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Black Sky Thinking

Why We Need To Stop Seeing Grassroots Venues As Mere Rungs On A Ladder
Luke Turner , March 25th, 2024 16:54

With music venues in crisis, does celebrating them as places where bands appeared on the way to fame overshadow their true purpose as the places in which music is played for the sake of communal joy, asks Luke Turner

Hey Colossus at The Barge, Honey Street, Acid Horse 2023

There’s recently been a series of memes doing the rounds on social media to show what festival line-ups would look like without the influence of grassroots venues. On Monday, 25 March The Music Venue Trust tweeted a picture of the familiar yellow and red branding of Reading and Leeds, blank aside from five names, Renee Rapp, Digga D, Kenny Beats, A Little Sound and DJ Jackum. All the missing names are those artists who, in their run up to this hallowed summit, would have trod the boards of the small venues of the UK and beyond. Using the hashtag #ItStartedHere, they underline the importance of grassroots venues in launching the careers of pretty much everyone booked this year. In a time when we’re facing a catastrophic decline in the places where music happens, it’s a well-intentioned campaign and I’m a massive fan of the work that the Trust does. Yet I’m struck by the thought that this isn’t quite the whole picture.

It makes the assumption that artists are all on a career path in search of bigger stages and larger festivals, that success is defined in ticket sales and streaming numbers. Careers have always been at the whims of fashion, the media and the tastes of those involved in booking and running venues, and now added to that mix is the even more sinister power of the algorithm, and artists being booked to play live on the basis of their social media followings. Obviously we all want musicians to be able to make what they do sustainable, but does that have to come via this old world escalator of slogging it around the proverbial Dog & Ducks of the land, a few support slots, upgrading to bigger venues, being granted the privilege of playing to 20 people about to shit themselves with hangover self-loathing at Reading/Leeds or Glastonbury noon, and then hoping you might get a sponsor to fly you over to gorge on antibiotic-pumped giant pork ribs at military industrial music fest “Southby” (vom emoji). In a time when even the mainstream-adjacent often feels so conservative, this more corporate path is not realistic for (or even desired by) many of the artists we cover here on The Quietus. I am not convinced that there is a ‘trickle down’ happening where success at the top helps the underground.

Existing musical models are, as everyone knows, irrevocably broken. It’s odd to see, as part of the campaign, people sharing old gig listings saying that The Cure or whoever played in X tiny venue on their way to megastardom. While I was at school in St Albans, local music venue The Horn used to sell itself on the basis that it had been the place where On A Friday – who would become Radiohead – played an early gig. By the time I was a teenager old enough to go out and about, they seemed to be only booking awful covers and pub rock bands, and I never went. Many venues have their time in the sun as the place to see new bands on the up, but then their roles roles change – covers and pub rock bands might not be my cup of tea, but they perform an important function for everyone involved. So why do we cling to this notion that live music is part of a trajectory, that putting in the hours at the coalface will eventually lead to fame and fortune? It’s nigh-on unsustainable for a group of more than one or two people to invest the time and effort into doing what The Cure, or Radiohead, or any other band you might care to mention, did back under this old model. Now, the music industry’s traditional escalator increasingly only suits those born into privilege and / or playing it safe.

We need to abandon this narrow, accumulative way of thinking about how music works, and to build something more sustainable instead. As I wrote in my introduction to tQ’s albums of the year chart in December 2023, there are people across the UK (and beyond) working their arses off to make things happen in places off the beaten track, using whatever space they can get their hands on. This is not done with the hope that one day they can share a WingDings font flier saying ‘aha, we had them round when they were small! Paid ‘em 50 quid, four warm Carlings and a pot of hummus!’ but for the sake of encountering live music in a small, dank, dark room at high volume, creating those intimate moments of magic and joy that are, let’s face it, hard to achieve in bigger venues. Last weekend I went to the massive model railway exhibition at Alexandra Palace, a venue where I have struggled to enjoy some of my all-time favourite artists (Suede, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds) against appalling acoustics, irritating crowds and overpriced beer pumped from what looked like slurry truck in the backstage. As an experience, the model railways exhibition won, hands down. My most recent trip to Glastonbury, in 2019, was a bit like being John Mills as the sun-blasted Captain Anson in war film Ice Cold In Alex, and so on. Very few artists are ever going to get to the level of doing well financially out of these places, yet they're still held up as the pinnacle of achievement, the "Glasto moment" the validation of years of toil. On the flipside, I recently went to a bonkers place in Cork, Ireland, where a boozer full of people even older than me sat drinking had out back a room with a synth pop disco, huge smoking area packed with locals aged 18 to 80 and a further room where a run of solo electronic musicians played eg. drones, noise, plucked violin, screaming to anything between two and twenty souls until 2am. They will never play Reading/Leeds or have a "Glasto moment". It was beautiful.

Nearly all of these still life-affirming encounters I have had with live music since the return to gigs post-pandemic have been in small venues, put on by dedicated promoters operating at huge personal risk, played by artists who aren’t doing what they do in the hope they might one day be wafted by the aroma of Reading/Leeds’ burger merchants, but because it is in impartation of a vital part of themselves to us, the audience. This applies equally to a few mates getting together for a jam band or a covers group as much as it applies to the sorts of artists we tend to write about on these pages – putting all snobbery aside, there's something wonderfully democratic about what's shared among a few people in tiny venues across the country and beyond. It is in these places where the dedicated collaboration of promotors, independent media and audience themselves can make the creation of music in some slight way sustainable. To focus on music venues as steps to be conquered on the way to a typical career is everything that is wrong with the commodification of art, especially in a time when that route is a slippery illusion. Let’s celebrate grassroots venues not as part of the infrastructure of an industry that’s nigh-on kaput, but for what they are – vital, beloved rooms where those onstage create an energy that, even if it’s only witnessed by ten, twenty people, lets us touch the electricity of music, and find a little joy.