Independent Venue Week 2017: Saving our safe spaces with Ducking Punches, Non Canon and The RPMs
Taking place this week (23 January to 29 January 2017) Xtra Mile Recordings' contribution to Independent Venue Week is on Thursday 26 January at The Monarch, Camden featuring Ducking Punches, Non Canon and The RPMs. Buy your £7 tickets here.
As with any Xtra Mile showcase, we like to give you variety. Brighton trio The RPMs bring the 60s-tinged pop optimism, choruses that ripple through a crowd, making dancing inevitable. Non Canon is Bristol's very own Barry Dolan, usually caught yelling and thrashing at an acoustic or electric guitar as Oxygen Thief. Here, his more personal and measured songs retain the wordplay, sensitively delivered, with bits of choral crowd participation thrown in. Headlining is Ducking Punches, with a new lineup, still led by songwriter Dan Allen. A furious and frenetic blend of guitars lend both a chaotic and melodic side to his compelling songs. Expect tight, explosive energy.
Each of them released their first records on XMR last year (in Barry's case, his first as Non Canon) to help us celebrate Independent Venue Week. I called Barry and Dan, and emailed Jack Valero of The RPMs, to ask them about independent venues, and what we can do to ensure they continue to be the vital network they've always been.
Jack focused on the fundamental function of an independent venue. "I think it's how much it supports new and up coming talent. A venue that will put on people and acts that have no fan base and no support except themselves, giving them a platform that they can hopefully build on."
Without much hesitation, both Barry and Dan agree that British independent venues are identifiable by virtue of the fact that they're all very different.
"It's an adventure each time you turn up to places, " says Barry. "How they do things, stages not being a uniform height, equipment being different. Places like The Louisiana in Bristol and The Monarch in Camden, and King Tuts in Glasgow, you can tell the history of these places. Often it's because there's lots of graffiti backstage of all the bands that have been there over the years. But it's also the atmosphere, that everyone has come up through there. They may have stories of when the White Stripes played there, or Coldplay supported some flash in the pan act."
Dan agrees, adding evidence from his own experience. "They have stories practically painted into the walls. It's great. The Owl Sanctuary in Norwich is painted red and black, anarchist colours, and runs social charity work from it. The Parish in Huddersfield is not only a good venue, does food and has a bar but it has accommodation for bands upstairs. They're few and far between in the UK these days."
Ducking Punches has played a fair amount throughout Europe so I ask Dan about the differences he's found while exploring the continent. "I've done everything in Europe from small little squats to big professional venues. The latter are similar to the UK ones but there's a huge difference between our and their independent venues, especially in Belgium. They have a lot of Jugendhauses (youth houses) run by young people. They're given a youth centre and taught how to budget, how to run shows and use it for anything they want. A lot of these are co-op so a lot of community is involved, people come together to work on a show, they work on an aspect and then rotate, and there's no hierarchy. Anyone can put on a show, it's super punk rock."
Dan explains that it feels more about "celebrating youth culture, rather than being wary (of it)". In the UK, we don't often get the chance to run a venue as a 17-year-old but there people value it and are proud of their achievements, a distinct difference to how art and culture is sometimes treated here. As Barry puts it: "You can't imagine bands doing a nostalgic tour of the (O2) Academies. The Foo Fighters don't do an 'intimate' Academy tour; they play a place you can get only 300-400 people in and has an independent spirit."
You've noticed of course, the encroaching shadow of lights being turned out and doors barred. Your city's nightlife is under threat and has been for at least 20 years. It's only now that there seems to be anything being done about it. But what are the specific threats facing our independent venues?
Barry: "I think it's difficult to pinpoint, but the move towards seeing land as a development goldmine (is one). So every possible bit of space in city centres is being redeveloped, turning houses into smaller flats, office blocks into tower blocks and people moving into the area not aware of the history of their neighbourhood. Suddenly, there's some noise sometimes. You can understand if a family with young children or elderly people see a music venue suddenly spring up that that would be something to complain about. But it does seem ludicrous that you can move next to something and go 'sorry, this is noisy'." Barry is talking about closures of venues due to sound restrictions and the requirement to pay for expensive soundproofing after complaints from new residents to an area. The 'agent of change principle' is one way to combat this, putting the onus on developers to soundproof their new properties or the venue. It's being campaigned for and considered around the country. Jack agrees. "Well it seems to me to be noise complaints. We're based in Brighton and there are so many really great venues that have been shut down by people who have recently moved in near by or above the venues. I'm all up for people having peace and quite without being disturbed every night, but these venues have rights too and the rights weigh far more in the complainers favour. It's a big problem, there's been huge meetings at the town hall all about it. And it's not just Brighton, it's happening all over the country. "
Barry points out the double standards too. "It doesn't happen to football grounds. We live near a stadium half a mile away from us and we can hear crowds on match days but that isn't something where we think 'we need to put a stop to this'. The shortsightedness or greed of local councils or developers who are doing their thing business-wise, that is quite a danger really. The value of something like the Owl Sanctuary (Nowich)...they wanted to develop that, and Le Pub in Newport is being sold and converted into accommodation. Luckily they've got a new place lineup up to go to, but it's happening time and time again. That's what made the area trendy in the first pace. The current climate is this trend towards what people can make for themselves rather than what can be contributed to the community or society. Joy!" The parallels to the 80s, when the three of us were just small children, is frightening. The continuous governmental and societal shift for any excuse to shut down a place where young people might want to hang out, and the shove towards continually benefiting yourself in favour of others. Dan is even more passionate on this point.
"It sounds cliched to say but aggressive capitalism is a big issue. Most venues I know that have shut down have been replaced by luxury flats, not affordable or social housing. There's a lack of respect for culture that's making it easy to bulldozer over these things. That's something we need to claim back. We need to make people aware of how important art and culture is because, what else is there really? It's so integral to the fabric of everything that we are."
While we're all aware of the danger of nostalgia, especially in a post-EU referendum UK, it's hard not to remember our youths as comparatively limitless times. Dan says: "When I was growing up, there was three or four independent venues in Peterborough. Now there's one left. I saw bands there that changed, and saved, my life. The vast majority of my friends I've met at independent venues. (Punk rock) has taught me about all the ethics I uphold, all the important activism. It's not just about music and having a good time. They're important tools moralistically sometimes. It's unreal to think kids growing up now have a much more difficult path, it's just not as accessible. What the Independent Venue Trust did is to try to reinvigorate that scene."
Barry adds: "It is dangerous to over mythologise or romanticise but I think the difference between a good gig and a very special gig is when you have that sort of atmosphere and little things...like, they have interesting beers to drink! Not just five pound pints of Tuborg or Carling. They're not charging bands to sell merch there, and tickets are cheaper. It's an important ingredient to what can make a really special night if things align right."
What do we do to save this? How do we ensure that young people, now and in the future, are able to experience the highs (and, yes, lows - but it's all learning) of nights out at independent venues, that sense of belonging that we all felt, and still feel, when we're in a place dedicated to music that moves us?
"I think lifting some of the strict licensing requirements (will help). Venues have always seemed to be 18 plus but I never got ID'd going to see gigs when I was younger. When I post tour dates now, people say on Facebook or Twitter "I can't go coz it's 18 plus" and I just want to say “and? Just go” but it seems odd you can't just let younger people go to gigs and police them at the bar. I suppose that's the fear of venues losing their licenses if something should go wrong." It's something the dance music venue Fabric knows all to well, having temporarily lost its license in 2016. Following long, painful discussions between the owners, police and Islington Council, and pushed by online petitions to save the venue from being closed permanently, it was ultimately saved. Though this meant compromises: heavier and stricter licensing rules.
"It's something that should be sorted," continues Barry. "There's bigger venues you can go to when you're younger but the smaller ones where you're gonna see more exciting things or those intimate shows bands do later on, well you won't be able to go there until you're a bit older. If (young people) grow up thinking you only go to theatres and arenas (for music), then there's not gonna be adults going back to independent venues. At the very least you could see it as investing in your own future customers."
Dan agrees about the licensing laws though with a slightly different solution: "(We need more) all-ages venues. They're really hard to come by. That was never an issue for me growing up (and) that's a big hurdle for young people now. That's not the venues' fault; that's licensing laws. Maybe there needs to be more spaces for wider age groups. There's that, and we also need more awareness of how important these venues are, which we're trying to do (with this week) anyway. If that continues it will help people to realise how intergral they are. There's no point in campaigning for them if they're already gone. We have to act now."
Finally, I ask Barry and Jack what it means to play Independent Venue Week, and why it matters.
"On one hand it's showing you care. Acts like me, it's where we always play anyway. It's like Record Store Day, you're involved in something much bigger than just playing a gig. Tied in with the label night and being able to play with Ducking Punches and The RPMs, it reinforces that sense of scene. I did the two Independent Venue Week gigs with Frank Turner, Skinny Lister and Esmé Patterson a couple of years ago at 93 Feet East and it was good for the soul, to be part of something. This is also my first show of the year which is nice way to kick it off."
Jack feels the unity too. "It feels great to be a part of this great network of independent venues and people. We all have to stick together and support each other cos we all play our part to keep each other going."
I liked Barry's final words on turning up at a corporate-owned venue compared to an independent venue. "With chain venues, it's like being new kids. It feels like you've gone to big school and you don't know anyone. Independent venues are where you have a nice chat and feel like everyone's on the same team." As with anything that fosters community and camaraderie, that allows and encourages expression of ourselves, we need to be on the same team to make sure it'll always be there for us. And for others, because this is what we're losing: a future for youngsters like we were. Music fans, artists, activists: supporting Independent Venue Week is one way to show support for your local, independently-run spaces where you'll likely see shows you'll never forget. If we all do our part, we won't ever have to forget how good things once were; our venues will still be as important as ever.
Share your favourite venue with us at @Xtra_Mile on Twitter or on Facebook with the hashtag #IVW17. We want to know what you're seeing during this week and how you're supporting your local hangout. Come and join us on Thursday and we'll see you there!