Gig Buddies: Empathy in the UK

How punk volunteering is taking music lovers with learning difficulties right to the front at live shows

Live music lovers this week are celebrating Independent Venue Week – but for many with learning difficulties the notions of music venues and independence don't go together. Tackling this travesty is Gig Buddies, a punk-band led partner programme that aims to give every music fan their moment in the mosh pit.

Like all the best ideas, this one began in a pub. It was 2008, and UK punk band Heavy Load were enjoying a post-gig pint together at The Beachcomber pub in Sussex. This had been a landmark gig for the five-piece, exposing a new mainstream audience to their joyfully chaotic and sweary covers of The Troggs, The Sonics and Kylie – and the band were sharing a moment.

"Suddenly, Michael the drummer’s support worker came up and said 'Come on, drink up, time to go home’," remembers bassist Paul Richards. “Michael was gutted. That was the final straw. We decided something had to be done.

Like two other members of Heavy Load, Michael White has a learning disability. This didn't stop the band recording three albums, playing the Wychwood Festival and Trafalgar Square, and embracing rock ’n’ roll life to the point where they eventually imploded, in 2012, due to musical differences and competing egos. They even have their own award-winning documentary film – probably the only rockumentary in which you’ll see a band prepare for a big festival show by practising putting up a tent in a back garden.

At its core, Gig Buddies is about reconnecting people with learning disabilities with what's going on on their doorstep

And yet, throughout their six-year career, Heavy Load were always aware of one disparity. At 9pm, around half their audience would always get up and leave.

"Lots of our core audience had learning disabilities and their support workers all finished their shifts at 9.30," explains Richards, who is a social care specialist as well as a demon on bass. “They'd be out enjoying themselves like everyone else and then they’d have to stop and go home. As a band, we’d done a really good job of telling people how crap life can be for people with learning disabilities. A few days after that Beachcomber gig, the penny slowly dropped that we could do something about it.”

That something was the Stay Up Late campaign, which soon became a charity, raising awareness about the restricted social lives of people with learning disabilities. In 2013, this spawned a genius scheme called Gig Buddies. Started in Sussex, it recently launched in Sydney, Australia, and is now poised for a UK-wide roll-out.

Gig Buddies pairs gig-goers with music fans who have learning disabilities, based on the simple but magical ingredient of shared music taste. It means the latter can get out to enjoy live music and don’t have to split before the headliners. It means the former can make a real difference to their cultural community simply by going to gigs. The scheme tackles some grim statistics (of the 1.8 million people in the UK with learning disabilities, 47 percent spend most of their time at home, and 51 percent say they feel lonely), fuelled by the innate power of live music to connect people. Richards has dubbed it 'punk volunteering’.

"People don't volunteer for things [for three reasons] because: they don’t have the time; they don’t know what to do; or they just don’t care," he says. “You can’t do anything about the third lot yet. But what if you can turn things people already do into volunteering opportunities? When we came up with the idea for Gig Buddies, we really did assume that somebody would have thought of it already, but nobody had. The nearest thing we found was a sports project in Wigan calledYou’ll Never Watch Alone, but that was quite niche. You had to be a Wigan Athletic supporter.”

To be a Gig Buddy, you can be a fan of any kind of music. Prospective participants and volunteers are interviewed about their sonic sensibilities before being matched up. There are currently 80 pairs of Sussex-based Gig Buddies, whose tastes range from heavy metal to village hall folk, arena pop to sticky-floored indie. This month the organisation is partnering with the annual Independent Venue Week celebration (January 25-31), supporting people with learning disabilities across the UK to go out and enjoy a local band – and submit a review while they’re at it.

"When I started as a support worker, the stereotype was that people with learning disabilities only listened to Max Bygraves and The Birdie Song," says Richards. “In the '90s I used to run music workshops where people got into everything from Debussy to the Sex Pistols, and Radiohead to house. You shouldn’t make assumptions about what music anyone will or won’t like.

The Gig Buddies are a diverse lot. The youngest are 18 (the minimum age) and the oldest is 69. Some volunteers have worked with people with learning disabilities before, but at least half haven't. Lavina Appasamy, an office worker from Brighton, says she didn’t know any adults with learning disabilities before meeting her Gig Buddy, Hannah Sandford.

"You can be in danger of cornering yourself off and only socialising with people who are similar to you," she says. “The gigs and the shared memories they give you are a great way to bond, and we’re often on the dancefloor together.” Sandford herself had never been to a gig before being paired with Appasamy, who was recently introduced to synth-pop trio Years & Years by her new friend.

Heavy Load's Richards doesn’t like to diss traditional befriending schemes, but Gig Buddies clearly offers something more mutual, less lopsided. The friendship is two-way, and the hook is the shared interest, not the need. This is clear when listening to the banter between Gig Buddies Sam Baldwin and Harry Fairchild, who are both in their mid-twenties and both in guitar bands. "Sometimes I tell Sam he needs a bath and a shave," says Harry. Sam concedes the point, before reminiscing about the time when Harry ended up on stage at an Alice Russell gig in front of 500 people, “which is a common thread to our gig experiences, isn’t it actually, Harry?

To date, Gig Buddies has helped people with learning disabilities get to more than 600 gigs – from Funeral For A Friend to Songhoy Blues – and run a tent at three Glastonburys. In Brighton, where it all started, they have the support of local venues, from big pop arena the Brighton Centre through to the hippest indie venues. "As someone who has spent my entire life obsessed with live music, I just think it's something that should be available to everyone," says Sally Ann Oakenfold, who runs Brighton venues Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar and The Hope & Ruin. She contacted Gig Buddies early in the scheme to offer a pair of guestlist places for every gig.

It’s all about working with the community,” says Gig Buddies’ Project Coordinator, Madeline Denny. “It’s building a project around the particular cultural scene. We have some duos who’ve been to gigs at the O2 Arena together, and that’s awesome, but at its core, Gig Buddies is about reconnecting people with learning disabilities with what’s going on on their doorstep.

For this reason, the national roll-out will involve inviting likeminded organisations from across the UK to apply to run a Gig Buddies scheme in their area, rather than attempting to coordinate it all from Brighton. Thanks to a chance meeting, Australia already has its first scheme and there is interest from organisations in the US. In the UK, 300 more Gig Buddy pairings should be operational from summer. The waiting list of potential volunteers in London alone is already in the hundreds.

"We're trying to share our learning and connect all those nice music fans out there who want to give their time," says Richards, whose former Heavy Load bandmate, drummer Michael White, now sits on Gig Buddies’ learning disabled-led advisory committee. “The dream is to have thousands of Gig Buddies, across the UK, across the world. Gig Buddies really does have the opportunity to rewire the way our communities work.

To find out more about volunteering, visit the Gig Buddies website.

The above article first published on in Jan, 2016.