Nine years of excellence at venue that sets the bar

Nick Stewart at Sneaky Pete's. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Nick Stewart at Sneaky Pete's. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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NINE years ago tomorrow, one of the city’s most iconic live music venues reopened its doors under its old name. Sneaky Pete’s was back.

Now, as he prepares to celebrate another milestone in the Cowgate venue’s history, Nick Stewart, the 36-year-old creative force behind Sneaky Pete’s, insists there is no way he’ll be resting on his laurels.

Stewart has been in charge of the 100-capacity venue since it reverted back to its earlier name having been a vodka bar for several years.

“Sneaky’s was never intended to be a full-on clubbing/gig venue, but I realised it could be after I’d been here a couple of years, so it evolved.”

Giving up his day job as a chef, Stewart started promoting club/gig nights, at which a live band would be followed by a club, in the early 2000s.

That led to a job at Cabaret Voltaire in 2005, after which he became manager of what was then The Red Vodka Club, an ailing business he turned around in 18 months.

“That’s how I got into Sneaky Pete’s,” he explains, “The Red Vodka Club was a late bar with some DJs and as we went along we tried different bits and pieces in a guerilla sort of way, and it really grew until The Red Vodka Club reverted to its earlier name of Sneaky Pete’s.”

Eleven years after taking over the venue and 15 years after moving to the Capital, Dublin-born Stewart knows more than most about what makes the city’s live music scene tick.

Edinburgh is an exciting place to be a young band starting out he believes.

“It’s easy to get a gig in Edinburgh as long as you don’t fall into the trap of thinking someone will just find you.

“When I was 15 I used to contact venues in Dublin and say, ‘I have a band, can I have a gig?’ They’d say, ‘Send a demo tape’, and I would. And we might or might not get a gig.

“It’s the same today; bands need to contact venues and send a link to their Soundcloud.

“I listen to everything I’m sent and decide whether or not I want to put it on. It should be slightly harder to get a show, however, if you are rubbish,” he cautions.

“When I started here, lots of promoters were doing local band nights. They felt everyone should get their chance to play a gig. That’s kind of true, but there should also be places where there is a barrier to that.

“Places where you have to have reached a certain standard to get to play there. And, yes, Sneaky Pete’s is small, but I want it to be a place that, when you play it, you know you have arrived.”

It’s an ethos that has seen the reputation of the venue grow over the last decade and today it’s equally well regarded in clubbing circles as on the live music scene.

“There is a line comes from a lot of live music venues that do club nights, they say ‘they put on club nights to allow them to afford to put on live bands’.

“That is not what we do. We have a firm commitment to proper night-clubbing. Some of the best DJs in the world come to play for us, often for cheap, because they know it’s a great place to party and that we do things right.

“So we never have cheesy student nights just to get money through the door. Everything we do is about the music.”

The reality, however, is that whether you are there for the DJ or a band, the success of most venues now relies on alcohol sales.

“It’s expensive to run a business in Edinburgh and club nights have got a much bigger spend per head on the bar.

“So you have to look after your club nights in order to be able to put on the gigs that you want,” explains Stewart.

It’s a strategy that allows him to take risks with the live music he programmes.

“Sneaky Pete’s is a music business that makes the bulk of its money from alcohol sales, and that is the pattern for almost every smaller music venue in the UK.

He elaborates, “With a 100 capacity, while it is possible to make money on a touring act, we tend to loose money on every show... but if it’s a busy show, we make that back on the bar.”

Despite this financial juggling, Stewart says that a capacity of 100 is actually ideal.

“It is the perfect capacity for Edinburgh, a city that still needs some audience development.

“It’s a very useful size for touring acts and great for a band starting out.

“On their first tour, a band will want to sell out every gig and, if Edinburgh has a slightly smaller audience than some cities, then it totally makes sense to play somewhere like this and sell out. It looks fantastic.”

Sell-out gigs indicate shrewd programming, the secret of success for any venue, and Stewart has one very simple criteria when deciding what to put on his stage, whether it’s an established act, or a group making their debut, they must simply be “excellent”.

“We book things that are either really excellent now and could be amazing, or that are just excellent,” he emphasises.

“We have touring acts that have been around for 20 years and have a niche audience, but it’s one that can fill Sneaky Pete’s, and we have bands that are just starting out on their first tour.

“So we’re not really an academy, I pick things from every genre as long as they excellent because, as with everything we advertise, you can only sell something that is intrinsically good. That’s the secret of programming a venue.”

And he has this advice for any young bands hoping to one day play Sneaky Pete’s: “See loads of gigs and listen to much better records.

“The five acts that still influence almost every demo I get are Mac DeMarco, Funeral For A Friend (the band almost every new rock band want to sound like), Oasis, who are absolutely still a thing, Arctic Monkeys and Queens of Stoneage.

“Bands take all these influences and call themselves psychedelic, but that’s not what is actually happening just now.

“So, anything that steps out side that box suddenly pricks up my ears.

“A lot of people feel the music industry is stacked against them but the best stuff does tend to work out if you’ve got perseverance and excellence.

“That’s all anyone wants from a band.”

Sneaky Pete’s 9th Birthday, tomorrow, 6pm, £6