‘The Ferret is just one of those places – you get a real buzz’

Posted on - 12th May, 2024 - 8:00am | Author - | Posted in - Arts, Business, Charities, City Centre, Food & Drink, Music, Nightlife, Preston City Centre, Preston News, Pubs, University campus, What's On in Preston
The Ferret Pic: Tony Worrall
The Ferret Pic: Tony Worrall

The future of iconic Preston music venue The Ferret is no longer hanging in the balance after it was confirmed on Friday that the building in which it is based was bought by a charity set up to protect grassroots gig spaces.

It follows a huge campaign to drum up the financial support needed to purchase the Fylde Road property, an endeavour which was helped over the line with a £150,000 loan from Preston City Council.

The sound of silence had threatened to envelop the 200-capacity Ferret after its rented premises were put up for sale – with a price tag of £795,000 – in 2022.

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The building – where artists including Ed Sheeran performed before hitting the big time – was promoted as being ripe for residential conversion rather than as the continued home of live music in the city.

However, the Music Venue Trust (MVT) made the site one of the top targets for a scheme it devised which sought to raise enough money to purchase nine grassroots music attractions that were under similar threat to The Ferret.

The ‘Own Our Venues’ initiative involved the sale of community shares which enabled investors to acquire a stake in those live music ventures that needed to escape the vagaries of the rented property market in order to guarantee their futures – and to continue to provide a valuable platform for local up-and-coming artists.

That prospect certainly struck a chord with the people of Preston. Of the nine areas with a target venue across the country, more investors have so far come forward in Preston than anywhere else.

While the nature of the scheme means they are investing in the broader project rather than an individual venue – and investors can be found the length and breadth of the country – the plight of The Ferret persuaded 39 people with a PR postcode to put up some of the money needed to help save the popular performance space.

Mark Dayvd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, said that the local enthusiasm for saving The Ferret was testament to the fact it has become such an integral part of Preston’s cultural scene since it opened – then as The Mad Ferret – back in 2006.

“It’s an absolute classic of its kind – it has organically grown into being something really quite important.  People just drop in to see who’s on and there’s a proper music community there.

“The Ferret is just one of those places – you get a real buzz when you’re standing in it,” Mark added.

The purchase of the part three and part four-storey building – by Music Venue Properties (MVP), the independent charitable community benefit society created by MVT – was made possible after the community share offer raised just under £2.5m from over 1,200 individual investors.  That figure was then bolstered by the Preston City Council loan, which it is understood was key to getting The Ferret deal done.

The local authority will be repaid its money, while the investors – who have stumped up between £100 and £100,000 or more – have put in cash at their own risk.  However, the hope is that they will enjoy a return on their investment – as well as the pleasure that Mark believes they will get from part-owning a grassroots music venue.

He says that the model followed in Preston was “a really special example” of how the initiative could work.

“[We had] local people putting in money, the national music community putting in money, support from the Arts Council and also the local council – that is a perfect mix.

“It shows how you [can] take one of these buildings out of the commercial marketplace and make sure it’s going to be there for a very long time to come.”

Preston City Council’s cabinet member for arts and culture Peter Kelly described venues like The Ferret as “an important [part of the] fabric of any city”.

“We are extremely proud to be able to work together with Music Venue Properties and the Ferret Community Interest Company to save this icon of the music offering within the city,” Cllr Kelly added.

The pot for the wider Own Our Venues project also received a £500,000 investment from Arts Council England and a loan of the same amount from the Arts and Culture Impact Fund.

The latest development is some turnaround for the fortunes of The Ferret, which has not only had the uncertainty of the building sale to contend with, but – like all music venues – a turbulent few years as a result first of Covid and, more recently, the cost-of-living crisis.

Matt Fawbert is all smiles outside The Ferret on Friday morning
Matt Fawbert is all smiles outside The Ferret on Friday morning. Pic: Blog Preston

Matt Fawbert, the venue’s director and programme manager, paid tribute to the local community for the support that The Ferret has been shown during that time.

“People who haven’t been for years are coming back and supporting us, [along with] the regulars who are part of The Ferret family,” he said.

Mark Dayvd said the new ownership of The Ferret – the second venue to be bought by MVP – would allow it the “breathing space” to plan for the long term.

“They can start thinking, ‘What should this building be like in five years’ time, or 10 or 20?” he explained.

Such is his confidence in the scheme and the security it has given The Ferret, Mark has turned his thoughts to an even longer timespan than that.

“We’re talking about such a change in the way that music venues are run that there will still be music coming out of [that building] in 100 years’ time.

“The only reason it wouldn’t would be because the earth has collapsed,” he laughed.

Over to you

Matt Fawbert said that while the immediate priority was to continue doing what the venue does best – staging live music – the new ownership arrangements meant that the business could now also turn its attention to big plans for the rest of the building.

Much of the property is unused – with a former bar area and function room currently standing idle.

While both money and time will be needed to bring those spaces back into use, Matt would like to see them form part of a plan to turn The Ferret into a “cultural hub” for Preston.

“There are various ideas being batted around – perhaps a larger venue upstairs and also rehearsal rooms, studios, a gallery, things like that

“But it’s going to be shaped by the community and people who want to get involved.  We will be taking direction from the people who use the place as to what’s needed – but I’m excited to see what we can come up with,” Matt added.

Not going out?

Amid claims that younger people are no longer enjoying nights out in the numbers they once did, the stages of around 150 live music venues fell silent last year.

Matt Fawbert says the venue has always skewed towards “a bit of an older crowd” – in spite of the fact that it sits within the heart of Preston’s university quarter.

“I think [it might] just be down to disposable income.  Younger people [are] not necessarily taking advantage of it as much as we would expect, but there is still an appetite for live music.

“We’re just going to keep putting on great [acts] and making sure as many people know about it as possible,” Matt said.

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