Rhythm & Values: Christopher Torpey

R&V is a mixed series of long and short investigative reads focusing on those within the Northwest scene that are having to move to their own rhythm to make waves in the industry. Here we highlight the practices and experiences of these rulebreakers to show where the industry can change for the better, and why we should value what they’re doing.

Photo by: Robin Clewley

In this edition writer, Jordy Watkins, sits down with Christopher Torpey, co-founder of one of the brightest venues in the North-West; Future Yard.

Christopher Torpey is the co-founder, the other being Craig Pennington, and director of Future Yard, a new age music venue paving its own path with the goal of showing that no matter where you’re from that you too can make a difference in your community. I sit down with Chris to talk about Future Yard’s artist focused mission, the importance of roots and community, and the crucial role of education in the industry. Future Yard started in 2019 in a fairly public manner, before they acquired the venue they ran a festival over two days in August 2019, and for both Torpey and Pennington this was the planting of the flag, the
solidification of Future Yard’s direction and mission dubbing their now famed mantra ‘THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD’. Torpey jokingly says “We painted that on the side of the building
because we wanted to get people talking and to ruffle some feathers, for the right reasons of course, and it did!” As like many independents, the venue wasn’t their first project. Both Torpey and Pennington previously founded and ran the popular music magazine ‘Bido Lito!’, a chronological culture map of Liverpool’s music scene from 2010 up until 2022. Though there was an overlap of the magazine’s end and the venue’s beginning, due to funding and post-covid struggles it become too strenuous to continue both, therefore the magazine came to an end in 2022. Torpey says “It would be lovely if they could both be running but
we were spreading ourselves too thinly over these two enormous creative projects during the pandemic, so we decided to put everything into one.”

The idea started with conceptualizing a name for a venue they didn’t have yet, and evidently landed on Future Yard. A name signifying the rebirth of Birkenhead’s once bustling music scene, a place formerly peppered with theatres and a now surreal faded history of plays and burlesque. The name aptly signposts what Torpey hopes to become a blueprint, one of which others can look toward for guidance to evolve or, as Torpey, Pennington and their fellow plotters did, start their own progressive creative venue. With the strong backing and belief from Wirral Council, Future Yard was able to acquire capital to get the project off the ground so it could soon progress under its own steam. The keys were handed over to the Future Yard team in January 2020, with plans well underway for the coming year, the pandemic was far from factored into any businesses schedule. This was an undoubted blow to Torpey and the team but like many businesses, they made the best of an extremely bad situation. This afforded them the opportunity to fully renovate the venue into the vision they had imagined would take years to achieve. Alongside this, they endeavoured a 9-month marketing campaign to highlight what an independent music venue could do for Birkenhead, Torpey mentions that surprisingly “It was a far better start than we imagined for the venue all considering.”

Being brought up in the Wirral town of Wallasey, Torpey wanted to give back to the area he grew up in even though it would come with its challenges. Torpey mentions his own personal motto, “It doesn’t always have to be this way”, meaning for him, that just because Birkenhead’s vibrant music scene has faded, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. One of the challenges lies with the location, the Mersey seems to create a psychological mirage that Birkenhead is too far to travel for a gig, and I admit I was one of those people, but I can attest after seeing Willie J Healey and more recently Karl Blau, that even from the Sefton Park area it was still less than half an hour door to door. This of course ties into the playful rivalry between the Wirral and Liverpool, Torpey passionately expresses that he “very much sees Birkenhead as almost a suburb of Liverpool, there’s a much closer affinity with the two than its given credit for.” He goes on to say, “We are part of the Liverpool music scene whether they like it or not!” Torpey laughs, “but I also want to imbue our own personal identity of what we do in Birkenhead, that’s a crucial part of building the area back up again.”

From a nuts-and-bolts point of view, Future Yard has looked to other venues, taken the best bits, and built what they think a music venue should be, and what it should do for the surrounding community. Torpey questioned this saying “How are these other venues working? What inspiration can we gain to create our own patchwork venue and drive our own identity?”. One of Torpey’s points fleshed out the issue that the majority of music venues are only open from the point the events start and finish. Anecdotally speaking Torpey says “one of the things we heard over a long period of time was that Liverpool is such an amazing city of music and has all of this long-standing infrastructure to support music, but that there was no place to hang out, like a central location for musicians.” Future Yard thought to reimagine the music venue to be one that doesn’t just open its doors to the public for ticketed events, but for it to be open seven days a week and to craft a space in which musicians can connect, collaborate, perform, and ultimately learn from each other. He agrees and finishes his point by refining the vision down to one sentence “The idea was to create a living breathing music venue that was operating all of the time.” They have earned their goal of becoming the place in which artists can afford the opportunity to develop their skills, to write, practice and just hang out. Not only that, but they are welcome to a stage in which to perform on, and subsequently start building a fanbase and take their place in the tightly knit yet all-inclusive creative community.

Photo By: Wes Storey

A large portion of Future Yard’s mission has been providing education, Torpey says, “It feels like there’s so much of this knowledge kicking around, but so much of it is hidden behind paid-for training, college courses, university degrees or has simply felt gatekept by the industry.” Broadly speaking, the typical socio-economic structures, pressures and values placed onto us as individuals would suggest that a career choice in music is poor one, brushing the artist as one of unrealistic or lazy disposition. And more ironically, the music industry has an enigmatic air about it, seemingly weaving and dodging ways of educating those who want and are willing to work towards a stable career in music. For most careers there is a set and well-trodden path in which to follow, steps in which to trace, take and eventually achieve. Though, with music it can often feel like a haphazard free-for-all decision making process which subsequently results in relying tremendously on the famously unreliable element of ‘luck’. It shouldn’t have to feel brave to be a musician, it should feel safer as a career.

Future Yard’s answer to these issues come in the form of fully funded educational programmes. Torpey says, “From a production perspective, I’d noticed in a post-covid era that there was a lack of sound and light technicians who of course are the ones that elevate the live experience.” Torpey asked himself, why not make use of the live room space whilst it’s not being used in the daytime to train our own? Seems like a no-brainer to allow people to use the empty space to be educated by the inhouse professionals to create a career avenue. This has now progressed into the fully funded Soundcheck Programme supported by Future Yard’s many partners. Anyone can apply, the only thing required is a love for live music and an ambition to start a career in music. Secondly, to solidify their artist focused mission, Future Yard run the free ‘PROPELLER Artist Development Mentorship’ in which anyone can join and learn how to navigate the industry. Whether musicians are looking to release a record, are wondering what they should expect from a manager, or are simply trying to figure out their next step, this programme purely exists to educate and destigmatise the mystery of the music industry. Lastly, focusing more on setting an educational and ecological example for other music venues, Future Yard have put together a sustainability road map, their step-by-step guide on how they are working towards a carbon neutral future. Torpey’s humble approach is admirable, he crucially points out that the purpose of creating, publishing, and promoting this roadmap was not one of vanity or financial gain, but a public move in the hopes that other venues will copy and shape their own carbon neutral roadmap.

Future Yard’s ambitious vision for the future could once have been lazily disregarded as a ‘pipedream’, but the bottom line is that though this long-term project is in its infancy, and that they will always be reaching for the next rung of the ladder, they are already well underway and achieving change in spades. If you are an artist who needs some direction with their career, join the PROPELLER scheme. If you love music and want a career in music and to help create these experiences, apply for the Soundcheck programme. If you want to know more about Birkenheads music history, go spend half an hour before your gig doing the self-guided ‘Leftbank Soundtrack’ music walking tour. Or if you’re simply a punter that wants to support a new age music venue with the community and the artist at the heart of their project, then don’t think twice and take the 6-minute stone’s throw away train from Liverpool Central, and experience the change for yourself.

To apply for the PROPELLER Artist Development Mentorship click here!

To explore Birkenheads Leftbank Soundtrack self-guided tour click here!

And for Future Yards up and coming listing, Soundcheck programme and studio booking click here!

Photo By: Robin Clewley