By Tom McGhie
It’s about half past six as we pull up outside the Brickmakers, the once great bastion of free music and celebrated Norwich venue. In the fading evening light, I can still make out the instantly recognisable logo of the guitar which adorns the pub’s entrance – a beacon of sorts for music lovers and punters all over East Anglia. The ‘Brickies’ is large enough to accommodate 300 people and on most Fridays and Saturdays it does so, playing host to many raucous rock gigs and performances. However, as with all local music venues, on non-gig nights the atmosphere in these places is far less febrile and only dedicated drinkers and regulars frequent the venue.
This particular Monday night is different, the pub a hum of activity. But instead of the usual cacophony of chinking glasses and wild laughter, the din is comprised of stern and focused conversation. Juxtaposed to beautifully painted murals of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and other rock legends is a table with complimentary coffee and tea, being served by two men in leather jackets with locks of mammalian dreaded hair falling about their denim jeans. After a brief dispute between my heart and mind I join the queue to the bar. As I do, people continue to make their measured procession into the pub and soon there are upwards of a hundred people inside.
On 21st September, the Brickmakers became one of five pubs in a month to announce its closure. In a short period of time, the Norwich music scene was disembowelled as the Garden House, Gibraltar Gardens, the Woodman, the York and most significantly the Brickmakers announced their forthcoming closure – all of them citing rent increases inflicted on them by their shared owner Ei Group. With the local music scene left reeling by this sudden and unexpected hit, a Facebook group called the ‘Future of Norwich Music Forum’ was hastily set up and a meeting arranged to discuss what could be done in the aftermath of the aforementioned events. Rather poignantly, the location of the meet was the Brickmakers itself, and so on October 8th the ancient pub was flooded by musicians, promoters and saddened members of the public. It felt very much like a coming together of the clans: band members from different outfits stood alongside each other and rival promoters were now united under the same banner.
the seed planted in September has evolved into a legitimate force for action and change
The meeting was chaired by Megan Thrift, ex-UEA student and community leader, and Jon Fennell, a well-known member of the music scene. These two had been the main driving force behind the setting up of both the Facebook group and the subsequent meeting. The pair led the discussion in the Brickmakers that evening, raising issues and putting them forward to the crowd, who invariably sprung back with impassioned responses. Ideas ricocheted around the room and lead to healthy, at times heated, debate. The main thing to come out of the meeting was the issue of gig attendance, or rather the lack thereof, as many people voiced their experiences of playing to near-empty rooms, or hosting events that no one turned up to.
‘Although what originally sparked my motivation for all of this was hearing that the landladies of the Brickmakers had to leave because of their rent increase, I found that the goals quickly shifted’ said Thrift, talking after the event. ‘Initially, the aim was to start a discussion, whereas now the main objective is to find a workable solution to the problems that the group has identified, i.e. how do we get the general public to attend music events in greater number’. If no one turns up to a gig then, quite aside from it being rather disheartening for the artist and promoters who are involved, there is no money being made by anyone – which in this day and age is essential for both parties to continue to create live music.
The event was well attended by the public, considering the speed with which it had been arranged; testament indeed to the efficiency and organisational skills of Thrift and Fennell. After the gathering had reached a natural conclusion people stayed to discuss more informally, and the room broke into pockets of newly made friends talking earnestly about the Norwich music scene. A subsequent meeting was arranged later in the month at Epic Studios, where the main topics that came to light during the Brickmakers meeting could be addressed by a panel of specialists in front of a crowd.
Epic Studios is a colossal venue, one of the largest in Norwich, which plays host to a variety of different events, from music gigs to wrestling matches. On October 30th it opened its doors to what was essentially a mini music conference. People came in their droves to bear witness to a handpicked panel of experts who were interviewed on stage, giving invaluable advice to the audience both at the venue and to those at home, as the evening was filmed and shared on social media. The volume of people who attended that evening, as well as the media coverage that the movement had received in the lead up to the conference was evidence of how much passion there was within the community about the future of Norwich music. Confirmation indeed that the seed planted in September has evolved into a legitimate force for action and change.
If Thrift was anxious whilst she addressed the hundred-strong crowd at Epic Studios then she did not show it, confidently outlining the mission statement of the movement and the three main concerns about the scene that had been raised by the public at the first meeting. These were the issues of publicity, how bands and artists could promote their events effectively, accessibility, how public transport within the city could be improved to aid attendance at gigs, and a structural concern about how people with disabilities and learning difficulties could be accommodated more effectively. The night was split into three parts, with each one devoted to addressing a given issue, presided over by three panellists and an interviewer. Members of the music press, promoters and musicians alike spoke at great length about the issues at hand and brainstormed viable solutions. The end product was a two-hour recorded lecture on how to cultivate a thriving music scene – an invaluable resource for both up and coming musicians and promoters alike.
For me, the enduring message of the meeting was that, although Norwich’s music community cannot be said to be in a terrible state, there are things that could be done by people on both sides of the stage that would lead to greater success within the community and ensure that the scene continues to thrive into the future.
For more information on the Future of Norwich Music Campaign, see their facebook page. The Brickmakers, Norwich Evening News and Outline Magazine are campaigning to save the pub – you can sign the petition to Ei Group here, or become a Friend of the Brickmakers here.
Featured image credit: Outline
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