Over the past decade, an angular building in Sneinton has grown into one of the UK’s most revered DIY music spaces. JT Soar, a fruit and potato warehouse turned studio, rehearsal space and gig venue, will celebrate its tenth birthday this month, with founder Phil Booth still very much at the helm. What began in 2010 as a recording studio has slowly but surely become a DIY exemplar, boosting our city’s street cred while simultaneously providing an all-embracing platform for artists from far and wide to flourish. We stopped by for a pre-birthday brew to find out more about JT Soar’s Midas touch…
There is a huge painting of some mushrooms hanging above the door in the upstairs recording studio at JT Soar. “Back when I was a hippy, I actually swapped that painting for a recording session with a band called Satnam’s Tash. But I’m not a hippy anymore, I’m a capitalist pig – so I can’t do that sort of thing these days,” Phil laughs, wryly.
Over the past ten years, alongside working with Joe Caithness to nurture a stellar gig venue, Phil has earned himself a reputation as a top-notch record producer. Acts including Grey Hairs and Rattle have made records with him, and Sleaford Mods recently recorded their fifth album Eton Alive between these four walls. Such is the strength of this string to Phil’s bow that the building’s costs are fully covered by the studio’s income. “That’s something that makes JT Soar different – the gigs aren’t here to make money for the space,” Phil explains. “It’s a perk, and what I really love doing, so it’s never crossed my mind to try and make more money from shows.”
Ignited by the 2012 Live Music Act, which allowed small venues to hold events without a license, JT Soar remains a DIY venue in its purest sense. Free from the barriers in place at traditional venues, there are no managers or bouncers, no stage, and it’s BYOB until the cows come home. The accessibility and eclecticism of the live offering is marked, with several shows a week by a variety of promoters bringing acts from across the globe to the heart of Sneinton. “It all stemmed from playing in punk and DIY bands,” Phil recalls. “The very first show we held was actually up here in the recording studio, with a band from Minnesota called The Real Numbers. The enthusiasm for that show was a real eye-opener,” he smiles.
That appetite has spread exponentially ever since. “The lack of boundaries that exist here is less daunting for promoters, bands, and audiences,” Phil tells me. “It’s like you’re playing in someone’s front room. I remember my first show in a band, going on stage and feeling really nervous – so being on the same level as everyone else makes it more comfortable.”
JT Soar’s communality is certainly contagious. “People come down purely because it’s a show at JT Soar, and there’s a shared attitude of being here to have a good time,” Phil muses, humbly adding: “I never imagined it would get to the point it’s at now though, and I feel lucky to have had so many people helping out in different ways.” He continues: “From very early on, I’ve always tried to make a point of appreciating that people have made the effort to come here, as it’s a bit out of town and slightly tricky to find.”
A concern for the audience experience is accompanied by a focus on the wellbeing of the acts who play, inspired in part by Phil’s experience touring with his band Plaids, and seeing how European venues do things. “It was a total game-changer – they really look after bands over there,” he recalls. “Their governments fund subsidies to encourage acts to go to areas that most people don’t ever see. So my aim as a venue is for bands to ultimately not lose out – not necessarily to make money, but not to lose out. It all feeds into the creation of something that is larger than the sum of its parts.”
At JT Soar, people are the most important thing. “I definitely couldn’t have done any of this on my own,” Phil reveals as he ponders what advice he might give his younger self. “Don’t let your landlords have too much power” is the answer he settles on, elaborating: “Ten years ago there were loads of places around here lying empty, but landlords still have to pay council tax on empty buildings – so you do have an amount of power over them.”
Thankfully landlords will no longer be an issue, because with the help of a partner and “angel investor” (Tim Maddison of X-Rays and I AM LONO), Phil has received the best birthday present imaginable – he’s bought the place. “It’s a dream come true, and means I’ll be able to make the improvements I’ve wanted to do for years, like enhancing disabled access,” he says. “And once all the refurbishments have been done, we’re planning a bit of a relaunch, hopefully with some free shows.”
JT Soar’s security and success are real victories for Nottingham’s creative community, and a testament to Phil’s knowledge and generosity of spirit. And in a wildly unscrupulous industry, it’s heartening that a venue like JT Soar, with an ethos that prioritises communality and character over commerciality and ‘cool’, can survive and, better still, thrive.
Upcdownc, Excuses and Dutch play JT Soar on Friday 31 January