It’s hard to constructively broach a solution to the woes of UK music venues without just visualising the words “NEED MORE CASH” in lights above a deteriorating old concert hall in a once successful part of town. A lack of funds is undoubtedly the main reason why 2014 was one of the worst years yet for the decline of live music spaces, but it was more complicated than that.
Madame Jojos finally had its licence revoked after what has clearly been a period during which Westminster council were simply waiting for them to slip up, so the gentrification of Soho could continue without those pesky drag queens and music buffs tarnishing its fusion cuisine and cocktail bar bookshop potential. Up and down the country, venues like The Cockpit in Leeds, The Peel in Kingston, Blind Tiger in Brighton and numerous in London (Buffalo Bar, Vibe Bar, The Joiners Arms etc), all walked to the same dusty fate in 2015, as a smorgasbord of housing plans, noise complaints and licensing laws scourged the UK’s most beloved music hangouts. And, after a handful of drug-related deaths, London police have made attending Fabric these days a bit like wandering into JFK the day after 9/11.
All of these venues closed or agreed to stricter licensing agreements amid “public outcry”, but how we righteously react to our local venues closing on the internet, and how we support them in real life barely ever correlate. That’s why you get 16,000 signatures on a petition for a venue that on most nights barely got 100 through the door.
Fact is, if more of us went to venues and clubs then less of them would be closing. But what is stopping average music fans from chucking €12 here and there on local gigs again instead of grandiose fromage shops, thousand pound Walkmans and woodpigeon pies?
Huge changes to what constitutes business within the centre of a city is definitely contributing to this love loss. As nearly all the major UK cities enter the most spotty and horny stage of their gentrifying gastropubescence, regional music culture is forced even further to the fringes. This is a time when power has now shifted to the new build residents, so that just one noise complaint can bring an institution to its knees. And with channels like Boiler Room thriving on a global scale, plus Just Jam and others on a local scale, often you can stream that live experience without even leaving the cosy warmth of your personal smut chamber.
But struggling venues can't purely blame extraneous circumstances for their downturn. The reality is, excluding a select few gems, a lot of venues have just stopped actually bothering, doing the basics that made them impressionable havens for fertile minds, their passion probably mutilated by the hand-to-mouth nature of trying to run themselves anywhere but into the ground. And a constructive conversation needs to be had between the music fan who’s attending less and less gigs and the music venue that desperately needs their faith and support.
So how can venues change for the better in 2015? I might as well start where the night itself begins: at the door, with the bouncer. If you own a venue and work with your team on a daily basis, and even you think your bouncer is a bit of a prick, then he definitely, definitely is. If he holds up the door under the facade of capacity management, when he’s actually just routinely trying his lines out on every female in the queue, then sack ‘em. If the nights he’s in a bad mood curiously align with an upsurge in people getting thrown out, sack ‘em. There are bouncers out there who are absolutely lovely people. Find one. A nice doorman/doorwoman, who emotionally invests in what your venue is all about, can be like a hench maitre d; someone who’s welcoming aura can set the tone, instead of ordering around your customers like anxious little Bambi's using an iron fist rule of spewing aggression and unsettling suspicion.
Then there is the sound. I know my local boozer isn’t going to have four Klipschorn loudspeakers and a platinum-plated amplifier, but even the massive venues, where you’re expected to sacrifice character and the concept of drinking from a glass, in order to see bigger bands, are some of the worst offenders. Some of the biggest and most ‘prestigious’ venues in London are responsible for the city’s most abominable live sound offerings. And when I say London, that includes the laptop I’m writing this on, and your mum’s Alcatel phone - it’s like the bands are miming to the sound of their songs being streamed from Grooveshark.
Shit sound in venues big and small doesn’t just make customers depressed, it makes the band look depressed too; the lead singer casting a look of abject deflation as every heartfelt lyric they have ever written is diluted into a cacophony of absolute nothingness. You don’t need to look too far past the existence of the Pono and the resurgence of vinyl to find a rising zeitgeist of consumers with an acute fetish for hearing things as good as possible, and if you run a music venue, then how the music actually sounds should be one your most lethal chat up lines.
But finally - and maybe this is the most quixotic and naive thing to ask for out of the lot - it would be great if more music venues resorted back to having a consistent identity, especially when programming and taking on club nights. Too many venues farm out their calendar, and therefore their identity, to chance commercial bookings and various, random promoters who bring a disharmonious range of gigs that make for an events calendar with no real thread running through it at all. A hands on level of in-house taste control has become a rare treat rather than an expectation at venues, eliminating the days when you could hit your favourite digs on a spare night safe in the knowledge that if they’re putting it on, it must be decent. If one Saturday you have Frank Ocean, and the next you have your very talented glass collector spinning soul classics, that’s cool, as long as it makes sense. But if it goes from a Bo Ningen gig to a Wembley pre-party Ed Sheeran acoustic set, then clearly you are forsaken.
The closure of London’s Plastic People venue contained many answers as to what music spaces can do to change in 2015. This wasn’t a venue closed because of the various government implementations that are turning London into a moulding donut city with an absent oligarch filling. It was closed down because the venue manager, who had been brought in by the club’s founders over a decade ago, was deciding to move on. “She ran it the way she wanted to run it,” founder Ade Fakile told the Guardian, “and it was brilliant. It’s closing because she’s leaving – rather than anything to do with licensing, or rent.” The founders couldn’t ensure maintaining the same enduring quality that had come to define the place - they concluded that if it couldn’t be perfect, it shouldn’t continue.
As a result, instead of the closure of Plastic People being greeted by a deafening chorus of e-petitions, lengthy rants about gentrification, vows to never drink at a Slug & Lettuce again, and weekend warrior finger wagging at local councils, it bowed out to the sound of utter adulation, as almost everyone who’s ever attended found some way to express their gratitude through articles, digital love letters and pill-fuelled poetry. This was a club that took careful consideration with the programming, had the best possible sound system, groomed a particular identity and tone, and was packed, right until the end.
There is a fight going on for the soul of live music culture in 2015. Venues need more cash, yes, they need a fairer deal from the government, yes, but they also need to start engaging and nurturing a proper loyal and regular crowd. I’m not an skipping idealist. I know the reason most music venues pour warm cans into plastic glasses, sacrifice on sound, don’t clean the shitters, accept any clubnight on a Monday, and have Motorola banners hanging behind the stage is because a lot of them just can’t financially afford conscientious, long term thinking anymore. Yet they might find that restoring some of these welcoming core values to the heart of a music space might be what ultimately keeps the doors swinging.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @cide_benengeli