Phil Sheeran explains why Wales needs to protect and grow its small music venues
The great German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once said, ‘Without music, life would be a mistake’ and I think he was onto something. Maybe this thinking is what drove, in part, the successful Save Womanby Street campaign in Cardiff recently which fought to protect some of the city’s grassroots music venues; because let me be clear, venues like these and the music scene they support are crucial to the Capital city and wider Wales, both economically and socially.
Music and the arts are pivotal to any thriving city, especially one with aspirations to continue to grow and become a beacon of creativity and positivity, a place where people want to live and socialise. A modern European capital.
It is therefore so important that Cardiff Council and all local authorities in Wales address the planning issues around noise when new developments are given the green light alongside existing music orientated business, an issue that so very nearly contributed to the demise of small venues along Womanby Street. In addition, the Welsh Government needs to have a clear music strategy that reinforces a vision for making Wales a true ‘land of song’ which puts in place the infrastructure to support these smaller venues with sound business advice, to help them through the barren spells we all experience. A Welsh Music Foundation perhaps?
This vision is needed for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the economics; a 2015 study by UK Music, a campaigning and lobbying group which represents every part of the UK recorded and live music industry, found that in 2014 alone, 211,000 music tourists visited Wales to attend a concert or music festival. These visitors generated £95 million for the local economy, and helped sustain 768 full-time local jobs.
Reinforcing this, Motorpoint Arena Cardiff’s own research, conducted by Professor Brian Morgan of Cardiff Metropolitan University, found that we deliver approximately £30 million per annum to the Cardiff economy and support just over 500 full-time jobs, with nearly 30 per cent of our customers coming from outside the Cardiff City Region.
Pitch this against the Champions League final and our seemingly never-ending focus on one- off marquee events. No doubt we will hear it was a triumph for brand UEFA / Champions League. But did the city and its residents really benefit? Can we honestly say businesses thrived in the days before and after the Saturday itself? Is it a strong overarching strategy to focus on marquee events above development and establishment of Cardiff based and led annual or biannual events for the people of Cardiff and its surrounds by the people of Cardiff and its surrounds?
The economics speak for themselves; a thriving, vibrant music scene creates jobs and helps drive the local economy. But what about the social and cultural impacts?
Culturally, Wales has a rich, diverse history and a proven track record in creating iconic bands and artists that can showcase Wales to the world. Take Blackwood’s Manic Street Preachers, 12 albums in and millions of sales worldwide, reinforced by the draping of the Welsh flag on one of their amplifiers at every gig they play. Or Llandudno’s Catfish & the Bottlemen, two albums in and winner of the Brit Award for British Breakthrough Act in 2016.
These bands wouldn’t be where they are if it wasn’t for small venues providing stepping stones on their musical journey, giving them a chance to play to locals and visitors alike and allowing them to learn their craft in a real, live environment.
Then there’s the important social impact of music venues. There is no point using planning policy to develop more and more apartments or hotels in a city centre if the nightlife and music scene that attracts people to the area in the first place is gone as a result. Who would want to live or stay there? Our city centres would become like London’s Canary Wharf on the weekend; soulless, quiet, devoid of atmosphere.
The flipside to this coin however, is we need people living in the city, or at least to have a modern approach to transport in and out of the city, for it to grow and blossom. A (much talked about) metro system would give all our venues and businesses access to the 1.4 million people who live in south Wales, regularly and comfortably. We want and need our cities to be vibrant, welcoming, passionate creative hubs, with our capital city, which has a huge appetite for live music, seen as a key part of the UK gigging network and culturally important to the music scene like Manchester and Glasgow.
A Welsh music strategy is a must, and it has to promote a clear vision of the support we can offer up and coming bands, music managers, sound, lighting and technical wizards, publishing guru’s and any other part of the industry you can think of. In other words, it must provide an apprenticeship at the coalface. The reality is that without our small venues we don’t have the stepping stones or apprenticeship as it were that ultimately delivers a Manics or Catfish phenomena once the talent matches the hard work.
Motorpoint Arena Cardiff is trying to do its bit; we’ve launched Exit 7, a small venue within the arena that up and coming bands and performers can play, where people can experience intimate live music and learn about the music business, be it promotion and marketing and how to put on a successful night, if they so wish.
Wales must do more to drive forward its musical heritage together. Hans Christian Anderson famously wrote ‘When words fail, music speaks’. Music can do so much to break down barriers and bring people together. But we must speak up in support of our fantastic venues, big or small, up and down the length and breadth of Wales and the UK. Losing them fails us all.
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