Sister Midnight was formerly a grassroots music venue based in Deptford. Established in 2018, they quickly became an important part of their local music scene, and a place where people could come together in celebration of southeast London’s music culture. They had to leave their space during the pandemic and so decided to set up Sister Midnight Community Venues Limited, and work towards saving the Ravensbourne Arms to run it as a community business.
“The way that Sister Midnight was run before, even though it wasn’t formally a community business, it was a community business,” says Lenny Watson, co-founder. “We weren’t doing it for profit, and we certainly weren’t making any profit! We had an informal mechanism of people telling us what they wanted from the space, what was working and what wasn’t. We were all volunteers. Whenever we needed help, like that time a window got broken by a drunk person, so everyone pulled together a last-minute fundraiser to get the money to fix it.”
The Ravensbourne Arms closed in 2016 after it was sold to private property developers who intended to convert the site for residential use. Although the upper two floors of the building have now been converted into flats, Lewisham Council have declined to grant a change of use for the pub itself, citing its community importance as a factor. “I’d known about the Ravensbourne for a really long time” says Lenny. “I actually went to view it back in 2019 because I knew that it was a really beautiful pub that closed down. I saw it was on the market and I knew I definitely didn’t have £3 million to buy it, but I just wanted to take a look. It was all a bit of a pipe dream.”
Ownership is one of the key issues facing grassroots music venues. When the pandemic hit, Sister Midnight’s space in Deptford would have needed a lot of investment to make it a viable to run gigs, Lenny explains: “Even if we have that money, investing it into a building that we don’t own where we have a five-year lease, where our landlord can look at these improvements that we’ve made to up the value of the building at any point and say okay, well now I’m going to double your rent – it doesn’t make sense. There’s just no security in it.”
“And really, what I want to do is create a venue that can be there long-term, and that can have a long-term impact on communities and music culture in the local area,” she adds. “So, to do that, you need to have security of tenure and the only way I see that happening is ownership.”
Lenny joined forces with Sophie Farrell and Verity Hobbs, who, Lenny says, “I think I’d only met five or six times!” after they expressed an interest in the campaign. They had run nights at the Deptford site and wanted to be a part of securing a new space for the community. Verity has now left Sister Midnight, but they’ve welcomed Lottie Pendlebury as a director. “Lottie’s band Goat Girl have been huge supporters of Sister Midnight from our early days,” says Lenny. “Lottie has been doing incredible work throughout the campaign getting various music industry figures on board.”
Building on that community of customers, musicians, and music lovers, they launched a consultation that saw them receive over 800 responses in just ten days. And people shared their vision for the pub, with 96% saying they felt this was an important asset for Lewisham.
“I think there’s definitely, especially in music and art, more of a political leaning towards more democratic ownership structures and community involvement in businesses, so I think the desire to start a community business seems to be something that’s borne out of a specific political leaning in certain sectors or areas that people are working in.”
They were matched with a community shares practitioner at Coops UK who guided them through the process of setting up a community share offer which they did through Crowdfunder. Understanding that not everyone can afford the minimum £100 share price, they also launched an affordable share scheme which gave people the chance to purchase a share for £25. “It was launched because we were mindful that most people in our age group don’t have the disposable income,” says Lenny. “For a lot of people who were coming to Sister Midnight, £100 is a month of food. It’s unthinkable that you would just drop that into a share investment.”
When the share offer closed in March 2022, they had raised £257,000 between 870 investors, more than any other London-based share offer. Unfortunately, Sister Midnight confirmed in May 2022 that they have not been able to agree an offer on the Ravensbourne Arms as, despite independent valuations, the figure asked for was double the market value suggested.
“This has left us to consider every option available to us, but unfortunately there just aren’t any suitable properties on the market at this time, and even if we could find our dream music venue, with interest rates rising and a recession looming, it’s too risky right now to take out the kind of large loans we’d need to buy a building,” they said in a statement. “BUT! You know us, we don’t give up without a fight and we’ve got a plan… We think that our best option in the short term would be finding a meanwhile space where we can run our venue for a few years, whilst we continue to work towards our ultimate goal of owning a building.
“Setting up in a meanwhile space will allow us to deliver all the social benefits that our community music venue can offer; great gigs, affordable rehearsal space for bands, community events, great local beer and more. We’ll still be a democratically run, community owned space, giving our community a voice and a say in how things will be done.
“Even though we can’t buy a building at the moment, we can create a fantastic interim venue space where we can grow our community, build a strong trading history and a track record of delivering our social aims, and strengthen our financial position with a view to buying a building in the future.
“We want to stress that owning our own building is still our end goal, we just have to reposition this goal as one that is more long-term, and securing a meanwhile space for our venue is the first step towards getting there.”