How grassroots music venues are fighting for life in a changing world

Kassassin Street playing at The Wedgewood Rooms in October 2015. ''Picture: Paul Windsor
Kassassin Street playing at The Wedgewood Rooms in October 2015. ''Picture: Paul Windsor
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Independent Venue Week aims to give a voice to the places that form the backbone of the UK’s live music industry. CHRIS BROOM found out more.

Have you ever been in the crowd at Wembley, singing along with several thousand like-minded souls as Oasis belt out Rock ’n’ Roll Star? Perhaps you were at Hyde Park last summer when The Strokes pulled off a triumphant show? Or even August bank holiday weekend at Victorious Festival when The Darkness put a collective smile on many people’s faces?

These bands all have one thing in common – they didn’t get to perform to these enormous crowds without first honing their craft by playing hundreds of gigs – and they all played at Southsea’s own humble Wedgewood Rooms on their way to the top.

Later this month The Wedgewood Rooms is one of 120 venues across the UK that is taking part in the third annual Independent Venue Week.

The seven-day-long campaign, which takes place from January 25 to 31, runs nationally but with a local grassroots focus.

Starting out with just 15 venues in 2014, it aims to highlight their crucial role in the foodchain of the music business, as well as highlighting the threats many of them find themselves up against. It also aims to give these venues a collective voice and find a way to safeguard their future.

In London a report was published in October looking at the capital’s grassroots music venues. It revealed that between 2007 and 2015, ‘London lost 35 percent of its grassroots music venues,’ a drop from 136 to 88.

‘Iconic names like the Marquee Club, the Astoria, the 12 Bar Club and Madame Jojo’s disappeared from the map.’

It’s a picture that has been replicated elsewhere – renowned venues such as the Sheffield Boardwalk, the Princess Charlotte in Leicester and the Cockpit in Leeds have all closed in recent years, and our own The Cellars at Eastney closed last year. As The Cellars manager Steve Pitt made clear at the time, closing was purely a financial decision – as loved as it was by those who went there, there simply weren’t enough people attending gigs to make it a viable business.

Many more, including The Joiners in Southampton, have found themselves facing difficult decisions about their futures.

Smaller independent venues are going through a bit of a kicking at the moment, and it doesn’t do any harm to highlight that we are here and to highlight some of the issues that we have

Wedgewood Rooms manager Geoff Priestley

The Wedgewood Rooms, which has been operating on Albert Road in its current guise for 23 years, took part for in IVW for the first time last year.

Wedge manager Geoff Priestley has been there for 18 years and says: ‘Smaller independent venues are going through a bit of a kicking at the moment, and it doesn’t do any harm to highlight that we are here and to highlight some of the issues that we have.

‘It’s not sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – we have to be a proper business.’

Since IVW began, The Music Venue Trust and The Music Venues Alliance have also been created, to give these live spaces a collective voice.

People’s changing habits in the way they consume music has been a major problem.

With the rise of downloading and streaming, the music industry has shifted its focus more into the live arena and much has been made about many bands making more money from the live side than album sales.

But as Geoff explains, this has a greater benefit for more established acts: ‘There’s been a whole lot of stuff in the press about how many people go to live music – gigs and festivals – but at the moment people are going to see live music in larger venues because they know what they are going to get for their money.

‘The acts that we put on, some people will know exactly what’s going on, but others don’t want to take that risk.’

While ticket prices for mega acts like U2 and Coldplay have seen inflation-busting rises, ticket prices for small venues have remained largely stagnant for years.

Geoff says: ‘It used to be that gigs would fund themselves – the ticket sales would cover the band and the other costs for the evening and the take at the bar would be the profit, but because the cost of touring has gone up, the cost of bands has gone up, and people are drinking less when they go out, so that doesn’t work any more.’

Independent venues have also found themselves pinched in other ways, economically.

He explains: ‘We have the same problem that any small business has, and that’s rising costs.

‘The chains, like the Academies and the O2s, they can drive costs down because they work on such a large scale – like dealing with a brewery for example. As an independent venue we get whatever we can haggle.’

And Geoff adds that the younger audience is less keen to come to smaller gigs.

‘30-to-35 plus, the bulk of gig-goers in that age group, according to research, these are the people who would go to gigs and see the support band too, and if they liked the support band they would go see them too when they next came this way.

‘Seeing live music is an integral part of how they find new music.’

But once you look at younger age groups the picture changes – they lean more on online tools and social media to discover new music.

Geoff believes that change is necessary in the way music venues are perceived – and that they should be on a par with other cultural assets.

‘People’s perception of theatres is that they are cultural places, and that’s accepted. Now, to some people, live music venues are as culturally relevant, but that’s not being recognised.

‘And yet the theatres get grant support, tax breaks, council tax breaks, and so on.

‘We don’t get any of that, but to some people what we do is just as culturally relevant.’

Alongside the main room with its capacity of 400, there is also The Edge of the Wedge, which can operate as a standalone 100-cap venue.

Geoff says: ‘I like The Edge because we try to encourage local bands to use the space and to get promoters to make some money for themselves.’

And Chris Smith has been taken on as digital marketing manager to boost The Wedge’s online profile through a blog, playlists of upcoming bands and social media.

‘People used to go to gigs because they knew their friends would be there, but even that’s changed now,’ says Chris, who also plays in upcoming indie band Veludo Planes. ‘It’s becoming a less mainstream pastime to go to gigs like this – people look online for their new music.

‘I’ve been trying to reach out more to people and get them involved, but it is difficult.’

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‘The Wedge has always been a staple part of the live scene’

For many local bands, playing on The Wedge’s stage is seen as a rite of passage – it’s a sign that you’re doing something right, a step in the right direction.

One of the current crop of acts from the city that is starting to generate a buzz beyond Portsmouth are the psychedelic rock band Kassassin Street.

Last autumn the band undertook their first nationwide co-headlining tour, and it was no accident that they opted to finish tour with a sell-out homecoming show at The Wedge.

Frontman Rowan Bastable says: ‘The Wedge has always been such a staple part of the live music scene around here, you only have to look at some of the bands who have played there and gone to play huge stadiums.

‘It’s so, so vital to the development of bands that there are venues like it. Without them I don’t really know how bands would get started.’

Kassassin Street also became the last band to ever play at The Cellars in Eastney when it closed down in August last year.

‘The Cellars was such an important part of our development as a band – it was small enough for us to sell a few tickets and feel like we’d achieved something for the first time.

‘There is a worry about where the next generation of Portsmouth bands are going to have to play. I know there are pubs that can be used for live music, but it’s not the same 
as playing at a proper music venue.’

And it’s not just as a performer – Rowan is often in the audience at gigs. ‘I’ve had some amazing nights at The Wedge. It always has this great atmosphere, there’s something about it.

‘There are only a few venues around the country that have got that and The Wedge is one of them.’

Wolf Alice are proud to support campaign

Each year, a different act is chosen as the ambassador for Independent Venue Week.

Following in the footsteps of Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood and punk troubador Frank Turner, who originally hailed from Winchester, are the London indie rockers Wolf Alice.

The four-piece have been on the up-and-up for the past two years.

But last year things really took off for them – they played twice at Glastonbury and their debut album My Love is Cool was only kept off the top spot of the charts by Florence and the Machine.

This March they will be playing at The Pyramids Centre in Southsea – but they are no strangers to smaller venues in the city. They played an early gig at the since-closed Registry pub, and were at the Wedge in May 2014.

When it was announced they were taking on the role for this year’s IVW, they said: ‘We are proud to be ambassadors of this year’s Independent Venue Week and ask for people’s support so these kind of unique, intimate and sweaty shows continue for everyone to enjoy.

‘Venues that we started off playing along with so many other bands have created some of our funnest memories to date.

‘We’d love for that to continue for us and for other bands, please show your support.’

‘It’s still an honour to play The Wedge’

The finale of The Wedgewood Rooms’ Independent Venue Week comes on Saturday, January 30 when it is part of the second Icebreaker Festival.

The festival celebrates the best in local music, and will see more than 90 acts, ranging from lo-fi acoustic to full-on metal via electronica and much more, perform on 10 stages.

As part of Pilot Promotions, Mike Hartley is helping organise the event, but the Pilot team have been busy putting on gigs by homegrown acts around Southsea for the past few years.

Mike first played at The Wedge during a battle of the bands competition with his band, Krud, about 15 years ago.

Since then he says he’s lost count how many times he’s played there with various bands over the years, most recently with his current group The Underground Pilots when they headlined a five-band bill last July.

But he adds: ‘It’s still a massive thing to play there – it’s an honour to play at The Wedge.’

And as a promoter he thinks that small venues are key to maintaining a thriving local scene.

‘There aren’t enough places for new bands that are coming through to play in Portsmouth, so they end up playing in places that aren’t really good for them.

‘I think that’s why it’s important that we do what we do as 
Pilot Promotions – we try to 
give bands a proper stage to play on.

‘It is sad that we don’t have a variety of stages around the city for bands to play on. It’s important that people respect The Wedge. If that goes, I don’t even want to think about it.’

What’s on at The Wedgewood Rooms during Independent Venue Week

n Monday, January 25: Giants & Create To Inspire, Disparity, Forever In Depths and more. Doors 7pm. Tickets £5

n Wednesday, January 27: Acres, plus special guests Housefires, Noyo Mathis and Seasons In Wreckage. Doors 7.30pm . Tickets £5.

n Thursday, January 28: Matthew E. White, plus special guests. Doors 8pm . Tickets £14

n Saturday, January 30: Icebreaker. Doors 1pm. Tickets £10.

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