Milburn at This Feeling, Nambucca, London (© Elise Wouters, 2016)
Independent music venues in the UK face tough times. While some thrive, like The Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, a significant number struggles to survive due to rising rents, council license restrictions and redevelopment plans. In a time of financial uncertainty and global political division, we need their DIY-culture and punk spirit more than ever. Not least of all the audience.
Last year, I made a point of catching roughly one small gig every week - from an indie band in Coventry to a grime night in Peckham and pretty much anything in between. To say that live music plays an important role in my life would be an understatement. Sweaty basement bars filled with growling amps have always appealed to me.
On a trip around the UK at the age of 14, I begged my parents to make a 3-hour detour to Liverpool purely to check out the Cavern Club. The first time I stepped into The 100 Club, my heart burst with excitement at finally seeing the stage once graced by Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Sex Pistols.
Lock at Our Black Heart, London (© Elise Wouters, 2016)
Music venues have become like pilgrimage spots. I romanticise their sticky floors and graffiti doors, fall in love with places where the ceilings are low and the spirits fly high. Where a hundred hearts beat in sync, and romance can be born over a spilt drink. Above all, I treasure these places because they are the breeding ground for a new generation of voices, creating music that rebels, gives hope, broadens perspective or builds bridges.
Young bands cut their teeth in grassroots venues. Playing in front of no one but a local man and his dog helps a musician to hone their craft, long before dreams of academies and stadiums enter the picture. The cultural significance of music pubs, clubs and bars is undisputable. Independent venues nurture young talent and offer a platform to experiment, grow and find an audience.
With the British music industry worth £3.5bn, the financial argument for their survival is also obvious: venues across the country provide thousands of jobs, from promoters to sound engineers and bar staff. Some of my favourite venues engage with their community through charity events and reinvestment in the local area.
Cabbage at Old Blue Last, London (© Elise Wouters, 2016)
However, discussions on the future of British nightlife often fail to include all stakeholders. They mainly focus on issues brought on by ruthless property development, stringent police policies, unrealistic council regulations and excessive hikes in rent. But these conversations often overlook the audience's role within British nightlife.
A venue cannot survive without its punters, whether that be casual gig-goers or regular late-night revellers. Although the smoking ban played a huge part in a UK-wide drop in attendance, with 35% of London music venues closing since 2007 and similar falls across the UK, the British public is still keen to experience live music. Albeit in a different category, the record amount of people booking tickets for festivals or arena gigs gives us a glimpse of their appetite for live music.
For many, attending a gig means stepping into a diverse world that celebrates a shared passion. I have met some of my closest friends at gigs, ducking from crowd surfers whilst our bruised knees grazed the stage. Going to gigs is a deliberate move of openness, curiosity and connection.
Even more importantly to me, the best kind of live music experience transforms you. To witness someone on stage with their heart on their sleeve is an exhilarating experience. Like my favourite novels and paintings, songs shape my identity, challenge my work, energise my self-belief and influence my creativity. The benefit of gigs then is that they unfold live in front of your eyes - with a sense of wild abandonment and a sea of bodies (or sometimes just one local and his dog) sharing the experience. No two gigs are the same.
In times of economic turbulence and ideological divisions, we need these kinds of transcendental experiences more than ever. Music has the ability to react to the times. Partly by engaging with current issues, but also by providing spaces that allow for activism, experimentation, escapism and the shaping of identities, for artists and audience alike - away from the norm and the pressures of society.
Fat White Family at The Victoria, Swindon (© Elise Wouters, 2016)
During a recent walk around Soho, my heart sank at the sight of its sterile steel and sanitised streets. It has become a scrubbed-up, safe version of what was once a place of excitement and sleazy debauchery, with venues like the Astoria, Madame Jojo's and 12 Bar Club all closed down. If left to the authorities, London will turn into a ghost town after 9 PM. A similar picture unfolds across the country.
A range of recent initiatives attempts to put a halt to this. London appointed its first night czar, Amy Lamé. Sadiq Khan's 24-hour tube provided a welcome step forward. But those staying out late because transport home became more convenient are not necessarily the ones who will shape London's nightlife.
Nationwide, Independent Music Week and the Music Venue Trust put the spotlight on grassroots venues. A change to legislation to include an Agent of Change principle also looks likely - it means that if a music venue is in place before the residential development, the residential building carries the responsibility of paying for soundproofing and vice versa.
The backbone of British nightlife might be built from bricks, but the real lifeblood of the live music industry can be found in its people - the artists, promoters, venue staff as well as the audiences. When all of these like-minded souls gather to make a gig possible, magic can happen. As long as we all continue to go out, support local venues, give new bands a chance and sing along loud enough, we contribute to ensuring that there will be an encore.