Stay Up Late are a totemic Brighton charity whose influence spreads way beyond our seaside city. They are the brains behind Gig Buddies, who pair people with learning disabilities with pals to attend gigs with. They were born out of a disarmingly simple problem: support workers accompanying people with learning disabilities to concerts traditionally finish their shift at 10pm. Therefore both would leave early – normally by 9pm – and be deprived of those culturally enriching and perspective-altering elements that live music can provide.
Paul Richards is the founder of Stay Up Late, which was born from his band Heavy Load; a punk outfit composed of five men – some who had learning disabilities – that became famous for their passionate, chaotic gigs. They eventually had a film made about them (Heavy Load). That was back in 2008 and since then Stay Up Late has been a quiet juggernaut, with social franchises in nine UK cities and even one in Sydney. They’ve had coverage in The Guardian, attend festivals like Glastonbury and Latitude, and positively affected hundreds of people.. They’re rad. We called Paul to talk about why live music really can change lives.
Hey Paul! Gig Buddies really seems to have captured people’s imagination. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because the concept behind Gig Buddies is easy to understand. We match people up with a shared love of the same thing. In that process we alleviate social isolation. Simple.
Right! And live music is the thread for this?
Absolutely. Music gives people a common interest. It brings them together. It’s also about changing how we engage with people with learning disabilities. They get pathologized and people make assumptions about what their disability means. It’s about people owning their condition.
How would you tangibly measure the positive effects of your work?
On a micro level it could be someone going to a nightclub for the first time in their life. Or discovering a new band. On a grander scale: going to Glastonbury for the first time. But it’s also about the effect it has for our volunteers: they now see their buddy as their friend. These are small societal changes.
Is there a danger that people with learning disabilities have a limited cultural experience?
Definitely. Recently, Kate [Project Manager for Stay Up Late] organised a meet-up at an experimental music night in Worthing. They all hated the music but they loved the night and were united in that. People with learning disabilities often have a narrow cultural experience: how do you make those decisions about what you really love until you are exposed to stuff you don’t?
It’s also about the wider confidence it gives people?
Absolutely. It’s about giving them more of an idea about the way they want to live their life and giving them the confidence to go and do things in the community. I describe Gig Buddies as scaffolding around someone’s social life. Hopefully you can take that scaffolding away and you’ll see people going out to nights outside of Gig Buddies.
How does the process actually work?
Just go on the website and fill in the form. We do training every month and we’re always eager to hear from people. People are matched around musical interests but also maybe around their location, age, gender and sexuality. They’ll be introduced and any specific support needs will be discussed. They’ll then go to their first gig together. We also provide ongoing support.
How many people do you currently have on your books?
We’ve currently got 100 pairs of buddies but a waiting list of 100-150 people with learning disabilities looking for buddies. We really need more volunteers to match them with. We think of it as turning something you would already do – going to a gig – into a volunteering opportunity. We know it’s hard to find the time for people to volunteer- this enables you to do that whilst doing something you love and getting a new friend along the way.
Is Stay Up Late now your actual job?
It is, yeah. At first I was doing it voluntarily. Then part time whilst I was working for other support organisations. Now it’s generating enough funding to cover my wages, which is another dream: to work in Brighton and do this!
What motivates you in the morning?
A sense that – through our work – we’re able to make real change in people’s lives. That is exciting. But also working really closely with the people we’re enabling and to create a culture and charity that works in a way which I think it should be done.
Lastly, it looks like you have Harry Fairchild on your books. We interviewed him a while back. He’s a dude.
Harry does training sessions for us. He’s a force of nature, that man! I remember him marching with us at Pride and was walking out with his top off. He said, “I need to get the air to my body. And also the girls like to see my body.” I’ve never known anyone like him.
What a legend, cheers Paul!.
Check our previous entries in our ‘We ❤️ Brighton Heroes’ series