Richard McCallion, Bar Manager, The American Bar, Belfast
The following is based on a telephone interview with Emma Webster on 11th October 2017.
The American Bar opened in October 2016 in a building dating back to the mid-1850s. It’s a 100 capacity pub with a 50 capacity venue upstairs. We are in a part of Belfast called Sailortown, which was a traditional working class dockland area, some of which has been demolished to make way for a road, so the character of the area is changing. We’re involved with the Sailortown Regeneration Group, a community hub for the area which fundraises for and campaigns on issues which affect Sailortown’s community and development. We are also involved with the Mission To Seafarer’s charity, and we help them to fundraise by providing the venue for free for fundraising events and by having their collection tins around the pub.
The American was initially set up because a couple of years ago our sister pub, The Sunflower, was facing demolition to make way for a proposed redevelopment of the area, and the owner wanted an alternative site in case we lost the venue. Luckily a social media campaign and petition which collected over 5,000 signatures helped to save The Sunflower, which has now become one of Belfast’s most well-known live music venues. It frequently appears in visitor guides to Belfast and is the heartbeat of the community. We’re now trying to build up The American to be as busy as The Sunflower.
The biggest hurdle our new venue has had to face in its first year is attracting footfall. Unlike The Sunflower, which is one street away from Belfast’s main drag, The American is a ten-minute walk from the city centre. This has meant that to attract customers, we have had to become a ‘destination venue’ rather than relying on people to just pop in, so we just have something on all the time, with live music downstairs and upstairs from Thursday to Sunday. We are all over Facebook and Twitter (although we can’t get the hang of Instagram at all), and we advertise in The Big List, Belfast’s local listings guide. To get our name out even further we have also run bars at festivals, advertised in the Gay Pride programme, and taken part in Culture Night Belfast, which is an annual street party where every venue puts on something for free. My advice to anyone setting up a new venue is that you have to be prepared to spend money to make money and that if you book decent acts, particularly ones with a bit of a following, then people will come. We tend to mostly get musicians playing here from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and occasionally a few Americans, perhaps because of the name of the venue.
Belfast is a very musical city. It’s the biggest population centre for about 200 miles so if someone is doing an Irish tour then they will usually play Dublin and Belfast, sometimes maybe Cork as well. It seems like everyone is in a band here and it feels like there is music in every corner on a Friday night. Live music is everywhere and there’s a real culture of free music which feels different to mainland Britain where it feels more like you mostly have to pay to get in to gigs. We could always do with more venues in Belfast but I think the city’s doing OK at the moment. There are a lot of new apartment blocks being built, though, which is causing problems. Belfast has traditionally been somewhere where people live in the suburbs rather than the city centre, and for years the city was gated off so you couldn’t get in even if you wanted to. Now, though, more apartments are being built and I can envisage more problems for live venues with an increased city centre population.
Even though the Sunflower pub has been a pub for about sixty years, residents of the new flats next door complained about the noise. If residents ring a number and make a complaint it’s very easy for them to pick up a phone and ruin a business. In the end, the council’s dedicated licensed premises officer organised a really useful mediation session actually in the venue between us and the residents’ group, and we agreed to put a noise limiter on the PA system and do some soundproofing. It cost us financially but at least we fixed the problem and were able to build up a relationship with the complainants. Some of them are now regulars at the venue!
In general, we would like to see more understanding from people that if you move in next to a venue then there will be noise. Also, you want a level playing field so that it’s not just you as the venue that’s having to pay out financially to fix the problem. It would also be good to see the council taking more responsibility and to invest in infrastructure rather than letting developers throw up yet another 13-storey apartment block without considering the impact on the locality.