s and it’s good to see it’s still happening.

"The grassroots music venues are the research and development department of the music industry - it’s where the ideas are tried out and honed.

“It’s more important than maybe sometimes it is given credit for. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just somewhere where some people can play some music - we don't want to get ideas above our station.

“But we do think it is important for the music industry.”

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Details of Music Venue Properties' community shares issue can be found at: musicvenueproperties.com

MUSIC BY NUMBERS

35 percent - proportion of grassroots music venues that have closed over the past 20 years

93 percent - proportion of grassroots music venues whose operators are tenants

18 months - average length of time left on the tenancies of the nation’s grassroots music venues

15 million - total annual audiences at grassroots music venues

12,000 - number of jobs within grassroots music venues

Source: Music Venue Trust

PSST, WANNA BUY A MUSIC VENUE?

Share offer summary for Music Venue Properties:

£200 - minimum share subscription for over 25s

£100 - minimum share subscription for under 25s

£500 - recommended share subscription

3 percent - intended interest payments from second year of investment

Source: Music Venue Trust

The Ferret was hit hard during lcokdown
Matt Fawbert, The Ferret's general manager, hopes people will pitch in to help secure its future