Rob Maddison leads Spaceships Are Cool, drums for electro-funksters Yunioshi, and has a new musical project in the shape of Revenge of Calculon. A longtime performer and gig goer, he’s also been in a wheelchair since 2007. With Nottingham often being touted as having one of the UK’s best live music scenes, and with over eleven million registered disabled people in the country, we spoke to him about the accessibility of local venues and if there’s anything else that can be done to improve them...
The first gig that Rob played as a wheelchair user was drumming for Yunioshi at The Maze. “I went in around the back, they’ve got a disabled toilet and the stage is about a foot off the ground - it made me realise that I could do this. If my first one had been more difficult it might have put me off a little bit, it was a good confidence booster.” This was just six months after he became ill, but having a show to play proved to be good rehabilitation for him, “I had to relearn how to play the drums. I had to develop a whole new technique that involved a lot of intensive training.”
After subsequently attending a handful of smaller shows that were mainly held in cafés and bars, the first ‘proper venue’ he attended as a gig-goer was the Rescue Rooms. Rob explains, “They were brilliant, but you can be put off because as a non-wheelchair user, you might think that it’s all just steps to get in. There was no access information online and I didn’t know anyone in a wheelchair at that point, so it did feel off-putting.” Despite his reservations, the experience proved to be better than anticipated, “They have access around the back, disabled toilets, they even have raised bits at the side that wheelchair users can use as viewing platforms, and the staff were brilliant.”
Even if that turned out to be a relatively straightforward experience, it did take him a while to pluck-up the courage to go to shows regularly again; and you may or may not be surprised to learn that other gig-goers can be a bit of a nuisance too. “It took me a long time to have the confidence to go to gigs just by myself because it’s always nice to have a chaperone to act as your ‘blocker’ and to stop someone spilling beer over your head. You just gradually build up confidence, though. If there was more information online, that would be good, but 99.9% of the time the staff at venues have really gone out of their way and made sure someone’s on hand in case of any problems.”
Aside from having helpful, understanding staff, what else can music venues do to make themselves more accessible? In Rob’s opinion they don’t actually need to do that much and, crucially for many venue owners, they don’t even need to spend that much money to improve gig going for millions of people. “It is never a case of wilful neglect. A lot of the time venues don’t realise it can be the simplest things that make a difference. For example, if you have two steps leading inside, a little portable ramp costs about £200 and you can get any wheelchair user in safely. Another good step is reserving a little space inside the venue where you aren’t going to get crushed. But until someone goes to talk to them it can be impossible for the venues to even be aware.” He thinks part of the reason why they may seem reluctant to make changes is down to fear surrounding the Disability Discriminations Act (2006), “If the venues can’t do something that is so perfect, and are only part-accessible, they worry that someone is going to come along and read the riot act or take them to court.”
Even though many venues do not publicly state that they are accessible, in Rob’s experience of touring and attending shows he has found that many of them actually are, including our very own Rock City. “I only went recently for the first time as a wheelchair user. There was no information online, and the person I spoke to at the box office was unsure - the request probably doesn’t happen that often. When I got there I spoke to the bouncers who told me to go around the back to the loading bay where there are about six steps that they said they’d carry me up and I’d then be straight in to the main venue. They’d do this fifteen minutes before doors opened and let me choose my spot inside, I could even go stage-side of the crash barrier if I wanted. Eventually they lifted me up on to a raised platform that they had cordoned-off to stash gear on. It meant I was there all night, but I was safe.”
Even though Rock City may have been a positive experience, Nottingham can still be hit and miss when it comes to the accessibility of its music venues, especially as a wheelchair user. “The Maze is good, Rescue Rooms is brilliant, the only drawback is that they have two steps to get to them so you need someone to lift you up. I’m fairly confident so I don’t mind asking strangers to help, but if you are not confident and by yourself you will probably have to stay at the back or get squashed down the front. Nottingham Contemporary is as good as you are ever going to get.”
As for the less accessible venues, Rob is aware that buildings come with limitations, “The Bodega is tricky as it’s upstairs, architecturally it would be very difficult for them to do something like put a lift in; it might be doable, but for the very few people who might use it, it wouldn’t make financial sense. However, the staff are great and will get you in early, there’s a ramp to the downstairs bar, there are wide stairs and a raised bit upstairs where you can go if you don’t want to get crushed. The Chameleon, however, is impossible. I have played there a few times and even though my bandmates have a pretty good procedure, it is dangerous for me and the people carrying me, the stairs are very steep and rickety. Structurally it would be impossible for them to make any changes, which is a shame - even though it’s a little bit ‘spit and sawdust’, there are so many great gigs there. The Navigation is the same, the steps to the room at the top are very steep and narrow. With wide stairs you can have more people carrying you and it’s much safer.”
Rob is keen to stress the need for venues to advertise what their accessibility is and just how important doing this can be. “It would be good to know if venues have a policy, and if they do, it would be good to have an explanation online. For instance, if I’m upstairs in The Bodega, what is their evacuation procedure? I can’t just throw myself down the stairs. Is the fire exit wide enough? Is there an evacuation chair, or if I stay in a certain bit long enough, will I be collected? Things like that are pretty simple, but it’s knowing about it. As an incentive to the venue and promoters, it is worth money to publicise this - the ‘disabled dollar’ as it were.”
One organisation who are attempting to make sure that this information is publicly available is Attitude is Everything, a charity that Rob helps out from time to time. They work in partnership with audiences, artists and the music industry to improve deaf and disabled people’s access to live music. You know those viewing platforms you see at festivals such as Leeds and Glastonbury? It was them who introduced those. We asked Suzanne Bull MBE, their Chief Executive, what could be done to improve access to live music events. “We understand that larger venues and festivals have access to bigger resources. However, Attitude is Everything works with smaller, independent music venues and festivals, and helps them find a variety of free or very low cost solutions. For example, we have encouraged small festivals to provide barriered viewing areas at the front of the audience in lieu of a platform, well-trained stewards to assist deaf and disabled customers to get through the crowd to the front and interchangeable Personal Assistant lanyards so that disabled customers can sit with different friends throughout a festival.”
She goes on to explain that improving access does not necessarily mean making expensive building modifications. “The majority of barriers can be overcome by better staff training and implementing accessible policies - such as online ticketing, free access for Personal Assistants, and providing adequate information in advance of an event. Of the 11m disabled people in the UK, only 8% are wheelchair users.”
Something venues and festivals can do to publicise how accessible they are is to sign up to Attitude is Everything’s Charter of Best Practice, which ninety-odd venues and festivals have already done. The ethos of the charter is that deaf and disabled people should be as independent as they want to be at live music events. The charter aims to support venues and music events to create a realistic action plan. It’s a bespoke service offered exclusively to the live music industry and there are three tiers - Bronze, Silver and Gold.
Are any venues in Nottingham signed up to the Charter? “Capital FM Nottingham Arena are signed to the Gold Level and Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall Nottingham are signed to the Bronze Level. We are actively seeking Nottingham festivals to sign up to the Charter. We have even launched a new version for Local Authorities, aimed at their arts event teams so, in effect, Nottingham could sign up as a Local Authority to the Charter.”
Accessibility isn’t only an issue for gig-goers though, what about some of the barriers disabled musicians face? Going back to my conversation with Rob, “I used to rehearse at Magnet and they have a lot of stairs, so you worry what you’d do if there was a fire. I now rehearse at the Octave Rooms as it’s all flat and completely easy to get into. They don’t have an accessible toilet, but that’s part-and-parcel of things and the owner always helps with gear.” Rob thinks that the reason why many disabled musicians do not tour is down to a lack of confidence, “If you are on tour, depending on personal ability, you have got to find an accessible place to stay, reasonable transport, you have got to know that you can get into the venue or there are staff to help. For example, The Bodega is quite awkward because you have to be man handled on to the stage, whereas the Contemporary are brilliant because it’s a temporary stage that they can tailor to your needs. That’s why festivals don’t have any excuse because they purpose-build the stages.”
It’s not just the responsibility of venues and promoters to improve the gig going experience for disabled people. Other audience members need to be more thoughtful and do their bit too. So take note. “There can be a lot of condescending attitudes from other gig goers. There is always someone who would rather talk to your PA rather than you. At the same time people can be unsure of the etiquette. Sometimes people crouch down to talk to me, but personally I don’t like that because it draws attention to the whole thing, although they are only being polite.” He believes that this comes down to a wider disability awareness issue.
“Basically, we just want to be treated like anybody else. Sometimes we need help and it’s nice to have it offered, because you don’t always have the confidence to ask a complete stranger and tell them exactly what you want. I have been dropped by people because I forgot to tell them specific instructions. It’s not their fault, it’s just that I haven’t told them what I need.”
Finally, how does he think Nottingham is doing in terms of its accessibility to live music? “Nottingham as a whole is brilliant. It’s got a lot of structural problems and some awareness problems, but it is getting better, the staff in the venues are so good, particularly door staff. If you can be put on the Attitude is Everything charter, which disabled people look at, that is an extra punter through your doors.”
We spoke to DHP, who run Rock City, Rescue Rooms, Stealth and The Bodega, about their views and policies...
What do you do to help customers with physical disabilities?
It’s fair to say that we always want our venues, concerts and festivals to be open to as wide a range of people as possible. We realise that sometimes physical venue constraints, staff training and the state of development in technology can restrict this – and we are reviewing what we can do to improve our provision. We are using initiatives like Attitude is Everything and industry bodies such as STAR and the CPA to help in that aim. We provide free carer tickets for those people who require the assistance of a carer in order to attend the event and get around the venue. We also give physical assistance to people with mobility problems if needed - as far as is possible. There are disabled toilets in all our venues – except for The Bodega, where we have no available space to add one, unfortunately.
Is there a reason why you don’t have accessibility information on your venues’ websites?
It’s just an area we’ve been a bit slow in getting together, we are actually in the process of reviewing both information on our websites about access and the ticketing process to improve it for customers with disabilities.
Have you ever thought about adding ramps or lifts to any of your venues so that wheelchair users don't have to use back entrances?
Some of our venues are too small for the physical changes needed for unassisted wheelchair access without significantly affecting the venue’s economic viability. This is because lifts or ramps would impact fire routes or floor space and this would reduce capacity significantly. There are some venues, Rock City in particular, where we believe we can make wheelchair access much better and that is something we are going to start working on soon. In the meantime, we do whatever we can to make the venues accessible to wheelchair users.
Do you train your venue staff in how to deal with disabled customers?
We ensure our managers are aware of their responsibility to disabled customers and train their staff both in regard to equality issues and offering the best service possible to customers with physical disabilities. We are supported in this by the security company at our venues, as it is often these staff who have to provide the manual assistance.
#MusicWithoutBarriers is a campaign for equal access, to raise awareness of the barriers that deaf and disabled people are currently facing, to change the perceptions of disability and highlight the support for making gigs accessible.
Revenge of Calculon with I Am Lono and 8mm Orchestra, Nottingham Contemporary, Saturday 23 August 2014.