In 2013, Southampton Joiners won NME’s Best Small Venue Award. With a maximum capacity of only 150 people, the Joiners Arms, owned by Patrick Muldowney, has played host to everyone from Friendly Fires to The Libertines and is almost unparalleled in its levels of success. However, nationwide recognition is something that most small live venues can only dream of when they’re struggling to make it through from one month to the next.
Last April, The Live Room opened in the large town of Taunton, Somerset. With no other live music venues to compete with, local radio stations, bands and music fans were excited at the prospect at having a place to congregate at last. Situated right in the high street, and booking up-and-coming bands along the lines of Manners, The Darlingtons and Missing Andy, the future looked bright. Unfortunately, its short lived success was not to last. After five months of trading, the club-come-gig venue unexpectedly shut down. As the sole live music venue in the town, there wasn’t any competition putting pressure on them, and dedicated Facebook followers seemed upset by the news. So why was The Live Room faced with closure?
The general consensus amongst locals showed there was a lack of support from residents, who’d rather spend the night in watching television or drinking down the pub, rather than discovering and encouraging the live music scene. Smaller venues depend on a following that will routinely check out new acts, or loyally return to the premises week after week. In towns that lack University age students, like Taunton, venues can quickly die as they struggle to find their feet. Over-eighteen door policies mean that teenagers are prohibited from entry, while adults working five day weeks are highly unlikely to venture out on a Wednesday evening to watch bands play until the early hours. Of course, lacking the funding to book big bands is the most obvious plight of the small venue; but in some areas devoid of a ‘scene’ it can even be hard to find any acts at all.
Then there’s the problem with promotion. Without money to pour into advertising, most small venues rely on posters or word of mouth. If it hadn’t been for overhearing conversations in college computer rooms, or walking past the venue itself every day and taking an interest, I’d never have given The Live Room a chance. Despite newspaper coverage and a prominent location, the venue failed to pervade the town’s psyche, with some online commenters revealing that they hadn’t realised that the venue was even open. In the end this poor promotion may have caused the closure of our only shot at building a music scene in our county town.
While some areas do little to encourage passionate music scenes, there does seem to be a correlation between successful small venues and university cities. With an influx of young adults pouring in every September, the small venues that provide consistent entertainment at low prices do exceptionally well. Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach and The Globe both do a roaring trade, and manage to book bigger names; while Bristol’s small venues seem to compete well against the Colston Hall and 02 Academy. When asked how they maintain their success, the Bristol Thekla’s management team stated that an ‘eclectic program’ of live music and club events on their converted cargo ship help them stand out from the crowd. Venues like The Fleece hold ‘local talent’ nights where unsigned acts from the surrounding county share the bill. This introduces new crowds to the venue, who may then consider returning for the larger acts later in the week. With an average entry costing considerably less than a cinema ticket, and the opportunity to drink, socialize and discover something new available in one location; it seems strange that we let these precious small venues go to waste.
Small venues can venture where large, soulless arenas cannot. They’re the place where all the bands you love once cut their teeth. A place where like minded individuals can gather, and a place beloved by the artists themselves. Glasgow’s King Tuts has developed a reputation for being one of the most welcoming locations for bands to play; and it is this sense of community that we cannot and should not take for granted. The future of live music depends on our enthusiasm.
Written by India Thomas