There was a time, not too long ago, when every hotel and restaurant was transformed into a live music venue every Friday night. When bars offered their patrons an experience, and not just somebody creating a playlist from dated tracks that are blared out too loud into underage ears. When selecting which of the plethora of gigs and venues to frequent was a real problem in music lovers’ lives. Sadly, it appears that these days are gone. Nowadays, venues can generally be fitted in to two categories – the niche boutique style arenas that offer you intimate quality, or the larger spots where you are sure to encounter more established artists with all of the pomp and fuss that surrounds their shows. Both have their merits, but as a child brought up on choice, I have to admit a certain longing for exploring great acts at venues which were different and exciting, yet oddly united in protecting the fragile sound that is local music.
This longing surfaced recently as I spent a considerable amount of time at a rather sleepy coastal town. Not only were there no venues for live music anywhere, this didn’t seem to bug any of the locals at all. Their argument was that when options are limited, a sense of community is created. And I guess this is true. But there is far more to this whole situation than meets the eye.
Running a Venue – The Realities
It would appear that there is nothing simpler than running a venue. You need acts, some kind of sound, and you’re golden. But this is far from true. Venues have several factors to take into consideration – your entertainment licence, a liquor licence, security, sponsorships of your stock, decent equipment, a viable venue, decent parking, a market of willing audiences, and musicians who are willing to play at your venue (more on this later).
Organizing the above requires capital, and extensive planning. This is partly why we as music lovers are seeing a rise, particularly around Gauteng, of dominant venues. Let’s consider Johannesburg as a carrier of the venue virus. In the very recent past there were numerous spots for up-and-coming bands to share the stage with bigger artists. All that you had to do was call up the owner, find a date, pick your line-up, and talk numbers.
But this is where the virus caught hold. Venues that were open to this kind of interaction soon became known as “music” venues. While this is great for fans, it is very difficult for owners. You need people to come in, eat a meal (if you have a kitchen), and drink at bar prices. This is not a problem for the upwardly mobile with money to burn, but for the average kid on the street who can’t afford to buy real albums and pay entrance, this wasn’t an option. The alternative is to car bar, and then enjoy the show, but obviously this creates security risks for client and owner alike. All too quickly, we who so desire to listen to live music are forced to increasingly dodgy areas. And while the bohemian style of life is appealing for the short term, it isn’t exactly viable.
In recent years, the plague of smaller, dodgier venues has ended, and we have seen the rise of musical meccas, complexes where multiple tastes are catered for. The Assembly, Newtown, and Arcade Empire represent the new thinking regarding tune temples. They are big, which means you and all of your friend’s friend’s can party at the same place. They are open all year round, and always offer diverse acts – genres are not limited to venues . And they are in accessible, but still somewhat separate locations, so that you can party in a safer setting that isn’t near any local law enforcement.
While this is all good, there are a lot of secondary infections associated with this part of the virus. From a musician’s perspective, getting a shot at performing at these venues can prove problematic – you need a fanbase that will follow you, but where do you showcase your talent first to grow this following? You will be an opening act, which means minimal crowd interaction. And your cut, if it exists, will be minimal. Even though the advent of social media marketing means that bands can have fans without ever getting on stage, the real core of live musicianship - gigging and live performance, are still fundamental . But the virus has struck here too. No small venues means no chances to hone your skills, and thus, no fresh acts.
From the perspective of the audience, the benefits of community and familiarity with your fellow gig goers are outweighed by boredom. While the variety of new venues is exciting, it soon becomes somewhat samey. And due to the new structure of the venues in SA, acts are forced to operate in tour circuits, which means that you are likely to see the same performers in waves, gigging regularly across the country over scheduled periods.
The problem with the venue virus is that it requires truly dedicated people to cure from the inside. And these people need real money to make a difference. But it is happening. Smaller venues seem to be on the rise again, albeit as dual purpose arenas catering to the acoustic crowd. And mega venues are being rivalled as potential competitors spring up.
The fact is that we as music lovers need to be discerning about what we want. Don’t just accept what gets offered to you at your local. Spend time ferreting out those epic underground shows. When the listeners realize that they have the power, things can change. It sounds silly, but supporting real, original South African music, even at obscure venues, is the only way that we can keep our industry productive and fresh.