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Dundee

Features
25 September 2019

The birthplace of Scotland’s leading promoter DF Concerts, not to mention acts such as Average White Band, Deacon Blue and Snow Patrol, the city has faced a few challenges in recent years, but its promoters and venue operators knows how to fight back and keep its music scene buzzing, as Allan Glen reports

In one sense, the music scene in Dundee – Scotland’s third city – has been hit by the loss of a new festival and the closure of a venue that had been open for close to 20 years.

The festival was Carnival 56 (cap. 10,000) and the venue was The Reading Rooms (250).

In a Facebook statement in 2017, the organisers of Carnival 56 (see LIVE UK issue 214) stated that, following the inaugural event, they hoped to return in 2019, but that has failed to happen.

Acts who performed in 2017 included The Charlatans, Rudimental and The Fratellis. Attempts to contact the organisers as LIVE UK went to print were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, closure of The Reading Rooms, known locally as The Small Town Club, was announced in a tweet in June.

In a statement, the venue announced, “Once again we would like to thank everyone for their continued support over the last 17 years. As you may or may not know, the last seven months have been arduous to say the least.”

Venue promoter Jim Grieve says the problems began when police started searching people at the door, following concerns over drug-taking and anti-social behaviour.

“We then went up to the board for licence review and police said the venue was operating under the good management of myself and the premises manager,” he says. “I thought the police activity would stop, but sadly not.

“The six months before had begun to take its toll on the venue and customer attendance was dropping off. I made the decision to close, because I never got into this 40 years ago to promote events whereby folk go out for a good time to see acts or DJs and are then met by police at the entrance.

“The Reading Rooms was a complete one-off and we’ll never see a venue like it again in Dundee. It was a moment in time.”

Acts who played the venue included Franz Ferdinand, The Damned, Lee Scratch Perry, The Mighty Diamonds and Azymuth.

Grieve says while he hopes to open a new venue at some point, in the meantime he will be keeping The Reading Rooms brand alive by putting on shows at The Kings (600), with Mungo’s Hi-Fi x Eva Lazarus, supported by Dunc4n and Terraform this month.

Elsewhere things look more positive, with two of Dundee’s longest-established spaces, the legendary Caird Hall (2,300) and Fat Sam’s (1,050) among those reporting an uptake in business.

Fat Sam’s is where Stuart Clumpas, now an expat and head of Live Nation New Zealand, started his promotions business Dance Factory, later to morph into DF Concerts, before being sold to Irish live music entrepreneur Denis Desmond and then Live Nation Entertainment.

“Dundee is totally buzzing at the minute,” says Caird Hall manager Susan Gillan. “There are so many visitors for all reasons, including all the students at the universities. Everywhere there seems to be huge excitement.

“The music scene has always been vibrant and this continues from the grassroots to the major worldwide artistes appearing at various city venues.”

Among acts playing the Caird Hall are Royal Blood, Bombay Bicycle Club, The Libertines, Biffy Clyro (all DF Concerts promotions), Craig David (Liz Hobbs Group), Rumours of Fleetwood Mac (CMP Entertainment) and Ant Middleton (SJM Concerts).

“Tickets are selling really well for all genres, including the tribute acts,” says Gillan. “It’s not a specific type of show which sells best at the venue, it’s just what’s most topical.”

One of the reasons audience and artistes enjoy coming to the venue is how it looks, she adds.

“The Caird Hall is one of the most beautiful venues in the UK as confirmed by BBC Music. It also allows the artiste to be up close and personal with their audience which is something they miss out on playing arenas.”

Landmark success

“Things have been picking-up for a while, with recent shows in our main room by Lewis Capaldi, Foals, Two Door Cinema Club, Peat and Diesel, Sam Fender and Tide Lines,” says Fat Sam’s Gus Robb.

“Ticket sales are brisk, and people are happy to stay local.”

Robb credits the upturn to several factors, notably Fat Sam’s’ facilities.

“The 1,050 room is one of the best in the country for ease of production and atmosphere,” he adds. “Calvin Harris, Paolo Nutini, The Charlatans, Chvrches, Franz Ferdinand, KT Tunstall and The Streets have also all played the venue.”

Indeed, the venue’s track record of speaks for itself.

“We have hosted Biffy Clyro four times, local favourites The View at least six times, with three shows from Idlewild and four for Embrace,” says Robb.  “Bands do like the venue and keep coming back.”

Variety is key

As for seated concert venues, the Gardyne Theatre (369), located on the Gardyne campus of Dundee and Angus College, and the Whitehall Theatre (710), cater for just about every genre of music.

At the Whitehall, venue and promotions manager Scott McRuvie says the theatre is in a constant state of transition.

“We have been renovating throughout the past five years with all public areas now having been improved, resulting in a recent four-star rating from Visit Scotland,” he says. “In recent years we have also renovated our bar, front of house area, auditorium, façade and our old bar area into what is now known as the Alhambra Room, a stunning VIP space, that celebrates the old theatres and cinemas of Dundee.”

According to McRuvie, live music in Dundee is thriving, helped by the recent opening of the V&A museum.

“The city has a fantastic night-time offering that is now complemented by the V&A as well as other local attractions. As a result, Dundee can now offer tourists a full day’s entertainment. We have seen a positive effect on audience numbers since the V&A opened.”

“We host a wide range of music genres that range from pop and rock bands to tribute acts that return year on year.

“Our pricing structure is very competitive for promoters and offers the opportunity to do great business.”

Acts playing the venue include Go West (Entertainers), Bay City Rollers (Artistes International), Johnny Cash Roadshow (Clive John) and Queen Rhapsody (MCR Presents).

Offering a mixture of original artistes and tribute acts has also proved successful for the Gardyne Theatre.

“Ticket sales are quite good and we do tend to take a lot of online bookings rather than face-to-face,” explains theatre co-ordinator Sharon Breen. “This year has been slightly different, the tribute bands have done quite well, but we need to be careful not to book these on a too regular basis, as that tends to slide away after a while.

“Popular genres include jazz, blues, country, musical theatre and soul.”

Acts playing the venue include Lloyd Cole (Regular Music), Be Bop A Lula (The GRT Group), Budapest Café Orchestra (self-promoted), The Fureys (Joe McCadden), Ali Bain and Phil Cunningham (Firefly Productions), Elio Pace with David Brown (Barry Collings) and The Roy Orbison Story (Barry Steel).

“The unique selling point here is that there are no restricted views in the auditorium,” she adds. “We have a great tech manager backstage and front-of-house manager. These two are the main link to promoters coming back to Gardyne.

“Nothing is any trouble and we try and accommodate to the best of our ability. We have seven dressing rooms and two rehearsal rooms. We also have our own recording studio.”

Basement culture

At pub level, one of the most active spaces is Conroy’s Basement (100), with the booking and operation controlled by Make That A Take Records.

Over the past two years the venue has undergone structural as well as operational changes.

“We’ve had some upgrades to our PA System and our stage has been extended,” says MTAT’s Derrick Johnston. “It’s been an ongoing evolution but we’re just about where we want to be.”

Eschewing any notion of “markets” for live music, Johnston says he prefers to see the music scene in Dundee in different terms.

“I don’t think of it as a market at all,” he says. “The scene around the Basement feels more like a community than a marketplace. Dundee has always been a city that’s very supportive of live music, amongst those who go out and support it, rather than the authorities.

“The challenges are much the same as in any regional city, we’re on the east coast and unless you’re heading to Aberdeen, it’s not on the way to anywhere so you have to make a specific effort to come here.”

This, he adds, has an impact on the number and frequency of international touring bands visiting the city.

“However, we’re very lucky to have established trust with the punk community and local scene. Dundee is getting way more hype now with the arrival of the V&A, but I’d be hesitant to say it has had a direct impact on the number of people coming to punk shows.

“That said, the scene is in excellent shape right now.”

Acts playing the venue include Hexis, Katie MF, Queequeg’s Coffin, Nervus (all MTAT), Waxwork Monologue (self-promotion) and Billy Mitchell (Regular).

While reluctant to define what makes Conroy’s Basement different from the myriad pubs in central Scotland, Johnston says he hopes whatever it is is for the right reasons.

“I’m not sure this is a question for me to answer, but I’d hope it’s because the Basement is essentially run by punks for punks,” he explains. “We’ve all been in bands a long time, from the grassroots up, and know what it’s like to tour and visit different scenes.

“We try to be as open, honest and communicative as possible. We’re pulling for all bands, we want everyone to be awesome, and we’ll do whatever we can to help facilitate that.

Music, he adds, isn’t always a competition. “As such, I have no idea how others would compare us to venues in Glasgow or Edinburgh,” he adds.

“We’re a 100-capacity basement built with blood, sweat and tears, like every venue run by folk who give a s***t.”

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