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Southampton

City Limits
18 March 2019

While the city has taken a knock with the collapse of Common People festival, the optimism among local promoters remains high, with new events planned and some venues reporting a record year. Some see the city as potentially rivalling Brighton for music content. Allan Glen reports

While it never does a city any good to lose a high-profile music festival, the immediate fall-out affects different local promoters in a variety of ways.

Take the Southampton edition of Common People (cap. 30,000), for example.

As reported in our sister magazine Festival (issue 38), the two limited companies that ran the event and one in Oxford, collapsed earlier this year, with combined debts of more than £800,000.

“It’s a shame about Common People, but personally I don’t feel the Southampton scene will be affected at all really,” says promoter Kai Harris of The Engine Rooms (800). “It is nice to see an outdoor event of that scale in the city, [so] I hope something new will fill the void.”

However, according to Ricky Bates, head of booking and promotion at The Joiners Live (200), the loss of the event for the city is “massive”.

“Southampton needs something like Common People that puts its music map on a national, rather than just a local, platform,” says Bates, who was part of the festival’s booking team.

“The fact that it’s gone, as well as losing the whole economic uproar that we have that weekend, we lose the kudos of having a big festival in the city.

“It also puts off other national promoters coming in and doing something big. Every year Common People did really well, and while last year I know we struggled on one day, the other day was really strong.

“So, yes, we’ll miss it massively, and also because a lot of the local bands got a really good platform on which to play – on a big stage, in front of thousands of people, is how you make fans.”

There will also be other ramifications, adds Bates. The perception of local venues pushing artistes and giving them national exposure is something that will also be missed, and he believes the time is right for a multi-venue event in the city.

“We’ve toyed with the idea of doing a Great Escape-style festival in Southampton, as we feel the city deserves something like that,” he says. “Here at The Joiners we’re currently doing around 280 shows across Southampton a year, so the market for something like that is here. Just last week, for example, we had nine shows in six days.”

Helping the city to stay on the national map for major shows is St Mary’s Stadium (32,000), home to Southampton FC, and host of shows by artistes such as Bon Jovi, promoted by AEG Presents, Robbie Williams (Metropolis Music) and the Rolling Stones (AEG), while this year Take That will play two nights, promoted by SJM Concerts (with tickets at £83), followed by Rod Stewart (Cuffe & Taylor), with tickets priced at £62,

As the Stadium’s director of events Paul Boon explains, there is now a strategy in place to attract more shows.

“We want to be known as an entertainments venue, and hosting concerts is a great way for us to establish ourselves in the market,” he says, adding there is much to attract promoters and artistes to St Mary’s.

“We are unique in terms of our location in the south east and are the largest stadium here, too.”

Its location and experience of hosting large sporting events on a regular basis also helps, he says.

“The data we have collected over the past few years shows our catchment market is the south of England,” he says. “Our biggest competitors are London-based, or further afield, and we feel we offer a great location that’s easy to get to. We’re only 70 minutes from London on the train, and based right in the city centre.”

Engine of change

To come back to The Engine Rooms, a venue operated by The MJR Group, Kai Harris believes the city is in a good place – literally and metaphorically.

“Southampton has a vibrant scene, from the smaller clubs such as Heartbreakers [100], and The Joiners right through to bigger rooms such as ours and O2 Guildhall [1,750],” he says, citing Wild Front and Toreador as hot local acts  worth watching out for.

“The city, and particularly The Engine Rooms, has become a staple on the UK touring circuit, and in recent years has taken a big share of the shows that might have perhaps gone to Portsmouth in the past.”

Acts playing the venue include Lemonheads, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Embrace, Alexander O’Neal, Cast, Black Star Riders, Jaws, Sleeper, The Wonderstuff, Black Flag (all MJR promotions), Steve Harley, Wilko Johnson (both The Gig Cartel), Jade Bird (AEG Presents), Against The Current (SJM), The Lounge Kittens (Kilimanjaro Live), Long Ryders (DHP Family), Hardy Caprio (Metropolis) and Sleaford Mods (Crosstown Concerts).

According to Harris, the venue has “the best technical set-up in the south for a room of this size”.

“Our PA and lights are second-to-none for a room like this and bands love our excellent staff and straightforward approach,” he adds. “There’s simply no match for it in Southampton.”

Meanwhile, Matt Bisgrove, venue programmer with Psychedelia, which is the in-house promoter for Heartbreakers and The Loft (300), believes the city has the talent to rival music cities such as Brighton and Bristol.

“Southampton has so much potential in many ways, but it does need to see its tastemakers and promoters pull more together to ensure that the city is always represented on the map in terms of national tours and up-and-coming artistes,” he says.

Acts the company has promoted at The Loft include The Big Moon, GIRLI, Cabbage and Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, with Our Girl, Another Sky, Kele Okereke, YAK and Blinders playing Heartbreakers. In the past year, the latter venue has hosted more than 250 shows.

“There also needs to be more clarity and togetherness, and national promoters need to not just throw money to take shows away from locals who have built certain artistes to get them to bigger venues in the city,” he says.

In addition to promoting at The Loft and Heartbreakers, Psychedelia also stages shows with acts such as Blossoms, Sea Girls, Black Honey, C Duncan, Lauran Hibberd and a Pom Pko at The Joiners; The Amazons, Fickle Friends, Milburn and Hinds at The Engine Rooms, and Nils Frahm at the O2 Guildhall.

Working closely with local universities to find raw talent in terms of artistes and future music workers can also help, he adds.

Industry infrastructure

This is a view echoed by Martin James, professor of music industries at Solent University, which, as well as promoting multi-venue event SMILEfest, is also one of the partners behind new festival SO:Music City.

Another multi-venue event, it will feature, among others, The Wedding Present at The Joiners this month and a series of shows at Guildhall Square in the city centre – a partnership between Solent, other local universities, Southampton Cultural Trust, local venues and the wider music industry.

“We have been producing SMILEfest – a multi-venue festival with industry panels – for 10 years,” says James. “In that time the event has grown beyond our wildest dreams.”

He believes SMILEfest and SO:Music City could be the catalysts for more much-needed change in the city’s music scene.

“It’s also the launch of a new campaign to save our venues and build our music industries,” he adds.

Over at The Brook (550), Dylan Clarke and his team stage around 160 shows a year. Acts playing include Skid Row, Katchafire, Turin Brakes, My Baby, James Walsh, Clem Burke, Inglorious, Roachford, UFO, Electric Swing Circus (all in-house), The Skids, Big Country, Nine Below Zero, Secret Affair and Blancmange (all AGMP).

“The capacity of the venue is 550 but we typically cap it to 500 to maximise the quality of the customer experience,” he says.

Improvements over the past two years include rebranding the venue, painting and re-lighting the outside and upgrading to a digital mixing desk, while the garden area is being given a spring clean for 2019.

Highlights this year for Clarke include Billy Bragg and Justin Hawkins guesting with Queen’s Spike Edney in his SAS Band.

“We are in an old building with bags of character and soul,” he says. “The Brook offers an unrivalled connection between artiste and fan, because of the design and layout. Every member of the audience is close to the artiste.”

Overall, Clarke believes that while consumer confidence and experimentation are slightly lagging in the market, there is much to offer acts, agents and promoters.

“There is a lot of healthy competition here, with a good spread of venue sizes,” he says.

Local landmarks

While operating to 700-capacity, The 1865, formerly a dockers’ social club, can be reconfigured for a smaller crowd.

“The venue has had an acoustic, retractable curtain installed to close-off the balcony, so that it works comfortably as a 400-capacity venue too,” says venue co-ordinator Guy Benfield. “The venue has two experienced house technicians, who each give 100 per cent to fulfil the full potential of each event.”

Acts playing the venue include The Four Owls (in-house), Stone Broken (Kilimanjaro), Morcheeba (One Inch Badge), Basement (Wrongwayround Presents), The Dualers (self-promotion) and Walter Trout (The Gig Cartel).

“The slightly retro, social-club atmosphere and some of the unique features generate talking points, and the in-house equipment is high-spec and very rider friendly,” adds Benfield.

One venue that is integral to live music in the city is The Joiners, which is currently enjoying a period of growth.

“This year has been one of the strongest touring periods we have had, with more turn-outs for shows this year than I can remember,” says promoter Ricky Bates. “The shows we’ve been getting in have really done well.”

He puts this down to several factors. “In the past few years we’ve been drilling it into people about the importance of supporting local venues, and the ins and outs of how the venue works. That’s made them support it as they can see it is fully independent, and we don’t have any attachment or corporate sponsorship.”

As well as promoting in-house – and running his own promotions company Wrongwayround  Presents – Bates and The Joiners also promote across the city.

This includes putting on Gus Dapperton at The Engine Rooms, Skinny Lister, Knuckle Puck and Sean McGowan at The 1865 and WH Lung at Heartbreakers, while acts playing The Joiners include Honeyblood, Art Brut, Black Honey, Dream State, Stand Atlantic, Ingested, Mini Mansions, and Henge (all in-house, as Joiners Live).

“There are so many touring shows taking place at the moment and selling well,” he says. “For example, Easy Life sold-out months in advance.

“There’s definitely pockets of genres that are opening up. We’ve done garage shows, we’ve done grime, we’re bringing back more reggae and ska shows.”

These include Slowthai (promoted by AEG Presents) and The Manor (SJM).

“It’s really all about not clashing gigs and just spreading the genres while making sure venues like ours support the local bands, too,” adds Bates, who cites Pioneers, Jet Ski Babylon and The Edits as hot local acts to watch.

“That’s something that is really important for us,” says Bates. “We’ve always tried to support the smaller bands, by giving them a platform, and trying to help them grow.”

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