Carol Emmas meets Alex Medlicott, co-director of Liverpool Arts Bar on Hope Street
Many business owners had their head in their hands during the pandemic. Liverpool Arts Bar - just a year old in the first lockdown - was flung into a state of panic when it didn’t have the two years of accounts to obtain the larger government business grants.
There was one moment when I stood back to watch and had a tear in my eye. I was so emotional seeing people up and dancing together again
With a new business inside Liverpool’s massive Grade-II Masonic Hall standing unused, the four directors of Liverpool Arts Bar - Alex Medlicott, Ben Cosgrove, Tom Wilson and Jordan Bucknall - had to think quickly on their feet.
“We managed to get a few smaller grassroots ones but at the time it was a nightmare,” says Alex.
“We were just very lucky our landlords were helpful. We were honest with each other and they were great with us.”
Liverpool Arts Bar opened on Hope Street in 2019. It was a period that saw a fair few land-grab hits, forcing out creatives on the back of profits over people. Yet, as we all know, creatives are great with the one-fingered salute, with the vision to pop up and innovate where you least expect. Instead of being forced to the cheaper outskirts, they snuck in the back way to Hope Street.
All four creatives had worked together in hospitality and events before coming up with the idea of developing a place where artists can congregate to share ideas over a drink. Their younger selves had craved finding such a dream space.
With a perfect mix of skills (Alex trained as an actor, Ben a director who works closely on projects with the Everyman, Jordan a technician and Tom, a musician), they were able to bring all their interests under one roof and share their enthusiasm with the wider public.
In the end, the pandemic brought positives in terms of new ideas and future visions.
“I began frantically reading, listening to podcasts and watching videos every day on digital marketing, accounting, business planning; that I’d not had time to do before because we were caught up in being physically and mentally present in business and in the world,” says Alex.
The downtime gave them the space to stop pulling pints and grow their previously unexplored online platform which included online open mic nights, exhibitions, gigs, dance classes and a weekly podcast of them chatting about their day.
In a surprise twist of fate, their online innovation was noticed by O2 and the team ended up being invited to London and used on an advert talking about how they used the pandemic to grow their platform. O2 called it “flexing”. How did your business “flex” during the pandemic?
Another big success has been recording live gigs and uploading them on to their website in an NPR Tiny Desk style.
“Tom had gone to work as an assistant on a film set for free during lockdown and picked up skills with a camera. So we began to live stream all the gigs,” says Alex.
“Some people might think it’s stupid now we are back open that we are still doing it, as it encourages people to watch the gigs from home. Our view is if that happens you hope those people think - actually, I want to be there next week.”
In addition, Alex says they’ve had so many more musicians get in touch on the back of it because they both get paid for the gigs, and can use the livestream as a product to promote themselves in other places to get more live work.
Tom started a band called Tin Can Voodoo and in true A&R style, he goes to check out local gigs - if he spots someone interesting he’ll invite them to play a set with his band as a guest artist, which helps promote their work too.
The venue is certainly unique. A backstage mural by artist Molly Hawkins has become very identifiable with the bar and can now be seen all over Instagram. With boho scattered leather Chesterfield sofas, a snug, a space for intimate live music and poetry, an exhibition space and a central drinks bar, as well as other rooms for hire, Liverpool Arts Bar aims to offer something for everyone.
The bar runs a wide variety of events including a karaoke night with a difference - instead of singing with a backing track it’s about getting up with musicians.
“We'd like to provide food also, but we’re massively conscious not treading on anyone’s toes and don’t want to be in competition with the other restaurants locally,” says Alex.
“We have to find a unique offering and if we’re going to do it it needs to be done properly. So we’re still thinking that one through.”
Along with being environmentally aware (they installed a biomass boiler and limit their use of plastics) they are also very much about inclusivity. The listed building status means that there is currently no disabled access, but they’re desperate to change that and are exploring options with new spaces and expanding in the Masonic Hall.
Working with charities, other grassroots organisations and promoting their successful merchandise section of the website - another idea that came out of the pandemic - is all in a day's work.
I ask Alex how it feels to be back up and operating?
“Amazing”, he says.
“The most frustrating part of the pandemic was when everyone had to remain seated wearing masks. This venue is massively about ‘let me introduce you to’ and bringing the community together through shared interests.
“The first time after lockdown we had Tom’s band on, it was booming, so we took all the tables out so everyone could dance. There was one moment when I stood back to watch and had a tear in my eye. I was so emotional seeing people up and dancing together again.
“It seemed like we’d waited forever for it.”
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