I remember it well… the first time I ever stood in front of a crowd and sang my own songs. The Tap & Spile, just off Grainger Street in Newcastle, was a rough-round-the-edges pub with a lot of heart. Your feet stuck to the carpet, there was smoke in the air, but it formed an integral part of the local circuit.
Image courtesy of Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection
Up here in the North East there is a saying… “shy bairns get nowt”. You’ve got to put yourself out there, asking and doing, if you want to make any progress. So that’s what I did throughout my early years as a budding songwriter. I got out and posted my demos to all the local promoters, played at the grassroots venues (and still do), the local festivals, and any community event going (even those that had absolutely nothing to do with music – see BikeWise, a family fun day with police motorbike demonstrations!). Every single show has taught me something.
In more recent years I have been given some incredible opportunities and been lucky enough to perform on some of the UK’s most famous stages, but every show, no matter the size, has been memorable and beneficial.
The Newcastle grassroot circuit that I grew up knowing – The Tap & Spile, The Cluny, The Head of Steam and The Cooperage… only two remain nowadays, and that is a common theme up and down the country. Regeneration, new developments and complaints about noise levels from new residents are all contributing factors. These major issues mean that many city centre music venues are just no longer economically viable… they are being priced out and forced out of our cities.
Some will try to tell you that change is a good thing, and that we have to move with the times, but where does it end? What would happen if a new apartment block was built beside your favourite theatre and then the residents started to complain about noise levels? Theatres and other arts institutions are not free from this danger (it has already started to happen in London). It is so important that something is done to protect and help venues in the community.
The solutions to this problem are not easy to work through, but they are out there if someone has the commitment and belief.
Agent Of Change is a principle, promoted heavily by charitable organisation Music Venue Trust, that says that the person or business responsible for a change is responsible for managing the impact of the change. For example, if the developer of a new apartment block wants to build next to a music venue, they must cover the costs of any necessary soundproofing, and vice versa. This is proving a difficult principle to implement. Our current government has been reluctant to really look into the issue, although their main opposition at the recent General Election did include the thinking behind Agent Of Change within their manifesto. So at least there is some appetite for it within our government buildings.
It has been tested in Australia and it appears to work. It has resulted in people taking the time to think about the community that they want to live / build within, and how they will happily live alongside each other.
Funding is also needed across the board… but historically we know that we can’t rely on a Conservative government to provide it. So let’s start small and fully explore the possible solutions before the cultural hearts of our cities vanish (I know that sounds dramatic, but it is quietly happening already).
Photography by Ian West.
Tonight, in a small venue somewhere up and down the country, the next great song is being performed, the next influential band is honing their craft, friends are being made, and good times are being had. Let’s not allow it to be taken away. Support your local venues.
Check out RJ Thompson’s upcoming gigs at www.ticketweb.co.uk/rjthompson