“The first thing we did when we got the building was stick The Future is Birkenhead in massive neon pink letters,” says Future Yard co-founder Craig Pennington of the 350-capacity venue. “People want to love and be proud of where they are from, you just need to give people hope and a reason to feel that pride.”
Birkenhead, located on the Wirral Peninsula opposite the city of Liverpool, has a rich musical history, producing talents such as Elvis Costello and The Coral. “Despite that history and heritage, Birkenhead hasn’t had an independent live music venue dedicated to supporting emerging artists as long as I’ve been alive,” says Craig. “There’s very little in the way of music sector infrastructure in this part of the world. Artists are being underserved, audiences are being underserved and young people haven’t had a local venue in which they can see the possibility of going on to work in the live music sector.”
The area is also one that has struggled over the years in a wider sense. “It’s an area of quite acute social deprivation,” says Craig. “We’re located in one of the poorest wards in the country and if you look at instances of multiple deprivation, it’s in the bottom 1%.” Craig and a team decided to try and bring back some positivity, propensity and opportunity to the area by opening up a community music venue that would offer more than just gigs. “The whole point was to reimagine a live music venue as a really transformational opportunity to think about how we could change people’s lives in the area.”
A festival kicked things off in 2019, Covid-19 then stalled proceedings, and then finally the venue, along with coffee shop and bar, opened in 2021. However, from the very beginning Future Yard set out to eschew the conventional functions of a music venue. Aside from immediately committing to a long-term goal of becoming the UK’s first carbon neutral grassroots music venue, they wanted Future Yard to be a genuine community hub.
“We’ve got a really strong commitment to artist development,” says Craig. “We’ve got studio spaces in our basement, we’ve got a mentorship programme to support the development of emerging artists and our skills and training programme, Sound Check, is all about giving local young people free access to programmes to develop skills to work in the live music industry. Every show that we put on there’s a young person learning how to use the lights, do the sound and learn event management.”
24 year-old Lara Jones is one such young person benefiting from the Sound Check programme. “I always wanted to get into the live music industry but I didn’t know where my place fitted in that,” she says. “I was so excited about the programme because it gave people a gateway to get into the industry if you haven’t had the experience of going to university or been able to put yourself forward to volunteer. It’s given us real life experience of the events industry while showing us the importance of each role.”
The opportunity came at a time when Lara needed it the most. “I was feeling really stagnant and I wasn’t doing anything with myself,” she says. “Through this I was able to really jump into something that I wouldn’t normally do. Future Yard is what we’ve needed for so long. I’m absolutely made up that there’s something like this in Birkenhead.” The programme is so popular there’s already a waiting list for the next one and Lara has since gained an apprenticeship in the events team at the University of Liverpool.
For Craig, Future Yard is a way of demonstrating a different way of how things can be done in the industry. “If you look at a CIC as a potential business model, maybe more music venues should be striving towards that infrastructure,” he says. “For us it was the only way we could structure ourselves as an organisation, it makes complete sense. We’re now in a position of responsibility to try and show a different model. We’re never going to be a music college but if you can think about a live music venue as an institution that transfers knowledge and transfers experience to people on a journey then that’s a different model.”
It also provides the opportunity for Birkenhead, often overlooked compared to nearby Liverpool, to be a destination venue. “Some places around the world are synonymous with being music cities and that’s what we want to create,” says Craig. “There’s no reason why Birkenhead can’t be viewed as a new alternative destination in the UK.”