A New Year has brought news of three saddening developments for venues in South Wales’s music scene. In the first week of January it was announced that the much loved, legendary Irish pub Dempseys, situated opposite Cardiff Castle, is to undergo a “a substantial redevelopment”. This was followed by more news at the start of last week that The Moon Club – a Womanby Street venue that housed various live promotions – is being taken over by Bootleggers and reopened as a cocktail bar focusing on roots music, with the Full Moon taking up the slack of its existing live bookings. To top off a bad few weeks for the South Wales music scene, last week Le Pub announced it was moving from its current location and exploring the possibilities of becoming an Arts hub, with an offer of cinema, food and arts as well as its traditional live concerts. All of this left us asking why has this happened and just what the future might hold in what is a difficult environment for live music in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea.
Last week Kathryn Luxton of Dempseys wrote on social media: “It’s with a heavy, heavy heart to inform you all that Dempseys will be closing its doors for the final time on the 12th of February.”
“The brewery have decided to close and re-open sometime in the late spring/early summer under new management and a new name.
“As a family (including staff) we are utterly devastated by this crushing news. Dempseys has been my home for the best part of 10 years and obviously my job. I can share with you now, speaking on behalf of myself, I’ve loved this wonderful place with all my heart. Staff past and present have all meant the world to me and my family. So much so you’ve all felt like children to me.
Luxton then aimed a dig at Brewery chain Brains, who are seeking to redevelop the pub and are rumoured to be looking to turn it into a gastro pub with a live sports screens, presumably under new management, by saying “I’m only sorry any corporate fools didn’t love you just the same as us and see just how special you are to everyone as the ‘go to place’“
In a detailed statement from Brains, a spokesman said:
“The need for improvement and modernisation of Dempseys has been apparent for some time and as a company Brains has sought to ensure that our city centre businesses remain relevant to the ever-evolving needs of the Cardiff consumer. The £215K development of Kitty Flynns into the Cambrian Tap and the £1.2m investment in The Dock in Cardiff Bay are examples of our commitment to an improvement agenda with both businesses being more widely used than had previously been the case.”
The upstairs area known as Four Bars is regarded as being one of the city’s best live music venues. Redeveloped around six years ago, in its time it has played host to acts such as The Vaccines, Alt-J, The Drums and many others besides.
In recent times Fizzi promotions moved out of the venue which meant that the amount of live music was restricted to jazz and lindyhop evenings with the occasional use during multi-venue festivals such as Hub Festival and Swn Festival. It also played host to the popular indie club night Twisted by Design a night I have affection for having attended off and on since it started in the early noughties. One of the most well-known artists to have performed at the venue Charlotte Church publically questioned the decision on Twitter:
@brainsbrewery Hi Charlotte, the pub is being redeveloped, not closed, will reopen as a new venue in late spring/early summer.
A petition has been started against the closure of Dempseys as well as a farewell evening, a Four Bars entitled ‘Dempseys Farewell Meltdown’ which has been planned by Railroad Bill for the 3rd of February. More information on this can be found here.
The rumours that had started circulating about The Moon Club being refurbished as a roots venue were later confirmed as news when it came through that it will reopen as The Bootlegger, a sister bar to its popular Bristol site which is run by brothers Lee and Gary Miller. Rumours that the Moon Club was on the market had been swirling around for months, but news that its new use would be as a cocktail bar focusing on roots music saddened many of its patrons.
Lee Miller told WalesOnline: “We are two proud Welsh boys, and an adopted Welshman, who want to bring an accessible speakeasy to Cardiff – one where you don’t have to ring a doorbell. You can come in, we’ll serve you amazing cocktails, you can dance to amazing music and have fun.”
From now on, The Moon Club’s existing events will move to The Full Moon, which will remain next door to The Bootlegger bar. Director Gwyn Thomas said: “We’ve had five fantastic years in The Moon Club and can hand over to Lee and his team safe in the knowledge that the venue is in good hands. That leaves us free to focus 100% on The Full Moon.”
While on the face of it that is good news that the existing listed events, as well as their regular festivals such as Glasnost and Strange Days festivals, will move to the Full Moon, the slightly awkward layout of the stage and the smaller 120 capacity of the Full Moon will undoubtedly limit the options for touring bands, promoters and audiences alike. Past shows at The Moon by names such as Sleaford Mods, Akala and MONEY, for instance, one suspects would generate far more interest than this capacity could handle.
But Thomas remains upbeat “It’s very exciting times for us at The Full Moon at the moment, we’ve upgraded the PA and lighting system and now have probably the highest technical spec for a venue of this size anywhere in the country so we’ll be hosting a lot more gigs in addition to our existing live music and DJs and not forgetting our special events.”
We shall have to wait and see whether The Full Moon can thrive in this environment, and whether they can appeal beyond their regular audience who know the Moon for a very specific offering. But one of the live music bookers Liz Hunt(of the band The School) does have great experience in booking at venues across the city and runs a wonderful weekend festival called Wales Goes Pop every spring at the Gate, so while she remains in place we are hopeful of more great bookings at this venue even if it isn’t quite the ideal size for some touring acts.
With Independent Music Week on the horizon we talked to Mark Davyd of the Music Venue Trust who told us they are “watching developments around these two very vital grassroots music venues in Cardiff. New and emerging artists are vital to a successful cultural economy, and we hope that whatever proposals are brought forward for new operations in these venues will reflect the need for spaces to support those artists to continue to be a vital part of the City’s music offer.”
Leaving Cardiff with just two main venues in the city’s music hub of Womanby Street – Clwb Ifor Bach and The Full Moon for original multi-genre live bookings and Fuel Club which specifically appeals to a rock audience – will restrict promoters, artists and audiences alike. There is also Gwdi Hw Bar in the town centre, a cosy venue which is located on Guildford Crescent but it has a different offering with regular multi-genre DJ nights and live promotions, while venues like Buffalo off Queen street on Windsor place, Undertone and Big Top on Church Street are extensions of bars that are open every weeknight and only occasionally used for live music.
While news of the redevelopment of The Moon and Dempseys will be welcomed by those into roots and blues music it will undoubtedly restrict the amount of live bookings local smaller promoters can make and mean there are now less places for original acts to perform at. On the plus side, Cardiff now has a great mid-sized venue just out of town at the Tramshed, which offers mid-range touring acts and names such as The Orb, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Michael Kiwanuka and Meilyr Jones the chance to perform to audiences of around 1,000.
Last week Newport’s Le Pub announced that it was selling up and moving from its current location. Le Pub is a well known 100 capacity venue that bills themselves as a “buzzing bar and music venue hosting gigs by up-and-coming bands and regular comedy nights.” Two years ago Future of the Left frontman Falco reformed his first band Mclusky in an attempt to save the venue. He said: “If you/we/us/it must venerate the past then I suppose that we should at least venerate it for a good cause. And it is a cause, at least, one where the need for venues for live music (and I say this with all due respect – Newport does not need to be losing places of cultural import right now)”
Le Pub have asked for help and suggestions and hope to redevelop on a new site as an arts and cultural hub alongside live music. They posted the following statement on their Facebook page:
But, that’s all that is ending. The current chapter. We are in the process of setting up a co-op to secure our future and make sure we can begin chapter two. Le Pub is an ethos, a mindset, something that doesn’t rely on a building to exist. We love our current location and the news it was to be sold was heartbreaking but we’ve had time to process it and we realised that we can take what we have and grow. We can fix some of the problems we haven’t been able to before.”
“We want to provide Newport with a bigger space, with more room for creative projects. Ideally we’ll be looking at somewhere with space for a gallery, rehearsal rooms, freelance office space and maybe a small cinema space as well as the bar and venue we already have. We want an outdoor space for sitting in the sun and enjoying a drink and a chat with friends. We want our doors to be open more often, daytimes and evenings, seven days a week. And most importantly to us we want to be more accessible to people with mobility requirements. We see no point in bringing incredible acts to Newport if they are not accessible to everyone that wants attend.
This won’t be easy and there will be no quick fix. Setting up a co-op takes time and any building we look at will need work before we can open. We’ll continue to trade as we are until a sale is confirmed. This could be three months, or could be twelve months but please be assured this is not the end for us!
If you are interested in supporting us in our next steps then please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you. We can provide you with a guide to investing in a community owned business. You’ll get input into what we do and how we do it.”
How can the declining fortunes of venues in Cardiff and Newport be explained? Cuts in council budgets have undoubtedly had an impact; as have properties being sold off and developed into flats across the city to fill in some of the shortfall caused by austerity imposed by a Conservative government in Westminster. A cut in grants to venues must also have a knock-on effect, while brewers like Brains probably see the opportunity to refurbish existing pubs/venues and turn them into trendy gastro pubs like the Pear Tree. Their eyes must light up at the potential profits to be made and use the noise complaints as an excuse to sell off their land to property developers in an area where housing is highly sought after by tenants and letting agencies alike.
Put simply maybe there are ‘just not enough gig goers in Cardiff’. But this leads to a tight-knit music scene with collaborations and cross-over between bands and audiences. There is also a very special atmosphere here at some events, with some brilliant promoters and a diverse range artists, but sometimes a lack of new people attending such shows may have an impact on the audiences and turnovers at certain venues. While independent promoters may get disheartened at some of the high fees that venues charge – making it very restrictive to break-even let alone a profit – with these fees venues are trying to cover themselves and this is fully understandable.
So maybe there needs to be a rethink of how venues promote live music? Some have criticised a rise of a conservatism in booking policies in certain venues, with a focus on cover acts, karaoke and singer-songwriter open mics at venues like The Globe, whilst there was undoubtedly sometimes a lack of imagination in bookings at The Moon for instance, which suffered on occasion from catering to its own audience rather than looking beyond it. But it is about the bottom line ultimately and hard to argue with this trend if these events are attracting paying custom. Maddie Jones has popularised a series of Bowie-related tribute events since his death at the start of 2016 and she spoke out on Facebook about the fact that these events and her cover shows pay for her to pursue her original shows and material. She makes a good point, as finding the right balance between financial pressures and art is a constant one for many struggling artists. Maybe there is a balance to be found between booking original touring acts/and promoting local artists and events and regular club nights that do pull in paying crowds? Perhaps it is a change of mindset that is required from promoters and audiences who are willing to take a chance on a new act? Whatever the reason, there needs to be greater corporation between promoters and venues in order to safeguard and promote the places we have left such as the legendary Clwb Ifor Bach and prevent clashes for competition in such a limited and sporadic music scene only forces more dwindling audiences and makes it harder for promoters to fill venues.
But there again some of the issues facing live music in general are cultural and cannot be blamed on anyone. Maybe it is symptomatic of the more widespread decline of live music as a social activity for young people/students? Cheap booze from supermarkets, for example, has encouraged home drinking and the rise of the internet has become a huge consumer of many people’s time. Could the future lie in the creation of more artistic and social hubs where arts, cinema, spoken word and live music can co-exist in venues that are open full time, rather than purely music specific?
Newport’s Le Pub is investigating the possibility of becoming more like Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and I can see that as a trend, especially when what I have witnessed in recent years is a healthy spoken word and arts scene in Cardiff versus a patchy original live music offering with many of the same faces (including my own) turning up at these events. So bringing all of the different groups interested in arts, music and culture together and attracting the large student audience in the city away from just the cover bands and large name shows is surely key to the survival of Cardiff as a thriving place for live music and performance. Ultimately the way to save live music is to get out there, support your local venue, support your local artists, support your favourite promoters, and work with each other to focus efforts on preserving your favourite cultural hub, because one day you might walk by and you will find that it just won’t be there anymore.
Main photo credit: Owain Thomas