Bootleg Social’s Stephen Skelly on emerging from lockdown

I grew out of the rave era, thousands of kids finding a way to have a shared experience, bending the rules and flaunting law and order. Throughout lockdown I’ve thought a lot about how Blackpool would come out of these times, particularly our underground music scene, and how restrictions have impacted small music venues, the people that run them and how we find that shared experience again.

In a series of articles I spoke to Stephen Skelly of Bootleg Social, Jake from Dirty Blondes and Ian from The Waterloo Music Venue to try and find out.

Stephen Skelly - Bootleg Social Image Claire Griffiths

Bootleg Social June 10th 2020

Claire: What does the immediate future hold for Bootleg?

Stephen Skelly: Opening with the distance rule makes our future look worrying. With a 1 metre distance rule we get an audience of 60 but once you have 60 folks in the room and we have to start making space for socially distanced toilet queues and a bar queuing lane we are taking away potential seating. There are ways to make it possible with folks ordering from an app or table service – but the extra expense, and the unsociable experience makes me wonder if people would actually want to attend. Would people want to come into a venue to see a band where singing along is not allowed, dancing is not allowed and bands may have to restict their movement and interaction?


I’ve been working on new venue layouts the new government guidelines say we are not allowed standing gigs, that we have to allow for seats. So in short, it’s financially unviable. We would have to put a steward in place to make the toilets one in and one out as it becomes impossible to social distance given the size and layout of the toilets. We would need security or a steward at the top of our entrance stairway letting people in and would need to create a traffic light system on the stairs to manage the flow of people entering and exiting, which becomes a nightmare in itself and once people have a few drinks it all becomes a bit more tricky.

Bootleg Social Image Claire Griffiths

Government guidance

We’ve been speculating how this guidance would work with bands. How can I as a venue owner ensure a performer adhears to guidance? And what audience wants to sit and not talk and watch a band motionless? One option would be to change our programming to suit a seated environment. We could put on lounge, jazz, acoustic acts, but that is not our audience or our market. Would we be able to sell tickets to that kind of event? We would have to appeal to a whole new audience. And as there is currently a blanket restriction on live performance, I don’t see how we could open in July. We’ve been working closely with the Music Venue Trust to provide data about our new capacities, financial costs, implications and guidance implementation feasibility which has been fed back to government, to help them understand the situation we’re in. It’s now just a waiting game to see what action will be taken.

Times are hard and we would like people to be able to come back in July and sell a few drinks but with the current restrictions it kind of goes against the act of socialising. If your venue has an outdoor space you have a chance, but we have looked at our current situation, all risk factors, there are ventilation issues, we have to mitigate risk. It’s a minefield and financially unviable to open our doors. Long term we just want everything to get back to normal, it’s impossible to reopen at the moment and allow people to be social, it’s even in our name, but right now its about being socially distant, I don’t think it works.

The human need to socialise

Once people have drinks they forget, just before lockdown even though we were doing our best to go round and clear drinks and disinfect, people forget. The is also a problem with testing when you look at subcultures that we support, folks in those subcultures are not always comfortable with the new idea of testing for track and trace. Maybe a instant test, like a breathalyser that could be used on admission, where personal data is not held, that might work. But until there is something like that, it’s very tricky to open without risk to our customers and our staff. Plus I foresee problems with insurance if someone tried to make a claim, as it stands no insurer has paid out for anything pandemic related.

We received the government grant, and it’s the only reason we’re still afloat now, the money has gone quite a long way. In Blackpool it’s relatively cheap to run a business in comparison to say, Manchester. Our costs will be much less. Essentially, we got the same grant, theirs probably ran out a more than a month ago – ours is still going. In Manchester and on a national level there has been lots of fundraising and artists supporting and trying to save the venues. In those communities people have come together and raised thousands, the national total is now in excess of one million. This has been raised partly through artists doing live streams and taking donations. I haven’t jumped on that yet – it might be a consideration for the future to keep the venue and the scene alive.

Bootleg Social have been operating as a music venue since 2014, take a look at their Facebook page, where you will find the following statement:

SPOILER ALERT. – We will not be opening on July 4th.

New government guidelines are we can open but not put on live gigs 🤨🙃

In other news JD Sports can reopen but not sell trainers & McDonald’s can reopen but not sell burgers.

Give the Music Venue Trust open letter to the government a read & send it on to your local MP with what your local venue means to you.


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