Live music is the most engaging – and least monetised – of all the multifarious forms of entertainment available to us here in the UK – and perhaps the western world.
When I started writing my regular live column in the Luton News & Dunstable Gazette almost exactly 17 years ago, I saw it that my task was to write about the best in the local music scene. I also thought that this was a good place for highlighting interesting stuff which otherwise might not get into the press. So in October 1995 my first column covered local funk band Longevity, a gig at Luton’s 33 Club from the Chicago style blues rock outfit King Bizkit, A Madness / Bad Manners tribute band at Yate’s Wine Bar, a Halloween gig from Longlights’ Promotions in Dunstable and a review of a fund raising barn dance at Whipsnade Zoo.
Since then Dunstable’s Queensway Hall has been knocked down and converted to a supermarket, the 33 Arts Centre in Luton has been closed and now sits empty. We have gained The Grove Theatre and the Hat Factory but neither of these puts on any contemporary professional live music. It’s very easy to view venues like the Queensway and the 33 through rose tinted glasses, but having worked at both venues I know that they had real problems in terms of the sound (Queensway) and the facilities (33 Club). However they were both on the touring circuit and both had some amazing acts passing through.
For instance the list of legendary bands that played in Dunstable included Hawkwind, New Model Army, Blue Öyster Cult, Magnum, Killing Joke, REM, Thin Lizzy, Metallica, Level 42, Uli Jon Roth, Steve Hackett, Dr Feelgood, Marillion, Gary Moore, Pretenders, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead and the Sex Pistols just to mention a few. The 33 Club had a different feel with many great American Jazz acts dropping in, sometimes doing their only UK dates there on the way through to Europe. While the Grove Theatre and the Hat Factory are technically far superior as venues, they don’t seem to be able to match the programming of the older (and now absent) inferior venues.
When I sit down to write my column every week, I get the information from a number of sources. First I rake through the emails people send me – which is mainly from the ‘professional’ theatres, venues, promoters and PR types. I then check any ‘events’ I may have flagged on Facebook and as a ‘last’ resort, search the web – usually via Lemonrock – for local gigs. It always amazes me how little effort most ‘up-and-coming’ local musicians and / or bands put into promoting their band / gig / album / whatever. If there are any ‘hot’ issues that effect the music scene – such as the recent changes in music licencing legislation – then I try to fit in stuff about this as well.
State of the local music scene Luton / Dunstable
One ‘feature’ of the local music scene is the lack of any venues that regularly put on acts that are active on the national music gig circuit. There are a few ‘one off’ gigs on occasion but generally you have to go elsewhere to see an act that you’ve actually heard of previously. You could argue that Luton and Dunstable fall into the ‘rain shadow’ cast by London, but surrounding towns don’t seem to suffer from this as much.
There seem to be more live bands appearing around the local area with mainly cover bands appearing at pubs and clubs in the area. The good new is that mostly the gigs are free to the punter with the venue owners realising that customers like a place with live music. In fact research from PRS for Music (Performing Rights Society) has revealed that live music is the best way for a venue to increase sales with 95% of publicans reporting an increase in takings when music is on their menu. It also turns out that pubs that don’t have live music are three times more likely to go bust than those who book bands.
There seems to be a dearth of outlets for any kind of original music. Apart from the Stirling work done by the chaps and chapesses of the PDM and LAMA the only way you get to hear new music / artists is via pub ‘Open Mic’ nights and jam sessions. A lot of pubs have jumped on the ‘Open Mic’ bandwagon and the ones I’ve been to tend to be pretty much of a “Curate’s egg” situation. Perhaps if they were just one part of a more vibrant local music scene then they would feed new talent into the mix. As it is it’s usually just a cheap way for a pub to be able to put ‘live music’ on its blackboard.
Public funding of the arts…
Funding of the arts – or arts facilities – is a ‘hot topic’ at the moment as Local Authorities all around the country are under pressure to cut funding. In fact Newcastle City Council has completely cut its arts budget which has led to a lot of criticism being levelled at them. However this has also meant that other local authorities around the country are now considering following their lead as the arts are considered a ‘soft target’.
However, research shows that for every pound spent on the arts, two pounds of revenue is generated within the local economy. This means that massive cuts would essentially mean that the council would be shooting itself in the foot. I’ve not been able to get any hard information about the arts spend by the Luton council from their website, but I’m rather wondering if they are planning to penalise the local arts scene for the losses that they accrued from the big Olympic Torch Festival.
The recent Hat Factory stake holders meeting was an interesting insight into how the arts work in the People’s Republic of Luton. It seems that the council hived off the entire cultural part of the council’s remit to an independent charity that administers the libraries, the museum and all the arts venues. Luton Culture is currently mainly funded by Luton Borough Council (LBC) to the tune of five million pounds which is about 70% of the overall budget of the charity.
Anyway it seems that LBC will be slashing their contribution by around 40% over the next three years. Fortunately the fact that the charity is independent means that the council can’t just shut down the arts in the same way that Newcastle did. The reduction is pretty huge but the team at Luton Culture seem pretty confident that they can survive and continue to provide the core services including a Peripatetic Core arts team operating out the Hat Factory and Library Theatre. There will be cuts but arts will continue to be supported in Luton for the foreseeable future.
While it is not the business of our local authorities to subsidise the local music (or arts) scene, they can – and should – consider both the cultural and business aspects of the local cultural scene. It is possible for the holders of our council tax revenue to provide ‘seed corn’ funding to encourage newcomers as well as established artists and promoters and help address any gross distortions in the local scene caused by factors under their control. This is part of their remit as our elected representatives .
There is always the X-Factor and it’s ilk I suppose. While I realise that there is a place in the music world for the likes of Simon Cowell (presumably under a rock), the bands that really made the UK the leading light in popular music were those who got the top by the hard road through gigs in the pubs and clubs, playing to a live audience. The idea of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Stones, Coldplay or The Police (to name just a few) getting to the top by going through the X-Factor sausage machine is a bit bizarre. No doubt the audiences will get bored with the pantomime of TV ‘talent’ competitions eventually.
The famous BBC Radio One DJ John Peel once said that the biggest enemy of new music was the music fan. As the mainstream music industry is run by bean counters whose only aim is to get their hands on the cash from the those same music fans then it’s not surprising that the music scene is constantly rehashing the old and ignoring the new. If punters are prepared to take risks and weather Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) then there may be some hope of a vibrant music scene in the country and thus our local area. Otherwise we can look forward to a diet of rehashed hits from the 60’s (I can’t get no Satisfaction) and charming viral tosh from YouTube like Gangnam Style.
We treat the British music scene as a given, a god given attribute of this cold and damp collection of islands perched on the north western edge of Europe. However if the ‘great British public’ don’t get off their collective backsides and go out to see some gigs then the whole shebang will wither on the vine and we’ll end up with a fantasy world of manufactured X-Factor style artists. These artists are chosen by a clique of promoters whose dedication to the music starts and stops at the bottom line.
My next blog will be a catch up on the gigs and other events from my arrival back in the UK in Spring 2012…