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Sheffield Community Champions

What keeps The Foundry at the top of their game?

The venue’s manager Alex O'Brien shares his story about the challenges, innovations and sheer hard graft needed to make The Foundry the go-to venue for students and Sheffielders alike.

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Elouisa Georgiou Photography.

We take it for granted, don't we? Understandable perhaps, especially in a city with two huge universities. I'm talking about Sheffield's live music as both entertainment and a social coalescence.

DJ sets, club nights, drum'n’bass, specialist dance music, literary festivals, famous and less well-known bands and artists across a smorgasbord of genres, all regularly pop up day in, day out on The Foundry's social feeds. The dance card is always full, the offering always electric and eclectic.

Some events are aimed specifically at Sheffield's student population, some to ardent music fans of all ages, but there's no doubt that the sheer breadth, diversity and cultural variety of the venue’s offering is to be admired. But who arranges, manages, organises, selects and books the myriad of Foundry events, a role critical to Sheffield's wider nightlife and a student population of more than 30,000?

Step forward Alex O'Brien, deputy director of social enterprises at The Foundry who, along with his hard working team, has worked tirelessly for ten years to bring that massive breadth of entertainment to grateful audiences.

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The Foundry team collecting an Exposed award last year.

"I've been doing this for over 20 years and cut my teeth at The Welly in Hull, booking drum'n’bass and gig nights – still do in fact – before moving on to the University of Hull as events manager. I did that for seven years before moving to Sheffield in 2014," explains O’Brien.

As with any other industry, there's a constant pressure for efficiency and role broadening which brings fresh challenges as the demand for greater responsibility grows. Alex's experience is no different. "The last ten years have seen my role expand to cover the commercial arm of the Students’ Union, the nightclub, two bars, two shops, a coffee shop, security, and box office as well as the team,” he says. “It's really varied work."

And it's varied work at a prestigious workplace: "Sheffield SU was the winner of the Whatuni awards last year as best student union in the country, and we've won it for the last six years on the trot. It's a real privilege to be here."

Being Alex's first love, it's no surprise to see dance music woven into the fabric of The Foundry's events calendar, with the weekly Tuesday Club being a fixture for over 25 years. His passion and booking expertise for DJ-led shows allows him to continue to attract the very best of drum'n’bass and jungle talent (Shy FX is a regular), a skill that represents Alex's commitment to giving his community the very best artists, all based on a simple but underestimated principle.

"We book major acts regularly, so your reputation is based on regularly delivering good, well-attended shows and that the journey from booking to the event itself is well managed" says Alex. "Great feedback means we can maintain our slots at The Tuesday Club. Most places do Friday and Saturday, so we are pretty unique. If I pitched the idea of a midweek dance slot to my bosses now, they would laugh me out of town!"

Ensuring the need to positively promote diversity must be high up on any agenda, so it's no surprise that the breadth and range of shows is carefully curated and nurtured. "We're really proud of our LGBTQ+ Grapefruit nights – they've been run for 20 odd years – that draw great crowds and are a real community event. It's very important we are representative of the students and the country at large.”

That extended spirit of inclusiveness extends to providing links to student mental health support services, as well as offering practical help such as a minibus home service – a thoughtful, safe provision.

There's no escaping the fact that the nightclub industry is under attack. The Night Time Industries Association cites a closure rate of an astonishing 31% between March 2020 and December last year, with iconic LGBTQ+ London venue Heaven the latest high-profile club under threat due to a landlord-imposed £320,000 rent hike. Energy price increases and the cost-of-living crisis do nothing but add further pressure.

Alex has strong views on how this has impacted The Foundry, especially over the past few years. "We had club shows that would sell out well in advance. Now for a club event, we can sell up to 50% of our tickets between 6 and 11pm on the day. Pre-pandemic it would be sold out a week in advance. We've also seen drop-offs of 15 to 20% affecting ticket sales across the industry. Thankfully, we are holding our own."

Of course, fiscal pressures apply to The Foundry's budget as much as to any venue. So, what particular issues concern Alex?

"Margins are much tighter now. We are proudly a Living Wage Foundation employer, so we have to manage our staffing much more closely. We can have 50 staff involved in a show, so if we don't know how many will attend, that makes things very challenging. Students are all feeling the pinch," he explains.

It's worth pointing out that the Students Union’ is a separate entity to the university itself. As Alex explains: "It's really important that we're collectively seen as connecting with the broader community, and not just seen as this big behemoth on the outskirts of town. For The Foundry, aside from dedicated student nights, everything else is open to the public for events such as the beer festival, Off the Shelf etc. We're working hard to publicise that."

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Channel One Sound System performing at the Foundry in 2016.

Elouisa Georgiou Photography.

Do the council or government agencies engage with you in any way?

"No, not at all, we're pretty much left to get on with it ourselves," says Alex, which is very much reflective of the nationwide situation.

It's not the case in all countries though. France has been highly proactive, specifically in addressing its own small venue issues by imposing a 3.5% ticket tariff on stadium and large venue gigs that is in turn re-invested back into grassroots spaces along the lines of the football league model. Would any of these types of initiatives work in the UK?

"I'd like to see a cut in VAT to 10%," says Alex. "It would make such a difference to our cost base, and give more opportunities to venues and artists alike to re-invest savings to keep clubs and gig venues open.” Needless to say, this supine government chose to ignore any support for the £5.5bn industry in the recent budget, so help is currently a long way off.

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Shy FX at Tuesday Club in 2017.

Elouisa Georgiou Photography.

Alex's approach and dedication to innovation, service, community and student engagement is anathema to a government at ease with culture wars, austerity and the pursuit of disenfranchisement from the very people they purport to support.

It's to the Student Union’s enormous credit that Alex and his team have the skills and expertise to come up with a non-stop conveyor belt of creative ideas that maintain and attract both students and the broader community to their events. Sheffield salutes you.

Finally, I ask who his dream booking would be. "Sault" he says, "no question". Now what a gig that would be.

Accessibility info

Throughout Foundry there is level access, with a ramp up to a raised area and up to the disabled viewing platform in the Foundry main room which is available during live gigs (but not during club nights). Foundry have extensive information about accessibility at the venue on their website.

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