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Bird & Bramble: Early Doors…

by / December 17, 2017

While scrolling through the never-ending negativity that is Facebook in 2017, I fell upon a post (see full post here) written by local DJ JORDAN in relation to The Menagerie in Belfast. The post was a call for people to turn up. That’s all…turn up.

“If you don’t attend these venues and spend money behind the bar they cannot sustain a business. Turning up at 1am is no real use to a venue owner with overheads, staff, equipment, rates etc.”

It’s the not-talked-about-enough issue of people supporting not just the headliner bands, not just their mates’ bands, but the support acts, the bar staff, the venues. Without people….live music can’t survive. Without live music, live venues won’t survive. He even offered to waive the entrance fee on the door, just to get people to support the venue.

There has been a fair amount of discussion lately about how few venues in Belfast can cater for live acts. This is a multi-faceted issue with far wider consequences than just not having somewhere to play. Belfast has a vast array of bars, pubs, restaurants, cafes, clubs, venues and spaces, and yet if you are a small promoter or a band/artist trying to find somewhere to play, the number becomes shockingly small.  Some live venues have closed down, some venues have moved on to other types of entertainment, and some venues just don’t have the PA or technical systems to cope with full band needs. So that starts to filter off a large number of spaces right away. Add to that any venue which isn’t within 4 seconds walking distance of city centre, or near a cash machine or other bar, and it filters even more. Add to that any venue which isn’t ‘proven’ for live spaces, or a venue which is ‘tricky to park near’ and you’re left with a small handful. The Music Venue Trust has recently started working with Help Musicians NI to start addressing this issue, and it can’t come soon enough.

An increasing number of venues are limiting their live nights, some only to mid-week ventures, and are charging £100-£300 just to hire the space for the evening, with sound engineering as an additional fee on top of that. And who can blame them? There’s certainly no guarantee of making their money back on the bar, and the ‘perfect storm’ of crowd-pulling act, busy night in town and pay days is hardly an exact science. Door tax at £5 or even £10 isn’t lining people’s pockets in some strange LA Club scene way – it’s paying people to work. There are no multi-millionaire live act promoters pushing £5 door tax in Belfast, that’s for sure.

We have spent the past few years putting on gigs with local musicians – some of the finest we have seen, and we have had that ‘rite of passage’ that every act and promoter has: The ominous, skin-crawling wait to see how many people will turn up. That first act may (and often do) play to an empty room, slightly disheartened that their rehearsal time and talent is for seemingly nothing. The five bar staff wait expectantly polishing glasses; the promoters apologise and wring their hands. It’s not pleasant. I often think about acts who have ‘made it’ from NI…they all at one point played on a Thursday night at 8:30pm, to a half empty bar, hoping that more people would show up before the big headliners. How many amazing, one-of-a-kind moments, with soon-to-be huge acts have been missed because we got caught up in something else? (Have a look here for some of the top music acts in the world playing to pretty much nobody. Imagine if you’d been in that handful of people there who came to the bar a little earlier to catch a new band?)

So why do we sit with amazing live acts in empty bars until 10pm or later? It’s not that the music isn’t any better later on. It’s not that the venues or the promoters haven’t done their job with advertising. It’s not that there’s some strange vortex of immovability that forces people to stay home before 9pm.

The worst thing is we all do it! I’m as guilty as the next person of things getting in the way, and not turning up until later in the night. And every time I do that, I feel awful, because I know what it feels like to be on the other side of that. I get it…if you’re a drinker it’s a heck of lot cheaper to drink at home, and head down later to pay bar prices. I get having little ones at home, and bedtime is at 7:30, so there’s no way you’re getting into town before 8:30pm. I also get having precious time with your family/friends, and dinner taking a bit longer than you thought, and before you know it it’s 10pm, so you don’t want to pay for a whole night when you’re only going to see the headliner. I get seeing a line-up and only knowing one band out of three, so skipping the two you don’t know. I get it all, because I do it too.

But do you know what? Jordan is right. Getting to a venue even a little earlier can make an almighty difference. So I call on you, (and me!) to aim for half an hour. If you normally get down at 9pm, make it 8:30. See one more act than you intended. Have one more drink at the bar. Because if we all do that, we start to claim back the amazing live scene which we deserve in Belfast. All of a sudden we have bars making steady money. We have venues wanting to work with bands, acts, promoters, DJ’s because it becomes financially viable to do so.

Not only is it helping support our industry, but you just might catch a little musical history. Definitely worth an extra few quid at the bar.

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