Audiences regularly baffle me. Sometimes in terms of their composition, but more often in terms of their numbers. I rather suspect this is because I extrapolate from myself and, despite attempts to correct for my musical (and other cultural) tastes (broad though they may be), I am clearly not coming up with a decent model for the general public.
Most of this post will be about the Southampton scene, but I thought I’d start in the nation’s capital. On Saturday evening, I went to a folk gig in a London venue I assumed to be somewhat famous to see a pair of musicians I also assumed to be famous: I was anticipating a fairly packed 200 seater. I think I may have been confusing the concepts of “known to me” and “famous”. The music venue at The Harrison was a surprisingly small cellar with dangerously low ceilings (well for me, my mother would have had nothing to worry about). While the cellar became moderately busy by the end of the gig, I think I was in a very small minority having booked ahead and I suspect the only person to have travelled even a fraction of my 70 odd miles. It was a lovely gig and Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss (footwear sponsored by Adidas) do some amazing work with viola and melodeon (I am listening to Laguna as I write this post). Even better, the boys finished in time for me to catch the 22:35 train home (albeit with some fast footwork across the Waterloo concourse): an important aspect of any night out in London!
I have been to some stunning theatre in Southampton, often very highly reviewed by professional critics (rather than random, self-obsessed bloggers like me), but very rarely in a mid-sized theatre even as much as half full. This fact has proved quite handy for me as I can book very late once I know I will be at home, rather than over the Irish Sea, but can’t be ideal for the funding of the arts. I also feel that lots of the folk of Southampton and its environs are missing out on some reasonably priced treats: I can generally go to the theatre half-a-dozen times locally for less than the cost of one trip to the west end (and this is very much what I do: there’s nothing wrong with thrift!).
However, the main thrust of this post will be about music and my totally inability to guess how busy a gig will be. Part of this must be down to my rather sketchy musical knowledge: especially in regard to the popular music of my lifetimes. There would appear to be large number of touring bands of yesteryear that visit Southampton, perhaps with some changes from the original line-up, of which my memory can deliver no recollection whatsoever. I have, for instance, noticed that there were a lot more punk bands than I have any memory of and can also observe that the years have not treated the fans of these bands kindly.
I do have a feeling that a significant audience prefers to go (or only goes) to see musicians they fondly remember from a formative period of their youth. Luckily, I don’t do this – or I’d never go out. My youth seems to have been formative in non-standard ways, if at all… Recently, in an unexpected (and now forgotten) context, I heard a JFK quote about not looking to “the safe mediocrity of the past“. I’d been planning to use this in a savage indictment of the recent politics of both left and right – and perhaps typified by Brexit. However, I shall instead – and perhaps more in keeping with the character of this blog – apply the principle to being culturally adventurous, with particular application to music.
I do wonder if there may be a certain lack of courage when it come too programming music – though, there may be some financial wisdom to this cowardice as I suspect audience caution robs them of experiences they would love. Just this Sunday, I went to see the Armida Quartet playing at the Turner Sims. My reading of the audience – including a few I chatted to over cake at half-time – was that the most enjoyed piece was the least safe choice in the Bach, Mozart and Beethoven: the third string quartet ‘Jagdquartett’ by Jörg Widmann. It was the presence of this piece (well, that and the free half-time cake) that was my trigger to book the gig, but I suspect I was in a tiny minority (if not alone in this). I was not disappointed: great music and visually exciting to watch as well – particular snaps to the acting skills of the cellist!
However, sometimes I am positively surprised. Last Tuesday, I went to my Sofar gig – as part of Sofar Southampton. These were traditionally held in people’s homes, with the venue announced only 24 hours ahead of time. This has been an issue in the past, when I have been dependent on public transport or my bike. They also have tended to require booking ahead of time, which has also been an issue with my rather variable availability midweek. However, I now have a car and decided to take a punt. As well as not knowing the venue, the artists performing are not announced at all: you find out who they are when you arrive at the gig. So, no safety net: you are entirely relying on the skill and judgment of the local Sofar team (I will admit I do seem to know several of them). I always feel slightly ambivalent about music taking place in unusual places: it is always great fun to see new places (I’m as nosy as the next man – more, if you’ve seen my face), but I feel I should be supporting established venues which have a hard enough time financially without the nation’s reception rooms filching their raison d’être.
No cause for guilt last Tuesday as the ‘front room’ was upstairs at the Art House (a music venue I have often visited). However, they maintained the usual Sofar vibe by having much of the audience (including me) sitting on cushions on the floor: I’m too old for this, I have come to realise and next time I’ll sit on a chair with the old codgers. All four acts were great fun: Tom Pointer was originally from Southampton, Djuno are a local band and Ciircus Street had come from exotic Reading. I enjoyed all of these, in each case sat underneath the neck of some sort of guitar, and would certainly seek them out again. The headliner (or at least he was on last), Will Varley, claimed to have come all the way from Deal, however, post-gig conversation (as I was buying CDs) revealed he actually lives in Kingsdown (but he did have a range of Southampton gigging experiences, so I think we might still claim him as a son of the city). I spent chunks of my youth in Walmer (I lived there for four years, as a blonde! All natural! Where did it all go wrong?) and regularly walked over Kingsdown with my grandparents and their dog. Apparently, the area has changed somewhat and is now trendy and possessed of a vibrant music scene (in my day, I think the music scene was limited to the Royal Marines Band). I now have a hankering to return to the places of my youth, walk the cliffs and prom and take in some live music: might wait for the weather to warm up a little first… Nostalgia can be a cruel mistress!
Despite the uncertainty about location and musical fare, the gig was fully booked – and I believe this is not unusual. Clearly there is an audience in the Southampton area with a sense of adventure, but where – I found myself asking (as I didn’t recognise most of them) – are they the other 29(ish) days of the month? I’ve been to many gigs with three or four acts unknown (to me – and I suspect many others), often at lower cost than a Sofar gig, but been part of a sadly tiny throng: most of whom later turn out to be in (or related to) one of the bands on the bill. What is Sofar‘s secret and how can we spread it more widely around the local music scene?
Every time I go to update (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide (as I did this morning) I find yet more music and other cultural treats in and around Southampton. I think I might have to establish a new page to capture details of the potential audience so that we can (together) do suitable justice to our cultural riches! It’s either that or some experiments of very dubious ethical standing to clone myself – and nobody wants that!