by Alex Day
Clubs these days have it tough.
Gentrification, some say, is killing our venues. Student flats, noise restrictions, Dry January!
How does one make money with surging rents and a clientele streaming limitless online content from home, bed-ridden and booze-shy?
AND there’s the dubious authorities I imagine peering through the smoke and shadows, itching to close noisy night spots. One wrong move and they’ll surely revoke your license.
Dingy nests for underground music are being smothered into obscurity – the narrative goes.
There is evidence to support this. In the last decade, 35% of independent venues in the UK closed. A UK ‘live music census’, conducted for the first time in 2018, found that a third of live music venues have experienced problems with property developments.
As with live music, night clubs are also having a rough ride. Over just eight years, the capital has lost 50 per cent of its nightclubs. Fabric, a behemoth in London’s clubbing landscape, had their license revoked after two drug-related deaths (they subsequently reopened following a rapturous national campaign).
In Bristol, clubs are also being barged adrift. Thekla, an infamous boat party, was threatened by a residential development in 2017 and, the following year, Lakota announced they may refashion themselves into a ‘mixed-use development’ (a by-word for swanky digs and a Co-op).
Norwich Arts Centre, Space Studios and Gonzo’s Two Room remain fiercely independent and are teeming with dancers.
Thekla and Fabric continue to host parties, but their rocky rides remind us our favourite clubs are not immune to urban development nor police authority. Corporate hegemony seems to be erasing independent venues.
Yet, in spite of such cataclysmic headlines, music venues in Norwich are hitting their stride. Norwich Arts Centre, Space Studios and Gonzo’s Two Room remain fiercely independent and are teaming with dancers. They have not suffered the pesky erasure that plagues other cities.
I spoke to the managers and programmers involved to find out how they do it.
Gonzo’s Two Room is a “breath of fresh air’” says Levi, a promoter with 12 years’ experience. Last year the club rehoused, abandoning Bermuda Bob’s for a space darned with sophisticated interior, rooftop terrace and ‘sweaty 250 cap’: “we’re blessed to have it’” Levi concurs. So far, Gigi FM, Peach and Joy Orbison have graced the booth.
Like Gonzo’s Two Room, Norwich Arts Centre (NAC) has embarked on an upgrade. The bar and auditorium have been refurbished and a gender-neutral toilet is incoming, supported by a £500,000 grant; all part of the NAC Regenerations Project.
Space Studios is a smaller, 100-capacity, venue and ‘the closest thing to a house party’, according to Abraham, the manager. It is a hotbed for new promoters, like Bass in Space and Utopia 4 Junglists, and live bands. Abraham booked 100 bands last year.
So what’s their secret?
One way to turn a profit is to diversify. As well as music, Gonzo’s offers a monthly comedy night and operates a ‘Tea Room’ downstairs, whilst Space Studios houses yoga, meditation and 18 artist studios. NAC is also eclectic, presenting spoken word and theatre. No venue is aligned to just live music.
…when local artists develop, shows improve and audiences flock faster
Another approach helping sustain these venues is to work closely with the local community. At the top of Abraham’s agenda is to “‘develop a scene and support local talent”. He admits it’s “difficult to turn a profit”, but such a component is unimportant when partnerships are fuelled by goodwill. At NAC, ‘True Stories Live’ invites amateur raconteurs to the stage, voicing local stories to a local audience. Gonzo’s supports local promoters, like Our House and Keep on Dancing, which has a synchronous effect: when local artists develop, shows improve and audiences flock faster.
Amongst the local talent, these venues are platforming marginalised communities. Gonzo’s aim for a 50/50 gender split in DJ bookings; evidenced by recent headliners Éclair Fifi and Moxie. The NAC are a long-term supporter of House of Daze, a leading Norwich drag show, and began this year with a discussion on ‘representation’. Space Studios have also announced a monthly ‘House of Daze’ event. To thrive, venues must be accessible and open-minded.
Grassroots venues are helped further by city-wide festivals, such as Wigflex City Festival and Simple Things, which draws punters to unchartered destinations in Bristol and Nottingham. Last year, Norwich was enlivened by Wild Paths, a three-day music festival that celebrates venues, as much as music. All the programmers I spoke to were busy assembling gigs for a flurry of footfall this October, when Wild Paths returns.
All this ingenuity is, crucially, being supported by our local council. Whilst transitioning into Gonzo’s Two Room, Levi felt the “the council were great” and “understood what you were doing”. The figures confirm: Since 2017, the council has granted 100 new licenses and no venues have been closed due to noise complaints.
At national government level, optimism abounds: small and medium music venues can look forward to a 50% reduction in business rates, which the Music Venue Trust estimates will save each site an average of £7,500 a year. And, Arts Council have renewed their Supporting Grassroots Live Music Fund, a pot that amounts to £1.5 million, until 2021.
Still, venues embedded in Norwich’s compact lanes are not immune from noise complaints. Bermuda Bob’s renamed and relocated after a neighbouring pub issued a noise complaint last year (although they weren’t evicted). Space Studios, which is not a nightclub in a traditional sense, abides by strict decibel rules to deter from confrontation and encourage conversation. A few years ago, they closed temporarily due to ‘licensing issues’.
Running venues is rarely plain sailing. To avoid instances of ‘statutory nuisance’ in future, property developers and politicians must continue to support the creative calisthenics performed by our limber venues. This means sound-proofing new developments and appointing a night-czar, like Amy Lamé. Beer-glugging youths, poised with gun fingers, may be underrepresented at the director’s table, but their access to culture should not be limited.
Our nightspots are bolstered by diverse events and offering their platform to local and marginalised groups – smart remedies for a tough climate. Yet, without the approval and financial backbone of local and national government, venues vanish.
Head out and support. Here’s a programme of events that invite you to shuffle:
[In light of recent COVID-19 expansion and news, please be aware that these events may now not be taking place as originally described.]
Featured image credit: Gonzo’s Tea Room Facebook Page
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