Adam Murdoch


SWG3 is beloved in Glasgow, holding a unique spot in the city’s music and art scenes, and beyond. I had the opportunity to speak to the general manager, Jonathan Dawson, about what makes the venue so special to so many, how they’ve kept themselves busy over the last year, and what the venue has in store for the future.

SWG3 is basically an institution in Glasgow now, and one that seems to jump from strength to strength as it grows – what is it about the venue that makes it so special, and how do you maintain that?

It’s been quite an organic growth with SWG3, but it has benefitted from a couple of things happening on the side, like the Arches closing and then the ABC burning down – we’ve obviously inherited a lot of that business. I’ve heard a few people say that as if we wouldn’t be anything without that having happened, but the fact is everybody had a chance to inherit that business and we were in a position to do it. Mutley, the owner who started it all about 15 years ago, he likes to tell the story, or the myth, that there was once a party that he threw with one toilet, way back in the day when it was a wee bit more underground, which you wouldn’t possibly do now - but it does show how far the venue’s come. When I came into SWG3 in 2015 we had the warehouse, upstairs and the Poetry Club, and downstairs was a number of different units; before it had been designed and built, the TV Studio area was a bike repair shop. We started doing club nights, but we were very much a Friday night / Saturday night venue, there wasn’t much else for us that first year. It always felt like if something were slightly cool, or electro or had an arty feel it would be pushed down to SWG3. I did one gig in there when I worked for DF Concerts and it was with a band called Wu Lyf, I think the only show they ever did in Glasgow, and I remember they were so underground they didn’t even want to advertise the show – but it sold out, and that was the sort of band, the sort of ethos and artist that we got down there. Mutley always had the art element to the venue too, there was the gallery space and now on the second floor we have art studios, design studios and a photography studio.

There are times where I do sit down and think, what is SWG3 to each person, to different people – people know it for their own experiences, they know it for the clubs or for the art, the graffiti festival, or for the gigs they’ve seen and then there’s people who only know it for Bongo’s Bingo. There are so many venues in and about the city that rely on one person’s pocket - you know you can trust what you’re going to get by going to these spaces, and that does work for a while. For instance, I used to work at the Doghouse in Dundee, and when The View were at the top of the game and that indie rock scene was everywhere, I could book anyone I wanted – but people grow up and their tastes change. I see these scenes come and go in 18-month to 2-year cycles, and then the fans or the students move on or elsewhere. With SWG3 what we try to do is not rely on that one pocket or a single demographic, and that’s what we’ve found works. We do all manner of gigs, we do internal self-promotion for club nights, we do Bongo’s Bingo which is probably one of the biggest events we do in terms of selling out any night we host it on; and we’ve hosted it on every night of the week except maybe a Tuesday, which is something I’ll have to make sure we do! I’d argue that there’s no venue in the UK that runs a multi-room night better than us either. The most we’ve had in one night is six events, and for the team to be able to deliver that logistically – around 6000 people through the door between those six events – it’s an unbelievable achievement.

To bring an end to that, I do think you’ll start seeing more venues now that have multi-rooms try to extend their run a wee bit more like we do. SWG3 though is just already known for so many different things: someone that knows it for art might not know it as a club and vice versa, and that is the best possible way for sustainability.

And in terms of the pandemic, which we obviously can’t ignore over the last year, unfortunately – has there been anything happening behind closed doors?

We’ve been quite busy actually. Initially, when lockdown happened, most of my time was made up moving the diary around, and I was busy rescheduling everything to the end of the year – and I have to laugh now at how short a distance into the future we went with some of those shows. I remember Ash were meant to play in March and then they rescheduled to the end of May and that’s really how quickly we thought this was all going to be over. Then everything moved to September, and then again to the end of 2020, and then it was into the start of 2021 and then everything moved into 2022 and I wrote off 2021; then Boris made his announcement, and everything moved back into 2021. Mutley partnered with a charity and a couple of other businesses too, to start making visors for frontline staff. That was run as a charity, it was called ViseUp, and that got a lot of support from people and we ended up delivering tens of thousands of visors to frontline staff across places like vets and chemists: those frontline workers that had been almost forgotten about, but still had to go to work and weren’t getting access to the PPE. That kept Mutley and that side of the business busy, and there were a lot of our bar staff and ops team that gave up their time to help with the logistics of it too.

After that, it so happened that just having space became a commodity, which enabled us to run the beer garden under the new regulations from about the 6th April. These ran really well, and were well attended for a couple of months, but when other places started opening up that also dropped off and it got a bit quiet again. We then ran the first ticketed, music-led events in Scotland round about October – there is a wee bit of a backstory to those which is quite funny. The Scottish Government announced that you could do outdoor, seated music events for a capacity of 200 people; but I don’t think they actually wanted anyone to do it! They made it so restrictive numbers-wise that I think they thought no one could possibly do it, but having The Yard and the experience we do, we were already well-versed and ready for it. So we set up these two arts nights, the Wednesday and Thursday and part of that was another thing we did: basically people grew their own potatoes round about the city and then they came down on those two nights with their potatoes, we chopped them up in front of them and made chips. That was it – I don’t know too much about it and I’ve probably butchered the premise of it so apologies to anyone that was involved that’s reading. That was the first two nights we did, then we had Optimo on the Friday and then we had two Colours events called ‘Seat Rave’ and that’s where the controversy comes from. Round about that time Aberdeen had been closed down, they’d gone into a second lockdown and there were arguments about what levels people were on and there was a councillor in Aberdeen that went mental that SWG3 were holding a street rave for “700 people” and he wrote a letter to Nicola Sturgeon demanding that she shut us down because Aberdeen had been shut down and their numbers weren’t that high. That was announced the day before Optimo, and my phone did not stop going off all of that day. I had police, licensing, environmental health, the press, the Scottish government. It was all just blown out of proportion, which has been the problem with really everything we’ve seen over the last year is that there’s been so much misinformation and bad reporting out there. I remember coming into a Zoom call with the Scottish government where I had to defend the events, but we had followed every guideline, I had to say we are doing everything that you have requested in your guidance, we’re not making it up – and it’s not 750 people either, it’s 200, you are making that up. In the end, it all went brilliantly, even with all the pressure on us from all these different groups and bodies. It’s a bold claim, but we had created such a sterile environment overall our events that I’d argue you could only have possibly caught Covid from the people that you came with. I guess that could be backed up by the fact that no one’s reported catching Covid from the venue. The events in themselves were quite surreal, because at that time the ban on background music was being enforced, which inevitably meant there were a few Facebook warriors still hammering their keyboards like: “How are they doing music? How are they allowed to do that?”

At the end of the day though I’m immensely proud that SWG3 could be the first to deliver these, and that all falls back to the venue and how the team runs it. And of course, then a week later that was us in another lockdown. The year has been very stop-start, and there have been points where we’ve known that things are likely not to go ahead – but we’ve had to keep on our toes and keep planning, just in case. It was probably around about Christmas that I eventually made my peace with the pandemic – I see myself as something of a fixer, the breadwinner at SWG3 who was always able to magic up something, but in this, I couldn’t because we couldn’t trade and so at that point, I just settled into it, and for me since accepting that it is probably the happiest I’ve been.

On top of all that, with the furlough payments on offer and with Mutley being willing to put the business into debt to keep everyone afloat and keep all our staff on, I think that demonstrates exactly the ethos that we try to promote at SWG3. We know we can hit the ground running on our way out of this and recover.

You’ve mentioned a little about the government in that, but is there anything else you’d want to comment on regarding their response to the last year?

Honestly, I think regardless of what they chose to do over the course of this, they’d be hammered. I’ve been critical, but actually taking a step back, I’m not sure what else could have been done that would have wholly changed things. The stupidest thing that the Scottish government did was the background music thing, and that was the one regulation that went against everything. They had done zero research and I know that for a fact, because I know that they only started looking into it about two months after they canned it. That’s just people sitting in a room passing judgement and creating regulations on something they are not expert on.

We can laugh about that one now, but I would say that the most hateful thing of the last year that the governments have done is that they’ve turned everyone against each other. They’ve convinced you that your gran was going to die if you saw somebody on Instagram round at someone else’s house, and I don’t think that was fair, because all governments made very serious mistakes at the start that caused this to grow. Don’t get me wrong, it was always going to grow - but I’ve never seen fear used in such a way, and that is genuinely horrific. In that I would argue that the press are just as bad – some of the reporting over the last twelve months has been equally terrible. So can governments be criticised? Absolutely. But could I have done any better? Probably not. That fear will take a while to subside beyond this though – look at SWG3 as a prime example: we’re used to getting people in the doors for massive raves, but I’m genuinely terrified of them starting back up again, simply because for the last year and a bit we’ve just not seen anybody act like they do at those events.

A bit more optimistically then, does SWG3 have a roadmap for your way out of this?

I mean, Boris making that 21st June announcement is just a forecast, it’s not based on any kind of science really is it? So that date is one for the backbenchers. But let’s say I’m open from next week – that’s me full, even without gigs, because I can have club nights and we can host Bongo’s. Gigs do start coming back in August, and our diary is full from then, a steady run: every Galvanizer’s date is booked from the 1st September to the 31st December, and our other units are rammed too. Our roadmap really just is that when we’re allowed to open we will. The appetite across Scotland is definitely there, you can see that in ticket sales for the dance events – Terminal V, Fly’s Save The Rave, Riverside and Cultivate up in Aberdeen – they’re all sold out, or selling faster than they ever have. Everyone’s trying to guess where the first party back will be. To me it feels as if September will be the date but honestly, I’m done guessing, I spent all of last year doing that. We have also been booked out by The New York Times for Club 26 which will be huge, for the venue and the city, so we are trying to piece together all that around everything else too.

The night-time economy is the fifth largest industry in the UK, so it’s been a little disappointing that there hasn’t been more testing of some of the rapid test and trace systems being used for clubs in other parts of the world. That’s meant that there isn’t really a clear roadmap out as such, and I can’t see where that switch will happen where one day you have to wear a mask and the next you can essentially lick another person’s face, so I guess as long as they are making it up we can continue to, too.

One last wee question then – anything you’re particularly looking forward to hosting, once we’re back to normal?

I want to be standing in a room, full, at Bongo’s Bingo. That’s when I know everything will be alright, and I’ll know that this is all over, because those are the most fun events we have in terms of people coming down and just pound for pound walking out smiling and laughing. I just want to see that busy room – slightly on the edge of chaos – and everybody enjoying it. Hearing a big PA for the first time in so many months last October took me back to the first times I started doing gigs, right back to the O2 Academy, or the Barrowlands, or Hall 4. I want my old life back. I read an interesting article about how we’re all currently going through this grieving process – we’re grieving for the lives we’ve lost, for the future that we might have and all those things we used to do. We’ve adapted to it because we’ve had to, but honestly just a wee bit of excitement – I need that again.