Monday, 29 April 2013

Be the venue you want to see in the world

Over the weekend I did a lot of characteristically small-town rural things. I visited family. I drank wine in front of an open fire. I had a roast dinner. I drank in a Wetherspoons. One thing I did that might be worth mentioning though, was the fact I went to see a burgeoning new house act play in a student club in Lancaster.

Going to see bands, artists or "acts" in small towns is often a bizarre experience. Despite Lancaster's huge student population, the nightlife in the area leaves a lot to be desired. Aside from a handful of smaller clubs dealing with late night binge drinkers with typical enthusiastic aplomb, there are scarily few places to go where any music outside of the charts might be played.

After years of visiting the same nightspots in the city - it's my hometown, I've been a veteran drunk there since the summer of 2005 - there seems to be little the bars and pubs can do to encourage the growth of any kind of independent music scene, despite many heroic past attempts by well-meaning students and businessfolk alike to change the face of Lancaster's late night scene.

Short-lived electro nights and breakbeat shows came and went, rock nights burnt out, visiting musicians became more and more obscure. The die-hard followings of various club nights was no match for the ever-changing young population of Lancaster. There may be locals but the vast majority of paying punters are set to leave in four years max. You can't expect a much-loved local lad or lass to continue DJing at Cuba after they graduate. It's selfish. People move on (to Manchester, usually). You eventually get over it.

With the graduating musicians goes their hard-earned clubnight branding. The nights of flyering comes to a stop, the bar loses money, it eventually closes. This sad story isn't singular to Lancaster, but its more telling there than in other areas. Even larger clubs like Toast (now "Lost" - a stolen name from a rock night that once flourished there - no rock is played now, oddly) and Liquid rebrand every 18 months or so, desperate to keep it fresh for the perpetual influx of freshers, forgetting about the locals who potentially have more money to spend if the theme, music, even the atmosphere was right.

Pubs that were once six-deep at the bar now struggle to hold on to patrons on pound a pint nights. Nights that were legendary amongst an entire cross-section of local society have been stopped due to a lack of interest and the simple fact that promoters don't want to put their time into these sorts of ventures anymore. I don't blame them. There are other things to do.

Why would a club sort out its disgraceful toilets and rude bar staff if its still making money from people who don't care where they drink? Why would a clubnight want to book a guest DJ in if ticket sales would barely cover their costs? Why would bands and DJs want to play in a town that has forgotten what real live performances are about?

That's the atmosphere I was met with on Saturday - a crowd who had lost their way. Aside from my initial delight that in quite a large club the drinks were less than £5 each, it was clear the people inside weren't here to see the act in question - they were here for some music. They were here to see anyone. The sheer fact that these young DJs were national names, that they were playing music that wasn't on the Capital FM playlist made it more exciting. It was confusing to see hundreds of people dancing to tasteful, poppy, Disclosure-esque house the way they'd dance to Knife Party. It was hard to see whether people were enjoying themselves or if they were just excited to be given something else to do.

The guys on stage weren't bad, and they played a couple of really great tracks. What I was left with wasn't an impression of them though. It was an impression of small town nightlife. There's nothing to do because people don't know what they want. Or perhaps they won't pay for it. Either way, it's hard to explain that going out isn't all goldfish bowl Sex On The Beach, broken toilet door locks and clubs that smell of straw and disinfectant. The cheesy music I can cope with, the disgraceful state of the venues I cannot.

If club owners want to leave their properties to fall in on themselves, that's their choice. When it reflects badly on an entire area, that's when it becomes a problem. When discussing where to go on a Friday night comes down to where is less disgusting, you know there is a serious issue at hand. With no real choice, these places are packed regardless of whether any changes are made. This turns promoters off from creating new and interesting clubnights, it stops larger acts from coming in and generating much-needed revenue from ticket and drinks sales, and it stilts the growth of what could be an area of serious cultural growth and activity.

Lancaster isn't a backwater town. It's a thriving city with a very diverse cross-section of society living within its boundaries. There's no need for it to act like a post-depression mining village in the throes of a moonshine epidemic. If you're going to own all the clubs in an area, perhaps think about the ramifications this investment has on the scene of the town as a whole, and not about how much more money you could make by letting underage drinkers in on the sly.

Just a thought.
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