*slams fists on table* frank turner
I have finally come round to writing this article because the threat of small venues shutting down is now, regretfully, getting too close to home for me. Selfish, I know. The Fleece, established in 1983 in the docklands of Bristol, sees up to 7 nights of live music a week as well as hosting club nights that can be open as late as 4am on a weekend. The reason why this is such a successful operation is that the area in which it is situated lacks any residential housing. No residents, no complaints.
However, The Fleece is now under threat from housing development of an old office block nearby (20 metres away) which, it is speculated, could cause long term problems for the venue if the area is to become more residential.
The Fleece has been an established venue and part of the Bristolian community for over 30 years. It’s seen acts like Feeder (1995), Queens Of The Stone Age (1998), Ash (1999), Biffy Clyro (2002), and The Darkness (2003) play its small platform stage and then go on to sell out arena/stadium shows and headline the world’s largest festivals ten years down the line. That’s a difference of 450 capacity to 12,500 – 90,000 cap.
It has acted as a springboard for local acts and those touring both in the UK and internationally to house the small group of fans they may have in cities. It still does! Manchester Orchestra, a band from Atlanta, Georgia, just headlined The Fleece. They’re an incredible live act with a strong album catalogue, although they may not have the largest UK following. Without The Fleece their chances of taking their tour through Bristol would have been slim.
Bands, unsupported by the musical juggernauts such as Simon Cowell (and Syco Music) are not likely to sell out a 1000 cap venue on their first tour. That’s why we need small/ independent venues. We need to support those artists so that we can keep them around.
It’s good that NME run their small venue competition each year – featuring Thekla, another Bristol venue that’s had its troubles – because it keeps us aware of where we may find some truly unforgettable acts whilst their in their blossoming flower stage, finding their sound, learning their trade and becoming the artists we’ll see in 5 or 10 years time. This is where bands form their first rapport with crowds; it sets the mould for the future. If we don’t have small independent venues then bands are thrown in at the deep end, which may be some bands dream, but means that they cannot relate to all the people in the crowd. They won’t have been afforded the journey provided by these venues. They won’t become legendary.
The same goes for building the HS2 railway through Camden. We run the risk of venues such as Dingwalls, The Monarch, The Lock Tavern, and The Hawley Arms (all doubling as pubs by day) losing trade and profit, possible closures and thereby losing platforms for small bands.
Chris Sharp, the owner and head of The Fleece kindly answered some questions for me about the venue and the situation as it stands right now.
What is your role at The Fleece?
What does the Fleece mean to the music scene in Bristol as well as nationally and internationally?
Probably now the most important venue in the South West with the number of touring shows being booked here every year. It’s vital for local bands given the number of local showcase nights and Sunday all-dayers we do as well as countless opportunities for local band to get decent tour supports. On a national and international level it’s a vital part of the UK/European touring circuit.
What does The Fleece mean to the community?
Thousands of people have been coming through these doors every week for the last 32 years. The Fleece is simply irreplaceable!
What does the Fleece mean to you?
Since taking over the venue in May 2010 it has taken over my entire life!
How do you think the music scene in Bristol will be affected if the Fleece were to lose it’s licensing as a music venue?
It would be a crippling blow. There is no other place in the South West offering as many opportunities for local bands to play in a full spec 450 capacity tour circuit venue to decent sized crowds.
Have you had any previous problems in terms of licensing and noise complaints?
32 years and no problems whatsoever.
Favourite independent club to play/ see gigs?
To play I’d probably say Nottingham Rock City. It’s the people who run that place and the whole vibe they have going on at that venue, it’s been going on for such a long time. There’s also different size venues going on there which is cool, but its just that I feel like they’re people who are really in it for the right reasons, I mean there’s a lot of people doing it for the right reasons, but there’s something about Rock City that I fucking love.
In terms of venues to go to, it’s slightly depends on what you mean by independent, which, I think, is ill-defined. For example, I adore The Garage. I grew up going to The Garage and I’m super-excited that Mongol Horde are playing The Garage, and honestly, there was a long period in my life where I went there three times a week and I saw every single punk band you could ever think of play The Garage, so I do love it there. But, I think, it’s the Relentless Garage now, but that level of corporate sponsorship doesn’t really bother me because to me it doesn’t really affect the music, that’s the only thing which particularly matters to me.
There have been times when, let me phrase my words carefully, there have been things about venues being corporately branded that can interfere with the experience of the show and that’s when it becomes an issue. But I don’t drink energy drinks anyway so I don’t really give a shit and you still go to gigs at The Garage and it’s still The Garage, so whatever.
What would you ask for out of an independent or small venues then?
Well it’s not complicated. You want people that care about music and people who care about both the bands and the audience. It amazes me constantly to see venues and people who work in this business that fail on one or both accounts. It’s not that complicated to just be cool with people, both bands and audience. There was a thing a few years ago where a whole bunch of people getting up in arms about O2 buying venues and that kind of thing. But, for me, if you look back at the time you’ve got a lot of venues closing and if somebody’s putting money into music venues existing – Fucking A! Somebody’s got to. It is possible to be overly precious about these things. The thing that really matters is that shows happen and that artists can be artistic and entertainers can entertain. As long as those core activities aren’t affected and influenced then I don’t really give a fuck about whether it’s got a mobile phone company written over the door. I’ll get over it.
It’s a funny time at the moment. We’re here at The Fleece and there’s the whole Fleece thing going on because [the building company] are developing those into flats (gesture towards the deserted office buildings). Small underground venues will always be precarious. I’ve done a bunch of stuff like save The Railway, save The Joiners, that kind of thing, (but) there’s never going to be a time when small venues aren’t precarious. It’s a financially unrewarding business to be in. But you can do your bit and help out and all the rest of it. Sometimes I think some people are waiting for some sunlit uplands where all small venues will be secure forever but it’s never going to happen. It’s the nature of the beast.
There’s huge turnover of small venues. If you look at tour schedules, I was looking at, because I’m a total geek, Iron Maiden’s tour schedules when they first started playing small clubs, every single place is long gone.
The same as yours, where they just don’t exist anymore or are under new management.
Yeah or have changed their name 9000 times. That’s the nature of the beast. You can do your bit to support it but the important thing is that the music happens somewhere and has a forum to exist.
So thinking back to when you started playing solo, after the success of The Underworld shows and so on, what did small and independent venues do for you as a younger solo artist trying out new direction?
Essentially for everything that I do, that we do, that we’re into, you need a forum for it to exist in. In some ways I feel like I’m not the most exemplary person to talk about it because when I was starting out I did a lot of house shows, a lot of squat shows, stuff like that and if all you’ve got is a voice and a guitar you can play anywhere. Which is part of the reason that I wanted to make music in that format. But if you think of a small or up and coming punk band, for example Apologies, I Have None, a great fucking band, if you’re going to make noisy fucking punk rock music and you want to share that with people it’s got to happen somewhere. Live shows are still fundamental to rock’n’roll, punk rock, whatever you want to call it, and it’s fantastic that live experience isn’t downloadable because it means I’ve still got a job but also it’s that thing about being a room with like minded people listening to music, and even if it’s twenty people, it can still be the greatest thing ever. It has to happen somewhere and big venues work to their own financial and economic metric, and that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that, but in order to have something in the big venues that isn’t kind of just Simon Cowell acts, there has to be a training ground for smaller bands as well. The theory of how the system works, what I’ve done, what the bands have done, Biffy (Clyro) for example, play all the small venues then graduate to the big ones. And if you didn’t have the small venues the only bands you’d have playing the big venues would be One Direction, and bless them, I’m sure they’re lovely people who send their parents Christmas cards but it’s not my type of music that I enjoy. It’s kind of, I’m not sure this is quite the right word because it sounds patronizing, but it’s kind of a nursery. It’s where you grow bands that go other places.
The other thing it’s important to add to that though is that it’s not all this huge, crank up, climb to the big time. There’s a lot of bands, a great example being Palehorse, who we’re touring with right now, Palehorse aren’t ever going to play Wembley Arena and that’s not why they’re a band and no one in the band thinks that, and they will keep playing small venues for the rest of their lives, and more power to them. There are occasionally moments where it can sound like you want small venues to exist to train up big bands, but there’s plenty of bands that aren’t going to be big bands and that’s fine they’re not meant to be.
Ok. Well this seems like a fairly broad question now then but what’s the best band you’ve picked up listening to through small venues?
Well yeah, when I’m not on tour I go to gigs, that’s what I do. That’s my social life. It’s the thing I enjoy doing most with my time. I’m far from tapped into the underground, and never claim that, but I do my best to hear new music. Right now my favourite new artist is Will Varley who I saw open for Beans On Toast at The Monarch. Disclosure, my flat mate runs The Monarch so I’ve got a lot of time for the place, but yeah, I saw Will play there and he blew my fucking mind. He still does. I saw him in Bush Hall a couple of days ago and he is just the greatest songwriter around right now as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve added a few of petitions below for venues that are having this problem across the country. If you agree with some of the attitudes expressed in these interviews and this article, please, sign some of the petitions.
Save The Fleece:
Save The Boileroom:
Save The Joiners:
Urgent Review of Noise Abatement legislation