Well, it has been IV Week and according to a rather odd song while mares and does prefer oats, young sheep are gluttons for Genus Hedera. I have often worried about the accuracy of these lyrics, but in researching this post I have discovered that our ovine friends, of all ages, love to eat ivy. The internet is less unanimous on whether such consumption is wise.
However, while interesting the title and opening paragraph are merely be way of an amuse bouche to today’s more hearty fare. The IV refers to Independent Venue Week which comes to a close today. This describes itself as a celebration of small music venues – though does seem to have its focus away from classical and jazz music and more on the sort of fare which might feed BBC Radios 1, 2 and 6. This event recognises the importance of small venues as a critical launchpad for new talent and promises to bring small venues together with a range of people including bloggers and tastemakers – into which categories I like to imagine I fall (the former isn’t much of a stretch). Oddly, it fails to mention audiences – of which more later…
Southampton has four venues which were taking part in the scheme and so I decided to try and visit all of them during the week: I do like a pointless, self-imposed objective! In a fruitless attempt to avoid going on too much, I shall attempt to say a few words about each.
The Talking Heads is the venue I visit most often. This is partly because it is very closes, but also because it offers a range of regular events of interest including the Southampton Modern Jazz Club and the Maple Leaf Lounge Sessions which are well-curated and have introduced me to a huge range of new music. It also provides the widest range of musical genres of any venue I know, including classical and experimental music. This week I took in a couple of jazz gigs, a friend’s band and a particularly entertaining, and downright funny, Maple Leaf Lounge Session. I don’t think any of these gigs actually operated under the banner of IVW.
The Joiners is a venue I find myself growing increasingly positive about. I think it appeals to my feeling that a lot of proper culture should take place in slightly down-at-heel, cramped, dark, sweaty spaces. The addition of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale to its limited range of ales has not done it any harm either. Like so many venues, I think it struggles financially and had to launch an appeal to repair the structure of the building in 2017. This prompted me to visit more often and I have always had a good time. It holds the honour of hosting the most packed gig I have ever attended in Southampton, when This is the Kit visited in January. I’d only vaguely heard of the band, but it was a really excellent gig. This week I went to see the launch of Southampton Sampler Vol. 1, a curated vinyl album of some of the best local bands. This was a lot of fun, but I can’t help feeling could have been better publicised and – perhaps – organised. However, it did bring more significant media voices than mine to the city’s music scene which can only be a good thing.
The Brook is probably the venue I visit least often, partly because of its slightly remote location but mostly because it leans very heavily towards programming tribute bands. My musical taste tends not to be especially nostalgic and so I’ve only tended to go to gigs when new bands are playing. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful performance space in the city and I always enjoy going. This week, I went to see Police Dog Hogan – a band I’d never heard of – who play a rather English take on Americana, Bluegrass and folk. This was really enjoyable and I was glad my pointless project for the week had led me to attend.
The Alex is a pub and so a representative of a very important class of venues for music. I think that by far the largest volume of opportunities for musicians to perform in and around Southampton is in its pubs. I don’t know how many of these gigs are paid and the quality of the spaces and the audiences is very variable, but pubs must be the first chance to play in public for a significant majority of musicians. The Alex has the advantage that it has a raised area for musicians to perform and does have proper lighting and a sound system (though I suspect it a relatively basic one). It also does not require the audience to stand in what is basically a corridor connecting the pub to the toilets an/or smoking area. It is probably the closest venue to my flat and I made it to two IVW-branded gigs during the week: headlined by Tom Hingley of the Inspiral Carpets and by SK Shlomo. I had a vague recollection of the Inspiral Carpets, but no strong memories or feeling about the band, but really enjoyed Tom Hingley’s set. I saw Shlomo (before the SK – but what a fine set of initials to adorn any name!) in Edinburgh a few years back and have been hoping to see him again very since. His set at the Alex was less about building up the beatboxing and looping as it was at the Fringe and more pre-written songs but was an amazing musical and sonic experience in a pub a couple of minutes walk from home. It was like a bit of underground Berlin had moved in next door for the evening!
I had a lot of fun touring the IVW venues in the city over the week, but none of the gigs struck me as particularly well attended. The mid-week gigs might have had a few more people than usual, but there didn’t seem much of an attempt to bring new audiences to small venues. BBC 6 Music does talk about IVW during the week, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be any obvious additional marketing push. Nor did there seem to be any obvious attempt to stress that small venues are not just for the first week in February, but, like a dog, are for life.
This raises the broader issue of the marketing of gigs – an issue which probably applies more broadly to the arts. I follow a lot of local (and some less local) bands and venues on various social media platforms. I also actively search local venue websites and Facebook Events in an attempt to find out what is happening in and around the city to maintain my gig guide (which grew from a merely personal interest). I have even taken to visiting venues and scouring their walls for posters in the hope of finding clues about upcoming gigs. This is a very time consuming project as most venues and bands do not make it easy to find out what’s on: this is particularly true as each month comes to an end as a lot of venue websites are loath to show any gigs occurring in a future month (even if that is a mere 24 hours away!). Even if discover an event is happening, most venues give little or no detail about the band playing – so often I struggle to work out if a grouping of words is the name of the band, the name of its tour or genre (or is a band at all). This places a lot of the onus for going out on the audience to seek out events and then research the bands. I’m not sure that many people rely on the curatorial skills of the bookers at small venues or just take a punt on the “how bad can it be principle”, especially when it is so easy to slump at home in front of the TV and its alarmingly vast range of content.
Venues do carry out a degree of cross promotion and I do have a friend whose progress through the city I can trace by the presence of posters and brochures where he has been. Bands – particularly if they have some fame – may be able to attract their own audience. However, it strikes me that both of these approaches tend to draw from an existing pool of audience members or, especially in the case of newer bands, the friends and relatives of the band members. This thesis certainly has anecdotal support from my own experiences at gigs. This is exploiting a wasting asset unless the continuous generation of new bands can, like a Ponzi-scheme, bring enough new people to gigs to replace those lost. (Not) A Trusted Music Guide is my attempt to at least create awareness of the existence of gigs, even if I don’t have time (or the skill) to write a bio for every band playing. However, I don’t think this is a sustainable business model for the industry as I am probably a bit of an outlier audience-wise: in terms of my adventurous spirit, willingness to go out night-after-night and prepare listings for a wider public.
I must admit that I don’t have an answer to the issues raised in this blog and nor have I provided a number to call if you have been affected by any of them. Nevertheless, I fondly like to think that there must be better options than are currently being used. Maybe this needs greater co-operation between venues or with whatever remains of the cultural arms of local authorities, which may not be much after years of reducing the funding for soi-disant non-essential activities. Perhaps it needs targetted funding by Arts Council England or similar body – but I suspect it will need to cover more than one week per year. Or is it down to us as audience members to come together to physically drag people from their sofas to come out and have fun? I reckon every four audience members could between them frog-march a fifth to a venue and force them to have a good time. I’m hoping this would only need to be done a few times before they become a convert and start proselytising themselves. There may be minor legal issues with this approach, but there is a greater good involved! Perhaps Public Health England would be interested? Leaving the settee, walking to a venue and some bopping, moshing or grooving once there would all surely be some help to the beleaguered NHS – though the associated drinking might be a downside.
Talking of drinking, my liver may well be wilting under the consumption of beer purchased to maximise my support for venues, which obtain most of their revenue from bar sales. Given the high level of duty on beer, I do find myself wondering if this is the best drinking option from the venue’s perspective. Should I be switching to spirits, or does tea or a soft drink have greater margins? I, and my hard-worked liver, need answers! Sticking to session ales can only take a chap so far…
The word limit lies in tatters, but my chest feels a good deal lighter and this blog is written for my benefit not yours. Still, for those feeling in need of an insincere apology please feel free to infer one here.