No quid, no quo
February 22, 2013 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Can the UK's 'toilet circuit' of small music venues survive? From Coldplay to PJ Harvey, a lot of big British rock acts started out playing tiny pubs and clubs around the UK. But with many of these venues closing, who will keep the rock'n'roll dream alive?

As in London, Southampton now sees regular free gigs in standard-issue bars and pubs that are financed by sales of drinks, something made easier by a recent legislative change that got rid of any need for an official music license for venues that hold up to 200 people. For the Joiners, that kind of event is pretty much impossible: it has an over-14 license for its music room (an integral part, says Muldowney, of its ethos), and a much more thrifty culture. "The difference between us and a pub is that 50% of our crowd won't buy a drink all evening," he says; the Joiners' head band booker, Ricky Bates, also points out that whereas lesser venues will offer little better than a "karaoke PA", the Joiners prides itself on an estimable sound system, but it needs a paid engineer to work it.
posted by ersatz (24 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
who will keep the rock'n'roll dream alive?

You Tube
posted by Billiken at 11:22 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

... so, no more "toilet circuit", no more PJ Harvey and Coldplay? This is a deal I could make.
posted by docgonzo at 11:34 AM on February 22, 2013

YouTube is a poor substitute for playing live in a small venue, for both the band and the audience. Bands need to get out and play in front of live people or they'll never turn into something that can fill large venues.

Apropos: Ghost Town.
posted by tommasz at 11:39 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my life, I've gone from Chicago to DC to London. I've felt lucky to have grown up in the Cabaret Metro, the Vic, the Riviera, the Double Door, the OLD 9:30 Club, the Black Cat. If intimate live music is going to die, at least I knew it at its best.

Still, I can't see it happening in Chicago completely, that place loves its gigs.

And now that I'm here in London, I'm old and have kids.....but we have some hanging on by strings.
posted by C.A.S. at 11:49 AM on February 22, 2013

... so, no more "toilet circuit", no more PJ Harvey and Coldplay? This is a deal I could make.

And Radiohead, Blur, Manic Street Preachers, Muse, Florence and the Machine, the Killers etc. It's not about liking a particular band, but dedicated spaces for any small-time band.
posted by ersatz at 11:51 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Commenting on the live music scene in the USA won't derail this thread, I hope. That was a very interesting read. The US is a big place, so I suppose only venues in L.A. and N.Y.C. could boast such an array of place where "big" bands started playing live. There are so many cities with excellent musicians playing what few venues are left for what is now very little money in so many cities in "flyover country." No record label scouts on the bar stools there.

Back when the musicians' union was strong, I made something of a living playing in a cover band in the heart of Nowheresville in the Midwest. That doesn't happen much now.

Later, in larger cities, I could always find a job at a restaurant with a piano. Those pianos are gone now. (Except, I should note, at the Mercury Cafe in Denver, which could be the only club in the country with three baby grands! One for the dining area, one for the Jungle Room for plays, poetry, and political meeting, and one upstairs for bigger acts or dance nights.)
posted by kozad at 11:57 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sure You Tube is a poor substitute, but if the cities dont support the live venues, that's where local bands will post performances.
posted by Billiken at 12:56 PM on February 22, 2013

It's the same pretty well everywhere (I live in New York City).

It's a confluence of a lot of things. Real estate has closed so many good clubs that were otherwise completely profitable - Zebulon, Tonic instantly springing to mind as exceptional, heartbreakingly good spaces that will have to live in our memories only.

You can't underestimate systematic police harassment in New York City at least - The Cooler, for example.

There's a minor but still significant point that amplifiers are just much better these days, so it's much easier to push a lot more bass frequencies and piss off your neighbors, and noise laws have become more and more stringent (big issue in Berlin).

But as important as any of these things is that band music has simply been outcompeted for the entertainment dollar. People have so much more to do with their time now than in, say, 1980 - at home there's the internet, video games, Netflix/Hulu. And even when you go out to a venue that features music, there are three broad choices these days - a DJ playing other people's music, one or two hip-hop artists with a mostly pre-recorded background, or a band of people playing musical instruments.

Band music has suffered in three ways: band music just one of three choices for "live" music; the multiple members of the band are generating the same revenue stream as a DJ or a rapper does; and there's a huge amount more schlep just getting the band there and on-stage and sounding good, both from the musicians and the venue (which probably doesn't have to hire a sound guy unless there's a band playing).

And as I keep mentioning here, the other revenue streams that used to go to instrumentalists have also vanished. No one wants to buy recordings, there's only a fraction of the session work there used to be, most movie sound tracks except at the top end are the product of the studio these days, there aren't any jobs in CD stores and fewer in music stores, and even the music teaching jobs have suffered with interactive DVDs as competition.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:06 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sure You Tube is a poor substitute, but if the cities dont support the live venues, that's where local bands will post performances.

Likening a YouTube posted concert to the experience of being there in the room, feeling the noise -- that's just not a trade-off I'd even begin to want to make. In effect, it would be the death of what I call rock'n'roll -- a form that gets by not on its notes, arrangements, even its actual sound. It's ultimately about a feel caused by volume and the collision of various suppressed humans letting go (both band and audience). Sure, having stuff on Youtube is great for reference (and memory) ... but it is so very very very far from the real thing.
posted by philip-random at 1:07 PM on February 22, 2013

These clubs have toilets? Luxury.
posted by thelonius at 1:21 PM on February 22, 2013

No, the clubs are the toilets. Literally, in the case of some that I've been to.
posted by Len at 1:23 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

so, no more "toilet circuit", no more PJ Harvey and Coldplay?

no more beatles, stones, almost every significant and insignificant british rock band of the last 50 years
posted by pyramid termite at 2:03 PM on February 22, 2013

Not to down play the regrettable loss of these venues but it seems that those huge bands are pretty well a thing of the past anyways. Not only is the entertainment dollar spread around a lot more but people aren't narrowly channelled by what gets radio play. Music is so cheap to produce and distribute that the market has fractured into thousands of pieces and it's unlikely to every put itself back together again in any meaningful way.
posted by Mitheral at 2:09 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

The music scene is ever-changing. I'm certainly not going to complain about the fact that the next Coldplay or Snow Patrol is strangled at birth (and we definitely don't need another Oasis), but on the other hand I am concerned that this could impede on the development of the next Radiohead or the next Muse.

If I'm in an optimistic mood though I think that a natural 'thinning out of the herd' is going to make all the real stars shine much more brighter.
posted by panboi at 3:30 PM on February 22, 2013

Interesting article, and I hate to argue with John Harris, but I'm not sure he really makes his case.

Yes, the Bull & Gate is closing. Yes, the Luminaire shut down (RIP). But there are new venues opening too. The centre of gravity in the London music scene has been moving away from North London towards East London for years. So no more Bull & Gate or Lumi, but instead we have Cargo (2000), The Macbeth, Zigfrid von Underbelly (2005?), Hoxton Sq Bar (2001), Sebright Arms (2011). Outside of East London there's Lexington (opened 2009 or so), The Windmill (2002), the Half Moon in Tulse Hill (2012), and on a larger scale places like Village Underground and Electric Brixton opening.

That's just places I've been to. There must be more that I don't know about. It's always sad to lose a beloved venue, but others seem to be appearing.
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:31 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know. I first thought how Manhattan and Boston also have increasingly nowhere for people to start out playing, and that long before that, the pub circuit in Australia where bands like Cold Chisel, INXS, and Midnight Oil cut their teeth also started disappearing.

Then I quickly imagined the Cavern Club, and how so many people watching the Beatles in first flight had to make do with peeing in the corner, and fainting from heat exhaustion. Not a pleasant thought.

Maybe there is a cyclical pattern to these things. People may rediscover or reinvent live performances, or the places where they can see them.

In the meantime, honestly, the actual, horrible toilets in so many of these toilet establishments long ago robbed much of the romance for me. I don't care how good your music is, if I feel like I have to choose between hovering over the toilet seat or exposing myself to the type of slime that killed people in John Scalzi's Old Man's War, I'm not going to have a good time at the gig.

While I believe many musicians need to perform live, this could be a quality over quantity opportunity for many of them. Maybe a coffeehouse performance and outdoor gigs at parks, with word of mouth created online, might be a measurably better experience for the band. Maybe what the band loses in having a venue, they can make up through their own ingenuity.

I haven't finished it yet, but Joe Oestreich's great book Hitless Wonder made me very relieved I didn't get too serious about playing music. It takes place during a tour of the Midwest, during which his band figures that they actually pay to do most of their gigs. At least now, the gigs they do play live can now be seen on YouTube - and more people can buy their music and find out about them. Not so easy in the past, if you lived in the wrong region or didn't have cool zines or C64 trading available to you.
posted by mitschlag at 3:32 PM on February 22, 2013

Infinite Jest: Interesting article, and I hate to argue with John Harris, but I'm not sure he really makes his case.

Well, I don't hate to argue with Harris, but I agree with you on the second part. I noticed he didn't mention Glasgow (or Scotland) at all. In the sub-300 capacity category, the old venerable warhorse King Tuts is still going strong, as are Stereo, Captain's Rest, Nice'n'Sleazy's, 13th Note, Stereo and a bunch of other soi-disant toilet circuit venues. Between that lot, I've seen everyone from The White Stripes & The Strokes to Merzbow, Super Furries, Atari Teenage Riot, Elbow, Royal Trux, Franz Ferdinand, Frightened Rabbit, Twilight Sad, Sons & Daughters, Arab Strap, The Pastels, and a whole festival's-worth of smaller bands over the past 20-ish years. And I know for a fact that a good few venues have opened in Glasgow since I moved away 2+ years ago. It's not a "London's fucked, but The Provinces Have It Even Worse" situation, much as he wants to paint it that way.
posted by Len at 4:07 PM on February 22, 2013

> those huge bands

You must have a strange definition of "huge" - most of the bands mentioned here are three- or four-piece.

Or do you mean "huge" as in "earning huge numbers of dollars"? Hmmm...

> it seems that those huge bands are pretty well a thing of the past anyways. Not only is the entertainment dollar spread around a lot more

I guess you do. Well, that's absolutely wrong. The entertainment dollar is spread around a lot less these days. Nearly all the actual revenue for real artists comes from endorsements or touring, nearly all the money in tours is Clear Channel venues or the equivalent, and nearly all of those are for huge bands.

As a small band, you have far more of an opportunity to be heard but much less of a chance to actually make even enough money to eke out a pathetic existence...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:31 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

This hits very close to home for me. Literally, as I live across from the Annandale Hotel, an iconic Sydney live music pub that's hosted everyone from the Vines to Foo Fighters to Dandy Warhols to Gaslight Anthem to The Bronx. It's going into receivership after a campaign to save it by having people buy bricks on it bought them a year. It's not the only venue closing either.

Pubs like the Annandale serve a variety of functions: they let smaller bands hone their chops in a live environment. They give up and coming international bands a place to play. They provide a focal point for the local music scene. Without small venues the live music scene withers and dies, and that's a bad thing for culture in general. British and Australian bands serve as ambassadors for their respective countries, spreading their culture, values, and language.

Maybe this should be a separate FPP, but today is SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) Day, when hundreds of venues across the country put on gigs to support our music scene.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:24 PM on February 22, 2013

I meant huge as in hugely popular and the while the music dollar may be more concentrated (I don't know if that's true or not but I'll concede it) of the overall entertainment budget a much smaller slice is going to music because of competition than when bands like the Stones and The Beatles were coming up. Just since the 80s we've seen video games, cable TV, home video (and now video on demand via netflix et al.); and the internet consume dollars that would have been going towards music. And like someone else mention up thread there has been a shift from small bands to DJs in a lot of venues.
posted by Mitheral at 6:39 PM on February 22, 2013

Want to save your fave small pub? Why not co-operatize, like hundreds of villages shops have done in UK. Could be an awesome movement merging music and local business crowds.
posted by chapps at 6:54 PM on February 22, 2013

Huh. Maybe it's the DC/Fugazi/Discord fanboi in me, but honestly, fuck small venues. Some of them are great, but many of them are just as shitty and exploitative as the big arenas. Hell, if you're playing a big arena chances are you're actually going to get paid.

Church basements, community centers, and your friend's garage or living room have fostered some of the greatest music ever. Not seeing the crisis here.

The Evens say it better than I can.
posted by bardic at 7:11 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Up and coming bands, at least here in the East Coast of the States, and play a lot of shows in unregulated clubs, essentially each other's basements. Connections are made while attending shows, maintained through social media, and whole concert tours through multiple states can be arranged. Albums or just singles can be produced in your basement these days with good quality and released online to your fans. If enough buzz is generated then perhaps some small label will pick you up. I am somehow not too worried that the loss of one type of venue will kill the music business, although it is sad to see some of these places go. Bands who are hungry will adapt.
posted by caddis at 4:31 AM on February 23, 2013

2 Newport TJs ... Closed in 2010, and has fallen into disrepair.

I used to go to TJs when I was at college in Newport twenty-five years ago, shortly after it had changed its name from Seico's, and I have to say it didn't have far to fall even then.

(I actually preferred going to the Brahms and Liszt, where a heavily pierced gentleman served beer from literally all over the world. Soviet beer tasted exactly as you would expect it to.)
posted by Grangousier at 4:46 AM on February 23, 2013

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