- 27 Feb 12
The closure of a number of venues in Dublin and Cork suggests that the recession is having a disastrous impact on rock’n’roll. So what is it that defines a great location for making music? And can you bottle it?
Well then, Tripod is gone and with it Crawdaddy. These were important venues that will be seriously missed. In Cork, the Realt Dearg is closing. Meanwhile Paul Lee is looking for a suitable room in Dublin to hold gigs. So what’s going on? After all, Dundalk’s Spirit Store is seriously considering almost doubling its capacity.
There are a number of factors that affect the longevity of a venue: the level of competition is key and in Dublin that is fierce. In addition, rents, location, admission price, booking policy, staff (I was recently in a venue – thankfully not in Ireland – where the big, burly, dinner-jacket-clad doormen not only made you queue to get in but also, bizarrely, to get out), general ambience and reputation all play a part. However, one of the key prerequisites that can make a venue great is often overlooked: a sense of belonging. It helps if you feel you’re part of a community.
Oddly enough, in some ways this can be easier for huge venues – the O2 and its like – where you’ll only be going to see a gig if you’ve heard the band over and over on the radio. Chances are, if you’re willing to stump up for a ticket, you’ll be something of a fan-boy/fan-girl and when you get in you’ll find yourself amidst a T-shirted sea of kindred spirits, all of whom know when to hold up the mobile phone and enough of the words to sing along.
Smaller venues tend to promote bands with less of a following (although they’ll tend to be local and bring a posse of friends). Often, however, it’s down to the venue to create a sense of belonging amongst its audience. It’s a subtle art, not particularly well understood amongst the designers of such buildings.
If you look at the winners of the yearly IMRO Live Music Venue polls, many of the most popular venues have a slightly down-home aspect, a lived-in charm. Dundalk’s Spirit Store is a case in point. The venue itself is unprepossessing, having been converted from what were originally the two bedrooms of a dockside pub. It was given a styling of sorts when it opened first, but much of that has been overwritten by the general wear and tear of a dozen years of amps being dragged along walls, pints being spilled and people leaning against – or sliding down – the walls.
What makes it work is its sense of community. With the bulk of staff drawn from the town’s bands you can go in and casually strike up a conversation about music. It also caters to the port’s fishermen, giving it a character of its own. The booker is a former musician and this colours the atmosphere too. The Spirit Store has to put on bands who will bring enough of a crowd to sustain it as a going concern. But there is always an effort to find a place for a good band who haven’t quite found their audience yet. There are a number of venues around the country which have built a community in the same way – deBarras in Clonakilty and Kenny’s in Lahinch among them. All around the country a host of non-traditional venues have become host to ‘Sessions’ gigs, which act as little beacons for their local communities of music lovers (even if some are designed purely to get punters through the door).
That sense of community has always been strong amongst folk and traditional music fans for, though fashionable from time to time, these genres have survived hardship and indifference too.
Often tucked away and aloof from the mainstream music scene, the folk clubs that sprang up during the revival of the late ’60s created a sense of community. Many are still thriving decades after that boom went bust. There’s a shared respect for the music and for the musicians who make it – and while that sometimes manifests itself in a siege mentality and a mistrust of outside influences it’s a tribute nonetheless to the passion and devotion of performers and audiences alike.
That’s why Paul Lee has been able to keep promoting concerts without resorting to lowering the bar or novelty programming. His audiences feel as comfortable under the Musiclee banner as the bands who play under it. What he is looking for is not a venue. He’s looking for a home because he knows he is talking to a family both on the stage and off it.