Interview: Power in Communities – Sister Midnight And Their Brand New Community Owned Venue

Starting out in 2018 as a Record Shop and Music Venue in Deptford, the Sister Midnight initiative  – founded by Lenny Watson, Sophie Farrell, and Lottie Pendlebury (Goat Girl) –  has long held its ambition to bring a new music venue/creative hub to the economically deprived areas of South-East London.

Having been unsuccessful in their attempt to purchase the Ravensbourne Arms in 2021 (the owners were asking for £1 million above market value), Lewisham council offered them an alternative, The Brookdale Arms, a disused Working Men’s Club in centre of Catford. And on the 25th January this year, after months of negotiations,  it was announced that Sister Midnight had secured the location as a ‘Meanwhile Space’ on a 10 year lease.

The coming months will be spent securing the funding and resources to transform The Brookdale Arms into ‘Sister Midnight’: 250 capacity live venue, cafe, and artist/rehearsal studio space – all democratically run and community owned – with hopes to open by the end of the year.While news items surrounding grassroots venues have often been dominated with threats of closure  – Manchester’s Night and Day cafe being the most recent example – the news of Sister Midnight’s success provides a much needed good news story to a much belaboured sector of the music industry.

Above: Lottie Pendlbury, Lenny Watson, Sophie Farrell – Sister Midnight

Following the announcement, we spoke with Lenny Watson and Sophie Farrell (who joined us halfway through the interview) to discuss this exciting news, how they got there, and what’s next to come.

How have you found the reaction to the news? How was yesterday’s community meeting to announce the proposals?

Lenny: It’s been such an amazing reaction. Obviously we hoped that people would be as excited as we are about the new proposals. But yet again, the response from the community has absolutely blown us away. The community meeting that we had last night was the first one we’d had in a while, because obviously everything’s been so behind the scenes. It was an amazing turn out. I don’t know how many people we had, but it was more than 100 people crammed into The Fox and Firkin around tables and chairs. It was just such a heartwarming night. We loved it. We got to present the plans. There were rounds of applause. We even had an impromptu vote about whether we should call it ‘Sister Midnight’ or ‘the Brookdale Club’, and ‘Sister Midnight’ won out. It was so nice to see some of the familiar faces that have been around from the campaign before, and see some new people.

So you’ve secured the venue. I’m curious about what the next steps are for the project and how long can we expect to wait before it opens?

L: So, the next steps…there’s a lot of them! We’ve got to get architects on board and finish developing fully detailed and costed architectural plans. Then get contractors in to do the work, and then get the community in to do all the fit out, furnishing and decorating of the space. We’ve got to recruit staff and train them, and then we’ll be able to open. All of that is alongside the fact that we need to source a lot more money – around another £240,000 – in order to pull this whole thing off.

Above: Sister Midnight Inside Sketch

Is all this something that daunts you? Excites you? How are you feeling about the year ahead?

L:  Do you know what? I’m trying to take it just a week at a time. I think we all are in the Sister Midnight team. Whilst we have to do a plan of looking at the long term – that feels overwhelming. The magnitude of what we’re trying to do is a bit terrifying at times. So we have to break it down into very manageable steps. But it is exciting. It’s so exciting. We, a lot of the time, get carried away talking about what the opening night is going to be like, what bands we wanna book, how we’re gonna make it the most exciting party Catford has ever seen! It really motivates us to think about that end point, which in some ways will feel like the beginning of everything! That’s when the real work will start.

What do you think are the major barriers to building a project like this. What do you think is stopping other projects like this from happening more often?

L: I think privilege is a big barrier. There’s a lot of privilege in being able to commit the free time to exploring these ideas. For a lot of this project we worked unpaid. To be able to have that free time is a massive thing. I think experience, skills and knowledge are also massive barriers, and I guess we’ve had to learn all of these things, which links back into having the privilege and the resources to be able to do that. There’s definitely an educational barrier as well to starting co-operatives. You’re not taught about co-operative models, and starting cooperative businesses, in schools. The government doesn’t even list them on their website as an option for business structure. It seems to be this niche topic of knowledge.We would be able to educate more people around that, and share some of the learnings that we’ve taken away from this experience so more of these projects can happen.

Above: Sister Midnight Live Room Sketch

Where do you go to get funding like this? Is it a process you’ve had to learn from scratch?

L: With Sister Midnight it started out as a record shop and venue in Deptford that opened in 2018. So we had that  basis of knowing the community, knowing the music scene, and how to run a venue. But in terms of knowing how to fundraise a quarter of million pounds from the community, or understanding co-operative business models, this is all totally new.

Sophie: I don’t think I ever wrote a funding application before starting this project. It’s all been learning on the job really.

L: Definitely. And that’s been a huge part of it. And in terms of the funding. It’s all been so step by step. We had the idea of making a cooperative music venue, and then we started to  learn about cooperatives.

Sophie: When you’re a Not For Profit, or a charity, or a community benefit organisation like us, there’s so many funds that are out there, that people aren’t aware about if you’re a community business, so that was learning in itself really – that there were grants, and there are funds, and they want to fund you if you’re the right business structure.

What’s been your relationship with local councils and governments throughout this project? 

L: We didn’t have a relationship with the council that early on. When we put out the first community consultation in January 2021 we did get a response from some local councillors who went: “this is a great idea. We’d love to support it.” It’s a relationship that developed quite organically. When it got to the point with the Ravensbourne Arms, and the sale was falling through, we were properly hooked up with Lewisham Council. Our experience working with them has been incredible. They’ve been very willing to do what they can to help us. And obviously, that relationship has resulted in them offering us a building for free, for ten years!

Above: Sister Midnight Garden Sketch

Considering the amount of time you’ve put into the project, the setbacks you’ve had (with the Ravensbourne Arms) for example, what do you think are the major lessons you’ve learned from this project? How has your reaction to the Grassroots scene changed? How has your reaction to the community changed?

L: I feel like there’s been a lot of positive changes. Don’t you, Soph? Most of my learning from this has been that there’s so much power in communities. It’s amazing how people have really rallied behind us. I think it sets a precedent for what communities can do when we work together towards something.

S: I think there’s a lot of power with your perseverance with it. A year ago, we had a few knocks back with the Ravensbourne, but from us having that original vision, something very beautiful has been born from that.

L: We’ve learned a few tough lessons. Learnt that the London Property market is just brutal! Finding a cultural space in London is really really hard. I think that sometimes you can do all the hard work in the world, and it’s just a case of waiting for things to fall into place, and we’re really lucky that they have fallen into place in the way they have. I feel like we’ve learnt a lot of practical skills, like how to engage with the community and how to do public speaking…

S:…how to engage with councils, and the politics around that. Especially if you’re going to be a loud venue!

L: If we had to summarise all that rambling that we’ve done succinctly, the two big takeaways are: London property market – brutal; communities – absolutely amazing, particularly ours in South East London.

Stay up to date with Sister Midnight here. Follow them on Instagram here.

Issue Forty-One of So Young is out now and available to read in print here or as a digital magazine below.