I have probably spent more of my life in small music venues that is seriously healthy or sensible (writes Andy Wood).
I’ve been to tiny little venues, from a converted public toilet in Whitechapel, to pub basements across the country. I’ve been to plenty of shows in bigger venues as well, from the Barrowlands to standing in tents or fields at Reading and T in the Park and enjoyed myself immensely but somehow the intimacy and closeness of small venues captivates me and makes a gig feel all the more intense and enjoyable.
As in teenager in the second half of the eighties, I was intensely absorbed and captivated by music but I wanted to do more than just consume it. Gigs when they came around were in venues that were strictly over 18 and, for a long time, I looked nothing like 18.
It wasn’t until just after my seventeenth birthday that, armed with an older friend’s birth certificate (I could even recall his mum’s maiden name – still can in fact) to my first club show at Fat Sams, which, in those days hosted touring bands on a Sunday as part of Dance Factory, from which DF Concerts would emerge on the other side of the country.
I went to see Primal Scream, at that time pretty much one of my favourite bands. My close study of the borrowed birth certificate paid off, and I made it in past the scrutiny of the bouncers. None of my friends got in but I went in all the same. Having missed so many of my favourite bands in recent years – The Go-Betweens, The June Brides and The Wedding Present to name but three – I was not missing this show for anything.
Despite occasional tinges of guilt at abandoning, perhaps even pretending I did not know my friends who had been turned away, I had a brilliant night. The band were great, unlike the bigger gigs I’d been to I could stand so close that I could have reached out and touched the band. Afterwards I managed to make my way into the band’s dressing room and interviewed them for my occasional fanzine. Try doing that in a big venue without advance notice.
I was inspired by reading other fanzines to start putting on bands in Dundee. There was a healthy independent music scene and some great bands that weren’t big enough to get a booking at Fat Sams or the University. I read about small gigs in Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester and many other places and thought ‘I could do that’.
I’d been loosely involved in putting on a show in a community hall, the Greylodge Settlement but had not had a great deal of involvement in the local music scene other than as a fan and band member. I’d also been to see several gigs at the Riverside Inn which were run by members of This Poison! under the name, The Strasbourg Club. I later Dj’ed at another night there and these both helped hook me in further to the idea of promoting.
First up was to find a sympathetic venue. That in itself proved difficult but I was able to book the function room in a pub called Silks where I’d drank as an underage imbiber, through the auspices of my friend Paul’s work colleague’s sister who worked there.
Bands were booked, posters and flyers designed with Letraset and glue and photocopied and stuck up all over town. A P.A. was borrowed, someone roped into doing the door and it all went ahead. It was a roaring success, for me anyway. A good sized, enthusiastic crowd came along, the bands were great and it all went reasonably smoothly. The Punk / DIY attitude of anyone can do something was in full effect.
There was a glitch though. The pub staff weren’t so keen on the noise, didn’t like some of the crowd and generally gave off a bit of negative vibe. However, the bar had been busy all night, no damage was done and the audience, while rowdy, were largely good natured.
I went back a few days later to confirm my second show and was told it wasn’t going to happen. Not in Silks. I was pretty screwed and ended up putting on a bill of The Sea Urchins, The Orchids and Remember Fun in a pub function room really far out of the town centre at very short notice on a Sunday evening. Nine people paid to get in that night. Not so easy after all.
For a while it looked like I was never going to find a receptive venue. Then I came across Heavens Above, in the basement of a pub in a former church, Angels.
I booked a series of shows, got the scissors, glue and Letraset back out and printed the posters up at work. A couple of days before the first show we got a call from a member of staff. There had been a cock-up. We had been double-booked with a Heavy Metal disco. They were regulars, we weren’t. We had to make way.
I don’t know what possessed me but my co-promoter Steve and I marched down to the venue, spoke to the manager then advised him we had to take advice because, as far as I was concerned, we had contract which ought to be honoured. We left the venue, wandered around the town for an hour, had a coffee, then marched back into the venue and advised the manager we had been to see a Solicitor who advised that we did indeed have a contract, a very valid one and that we could sue for breach of contract. All absolute bullshit.
The manager offered a compromise. We could put on the show upstairs in Angels, it would have to be free as he was not keen to turn away regulars on a busy night so therefore the venue would pay our costs and cover the bands’ agreed fees while, downstairs, the air guitar soloing could carry on as normal.
The show went ahead. We cleared out most of the regulars or left them complaining to the bar staff about the indignity of having to suffer this racket and the bunch of scruffy indie kids who had turned up at their watering hole. It was an uncomfortable night again and although the show went ahead and the bands got paid the future nights were pulled and I didn’t dare pull my ‘we’ll sue you’ schtick again.
And that was that for a bit until I ended up at the first great local venue in Dundee, or at least the first that I’d stumbled upon, I’m aware that fans of the long defunct Tayside Bar might argue otherwise, The Westport Bar.
I can’t fully recall how it happened but I knew Nick Wright via a regular night he did in a pub called The Royal Oak where I played as part of an improvised band featuring other local band members. It was a shambles but I continued to attend the nights and enjoyed the rough format that could be, at times, tantamount to an open-mic session.
Nick and Gus Robb took over the Westport Bar and somehow I had an opening and was allowed to promote shows there. They were both really supportive and helpful and I learnt a lot, and out of that grew The Cool Cat Club. I regularly put on shows there and also went to shows there and it was a great experience.
Times change and when the Westport Bar was taken over by new management it went through a period of not booking original bands, installed a jukebox in the main bar downstairs and generally lost its attraction. For a good time though it was the place to go for a lot of musicians and music fans.
However, by the mid-nineties other venues had arisen and, for three nights I put on bands around 1992 in Bar Chevrolet. It was more expensive though to hire and I couldn’t ever quite break even though the shows were really good.
The Westport Bar picked up again and Lucifers Mill came along and Dexters put on bands then The Doghouse appeared so it was a good time for shows but, apart from occasional shows, often organised with my band at the time, I dropped out of promoting. In some ways I felt that my original idea for good, small venues had come to fruition and that there was a healthy scene for others to develop in their own ways.
The bug hit me again around 2008 or 2009 but the first show I did with Mike at Manic Pop Thrills was a disaster and I felt as though I was back at square one dealing with a seriously unhelpful venue. Then we had a run of good shows at Dexter’s before moving over to Beat Generator Live!
Since 2011 I have put on around fifty shows, mainly there but also in 13th Note, Sneaky Pete’s, Non-Zero’s and Drouthy’s. I feel at home at Beat Generator Live, I feel the level of autonomy and support that I did all those years ago at The Westport Bar and I love putting on shows. I hope I have taken the best aspects of the best promoters and small venues that I have promoted, played and watched gigs in and made something special.
I passionately believe that small venues are the lifeblood of the music world. Some of the bands I have put on went on to bigger and better things, some are just footnotes in the history of music but, for me, they were all important. I hope that I have helped in some small way to nurture bands and provide a good space for them to play and also given audiences some good memories.
So many of the venues I loved are no longer around. For various reasons they have changed into something else, moved or simply disappeared. The original Westport Bar was demolished to build a Casino, Angels has changed its name many times and is now currently Bar 15. Dexter’s then Non Zeroes languishes empty awaiting a future property boom so the planning permission can be used to make luxury flats.
The Dundee music scene has changed so much over the decades, there are so many good shows on throughout the year at different venues but, like in most towns and cities, it is forever fluctuating and changing.
Across the U.K. small live music venues are under threat from a variety of things, including property developers, changing demographics, economic pressures and the redevelopment of city centres into places for expensive urban living. Visiting London last year it wasn’t hard to see how many venues were now gone, replaced by residential flats and pushed out to the edges.
I worry that Dundee might go the same way in a smaller way as the small-time dreamers and schemers are pushed out by increases in rent and business rates, changes to licensing laws and the push to make the Waterfront development the only game in town.
I strongly believe, and research backs this up, that good, small venues are the lifeblood of a large sector of the creative industries. It’s where new bands learn to perform and develop their own style or where people are able to meet like-minded souls and put their own band together. Some of them may go on to learn skills and find a talent for other things or even go on to have a career of their own in music.
And while huge festivals and big ticket gigs are good for the local economy so are smaller shows in local venues. From my own experience, bands and their crews often stay in local hotels as do some audience members. They also spend money locally on food and drink, visit local shops and spend money and local bands rehearse and record locally spending money in small businesses such as studios and music shops. I can’t put a figure on it, but spread over a hundred or more shows across a city it isn’t chump change.
Other than fees for out of town bands, most of the money I spend on each show is spent locally, from printing posters, flyers and tickets to riders, wages and equipment hire and I’m sure other promoters would testify to this. And it spreads outwards. A local band makes some money doing a show locally, spends the money on hiring a van to travel to another town to do a gig or on rehearsals or recording.
The beauty of this is that everyone gains from good, small venues whether that be as part of a learning or development curve – I love giving young bands early shows and supporting them then watching as they move onto bigger and better things – or financially.
It isn’t always easy though as most promoters and venue owners would soon attest to and support is important. Get out to local shows, buy some merchandise if you enjoy the band and form your own band, write a blog or fanzine, document the scene or promote your own shows if you feel you want to.
Local Councils could also do more to support small independent venues as well. They may not be as obviously high profile or have as huge an impact on the local economy but creatively and financially they do have a huge role to play.
The music industry could also play a bigger role. Agents and bands often overlook provincial cities despite venues and promoters much-needed support when they were finding their sound, feet and audiences so don’t miss them out when you have ‘made-it’. Without those people you might never have got to wherever it was you were heading to in the first place.
This year I will be taking part in Independent Venue Week, an annual event that shines the spotlight on the grassroots scene and small venues. The aim of the event which takes in gigs across the country is to highlight the way ‘these venues are the backbone of the live music scene in this country and Independent Venue Week wants to recognise all that they have done to create some of the most memorable nights of the past so they can continue to do the same in the future.’
At Beat Generator Live! On Friday 27th January The Membranes play supported by local act STOOR. The Membranes’ John Robb has long been a stalwart of the independent music scene, both as a musician and writer, releasing records as The Membranes and Gold Blade and publishing books and magazines including Louder Than War.
STOOR originally released their debut album themselves but were put in contact with Stereogram Records through The Cool Cat Club and the Manic Pop Thrills blog and the album was given a full re-release with a second album due to follow this year.
The next night will see The Primevals return to Dundee ahead of the release of their forthcoming album, Dislocation, with support coming from local bands Benedictus and Thee Rag N Bone Man.
You can find more information about both shows at https://www.facebook.com/events/1032973266823810/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1181845631892630/. For more details about Independent Venue Week check out http://www.independentvenueweek.com/.