It’s a freezing cold night in February, two intense men from Nottingham play to 60 local music freaks, punks and dedicated gig-goers. Four months later they are playing to 150. Move on six months and they could play to 2000 people, but they still play the Exchange to a sold-out audience… Sleaford Mods are what Exchange is all about.’ – Fat Paul, Exchange co-director

Exchange has become the first Bristol venue seeking to become a Community Benefit Society, looking to raise £250,000 to go into shared ownership, not only preserving a Bristolian gem now, but also pursuing a bright future in a way that’s helmed by the people. I spoke to Exchange co-director, Matt Otridge, about their bold plans.

“Venues used to be thought of as more of a nuisance… Over time, people have come to realise that they have a cultural benefit and therefore a community benefit.”

As a lifelong lover of live music, I needed no convincing of the need to keep Exchange alive. Having been fairly skint most of my life, it was probably my purse strings that needed pulling on, not my heartstrings. Suffice to say that after a good half hour, he had me sold too. When he quoted Fat Paul’s words (above), the sense of musical legacy was already evident. Thereafter, the importance of their plans boiled down into several categories.

Community benefit: “Venues used to be thought of as more of a nuisance, in the same sort of perception as city-centre superclubs. Over time, people have come to realise that they have a cultural benefit and therefore a community benefit.” You’ll know Exchange has a shit-hot café and record shop, but you may not know that it’s a rehearsal space during weekdays, and a venue for punk rock yoga or BIMM exams. An LGBTQ+ documentary was even shot in there. Matt added, “Bristol’s a city that suits the idea of a community benefit – everyone can buy a share, everyone can have a vote – all very democratic.”  

Levelling the playing field: Here, I had to pick my jaw off the carpet: “In Europe the average venue has 42% of turnover as a subsidy from the government, or from their version of the Arts Council. In the UK, only 0.7% of music venues received any subsidy at all from the Arts Council in 2017.” If dusty bureaucrats are ploughing the available funds into such vibrant modern artistic movements as… opera, then it falls on us to act.

Succession: After twelve years of service, heart and soul, Matt clearly sees Exchange as a second home, and colleagues as extended family. With that ‘parental’ eye, he wishes for his protégé to thrive long after his involvement: “Small live venues are so important to the overall infrastructure of the British music industry. We’re making changes for the next generation, so that when my daughter grows up, she can go to Exchange, even buy a share herself. Any shareholder has the potential to become a future director.”

Innovation: They have big plans: a bar that is open to the community each night; investment in light and sound aspects to ensure that bands and listeners get the best output possible; improved accessibility and green solutions throughout. Similarly, shareholders’ voices will bring healthy new ideas: “The next generation will inevitably keep us relevant and radical, so that we can diversify even more. Old Market continues to change. The easiest thing in the world would be for us to go out and find someone else to take out a lease on the building, probably paying significantly more than the Community Benefit Society would pay, but that’s not where we’re at. We want an up-and-coming venue in an up-and-coming area.” This feels like genuine progress without creating exclusivity – grassroots growth, not flowery gentrification.

Save The Exchange. This is not a rehearsal.

The community share offer goes live on 4th September, with a free launch show at Exchange. You can click to pledge at exchangebristol.com