“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
— Bobby Robson, former England and Barcelona manager, speaking of his hometown football club, Newcastle United
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
In the past few years some of my favourite music venues have closed down, or been threatened with closure: The Annandale, in Sydney; the Point, in Cardiff1; Le Pub, in Newport; Buffalo Bar, in London; the Luminaire, also in London (well, Kilburn). If you care to think about it for a second, you’ll have a list, too: TJ’s in Newport; Palais Theatre, Melbourne; The Night and Day in Manchester; The Fleece, Bristol; Death by Audio and Glasslands in New York. And on. And on. Why? Noise complaints, the greed of landlords, gentrification. Really? Yes. But also: indifference. A disregard for the eco-system of band and show-going kind. A sick obeisance to the wonky logic of market forces which says yes, you’re making money (and all of those venues I’ve listed are or did, to the best of my knowledge), but you should make more, whatever the cost to your eternal soul and however short-term the benefits.
Horseshit, I say. Hell, I’ll shout it. Independent Venue Week is running in the UK in January 2015 for the second time. In general, it’s a pretty good thing except I’m not so sure that this passage from their mission statement, “These venues give artists their first experience of playing live in front of an audience and for fans, somewhere to get up close to artists that one day may well be playing stadiums and festival main stages,” is all that helpful, seeing as it seems to validate art principally in terms of wider commercial success. With all due respect (which is to say, a little) stadiums and festival main stages can, with some notable exceptions, wank themselves off into the middle distance on a pastry piss prick. So to speak. Or type. I forget. Anyway, who cares about light shows? Huh. Go to Disney if you like pretty lights and close-ups of a bored old man/cartoon dog with jowls. It’s got rides, parades and better toilet facilities. Just saying. Just knowing.
“Let’s talk about small, independent music venues,” he says, pulling up a chair. Straight away you know he’s going to sit on it backwards. Totally radical. Attentive. Real. No pretensions. Except — dull. Worthy. I get it. I mean, small? Tiny. Insignificant. Independent? Difficult. No friends. Sounds like hard work. Tough work. You blink. You sigh.
“Nah,” you say, fidgeting in your bindings, the rope pushing uncomfortably against your chin, “Let’s change the subject. I hear, for example, that Billy Corgan has sponsored a space shuttle, Dave Grohl has made a documentary about lions who play the harp (badly, but still, they play the harp) and Nicky Minaj is now awake and has been moved from her long-term parking spot in North Philadelphia.”
That’s the music business right there. It’s entertainment. Fun. Wild. Grand. Wide-screen. Colour it into the fabric of your dreams. Place it onto the pages of a magazine, a dead, shiny one with no words to speak of, where the songs will decay even quicker than the faces.2
Except… “Let’s talk about small music venues,” he says, this time emphasising every word. He looks concerned. Concerned for you. He just wants to help.
“Are you trying to be the Fonz?” you ask, since he looks like such an anachronism.
“What is Fonz?” he asks. You explain. He shakes his head. “No,” he says, “I am not trying to be Fonz.”
“The Fonz,” you say.
“The Fonz,” he agrees.
“OK,” you say, “I admit it, I do go to small venues.” You are trying now, eager to free yourself from both your physical restraints and the conversation. “I play in a small band that plays small songs to small crowds. The toilets are so small, sometimes I nearly miss. One day, though, I won’t play those small venues anymore — I’ll leave them behind and effectively, to my mind at least, they’ll cease to exist. They’re stepping stones, y’see, part of my journey. One day I’ll look back and…”
“Laugh?” he says. “You’ll laugh?”
“Yes,” you say. “I’ll laugh.” You’re not yet old enough to feel ashamed properly, so you just think about money. Good old blood-soaked money. The motor of enterprise. The yawn at the end of creativity.
He stares at you. “I don’t have to say anything,” he says, “because I don’t exist. This is all about you. YOU.” (You’re so tired, so bewildered now, that you can hear in block capitals. But can you hear in italics? No. No. You cannot tell the difference. Which is fine. You just need to speak. To seek.)
“I remember walking into band rooms as a kid,” you say, your voice leaping upwards in pitch, “carrying my gear up treacherous stairways in the pouring rain3 or through what seemed to be rabbit-holes to tiny little shit-pits4 which sat above pubs and homes and other, more significant venues like apologies, like afterthoughts. I remember staring at the headline bands, and the touring bands, and the American bands5 and thinking, shit, is this all you have? This? All you’ve worked for is this small space, this compressed reality of mediocre stages and cloak roams and PA?”
“You did?” he says, a kind smile spreading across his lips. “Why?”
“Because it was all about me,” you say. “Because I was taught by brutal experience that community makes for bad rock music, complacent rock music, that playing for friends, those supportive fucking amazing dolts, was the absolute worst thing that you could ever do for your art6. I still believe that, incidentally7. I believe that the best rock & roll bands come from the ignored, from the lonely, from the imperfect. They shuffle onto the stage like they don’t belong there at all and leave it owning the audience’s thoughts and infecting their dreams. They give them something to believe in — and I don’t mean cheekbones. Anyone can have cheekbones. That’s just genetics.”
“Your point?” he says, even though he knows where you’re going. He’s you, after all, if he exists at all.
“Well, I forgot,” you say. “I conflated, I confused. A community is just people, after all. Venues are just people, with buildings as their proxy. They stink or shine in line with the staff and promoters and audiences who make their way to their darkened doorways, and without those souls to give them purpose they would simply cease to exist8. But — and this is crucial to me — without these places, without the people who inhabit them, there is no art in the relative business of music, no fun, no heart, only the cynical march of market forces, of the drinks promotions and sponsored tour buses and venue staff who treat bands with a level of respect commensurate with the number of tickets they’ve sold, rather than as fellow human beings who just want to get through the day with as much joy and as little injury as possible.9”
“But… there are crappy independent venues,” he says. “I’ve been to them, even if I was only your conscience at the time. Uncared-for rooms patronised and patronised by their staff, bitter little sound-goblins10 and bar staff alike11.”
You nod. “Yes,” you say, “but in my experience that’s the exception rather than the rule. There are unhappy people everywhere and part of your waking brief should be to attempt to make them somewhat less unhappy, somehow, unless they give you explicit cause not to. Besides, those people are at least independently twattish, unlike some of the staff of chain venues, who are usually nice enough but are often pounded into an uncooperative paste by the institutions who frown down upon their bank accounts.”
“Deep,” he says. “D-e-e-e-e-e-e-p.” He stands up, as if to leave. Your chest tightens. “And to think, your 19-year-old self would have found this boring, an irrelevance,” he says. He pulls on his jacket, adjusts his collar and moves towards the door, opening it with the casual air of a man who has gone to the kitchen for a spare lightbulb. He turns to face you. “So,” he says, “apart from your pretentious grandstanding, what exactly are you going to do about this?” He raises an eyebrow. He is interested in your answer.
2. Not that anyone buys music magazines anymore. I don’t, even when I’m in them, which is, at current count, about twice a year.
3. Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach
4. Highbury Garage, London
5. This is a type of band where you’re nobody from Nowhere Town, Great Britain. It has a certain cachet of glamour until, suddenly, it doesn’t anymore.
6. The term “art” is used advisedly, as ever.
7. Although I appreciate that isn’t everyone’s experience. I only speak what I see, master.
8. Except for property-tax purposes.
9. In the UK, that would be Academy Venues… and lots of other fucking places.
10. I was once told by a sound man in Sacramento that he couldn’t soundcheck my guitar until I played a C chord. True story. I wish it wasn’t.
11. “Why do I always get these shit gigs where all the band members are CUNTS?” said a barmaid to her colleague as I left a venue to get some food last month. (I won’t say which one because, other than that, and the fact they attempted to charge us £20 against costs for towels, it was actually pretty good.) We hadn’t been introduced, to the best of my knowledge.