Old Empire on Underground Promoters and the Impact of Covid-19 on the Live Music Scene

“I guess it sounds contrite but our mission is to simply put on bands we like.” With this, Josh Retallick of Old Empire has pretty much summed up the ethos that has inspired DIY promoters and organisers since the earliest days of the underground. Live shows have always been where new, more extreme forms of music come into being, the closeness of the crowd and the high energy environment pushing musicians to play faster, heavier, noisier. 

For the last few years, Old Empire have become an institution in London’s live music scene. With a distinctly widescreen approach to their mission statement they have put on shows of all shapes and sizes, specialising in the loud and esoteric. Whether it’s backroom pub shows with cult metal acts likes Visigoth, or putting on Sunn O))) at the Roundhouse, they approach each show with the same dedication. “Well not all of my shows happen at the Roundhouse,” Josh explains. “So, it’s a great honour when a band we have started small with like Emma Ruth Rundle is now selling out a place like [Tufnell Park’s] The Dome. Some bigger bands jump ship to the national promoters once it starts heating up. We don’t have the sort of financial power the big boys have so our selling point is to be as visible as we can be.”

Moving to the UK from New Zealand in 2003, Josh has been involved in the scene since his teens, putting on gigs in NZ and hosting a local punk/hardcore/metal radio show. “As a young try-hard punk I was putting on shows for friend’s bands as no one else was and I loved the buzz of live music. Plus drinking was fun too I guess.”

Upon arriving in the UK Josh ended up working in Kingston Upon Thames at the legendary pub/punk venue The Fighting Cocks and since then things started to grow. “The [Fighting Cocks’] owner was doing a good job of the diary management but I knew I didn’t want to be slinging pints forever so I got myself involved,” Josh tells us. “From here I basically aimed big and brought bands like Wolves In The Throne Room, Nachtmystium, A Storm Of Light to a small room in a town most people in the UK haven’t heard of.  A new opportunity came up in London to run The Black Heart and I knew the big smoke was where I wanted to be. Luckily, I was able to build my contact base from previous work and Old Empire was born.”

Anyone involved in the kind of music that Josh promotes knows that people don’t stick it out to try and get rich, least of all the bands themselves. With this in mind you’d be forgiven for wondering why people work in underground music when there’s far more lucrative areas of the music industry. It’s a cliché to say people do it for the love of the music, but in a lot of cases, and seemingly in Josh’s, that is the reason: “Back in the day putting on my favourite band at the time Brubeck in New Zealand was an incredible feeling. I absolutely worshipped them and after a lot of emailing I made it happen. Then fast forward to 2019 and I’m putting on a band like Sunn O))), after an incredible amount of leg work (seriously you have no idea how long in the making that was), to nearly 3000 people. But it’s all the same, the feeling doesn’t change, I was the same giddy 16-year-old backstage.”

Reflecting on momentous gigs is something many of us are being forced to do right now, with Josh answering these questions at a time when live music, and the world as a whole, is in the middle of the biggest crisis anyone can remember. The impact that Covid-19 is going to have on the live sector, not just during lockdown but for potentially years to come, is huge. Being a smaller promotions company, Old Empire is obviously vulnerable to the affects the virus is having.

“I won’t lie,” Josh begins. “It’s been devastating. We have lost a ton of work; without clear direction everyone is moving their shows to 2021 to be on the safe side so we need to survive until then. We are lucky in a way because we also look after the diary at The Black Heart too, so there is always something there. Everyone is struggling at the moment, but it has been encouraging to see them coming together. I hope we can see some real change after all of this, maybe the wider public will realise just how much the arts brings to the UK, but not just the big stuff like the Royal Ballet, but the small DIY gigs up and down this country making it work on 1/1,000,000th of the budget.”

The scene lives and dies on the fans that make it up, and music fans of all stripes (those who are still financially secure that is) are choosing to spend their disposable income in a way that benefits the bands and the venues they love. Whether it’s buying from Bandcamp on the days they waive their fee so artists can take a bigger share of the cash from music and merch sales, or donating to the The Lexington venue in London to help it pay rent during the lockdown, fans who can afford to do so are contributing to help save live music from the abyss.

“Simply keep buying tickets,” Josh emphasises when we ask him how fans can help businesses like his. “I know it’s tricky with people’s incomes being taken apart by job loss and furlough, but if you can manage it, buying tickets for shows supports not just the promoter, but the bands and the venues. If shows cancel then you get your money back, it’s simple. Metal fans are the best though, they are generally a supportive bunch!”

For the Old Empire crew the foreseeable future is looking difficult, however no one promotes extreme metal and punk shows because it’s easy. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, for all of us, and the time will come again when we can drink, dance, mosh and be together. With this in mind I ask Josh what he’s most looking forward to as a final thought. “Well the new Oranssi Pazuzu album is outrageously good so hearing them play anything off it live will be a treat. We took a hit on our new project ‘Void’ at Fabric so we can’t wait to get those happening again some time in 2021, it will be an incredible experience.”

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Words: Dan Cadwallader