Dispensing With the #Altfacts, What is the Real Value of the Subs? by Sarah Phaedre Watson

Image by Tammy-Lynn Photography  tammylynn.co.uk

Image by Tammy-Lynn Photography tammylynn.co.uk

Facts and figures are brilliant aren’t they?  As someone who works in marketing (or “hot air” as my friends like to call it) I am more than aware of how powerful a statement with some good old £ signs and statistics can be, and just how much they are manipulated.

The events of the last week or so has proven one thing to me for certain, there has to be transparency and honesty from everyone in order for a genuine debate to take place on the future of the Subscription Rooms. So, lets take a few minutes to look at some pretty powerful statements or beliefs that surround the building (apart from how much we all hate the colour of the ceiling in the ballroom), before we move onto the real questions that need to be answered.

You can thank me for trawling through so many mind-numbingly tedious documents on your behalfby buying me wine when I see you. Several times today I nearly gnawed my arm off with frustration trying to find some of the figures and statistics here.

To make it more fun I’ve made some stuff up too.

Fact #1 The Subscription Rooms only benefits Stroud Town residents

People seem to think that only the people of Stroud step through the doors of the venue but  *clears throat to divulge some actual facts* “Using 11,500 unique postcodes from ticket purchases it was discovered that visitors attending events in the past two and a half years came from well outside the county, with concentrations in Bristol, Birmingham and London, with further large attendances from Gloucester and Cheltenham.” 75% of tickets sales are across the whole district, the rest are people from people who visit the town because of the Subscription Rooms. Those people will visit our shops, pubs, bars and restaurants too if we do a bit of clever marketing right? With a capacity of 450 people in the Ballroom, the building has the ability pull in acts and performers, to provide arts, culture, education and entertainment for the whole district, that our smaller (and equally brilliant) venues just aren’t able to do. And ticket sales show that everyone throughout the area appreciates that.

Fact #2 The Subs only puts on Tribute Bands

*sigh* No. It. Doesn’t.  Can I leave that there?  No? Ok so, yes, over the course of year, you can expect to find around 8 tribute bands playing in the building. Now bearing in mind that the annual programme includes at least 400 performances and workshops, that actually can’t be true now can it? People love tribute bands, they contact the venue asking when the next Chuckle Brothers impersonators will be there all the time*, those events sell out, those people spend money on the bar, and that helps to keep the doors open so that a whole range of performances can be put on. I will never personally understand why someone would buy a tribute band’s CD, but they do you know, and if the building’s job is to provide something for everyone then they need to cater for people who buy tribute bands CDs too.

*this is a lie, but other favourite tributes are requested.

Fact #3 The programming is terrible

Nope. I’m just not having it.

Now given, not every performance, band, workshop or class is for everyone, but that’s the whole point of a community venue isn’t it? To provide something for all tastes.  And if you are providing something for a whole district (and beyond) i stands to reason that people will like one thing and not another. So when someone says “the programming is terrible”, what they’re really saying is “there’s a huge range of stuff available at the venue, but only a small amount is what I’m interested in.” Which is pretty much as it should be, and is the only thing that stops me from screaming in frustration when I hear this said for the 27th time in one day. Could the programme be improved? Yes. Which is why it is always being reviewed and the venue loves it when people get involved, or make suggestions.

Fact #4 There is already too much arts and culture in the area, forcing competition

Repeated over and over again; we already have so many cultural and entertainment venues that the Subscription Rooms just can’t compete, or it detracts from the over venues. But then I take solace in reading a report that our very own Council had the foresight to have put together a decade ago which suggests that (prepare for more actual facts from an actual Council report): “However the centre has to draw on a very fragmented settlement. Real success means appealing to diverse communities, not just ‘pubbers and clubbers’, as one consul-tee put it. This is difficult as the venues are very dispersed. Hence getting the basics right is fundamental. Promotion is also key. The Sub Rooms should become the focus for efforts to promote activities in Stroud outside normal shopping hours, working with a Leisure Forum to encourage joint marketing of activities that bring people together, including arts, sport and continuing education…” Maybe they forgot about that report?Surely if the District is to build upon their reputation as a thriving, alternative arts and entertainment community, which will continue to attract people from all over the UK (see excellent Fact #1) closing down the largest venue, right in the heart of the town would be bonkers right? What if they were to use it as a hub for the whole District, marketing and promoting all of our leisure facilities from one convenient location to underpin a carefully considered arts and culture strategy (which doesn't exist). Blimey, what would happen then?

Fact #5 The Council aren’t very good at running the Subs so they shouldn’t do it anymore

Erm…  What?  So let’s get this straight shall we? “The Council is committed to providing leadership to the community, to serve those who live, work and visit the Stroud District, and to improve the quality of life for all members of the community.” At no point do they say “except for the Subscription Rooms or other arts and culture stuff because, you know *shrug* it’s not our strong point”. We all pay our taxes, which in turn they are supposed to manage for us. Full stop. If they are failing in a specific area, or they have “some weaknesses to address”, how about they pop on their big boy pants and sort it out. Because I’ve tried to get out of all the things that I don’t like doing (and the list is extensive believe me) by sulkily kicking the ground with my hands in my pockets and through lowered eye-lashes suggesting that I shouldn’t have to because, well you know, I’m just not very good at vacuuming. And not a lot happened. Let’s hold the Council accountable the way my children hold me accountable for things, like getting out of bed and functioning as a human being.

Fact #6 The Sub Rooms is an empty shell of empty seats and empty souls*

Ticket sales in the building have doubled since last year, the programme for the coming months looks AMAZING, and the venue is voted the fourth best arts and entertainment in the Cotswolds on TripAdvisor I’ll have you know. Over 400 events take place over the year, with tens of thousands of people in attendance. Only last week there was a queue around the block to get into the building, and events are selling out regularly. It's rated one of the most poplar places to visit in Stroud, both by international and national guests, and the people of Stroud on FaceBook.

To be fair I just provided you with a long list of facts, and not a huge amount of description, but that’s how good those facts are. They’re called stand alone facts I believe, and not just because they are a bit boring and no one wants to talk to them in the pub.

*a bit of melodrama does the world of good when you're trying to break up a #longread right?

Fact #7 If the Subs is “sorted out” all of our arts and culture venues will be saved

Ah, I’ve got some bad news for you on this one. This isn’t a “Sophie’s Choice” of the arts venues in the area, this is a clear signal as to what our Central and Local Government believe to be importantand a priority for spending. This is their tester, if we let this venue go then how on earth are we going to fight for the rest? I say we do what Stroud does best, we pull to our collective bosom what we believe to be important to this town, and we work out how to make it work… and then we all listen to some great bands, dance, and drink a bit too much of our local ale obviously.

Fact #8 Everyone who works for the Council is doing a terrible job and is pushing lies

One of the worst messages I received over the last week was from someone in the Council who felt demoralised by the attention being given to the Subscription Rooms, and the negative press that the Council, and therefore the Council workers are getting. This made me really sad.  I know a lot of people who work for Stroud District Council, they’re passionate about working for our district, and brilliant at their jobs. The issues surrounding the Subscription Rooms, and many other departments down at Ebley Mill, are not their fault and without those committed, dedicated people we’d all be buggered quite frankly.  So next time you see someone who works there, give them a little hug. As an added bonus the few bad apples among the extensive good ones will hate that.

Fact #9 The Council “loses” £415,000 per year on The Subscription Rooms

£415,000 per year lost on one building, during these times of Central Government cuts is a hell ofa lot! And a HUGE CONCERN. If it were actually true.  This is probably my favourite #alternativefact and guaranteed to cause a lengthy debate. So, let’s get to the bottom of it shall we?  Deep breath now kids, we’re nearly there!

Two big figures which can be taken off that £415,000 figure: Depreciation of £60k per year is included: To quote someone anonymously when I asked what that actually was“Whatever it is, it's not a real running cost, just a % of the estimated market value of the building, which is crazy and only a local government accounting thing.” Which pretty much sums it up. *puts maths brain on* So now we’re down to £365,000 a year “lost” by the Council. That still seems like quite a lot right? Ok, so now if you remove the “uncontrollable costs” (they sound like LOADS of fun to have at a party right?) what would happen then?  “Uncontrollable costs” are sadly not a rebellious lot you’d find dancing on a table at a party (*whistles nonchalantly*), they are costs that the council racks up throughout the authority, which are then split out across departments.  They cover exciting things like IT, HR, legal services… You get the drift. So how much does the Subscription Rooms pay each year for these services I hear you ask! Surely these services are being economically provided centrally by the Council and would absolutely save the building money, and provide a valuable service?? The answer is approximately £120,000 per year.  £10,000 per month. Nope. So, without me falling down the never ending worm hole of the minutiae of the rest of the annual accounts you can see what happens once you start to dismantle this annual “loss”.Let’s whip that £180,000 off the figure and see what we’re left with; £235,000 - that’s more realistic, but I’m not done yet because…

Fact #10 If over £400,000 weren’t being spent on the Subscription Rooms (which we all know it isn’t now right?) we could buy a new Brexit Bus

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  But let’s get this straight shall we? If the amount that it is claimed is being “lost” on the venue each year is being “saved” by leasing it to another organisation, or heaven forbid, selling it, then that money would most certainly not be ploughed into another area. For starters, as noted above, the budgetary amounts stated are some rather bizarre Council accountancy practices…And also the money for Council-wide “uncontrollable costs” would have to be found elsewhere anyway, removing it from the Subscription Rooms “budget line” (I know, I know, I should quit with my sexy talk), will only result it having to be allocated to another department within the Council. And that remaining quarter of a million pounds, will it be used to ensure that the revenue that the town and local businesses gain from the Subscription Rooms customers is maintained through marketing and promoting of the District? Will the District use it to ensure that the arts and cultural provision for every resident is preserved? I’ll leave you to answer that yourselves shall I?

Before I go and rest my repetitive strain injury that writing this long article has brought on, I’d like to pose the questions that I think we should all be answering in reality: Stroud District Council subsidise the Subscription Rooms by a current figure of around £235,000 per annum.  Do we believe that during this time of austerity and budget cuts this is a good use of the tax payers money? How can we work together to ensure that the Subscription Rooms becomes a hub for our vibrant district using a progressive and economically beneficial arts and culture strategy?And how can the Council ensure that they fulfil their public duty to oversee the future of just one of the area’s most historic buildings?

And finally…

Isn’t it interesting how “an annual loss of £415,000” sounds so much worse than say:  The Council is committed to addressing how a subsidy of just £2.08 per person, per year for the biggest, and oldest, arts and culture venue right in the heart of our town, can be reduced further, whilst service is further improved for the benefit of the District and it’s visitors.

An on-line petition has recently been set up by  Save Our Subs click here for further information. A Celebrate the Subscription Rooms event has also been organised for Saturday 1st April ft. Boss Morris, Spaniel in the Works Theatre Company, Adam Horovitz. Crispin Thomas and more tba...

No one knows what Sarah Phaedre Watson really does, she spends time gallivanting off to Africa to make films, writing for various publications, or passionately supporting community arts and events. She certainly gets about a bit