Getting to know Gig Buddies | LOUD Bristol Issue Three

Getting to know Gig Buddies | LOUD Bristol Issue Three

Posted on: 20 Dec 2021

This article was first published in the third issue of LOUD Bristol, 365Bristol's dedicated music magazine. Read LOUD Issue Three and browse our first two editions here.

LOUD 3 Cover Tile.

Gig Buddies


Launched in 2013, Gig Buddies is a befriending project set up to tackle loneliness among people with a learning disability. Following its arrival in Bristol, LOUD finds out how a proactive approach is making nightlife more accessible for music fans across the city.


In the late 2000s and early 2010s, punk band Heavy Load hit their zenith. Uniquely comprised of members with and without a learning disability, the group played gigs at Glastonbury and Trafalgar Square alongside releasing three full-length albums – a testament to their talent. Despite this apparent success, however, a persistent source of frustration when playing live lingered. Often and seemingly inexplicably, the densely packed pits at the foot of the stage hollowed out as punters filtered towards the exits well before time.


What at first glance might have seemed like desertion based on washout performances, was in fact indicative of institutional accessibility barriers to gigs for people with a learning disability. Many in the audience were heading for the door early simply because their carer’s shift was finishing. It was a bitter pill for the band. In response, bassist Paul Richards founded Stay Up Late in 2011, campaigning to overcome the prohibitive timetables of social workers and other barriers to nighttime events.

Stay Up Late.

In 2013, the charity launched Gig Buddies, a befriending project designed to help people with a learning disability and/or autism enjoy mainstream cultural activities unhindered, by pairing them with a volunteer that has similar interests to attend with. In doing so, the initiative hopes to confront loneliness in socially isolated people by helping them make meaningful connections. No shifts, just mates hanging out. Since its inception, the project has expanded across the globe, arriving in Bristol via Exchange in 2021 - where it has taken off.


Leaving night-time events before 21:00 is a reality for many people with a learning disability. But this is not necessarily by choice, as Stay up Late ambassador Daniel Randall-Nason sums up best: “when we go out to gigs, we want to stay for the whole thing, not leave when the carer says it’s time to go.” The need for support is just one of seven barriers to inclusion identified by Stay Up Late and the University of Brighton, namely transport issues; lack of accessible information about gigs; fears around safety at chosen events; a lack of support; having no one to go with; and crucially, a lack of confidence and motivation.


These barriers all intersect, restricting the opportunities and control people with a learning disability get over leisure activities, especially late-night events like gigs. Consequently, their social networks - crucial to health and wellbeing - are often shrunken. Darren Johnson, Campaigns Coordinator at Stay Up Late, explains: “for most of us, we have people in our lives that aren’t paid to be there. We have friendship circles and all kinds of interactions. Often for people with a learning disability, the only people they have social interactions with are those that are paid to be in their lives. Their circle will be their immediate support and healthcare professionals. They might not have any one-to-one relationships outside of those professional ones.”


“Our goal as a venue isn’t to turn a profit, it’s to proliferate art and culture in Bristol and to make that accessible. If it’s not for everyone, it’s shit. It’s not punk”

- Iwan Best, Exchange & Gig Buddies Bristol


Neurotypical people are more likely to have a wide network of social connections, from family to close friends; people with shared interests; familiar faces; and then a small number of people paid to be in their lives. For people with a learning disability, fewer opportunities to grow their social circle can lead to isolation, which is detrimental to physical and mental health. In a 2017 survey by Sense, over half of disabled people reported feeling lonely, rising to over three quarters among those aged 18-34. The Office for National Statistics revealed in 2019 that the proportion of disabled people who reported feeling lonely “often or always” was four times that of people without a disability.


Loneliness is associated with a lower quality of life. Research by Campaign to End Loneliness found social isolation to be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and a study by the British Heart Foundation found it to be a bigger killer than obesity. As Darren outlines, “poor mental health can be far more of a problem than any learning impairment in terms of access and having a good life. It’s not just a nice-to-have, that in an ideal world people with a learning disability can go to gigs. These are crucial, fundamental human rights and well-being issues. If people are socially isolated, so many issues arise as a result. This whole [Gig Buddies] agenda is an integral part of a civilised society.”


To confront these barriers to participation and the prevailing loneliness that arises as an offshoot of them, Gig Buddies pairs people with and without a learning disability with similar cultural interests to attend events together and to be friends. Through this process, the social circles of both parties expand, increasing connections, boosting confidence, and empowering people with a learning disability to take more control over what they do in their leisure time. An evaluation of existing Gig Buddies projects revealed that 90 percent of participants felt less lonely; 86 percent see their buddy as a friend; 79 percent get out to more events, even without their buddy; 76 percent are more aware of how to spend their free time; and 78 percent made new friends in addition to their buddy.

Stay Up Late.

With the issues still firmly on Bristol’s doorstep, and with the compounding impact of successive Covid-19 related lockdowns, the project is more vital than ever if a 20-year reversal in accessibility for people with a learning disability is to be avoided, Darren tells me. In May 2021, Gig Buddies Bristol officially launched out of Exchange. “We’re in a unique position and it feels right doing it as a venue,” Iwan Best, Project Coordinator with Gig Buddies Bristol, says. “This is a big thing for us, we really do work hard on improving events here. Our goal as a venue isn’t to turn a profit, it’s to proliferate art and culture in Bristol and to make that accessible. If it’s not for everyone, it’s shit. It’s not punk.


“It’s staggering the amount of people who experience loneliness,” Iwan continues. “We’ve seen how excited the people we’ve been talking to are, chomping at the bit, upsettingly desperate for us to try and help them find friends. Them, their parents, and their social workers are just over the moon. This doesn’t exist for people usually.”


Wesley Belitz has a learning disability. Since moving to Kingsdown in 2018, he’s found it difficult to maintain relationships with people outside of his family and those paid to be in his life. “I haven’t got that many friends. It’s something I’ve struggled with for years,” he says. “I had a few friends in college but it wasn’t really like we could get to a point where we could meet outside of college. It’s really hard to find someone that doesn’t need anyone next to them to go somewhere.”


Research by disability support organisation Mencap (2019) suggests that one in three young people with a learning disability will spend less than one hour outside on a Saturday. This is often true for Wesley: “Most weekends I stay at home. It has been lonely. I guess I’ve got used to it now, basically half of my life was already like that. It’s nothing new.”


Wesley is no less keen to have the relationships neurotypical people find easier to form. When he moved to Bristol from Portsmouth, his sister was able to build up a social network. “She would go into Bristol and meet her friends and that’s what made me … not jealous, but she had someone to go out with for the whole day and to do stuff with and I was just stuck at home,” he recalls. “I would like to have a social life as well.” After his social worker tipped him off to Gig Buddies, he signed up over the summer.


The project encourages pairs to attend one event or gig per month. But even if you love music, it’s not all about gigs – being part of a social circle is much bigger. Meeting up and having a chat is just as valuable, and Gig Buddies encourages pairs to do so once a month and plan what they want to do. In October, the first batch of Gig Buddies Bristol volunteers were trained, and Wesley was matched with James Chambers. The two have been hanging out regularly, watching rugby, playing foosball, talking about Hip-Hop and the Top40, and planning to catch a Joel Corry gig. “Since I got James, it has helped that I can meet up with him. It’s really nice to do stuff together,” Wesley says.


James agrees. “I’ve found it brilliant meeting Wes. Every time we go out, we’re finding a little bit more in common. He’s got some good stories and it’s been refreshing. It’s nice to be able to get out and do things with someone who’s a bit different to what I’m used to.” James says the Gig Buddies team have offered training and support all along the way, making the process that bit more straightforward for both him and Wesley.  “Everyone’s been brilliant. I went into it feeling a bit apprehensive because I’ve never done anything like this before, but I left with a feeling of confidence.”

The Gig Buddies team at Glastonbury 2019.

Gig Buddies is volunteering made easy, turning an activity a neurotypical person already enjoys into an opportunity to make a difference in somebody else’s life. Usually, a new branch will target 30 pairs after three years. Many fledgling projects will have long waiting lists or will be at capacity without enough volunteers. Back in Old Market, Iwan says: “we’ve got the opposite problem because of IDLES.” Bristol’s launch has bucked this trend thanks largely to the band’s bassist and patron of the project, Adam ‘Dev’ Devonshire, who called in favours to help raise funds and spread the word of its launch. The response has been overwhelming, with over 200 people initially volunteering. Though a portion of this cohort are likely to drop off, it’s safe to say Gig Buddies Bristol is on the right track.


“Because it’s Bristol and it’s such a big cultural city, given what we’ve seen so far, we’d like to grow and take on more staff and continue to expand,” Iwan says. “In five years, to be offering jobs to people who are currently using the programme would be a dream. To get to the point where you don’t have a waiting list, where everyone who needs or wants someone gets a volunteer and the whole project is run by neurodivergent people … we’d have completed it then.”


For more information on Gig Buddies Bristol, or to find out how you can get involved with the organisation, head to their website or get in touch with the team via email.


Head to Issuu to read the full third issue of LOUD Bristol, featuring an array of interviews with renowned artists, venues, labels and more.

Article by:

George Boyle



George is a journalism graduate and writer passionate about music and culture. Get in touch via email at