Sister Midnight Is Coming For You

Sister Midnight, a new community music venue for London

‘DIY is the loophole in the system: it is the affordable, accessible alternative for those in need of creative sanctuary’.

(Virginia Easthope quoted in Speak in Tongues: An Oral History of Cleveland’s Infamous DIY Venue by Eric Sandy)

We all know that independent music venues are currently under a huge amount of pressure from soaring rents and the wider cost of living crisis.  The Music Venue Trust estimates that a further 120 community live spaces closed across the UK during 2023.  The situation in London, where the issue of rent bites particularly deeply, is especially challenging.  An interview with Chris Tipton of Upset The Rhythm in the summer issue of Alternative Strategies highlighted that of the 117 venues he had promoted gigs at over the past twenty years in London, some 55 are no longer venues.  In South London alone, recent casualties have included the DIY Space For London in Bermondsey, The Grosvenor in Stockwell, and The Montague Arms in Peckham.

But there is a project underway that is injecting some much-needed optimism into this rather bleak landscape, Sister Midnight.  Originally a Deptford record store / live venue that was forced to close permanently during the Covid lockdown, Sister Midnight has been reborn as a not-for-profit community co-operative.  This co-operative is working tirelessly to bring to life a new DIY venue in South London.  The team has already  secured a ten-year lease on the site of a former working men’s club, The Brookdale Club, in Catford at a peppercorn rate from Lewisham Council.  In addition, they have also raised significant funds for the renovation of the derelict site.  But there is still plenty of work to do, and plenty of support still required.

Lenny Watson, one of the founding members of the co-operative, very kindly agreed to answer a few questions from me regarding the project.  A big thank you to Lenny for making the time to do so in such a comprehensive and engaging manner, as I know that time and other resources are in very short supply at the moment.   As you will see, this is not only a hugely exciting project, but one that is tantalisingly close to being realised.  If the aspirations of Sister Midnight strike a chord with you, please do check out becoming a member of the co-operative if you can at It is a project that thoroughly deserves to succeed!  And so, over to Lenny…

Sister Midnight’s three co-founders – Lottie Pendlebury, Lenny Watson, and Sophie Farrell

FV: What has inspired you to undertake this project?

LW: So, I think we’ve had a lot of different inspirations that have fed into this project. The initial catalyst really was that we had an existing venue and record shop in Deptford and the community around that, the music scene around that, it was just amazing. That was a huge source of inspiration. Just seeing all the incredible creativity that was happening in that space. And when that space closed during the pandemic, I just felt like a real sense of responsibility to the community that we built to continue that in some way and to be able to continue providing a space for the kind of culture and creativity that we’d housed previously. But we’ve also drawn a lot of other inspiration from venues across the country like Le Pub in Newport, The Exchange in Bristol, Future Yard in Birkenhead especially, and The Ivy House in Nunhead. There’s a long legacy of community and co-operative music venues and I feel like all of that shared learning and knowledge has really fed into what we’re doing.

FV: What are the attractions of the community benefit society model for a venture of this type?

LW: The community benefit society model really appealed to us for a couple of reasons. I think the first thing was that it would be a democratically run business, so it would be owned and controlled by its members. And that meant for us that we could put ownership of this venture directly into the hands of the community, which is really important to us because we want local people to play an active role in shaping the space and making it what it is. And I think also, the fact that it’s a not-for-profit model is really important. Partly, because we want to be able to utilise that not-for-profit status to help us get more funding to make this whole thing more sustainable in the long run. But also, because we really want to be very clear in the way that we demonstrate to the community that we are not here to make money off them, if that were even possible to do with the grassroots music venue, and that we are interested in using music to provide social community and cultural benefits for local people in Lewisham.

FV:  What are the most notable challenges facing the co-operative in realising its vision?

LW: The biggest challenge for us has always been money. We’ve had so much success with fundraising. At the moment, we have raised a total of around £425,000 towards the cost of the renovation, on top of having success with a lot of grants and donations that have helped us to pay the ongoing costs of the campaign and the project throughout the last three years. But, that said, there never seems to be enough money to go around and we’ve really struggled with being just chronically under-funded and under-resourced, because although we’ve got all of this money saved up to pay for the renovation of the building, we’ve really struggled to get money just to pay wages for ourselves, which means that a lot of the work is voluntary. That makes it really difficult for us to do things in a timely manner because we just have to prioritise the bare essentials of the project day-to-day. So, yeah, unfortunately just getting access to big amounts of capital is the challenge and I think that is the same for a lot of start-up co-ops and cultural ventures.

FV: What do you think are the key characteristics that make for a successful music venue?  

LW: I think that’s a really tricky one to answer as I think it’s very different for each music venue because successful venues are almost always a response to the communities that they’re situated in. For us, I think the key characteristics that will make our venue successful are giving local people a voice because people in Lewisham, in our community, are generally very engaged and very willing to be a part of shaping the community infrastructure around them. And so, giving people that power is something that I think has historically won us a lot of support from the community and will help us to keep the community on board as the venue progresses throughout its lifetime.

I think also that a really strong commitment and engagement with inclusivity is incredibly important for a venue in our local area. We have an incredibly diverse community around us and it’s important to us that the venue reflects that, and we acknowledge that that’s going to be an ongoing process throughout the lifetime of the venue. It’s not as if we can just throw the doors open on day one and say that’s it, box ticked, we’re inclusive. That’s something that we need to really work with all demographics of our community on and I think that will be vital to our success.

And I think the third thing that will make us successful is being able to take creative risks.  That’s a real challenge for a lot of grassroots venues where there’s just not enough money to go around and because of that they do have to operate in a more commercially minded way. This often means not being able to take risks on newer, younger bands or some more avant-garde genres, but that’s something for us that is really, really important. So, throughout the life of the venue we will be specifically looking to get funding to subsidise putting on those riskier gigs, so that we can do it in a way that has relatively low financial risk and still allows us to support the breadth of culture that we have in the borough.

Sister Midnight have secured a site in Catford, South London

FV: What current (or former) venue do you think most clearly realises (realised) these values?

LW: I think, again, I’d say Future Yard in Birkenhead is a really, really great venue that we draw a lot of inspiration from. They are just absolutely killing it. They have a great high quality cultural offering and are really rooted in their local community. So, I think they’re a really great example. And I’d also shout out a lot of the venues that we have around South East London that kind of make up our existing music scene. So Matchstick Pie House, which is obviously under threat at the moment, but will hopefully be sticking around. Ivy House in Nunhead, Avalon Cafe. And then, you know, we’ve had some great venues around here that closed in recent years – The Montague Arms, Five Bells, DIY Space. I think all of those venues sort of held those values in one way or another. And, yeah, I think they were all just like a really important part of an ecosystem. And, yeah, without all of them, I think South London is really struggling now. So, we definitely need more spaces to come into existence that are going to uphold those values and to be really rooted in their communities and responsive to their communities.

FV: What factors do you anticipate shaping the venue’s programming?

LW: That’s a really good question. I think our approach to programming is going to be incredibly broad, like we’re not going to be specific to any genres. We’re not even going to be focusing purely on music as a discipline. We want to have multidisciplinary arts programming. So, we’ll be looking at, you know, cabaret and comedy and spoken word and film as well. I think generally what we want is for the programming to reflect the diversity of the music scenes that we have in Lewisham, to be incredibly locally focused and to be really championing local artists and giving a really vital platform to emerging talent from the local area. But at the same time, we do also want to bring in touring bands because we want to be able to put Catford on the map as a destination for live music. So I think, yeah, generally we envision it being a really collaborative effort where we work with local promoters, with the local community and with local artists, as well as with the venue team, to produce a programme that feels like it has a lot of breadth in terms of what it represents, but also really stays true to what Lewisham has to offer in terms of its cultural output.

FV: How do you envisage the venue contributing to local community life beyond being a music venue?

LW: We have got so many ideas about how we want this space to be so much more than just a music venue. We really see it being open through the day and into the evening. So having a daytime use as a cafe and a workspace, and a space for community events. Open in the evening as a bar and then having live music on and hopefully even maybe some nightclub activity as well. And also, we want to have rehearsal and recording studios on the first floor, as well as a space for our recently launched community radio stations, Midnight FM. So, there’s going to be so many opportunities for people to use this space in a lot of different ways. And we want to do all sorts of different community activities to bring people into the space. So, things like children’s music groups or matinee gigs for parents and babies, reading groups, meeting space for local activists, soup kitchens, being a distribution point for local food hubs, having breakfast clubs for school children. You name it, we want it there. We are really interested in how music and culture, and this space more broadly can offer a transformative opportunity for local people and really act as a lever for positive social change in the local area. So, we’re going to be looking to utilise the space in any way that we possibly can to make this a real hub of community life and creativity for local people.

FV: Why should someone become a member of Sister Midnight?

LW: Well, I think if you are someone who is local to Lewisham, or lives in the wider London area or anyone, anywhere really who is interested in setting a precedent for how communities can create the infrastructure they need, particularly creative infrastructure, and be genuinely democratic in running it, then I think this project is for you. As a member, you’ll be buying shares, and the money that you buy them with will be used to help us renovate this building that we’ve got in Catford and turn it into this incredible community and cultural hub. Those shares are repayable, so you’ll be able to get your money back once the business is turning a profit. And crucially, you’ll get a vote on how things are done. So, you will be able to have a voice in shaping this space and making it what it needs to be for our community. So yeah, I would encourage anyone who’s got an interest in what the future of live music could look like at a community and grassroots level to get involved.

We have an affordable share scheme where people can become members from £25 or our standard share scheme is £100 per share and up. I just think this is a really great opportunity for all of us to come together. And in a particularly challenging time when you know, in 2023, we had one grassroots music venue close per week. This is a chance for us to show that it doesn’t have to be like that. And if we can really harness the power of communities and work together, we can create new things and we can create venues that are going to be sustainable and long lasting. So, in a way yes, this project is about creating a great music venue for Lewisham and for Catford, and it should appeal to local people in that sense. But it’s more than that. It’s us being able to demonstrate that there is a way to save grassroots music culture in a broader sense. And so, there’s an appeal for everyone there I feel who has an interest in that.

All photos are taken from

The former Brookdale Club will become home to Sister Midnight