Glen Rowe has spent nearly 30 years of his life touring with bands. Now his focus is on supporting the live music industry that he has been a part of for so long. Laura Drysdale reports.
For Glen Rowe, 2018 has been a year of change. After nearly two decades on tour with rock band Muse, the 45-year-old called time on his years on the road, turning his attention to a new charitable venture.
It is this, Neko Trust, that now commands much of his focus - and three months ago, Glen also stepped away from his day-to-day responsibilities at Backstage Academy to dedicate more time to the cause.
He had spent two years as Managing Director at the Yorkshire-based live events education centre, which offers degree-level courses in production and stage management. Despite the change, he says he is still on hand to guide its students - and it is with these in mind that he is determined to press on with the aims of the Neko Trust following its launch in July.
His vision is to build a network of five small venues across the UK, to provide dedicated spaces for live events - music as well as comedy and spoken word. One will be situated in God’s Own Country, though exactly where is yet to be decided. “I started getting worried about the state of our industry on tour with Muse over the last 18 years,” explains Glen, the band’s former tour director. “Every time we had a support band and I was talking to them about their journey, a lot would be saying there had been venues shut down. There has been a massive decrease in live music opportunities.”
Earlier this year, a report of the UK’s first ever live music census, carried out in 2017, said there was evidence that smaller venues were facing “a perfect storm” of issues, affecting their long-term viability. “Some of these are internal – for example, equipment or building repairs,” it said. “Many are external, such as increased business rates, strict licensing laws and...nearby property development.”
In their introduction, the authors of the report, published in February, said it appeared recent years had been “extremely challenging” for venues, particularly smaller ones.
“There have been numerous media reports of British music venues closing because of property development and gentrification of once lively musical neighbourhoods,” it said. “This is due not only to the conversion or even demolition of some venues, but also development around venues and the ensuing noise complaints from new residential neighbours.”
The rate at which small venues are closing is nothing short of alarming, says Glen. Such places are the backbone of the live music industry, providing people with opportunities to see new bands and artists - and giving talent the groundwork to grow.
“I want more British bands on the international stage,” says Glen. “When you consider the money that people like Ed Sheeran and Adele bring into the country, it is monumental, and it is a really proud association for us to have - two of the world’s biggest artists coming from our little island.
“We have got to make that continue. But if venues keep closing down and people don’t invest money and time into the industry, it will just choke up.”
It is not just musicians that develop their trade in grassroots venues; such spaces are also a prime learning environment for the likes of promoters, sound engineers and lighting technicians. For this reason, Glen wants his Neko Trust venues to be run by people starting out in the live events industry - like those studying at Backstage Academy, tucked away in the former mining town of South Kirkby on the outskirts of Wakefield.
“My heart is there,” he says. “The people who teach those students are amazing. They put in so much blood, sweat and tears. That’s an amazing thing. That’s why I’m in a rush to get these venues built so that they have all got somewhere to go and learn and put their skills into practice.”
The aim is for trust’s first venue to open in London in 2020. The others, planned for Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and either Leeds or Sheffield, which are both being explored, will follow. “We are 100 per cent coming to Yorkshire,” Glen assures me. “Half of my heart is in Yorkshire so I’ve got to do something there.”
Though he is based in London, he travelled regularly to the county as a child to see his father who lived at Skinningrove in North Yorkshire.
“I think it is a very special part of Great Britain and I think it deserves to be on the world map more than it is... I want to help put it on the music map.
“Def Leppard, Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs are huge international acts. I want to make sure we can keep pumping those bands through so people can see what an amazing part of the world Yorkshire is.”
Like all of the proposed Neko Trust venues, the plan is for Yorkshire’s site to provide basic overnight accommodation on site, food prepared by people training to be chefs, safe parking and state-of-the-art lighting, sound and staging equipment, creating a space for both artists and production teams to use. “We want to encourage young sound engineers to meet the next Bastille or 1975 or Coldplay,” Glen says. “That’s the dream right there.”
A lot of time will be spent talking to politicians, students and community groups about potential locations, explains Glen, and making sure the buildings are fully soundproof. It will mean the venues can also accommodate big-name bands.
“We want big bands to come and play small gigs again. From my experience, that’s really hard because the venues aren’t set up with the correct infrastructure. We will be able to house [the bands] because we know how they operate.” With nearly 30 years of touring experience under his belt, it is true, he does know how things operate.
Glen got into the live industry as a drummer in a punk band, going on tour for the first time when he was aged just 17. “There were so many venues and that’s the difference” he says, looking back to when he started out. “You could find a venue in every single town that was busy pretty much every night of the week.”
Glen later began working as a drum technician for bands including the Manic Street Preachers, and took on a range of other roles such as selling merchandise. It was whilst doing this that he met and built a relationship with Muse. And, at the age of 27, he toured with the band for the first time, as their drum technician and stage manager and later tour manager - a position he has also held for a host of other acts from The Kooks to Amy MacDonald - and then tour director.
“It has been an absolute dream,” he says, reflecting on sell out gigs and major festivals around the world. “It has just been an amazing journey. I have loved every minute of it. It has been hard work, but great hard work.”
With the announcement that he was stepping down from his role with Muse, Glen’s touring days came to an end in July. “I always knew I wasn’t going to [tour] forever and I love a challenge,” he says. “I knew I had to find something to fill up my time and pass the baton over to the next generation of people who want to do what I did.”
The Neko Trust was born out of the Cato Trust, a charitable organisation originally set up by Glen in 2005, that helped young music companies start life in the industry. The Cato Trust took its name from Cato Music, a tour production company founded by Glen. In 2016, he sold the firm to Production Park, a community of studios, businesses and educational facilities in South Kirkby, where Backstage Academy is based.
As a result, Glen changed the name of the trust and relaunched it earlier this year with new ambitions. In February, he plans to take the trust ‘on tour’ around the country to meet local people who want to get into the live events industry and gather ideas and feedback on the vision for a network of new venues. Visit www.nekotrust.org