Fantasy headline – or not? “Archaeologists uncover remains of the last pub in England.”

(April 05, 2013)

Is that an undesirable imagining from an expected dystopian future? Perhaps it’s nothing more than an extract from some dark-world science fiction. Then again, as the seemingly inexorable closures of public houses continues at an unprecedented pace it may have too many echoes of reality to stay too long in the realms of fantasy. And while we’re thinking along those frightening lines substitute the word ‘pub’ for the words ‘independent live-music venue’ ... for to quote the words of the song: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” ... it’s not fantasy, it’s potentially a terrible truth and not one confined to the realms of fiction.

I’ve held this view for many years and during that time I’ve experienced a fair amount of disbelief and derision in response but the time has come to make another stand. Or more precisely to endeavour to make it clear that unless future generations want nothing more than monster venues with equally huge ticket prices then to allow pubs, clubs and other smaller live-music venues (see FolkWords Blog post - 11:30am Thursday 4th Apr 2013) to slide into obscurity beneath the corporate morass is unforgiveable.

'Use it or lose it'

There’s a phrase that comes to mind from my rugby-playing past (too fat and too old now) and that’s ‘use it or lose it’, and that’s where we are right now with the vast majority of our independent live-music pubs and venues. Forget them now and they will have no future. Use them and they just might. Do not and we'll lose them. The reasons that such places fade and die are of course varied. The ever-increasing rents applied by avaricious and perennially myopic landlords, the mendacious propaganda of greedy property developers and perhaps most tragically, because too many artists shun them in favour of more glitzy venues. There are of course many artists (thankfully) that still strive to play the smaller and more intimate venues but then another spectre rears its ugly head – the absence of audience.

And that remains surprising because many smaller venues not only knock spots off their larger corporate cousins in terms of the ambiance and audience-intimacy with the artists. It’s also the people that run them – they have time for their audience and treat you like human beings not animals. Of course, if you like to be herded into a vast arena, to see only tiny figures on a distant stage and watch 100-foot wide plasma screens then ignore the foregoing.

Too many smaller venue owners and managers tell me that unless they book a reasonably major ‘headliner’ (assuming of course they can afford/ accommodate such luminaries) too often their artists play to half-empty venues. Now before someone leaps in with a rant about how nobody has any money for going out in these austerity-ridden, cost-cutting times it’s worth noting that most major venues have little difficulty in packing bums on seats. This may be down to the power of ‘big venue’ marketing driving audiences to attend, it may be down to apathy with anything other than bright lights and big cities but the issue in many cases comes down to ‘I haven’t tried it but I don’t like it.’ The small independent venues don’t have the marketing power or budgets to shout from the rooftops, most rely on website, word of mouth, a bit of local press and those online media that bother to take any notice of anything they say. And I've heard the ‘I haven’t tried it but I don’t like it’ excuse too many times to have any sympathy or find the statement amusing.

The end is not inevitable

The point remains that the closures continue apace whatever the reason. Now unless the day arrives when musicians, writers and poets (along with nurses, teachers, police and fire-fighters – not a definitive list but you get the drift) become more important than politicians, bankers, property developers, lawyers and accountants, there has to be a concerted effort from ‘ordinary’ folk to save the venues and the pastimes that folk enjoy. Don’t sit on the sidelines bemoaning another round of village pub closures or lamenting the death-throes of yet one more independent music venue as ‘closing down’ notices flourish like weeds. Do something.

The end is not inevitable but it’s too close to ignore. Check out smaller independent venues. Take the time to frequent them. Use them. Make them work. Talk to the owners and managers. Tell them what you would like to see at their place, perhaps even ask what you can do to help.

I know this started with pubs and has progressed to music venues but they suffer from the effects of similar diseases. Afflictions that could prove fatal if the remedies are not applied before it's too late. And too late will be just that.

In the words of Luke Kelly, poet, musician and Dubliner, for whom I have an enduring respect: “For what's done is done and what's won is won. And what's lost is lost and gone forever.”

Then again, perhaps we can hope that there is a glimmer somewhere in the darkness, so to steal from the great man’s lyrics once more: “I can only pray for a bright brand-new day. In the town I loved so well.”

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