"Under New Management": The plight of Britain's small venues

This feature comes to you from Birmingham, the city that never sweeps. It’s a city with a rich cultural heritage, and which recently had a short-lived burst of hype as the NME declared that there was a scene called “B-Town” happening. Despite all this, in post-B-town, post-credit-crunch Birmingham, there are hordes of closed-down gig venues, pubs, and clubs, soon to be turned into Poundlands.

 Rory Welbrock of Worm at the Inkwell, York. Photo: Roosa Päivänsalo

Rory Welbrock of Worm at the Inkwell, York. Photo: Roosa Päivänsalo

This is a phenomenon not limited to Birmingham; all across the country, artistically vibrant venues are constantly going bust. This is something everyone will have witnessed with their favourite venues, but The End and The Adam & Eve are the most notable examples in Birmingham. If not converted into budget supermarkets they usually end up being constantly revived and closed down on a loop, like zombies that refuse to die. Though unlike traditional zombies, these are zombies that can sometimes manage to stay alive by turning into gastro-zombies, charging ten quid for a lukewarm microwave pie and slapping the word “craft” on all the beer taps.

It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and ask why the closing down of tiny, cramped venues is a bad thing. You may even point out that The Adam & Eve closed down not due to an economically difficult artistic climate, but a stabbing. Be that as it may, in a world where people refuse to pay mere pennies to listen to music but will spend a fiver on a flaccid sandwich at Subway on a whim, live gigging has become a lifeline for artists of all sizes.

Even for the most casual music fan who only listens to the biggest names, the question remains: if there are no small venues for small artists, where do you expect the big artists to start out? I’m sure it would have been more efficient if Ed Sheeran had emerged straight from the womb with a loop pedal and a large marketing budget, but that’s obviously not how music works. And think of his poor mother, you monsters. All artists have to pay their dues, playing tiny gigs in front of miniscule crowds for little money. One of the greatest thrills an audience can have is unwittingly seeing a band who are clearly destined for bigger things, and the greatest sign of a great band is that they can play an empty room and make it feel full.

A good capitalist would explain that better venues naturally attract the audience and profit they deserve, whereas worse venues will make less profit and therefore go bust, as they deserve to. But whatever your own political inclinations, one thing can be agreed on: a good capitalist has crap music taste. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to insist we all call each other Comrade and replace the current system with a massive potato-farming commune, but anyone into their music knows that popularity does not always correlate with quality. And just look at George Osbourne. He probably likes Dire Straits.

So how do we address the imbalance of which venues get to live and die? Firstly, as audience members, we could all afford to be a bit more adventurous. We all have our mundane routines, weekly habits, custody agreements etc., but why do we find ourselves going out to the same places week in, week out? If you live somewhere very rural and your only nightlife choices are a single pub and a can-covered bench, you’re perhaps off the hook. We city dwellers, on the other hand, could make an effort to not only support venues we know and love but also try out places we’ve never even heard of. Obviously check whether people tend to get stabbed there first, but otherwise a bit of trepidation never harmed anyone.

 The Nook in York. Photo: Roosa Päivänsalo

The Nook in York. Photo: Roosa Päivänsalo

Secondly, artists who are lucky enough to taste a bit of popularity would do well to spread it around a bit. An intimate show might seem small-time and awkward to a band, but to a fan it can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and to a venue it can be a vital financial boost. Artists could also take more advantage of the much-maligned open mic nights. Although these can sometimes be an exercise in how many boring blokes in a row can mangle Budapest by George Ezra, they are often a treasure trove of spontaneous entertainment, a good way of making links with other musicians, and quite profitable for a pub.

Despite all this, it doesn’t matter how much of our hard-earned disposable income we pump into arty places or how many times we sit through acoustic guitar blokes trying to remember the words to Wonderwall if small venues don’t follow this simple piece of advice: be less shit. Read that again. It doesn’t say “be less small”. Or less rough, or weird, or arty, or hipster. Just less shit. For one thing, if you’re going to put on a gig, make it sound nice. Too many venues put too little money into their PA and sound equipment. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got Blur playing to a full room; if you’re putting them through some tinny budget speakers, it will sound just as bad as the middle-aged cover bands you usually book. Small venues could also make an effort to be more enthusiastic about the whole “being a venue” thing. With just a little bit of decoration, creativity and thoughtfulness, you might be able to neutralise the bar staff scowling from the back and checking their phones. Between this - and being a bit savvier on the bar prices - there is no reason why an interesting venue cannot survive.

I’d hate for this feature to conclude that the Good Capitalist we met earlier was right, because he isn’t necessarily (see aforementioned point about Dire Straits), but it’s clear that everyone - artists, audience and venue owners - could afford to put more effort in. In post-credit-crunch, post-coalition Britain, the arts isn’t going to be given any more money any time soon. In post-Subway, pre-potato commune Britain, the arts must help itself.