Following the recent closures of Sound, The Zanzibar, and now Constellations, Charly Reed underscores the importance of protecting and developing more small venues and the artistic communities that grow out of their existence.
Small venues across the UK have been struggling for many years. With the effects of the current pandemic, this has become a crisis. In Liverpool alone, The Zanzibar, Sound and Studio 2 have all closed in recent months. Many others nationally, and locally, are in need of saving.
These venues were essential to my personal development as an artist, promoter and creative. I played my first ever gig at The Zanzibar and regularly played Eggy Records’ events at Sound and promoted my own gigs there with Samurai Kip. What ties these venues together are the communities that surround them and the social function these spaces provide. This can be recognised by anyone entering a well-run small space; the palpable energy, the near tangible creativity being manifested.
Small music venues form a sometimes forgotten section of our music ecosystem, yet they’re arguably the most important aspect. Without these spaces there would be no major acts to headline large venues and festivals. Too often it’s only the main stages and legendary venues that seem to be highlighted in an artist’s journey, but their first is just as important as their biggest. Small venues are vital for new and upcoming acts to cut their teeth and organically build their audience. They are the lifeblood of most music scenes and act as social spaces for the development of artists, fellow creatives, events and communities. This social and cultural importance can often be overlooked, but in the long term it is vital for a healthy and creative UK music industry.
Many people who use these spaces do value their social power and sense of community. However, in the wider context of the UK music industry, local governance and financial issues cannot be ignored. Venues such as 24 Kitchen Street and Kazimier Garden remain under threat from overzealous development. In many cases, such development has been approved by Liverpool City Council. But it’s not just the small venues feeling the strain. Even well-established venues are struggling for money as funding for the arts is funnelled off and the economic climate worsens.
According to the Music Venue Trust, even though 140 grassroots music venues have been taken off their critical list, over 400 are still at imminent risk of being closed permanently. The government support package during the pandemic has proven insufficient to stop a number of small venues going out of business. Manchester’s Gorilla and Deaf Institute were saved when on the brink, but the fate isn’t the same for The Welly and Polar Bear in Hull. The pandemic was the writing on the wall for the integral hub that Sound had become here in Liverpool.
Although Liverpool’s music tourism industry brings in millions of pounds every year, very little comes into grass roots music venues. In ‘Developing a Liverpool City of Music Stratergy’, Culture Liverpool estimated that £200 million is gained by the Liverpool economy each year from music related spending. However, only £3 million actually relates to grassroots shows. This squeeze points to the vital issue of how our society is structured and how it views the arts. Monetary value is promoted over social cohesion, community and creative output. Even though organisations like the Music Venue Trust and Liverpool City Region Music Board are doing good work for small venues, major players in the music industry often give too little support. The millions of pounds at the top end of the industry remains with the biggest companies with little reinvestment in grassroots venues.
Small venues are the foundation of UK music, and they’re also integral to local scenes. Eggy Records fostered a new phase of DIY music community from the tight confines of Sound Basement, with the label’s artists and extended bands playing their regular showcases – including an event for the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival fringe. Sam Warren, co-founder of Eggy Records, says that “without small music venues, the wider music industry as a whole would be in danger of collapsing. Artists do not start off playing shows in larger venues, with larger bands, this just does not happen”.
Small venues provide performance and social spaces for acts to develop and are important in defining the local cultural character. Liverpool is perhaps stuck in its 60s cultural character, not appreciating the musical progression the city has made and the current scenes and movements that are happening. This is hindering positive progression in the present and future for Liverpool and the wider UK.
The performers and the audience are obviously the lifeblood of any venue. For a venue to work these two groups have to be attracted to a venue and invest in it over time. This is what builds a community around these spaces. It is not just the band up on stage or the sounds that come out of the speakers that is important, it is everyone involved – from the audience to the photographers, writers, bar staff, promoters and the cleaners afterwards. In small venues the performers enter and leave through the same doors as everyone else and there is often no backstage. This makes the performer feel part of the audience and vice versa. It also means the performers can be found in the crowd watching other bands and sticking around after the show, leading to a greater sense of connection and community.
In a previous article in Bido Lito!, Rebecca Frankland talked about the community that has been created around the Wavertree Worldwide events held at Smithdown Social Club. This DIY community brings lots of different people together to enjoy themselves and dance. Inspired by other communities and spaces, such as London’s Total Refreshment Centre, they have sought to create their own south Liverpool version of a democratised party community. Audiences and performers connect with the authenticity that they see in promoters and venues that care about what they’re doing, that care about the community they are creating. International DJs who have played at the Wavertree Worldwide events have praised the no frills space and how they feel connected to the audience. Even small things like security can make a difference to how people feel and perceive the venue. At venues such as Sound and Smithdown Social Club, there was little security other than the venue staff. These spaces are safe and open places to visit, which enhances their community vibe.
Sound Basement was a good example of a venue which hosted a community of people who came together to create something that people really cared about. This was a community of people who hadn’t come to listen to any one genre; there was an emphasis on creativity, good times and dancing. Music genres are a hard thing to define and can mean different things to different people. More important are the social groups that we create along with our listening. This means that the social and community spaces these venues provide are invaluable. It is not just about what music we like; it’s the associated groups that can define us as people.
Emma Warren, music journalist and DJ, notes in her book Make Some Space that “nightclubs are vastly underestimated as motors of social change because of the social mixing that happens within them… we underestimate them as places of personal transformation or even as a coping mechanism to deal with the struggles of life. Dancing in the dark is a human need”. So much is covered in these three sentences. These places give such a strong social connection between people that they can affect social change. The power of being in a room and listening and moving to music with others can change society and yourself. It breeds tolerance, openness and communal values. This personal development is also important as in these spaces people can gain comfort within their identities. The last line of Warren’s quote is a powerful statement. This need and desire to listen to music, socialise and dance is an innate human characteristic.
Some people feel the need to take matters into their own hands. The promoters at Sound and Smithdown Social Club have often been musicians and DJs who started off promoting to get the music they wanted to hear played, but have progressed to running regular nights. This unseen hand guiding an event is underappreciated. Without this planning, problem-solving and pushing, nights would be shaky, error prone, and never even get off the ground. Promoters can have a big part in shaping what a venue is about. Sound was known as the home of Eggy Records, and the Eggy showcase nights were often sold out and filled with local and touring talent. Smithdown Social Club and Wavertree Worldwide have become so synonymous that some people refer to them interchangeably. This power to craft the creative image of the venue is a powerful tool and a role that needs more acknowledgment at the grassroots level.
(Photo: The Zanzibar)
Another group of people who are important to venues but who rarely get mentioned are wider creatives, those not in the binary on stage and audience roles. Lee Fleming, co-founder of Wavertree Worldwide and Anti Social Jazz Club says that “small music venues are often underestimated in their contribution to the community. Whether it’s a purpose-built space or a back room of the local pub, hosting underground and emerging popular culture is both necessary and influential. Beyond the musicians who play there, these small venues also play host to communities of fans, employees, volunteers, promoters and other enthusiasts”.
These other creatives can play important functions in venues and scenes, and Liverpool’s small venues give as much support to these creatives as to the musicians and promoters. Photographers, who are often at the heart of developing scenes, can hone their talents in these often challenging spaces. Other artists will also be involved in designing posters, decorations, artwork and merchandise, linking the music more closely with the wider arts. Without this wider community, these very pages of Bido Lito! would not exist.
While Liverpool is home to so many interesting musicians, creatives, promoters and audiences, there are lots of performance spaces in bars, clubs and pubs which are not promoting original music or trying to develop a sense of community. This weakness of programming can be infuriating to musicians looking to develop their own original sound, stifling creativity and damaging the progression of the wider music scene. However, there are also venues positively pushing music forward, with owners seeing the social and cultural importance of their venue. These spaces are important for audiences to come and have new cultural experiences and to nurture first time performers and up and coming talent. The idea that putting on music is an important public service can be overlooked by local government and developers. Bringing people together and having the funding to do so and engage local communities is vital for the health of our society.
As we lose more and more small venues, the damage to the musical ecosystem is evident. Small venues provide a space for young, new and leftfield artists to grow, express themselves and build their musical culture. They provide safe spaces for audiences to experience new culture and connect with like-minded fellow audience members and performers. These social spaces create something unique and important. The venues are more than just the performers and audience; they are a network of groups and individuals, who work together both in the limelight and behind the scenes to make space for people to be themselves. We can make this community and social interaction happen anywhere. What is important is not the physical space itself, but the people and culture that are occupying it. This is where the future of Liverpool’s musical heritage lies and it needs protecting.