Bradford Live is delighted to have passed Stage 2 of the Odeon process. We see the result as a vindication of the hard work our team has done for over three years. But there is still more work to do before the former Odeon can be assured of a viable long term future. We will shortly start detailed study of the interior of the building; something which, for safety reasons, they could not do before. Meanwhile, we are deepening our talks with our chosen operating partner, with potential sponsors, and with the key grant funding bodies.
We will release more detailed information of our plans over the coming weeks. For now, we would like to summarise the key elements of the Bradford Live project.
The Market Context
We believed from the start, that for this much-loved building to survive, a viable long term solution had to be found. Fortunately, the building is large enough (when taken back to its original form) to accommodate around 4000 people (1200 seated in the circles; around 2800 standing in the stalls). That capacity is attractive to a modern music and live entertainment industry which increasingly relies on touring as its main source of revenue. Moreover, the size fits well between the arenas, at one end of the scale, and the ‘town and city venues’, (which usually have capacities of up to 2000), at the other. There are not many venues of this size in the UK, as they all derive from the small number of buildings built as ‘super cinemas’ in the 1920s and 1930s (this will be the subject of a future posting). The nearest equivalents to our concept for Bradford Live are the Hammersmith Apollo, The Troxy in Stepney, the Brixton Academy and Manchester Apollo. A venue of this capacity can attract not only those acts for which an arena tour is not a viable option; but also those that could fill arenas, but which also want to perform in a smaller, more intimate venue. Bradford Live has received support from big-name performers who look forward to performing in the Bradford venue. This support will be made public later in the year.
Management and Ownership
Key to our proposal is that the transformed venue must be run by a professional operator. We have had discussions with the main firms and have agreed an exclusivity agreement with one of them, which we will expand and deepen in this next stage of the process. Trying to run a venue of this size independently is, in our opinion, simply too risky, and would threaten the entire viability of the project. The operator we are working with has much experience and a solid track record, both in the UK and indeed worldwide. This is the best insurance available to ensure a viable future for the Bradford venue.
The issue of ownership is less important than the issue of viability. If the venue fails to cover its running costs, then the question of ‘who owns it’ is immediately subsumed by the more pressing issue of ‘who pays’ to keep a loss-making venue open. It is not credible to believe that in today’s financial climate the public sector could or indeed should use public money to keep a loss-making venue open. The building has to earn its keep and the safest way of getting to that position is for the operational risk to be borne by a professional operator.
Obviously, however, the building has to be owned by someone, and we believe that the Council, on behalf of all of Bradford’s citizens, should retain the freehold of the building. Our plan is for Bradford Live to agree a long term lease of the building from the Council, and then to officially appoint the operator partner, while managing the wider building and site. It is important to remember that Bradford Live is a charitable company, set up to care for the long term interests of the Odeon building, and to promote live music and entertainment generally in Bradford. The Trustees have been named in an earlier posting, and we hope to appoint a patron in the near future.
Night and Day
During the lengthy competitive process, a perception emerged that under Bradford Live’s proposal, the venue would be open only during ‘event’ nights. This perception is misleading. The venue would primarily be an evening/night venue, and this is indeed what Bradford most needs: a venue to attract people into the city in the evenings; encouraging them not only to visit, but to spend time in the centre both before and after shows. That does not mean, however, that for the rest of the time the building would be shut. There is scope for daytime trade in the form of conferences, exhibitions and roadshows, in the earlier part of the week, and we are working hard on this aspect. Further, the building comprises not just one huge auditorium, but a separate dining and ballroom wing, and these spaces were designed to be run independently of the main venue. We think they can be again, and indeed, under our plans, we have re-instated the original ballroom entrance and staircase to allow ballroom access when the main auditorium is not in use. There are further opportunities of opening up, during the day, the former Crescent Lounge (which under our plans would also be re-instated) and one or more rooms in the two towers. However, these ideas need to be tested further, with more market research and detailed architectural study of the specific spaces.
The site behind the Odeon
This is a critical space. The present stage access from Quebec Street is hopelessly inadequate for today’s touring industry, in which forty foot trucks are the norm. A quick and efficient way of loading and unloading such vehicles is essential to the viability of the venue, which is why, under our plans, a large new loading dock entrance is planned to the rear of the stage. This new entry/exit point will allow two trucks to load/unload side by side, as well as allowing several to park in a safe and secure ‘scene dock’ area. Obviously, the need for this access does dictate what can be done with the overall site behind the Odeon.
The other Bradford venues
There are, of course, other key venues in Bradford: the Alhambra and St George’s Hall. It is important that a transformed Odeon does not drain potential audiences from either of these two buildings: it is no good saving the Odeon only to put other key Bradford venues at risk. Bradford Live has thought carefully about this issue and has developed a model that complements rather than competes. The Alhambra is a major regional theatre that is already a success; more than capable of competing with other regional venues such as Leeds Grand. The Odeon will not target this market. The concern is St George’s. With a capacity of around 1500, the venue is now too small to retain its slot on many touring schedules. Levels of seat comfort are no longer competitive and some sightlines are poor. The acoustics, moreover, are not well suited to amplified music. It is trying to do too much, catering to demands that often pull in different directions. Ironically, the key to the future of St George’s is the successful transformation of the Odeon. The new Odeon venue would be big enough to secure those acts that increasingly bypass Bradford, and it will be designed specifically for bigger amplified live music and entertainment shows. This will allow St George’s to refocus on its core strengths: its intimate size and superb natural acoustic. Our theatre consultant, Peter Angier, has already done an initial plan of how St George’s could be reworked, with fewer but far more comfortable seats, all with excellent sightlines. The focus would then be on mainly natural acoustic performances, such as classical and choral music, jazz, folk, blues, and comedy. The ultimate objective is for Bradford to have three highly focussed venues: the Alhambra for theatre shows; St George’s for mainly non-amplified performances; and the Odeon for large amplified music and entertainment shows.
The Odeon is not yet safe: much work still needs to be done before the project (hopefully)gets the green light from the Council Executive at the end of the year. But we feel that a major milestone has been passed and look forward to working closely with the Council on the next stage. Over the next few weeks and months, we will be publishing more details of the Bradford Live proposal. Thank you for your support so far!