Dedicated to the Business of Contemporary Live Music

Not calling time just yet

NXT Features
9 May 2018


The humble pub has seen its place in live music questioned in recent years, but remains the starting point for many acts. Rob Sandall talks to the landlords and promoters providing a crucial platform.


Those with a significant amount of experience under their belt might just about remember the golden era of the pub scene, in their heyday a thriving circuit of venues that formed the building blocks of fanbases and created national buzz from local appearances.

It would be easy to take the dim view that those days are long gone, but are things really as bad as they seem? Mark Knowles of Bar 42(cap. 120) in Worthing points out that it’s a complex issue, but argues that those with patience can prevail.

“We started putting on shows here seven years ago, simply because there was no ‘alternative’ place in Worthing,” he says.

“We had a back room, and one of the staff knew a fair few acts, so we went ahead and built everything up slowly as we had funds available – sound proofing, a full refurbishment, and we’re on our third PA system.

“It takes time, people start off thinking it’s a bit naff, but slowly it’ll take off. We’re now a pub that people talk about playing, and there are a lot of acts that have played and want to come back.”

Knowles says that a large part of that slow-but-sure growth has come from investing in younger crowds.

“We’ve focused on younger audiences, and not just 18 year-olds, either – we’ve had 14/15 year-olds come to do a show while their hopefully-thirsty parents watch, and of course a few years later those acts are bringing in their student friends too.”

Knowles says that the key is therefore adding local supports to popular out-of-town acts, noting the surprising abundance of the latter within the pub circuit.

“There are so many good acts out there, to the extent that we’ll quite often be surprised by how polished a band is when it performs,” he says.

“The truth is that a lot of venues won’t take a risk on the grassroots acts in the bigger cities, because their rent is high and therefore they’re getting the same established acts in every time.”

On the subject of scenes, Knowles notes his own bugbear with current national efforts to rejuvenate the pub circuit.

“It’s always ‘support your local venue’ and ‘support your local scene’. That’s rubbish, I wouldn’t want to do that if I saw those slogans – it sounds like putting a quid in a pint glass while a crap covers band plays in the corner,” he says.

“The focus should be on the artistes themselves – they’re what will ultimately get people out, and they’re what makes the scene and keeps the venue going.”

Recent emerging acts to have played the venue include Flash Fires and Tales of Autumn.

The long game

Kenny Gray, who has been putting on shows at Conroy’s Basement (100) since the beginning of 2016 says that the on-average four shows a month are drawing a strong response from the Dundee crowds, benefitting venue and artistes – including The Kalaharis, Indica and Sedition – alike.

“On a good night we tend to have a sell out crowd. The basement has a cosy capacity so it fills out quite nicely,” he says.

“On a more average basis, it tends to be around the 50/60 mark. For our own bookings, we either agree a fixed amount with the band at the point of booking or do a door deal where all the ticket money goes to the band.”

He echoes Knowles in the assertion that the long game is where potential starts to become apparent, adding that sometimes doing right by the local scene means taking a hit on crowd and profit sizes.

“For us it’s all about passion for live music – everything we make down in the basement is put toward either updating the equipment or helping put out physical format music on [affiliated record label] Make That A Take,” he says.

“We feel it’s important to create a sense of community and help grow the local scene. When money and profits come into play, you tend to start becoming a bit more selective on the bookings.”

At the coalface

Iain Richards, who promotes in the Valleys area of Wales, both in local pubs such as The New Foresters, Blackwood and LePub (160), Newport, and for his yearly festival Velvet Coalmine (multiple venues), says that it’s important to understand the difference between sizeable city scenes and those operating in more remote areas.

“And when I say big, I don’t just mean London, either – Cardiff is a good example of a scene that’s kind of deliberately isolating,” he says.

“In that, I mean that you can’t build up a following here in the valleys and then transition neatly to Cardiff as an artiste. They have their own ideas, their own groups built around venues and their own sense of loyalty to what’s going on in their city.

“It means local acts have the choice of playing in the very select number of venues available to them in the Valleys – low profits on gigs in the area means less promoters are inclined to put on shows – or pretty much starting all over again in Cardiff.”

Richards adds that it’s still possible to take an optimistic view of the situation, pointing out that one way or another an act that’s ready to court the big time is going to need to get off its backside.

“It’s not like you get big in Cardiff and you’ve made it,” he says.

“For your average moderately successful act, even, Cardiff is one date of many in a national tour, one of even more in a European tour.

“While a lot has changed, building a fanbase through live music still means touring and touring and touring, and from that perspective it doesn’t matter if you’ve started out in the city, or just playing pubs in the Valleys.”

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