An independent North-East music centre is preparing to take the rare step of issuing a share offer to put its future in the hands of the local community. Chris Barron reports.

If Allison McKay’s emotional experience in running The Forum Music Centre over the past decade had to be summed up by a song, she would be spoilt for choice.

Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley would certainly fit the bill. The Gloria Gaynor classic I Will Survive also springs to mind. And then there’s Elton John’s defiant anthem I’m Still Standing.

It certainly hasn’t been easy, and it’s not an exaggeration to say The Forum came perilously close to shutting its doors for good less than 10 years ago. And now, like many music and community venues, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has also presented the team with new challenges.

The priority for now is to ride out the storm over the coming months but the team is confident that the business will emerge stronger than ever and be ready to take a bold step to secure The Forum’s future for the next generation.

Plans had been in place to launch a shares offer in April, but that has had to be put on hold in the light of the impact of the worldwide pandemic. However, Allison is confident the scheme will go ahead once the crisis has passed.

Under the plans, passionate supporters will be able to own a piece of The Forum by becoming shareholders in a move that will make it a truly community-owned institution.

By encouraging the people who love The Forum to take a stake in its success, Allison hopes to fund essential improvements and ensure the beloved venue’s long-term future.

“By buying into the share offer, our investors will have a vested interest in our ongoing success,” she says. “They’ll be able to vote on our future direction and have a real direct input. I truly believe that this is the best way to ensure that The Forum stays here for many years to come – owned by the community and serving its needs.

“We hoped to launch the share offer early this year, but like many businesses, we’ve chosen to react to the coronavirus outbreak in the best interest of the public and of our customers, and that means following government advice and holding fire for a little while longer.

“However, that just gives us more time to work on the offer and to bring it back bigger and better later this year. Keep an eye on our website and Facebook page for up to date information.”

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Now that The Forum is operating successfully as a business, the biggest concern is the building itself. Built in 1879, it was originally a school located in what was, historically, a deprived area of Darlington. The students struggled with some subjects – particularly maths – so the headteacher came up with a creative solution. They were taught to sing their lessons, thus forging the building’s first connection with music.

After the school closed, the building became home to a variety of businesses, until The Forum was unveiled in 2004. But, in all that time, it never got a new roof. Now, directors hope that by selling shares in the venue’s future, they can raise the capital to replace the 121-year-old slates, install insulation and renovate the erratic heating system.

Allison is delighted to have a strong board of directors behind her as the shares offer is rolled out, with Michael Bainbridge, Finance Manager with Darlington Building Society, recently being installed as chairman. The board also comprises long-standing supporters James Watson and Kath Matthews.

As well as hosting hundreds of gigs every year, The Forum provides rehearsal spaces, a recording studio, music school, youth initiatives and room hire for community groups.

It also offers the increasingly popular Song Club Sessions, which are supported by Youth Music UK. These mentor-led workshops help young musicians to collaborate, practice and develop new original music under the guidance of experienced industry professionals.

“People are very passionate about The Forum, especially since Darlington Arts Centre was closed,” says Allison. “Even people who don’t necessarily visit can see why The Forum is needed in our community.”

Allison cites the example of a man approaching her while she was queuing at the bank and asked if she was the woman who ran The Forum. When she told him that she was, he asked how he could offer his support and she told him about The Friends of the Forum group. When Allison then asked how long he has been coming to the venue, she was taken aback by his answer.

“I’ve never, ever been, nor do I have any inclination to go at all, but it’s important, it gives a lot to Darlington, and I know a lot of people benefit from it. So, for that reason I want to support it,” he said.

Allison shakes her head at the memory and says: “I found that really profound. The truth is, I’m not much of a ‘gig-goer’ either, but I love the culture and the connections that music creates. It’s an art form with no prejudices; it brings people together. That’s really what The Forum is: a way to encourage social enterprise, caring for each other and love of music.”

Allison never found out the man’s name, but she’s never forgotten his inspirational words and The Forum has gone from strength to strength with a wide variety of groups and individuals benefitting from what has become one of the most important social hubs in the local community.

On a typical Saturday, music tutors and vocal coaches can be found teaching in the venue’s rehearsal rooms, wrapping up lessons in time for a punk gig that evening. By Sunday morning, the arriving congregation of Xcel Church would never suspect that just hours before, the performance room was full of raucous punk rockers.

Indeed, every musical genre imaginable features somewhere on The Forum’s agenda – from jazz, to opera.

“When we think of the legendary bands and artists that this country has produced, so many of them started in small, grassroots venues – like The Forum – and the North-East has always been a big part of that,” says Allison. “Music is one of the UK’s largest exports and I’m so proud of the contribution we make. The Forum is unique in what it offers, and we are utterly committed to developing and supporting new talent.”

Up-and-coming artists may well achieve their first music qualifications at The Forum. As an accredited examination venue for Trinity College London, Rockschool Ltd, London College of Music, and the Registry of Guitar Tutors, music students from all over the region flock to Darlington for assessments.

The Forum has had a long and colourful history, and the past 10 years have been challenging, with coronavirus the latest obstacle to be overcome. What happens after that will be well and truly in the community’s hands.

So, if Allison had to choose a song to sum up the future, what might it be? “With a Little Help from My Friends,” she smiles.