Dominic Madden says that his “worst nightmare” is taking a corporate approach to his business of growing independent live music and cultural venues. “One with a head office model, where everything is tightly controlled and nobody has the ability to operate on the ground. That for me is problematic,” he adds.
Madden is CEO and co-founder of Electric Group, a leading independent operator of music venues — including Electric Brixton, NX in Newcastle, Bristol's SWX and the freehold to the building which houses the Sheffield Leadmill. “With a lot of these heritage buildings, the ones that I am fascinated by are the ones that have reinvented themselves,” he says.
The Electric is one such venue, heralding the start of their business a decade ago. Over 100 years old, it started a long run as a cinema, evolved into a punk gig during the 1970s before turning into The Fridge, a “weird and wonderful club space” before the Electric Group purchased the venue for £30,000 after going into receivership.
“When you think about what it is and to secure a long lease on it was quite remarkable,” recalls Madden, who describes the venue as Brixton Academy’s little brother, one with an 1,800 capacity. “We punch above our weight in terms of the level of artists which play there.”
Madden has eyed similar venues across the UK with the group’s fledgling portfolio. This includes Bristol’s SWX, which opened in the early 1960s with The Beach Boys and The Faces and as a Top Rank Ballroom before housing a club space for 2,000 and Madden also turning it into a live music venue with a 1,100 capacity in 2017.
The group’s latest venture is NX, formerly the O2 Academy in Newcastle. Madden first found out about the sale on a Friday, turned up on the Monday with no one else in the auction and snaffled the venue freehold for £900,000. A £3m refit of the building became its third venue.
“We feel there is an interesting opportunity at anything from 1,000 to 1,500 capacity to be more competitive as the room isn’t so big and host more intimate concerts,” Madden says of the group’s business model.
Madden’s background has been in theatre and production, having run the Latchmere Theatre in Battersea and The Coronet in Elephant & Castle, which he purchased 21 years ago and restored the derelict building to its art deco glory and booked Blur and Justin Timberlake as its first two gigs.
A career devoted to culturally important buildings has also come at a cost. In July 2021, Electric Group was the subject of an arson attack a week before pandemic restrictions were lifted. A man, later jailed, had poured methylated spirits through the front door at 4am and the building went up in flames, in a protest against vaccine passports.
The Electric Group had two challenges on its hands with SWX. “It was one of the last pieces of underdeveloped blocks in the city centre,” says Madden. “The moment the fire occurred, it unleashed a Pandora's box of competing priorities for the site. Nobody made it easy.
“My whole career has been about fighting people really, so you have to keep utterly focused on keeping going.”
A £3.8m refurbishment was undertaken on the venue and reopened last September. Now, Madden has been involved in another crisis management issue centering on a campaign against Electric Group and the commercial lease of Sheffield’s iconic Leadmill.
“It’s malicious falsehood really,” he admits. “They said the Leadmill was closing but what they have failed to say is that the Electric Group owns the building and we have every intention of operating as a live music venue.
“In my business, where we are a small team and very committed, we aren’t part of the Live Nation machine or a global entertainment company and we have to tap dance around issues on a daily basis.
“Our mantra is that the artist and customer come first. Our business is contingent on the success of promoters, we make them user friendly for them to use and we are competitive and try to partner with them.”
Madden recalls a conversation with Mike Weller, the group’s head of music, when there was an unwritten rule about venues, one where “you couldn’t have Eric Prydz and a guitar band like My Bloody Valentine in the same venue. But we broke that.”
Each of Electric’s venues have its own team — Madden calls them “local chieftains, super managers” — while the company holds the diaries for all venues and oversees programming from a live perspective. “The more venues you have the easier it is to run that model, the more you know what’s going on as everybody has to talk to you from a promoter and producer perspective,” says Madden.
With bookings and forward planning in the music and arts booking up to two years ahead, Madden says it takes three years to develop a venue business. For its first two venues, Electric Group (Madden’s co-founder is Jake Lewis, son of the owner of River Island), has seen a “robust “ return of £8m in revenue.
The key, says Madden, is focusing locally on what the community's needs are and a portfolio of culturally significant and important venues across the UK which are independent. “It establishes its own unique handwriting,” he adds.
“We do it because we love doing it, not because we are backed by private equity. The Electric Group is a great business as it’s grown organically on solid foundations. We’re in no rush to go out and buy something for the sake of it.”
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