In the light of Independent Venue Week, Hannah Embleton-Smith finds out from industry insiders how Cardiff fares with small-time success in ‘Going It Alone’.
The past few years have seen drastic changes for the dynamic of Cardiff’s independent music scene. With small venues becoming increasingly concentrated around Clwb’s stomping ground, is the city seeing the revival of its independent culture or increasing marginalisation?
As the oldest record shop in the world, it’s safe to say that Spillers is Cardiff’s most established business in the music industry. Its close connection to local venues around the city means that the success of the store moves with the times. Co-owner Ashli Todd comments on current circumstances: “The past few years have been extremely difficult for everyone owing to the economic climate but at the end of the day, as a well-recognized music institution we are constantly reminded of why we do what we do. It wouldn’t be possible without the enduring support of the Cardiff (and beyond) music-loving and -buying public.”
Todd’s view is echoed by companies across the city; they value the sense of community between local businesses just as much as the support of the public: “The live music scene in Cardiff is extremely important to the health of our shop but both feed symbiotically off each other and have an impact on the overall vibrancy of Cardiff. I think that the majority of venues and promoters appreciate we are all in it together and there is a lot of joined up promotion between these parties.” These strong connections explain why the closures of independent venues have such an impact: over the years, Spillers has felt the effects of unsuccessful live ventures, from The Coal Exchange closing its doors in May of last year to Cardiff Arts Institute’s crude transformation into a venue for private parties and executive events.
Closures and a lack of funding with the current economic climate have made recent activity to draw attention to smaller gigs and communities in Cardiff all the more crucial: it’s that activity that boosts trade across the city, and for all the right reasons. “There’s a festival coming up in Chapter Arts Centre called From Now On and we’re selling tickets for it (and are extremely excited about it happening), so have flagged up a few of the artists’ albums on a display in store,” Todd continues. “The things we promote are things we the staff feel passionate about, so it’s done with the intention of informing and sharing, not to cynically squeeze an extra sale or two.”
Womanby Street plays no small part in these forward motions. The venues dotted along the alternative stretch have been instrumental in raising awareness of the talent Cardiff has to offer, with no little mention going to the ever-thriving Clwb Ifor Bach. Newcomer Urban Tap House is another perfect example with its solid ties to Jealous Lovers Club, the promoter responsible for some of the best music projects springing up locally, from Kutosis to Cardiff Uni’s own Radstewart.
The street as a whole, along with neighbouring venues, now hosts two of Cardiff’s most eminent festivals. Huw Stephens and John Rostron’s success with Sŵn Festival paved the way for the first ever HUB festival in August 2013. A further celebration of local talent and the stages that literally give those bands a platform, the three-day event proved a massive hit; long may its success continue. The festival, with Cardiff Fashion Quarter’s walls of graffiti tattoos at its core, surpassed its aim of becoming recognised as a dynamic music quarter in the city: it brought a youthful vibrancy to Cardiff which until then had been waning steadily.
Far from hemming the independent music scene in to one area, the energy generated by HUB lasted into Sŵn a couple of months later and has given a new lease of life to the city as far as music fans are concerned. For that reason, new UK-wide event Independent Music Week couldn’t have been better timed.
Co-founder of IVW, Sybil Bell, knew of Clwb through working with the business during Sŵn festival. It was this collaboration that led to her invitation for the venue to become Cardiff’s representative. Bell has high praise for Clwb’s heritage and support of diverse music projects: “It’s pretty reflective of some of the best venues around the country – they don’t just stick to one format and have a predictable diary of events around the year, it’s about shaking it up and trying to bring people in from around the country.”
Bell is nevertheless realistic about the state of affairs not only in Cardiff, but worldwide: “It’s across the board. The problems that all the venues are facing is that bricks and mortar in cities are valuable but, with music venues, they’re only able to generate income in the evenings. The strain on the business in a commercial sense is huge and that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Along with co-founder Joe Edwards, Bell has high hopes of expanding Independent Venue Week to include more venues in the coming years, all in the aim of generating crowds and, fundamentally, the sort of passion for music that has defined each and every decade of Britain over the past century. “We’ve aimed to get people who have become complacent – staying in watching telly or just listening to music online instead of seeing it live – to actually ring up their friends and go along to gigs. Even if they haven’t heard of the band or looked them up before, it’s about getting people interested in live music and new bands.”
IVW has had immediate backing from the likes of Radiohead and Frank Turner and extensive media coverage to say the least, particularly from the BBC. Could this be the start of a new era where technology in its evolving forms provides a solid platform for ‘independent’ culture?
Sociological studies show that mankind is becoming increasingly centred on creating online networks and that this interdependency is causing us to evolve, despite logic telling us that self-sustainability should be the key to success. Funnily enough, that trend directly parallels the culture of in(ter)dependent businesses in the music industry. While the outcome is by no means clear, it may well be that we start to see technology giving a voice to tight-knit communities with true values where it previously touted mass culture. High quality urban festivals and Independent Venue Week are only the beginning.