Many of you by now will have heard that Adele once performed an intimate gig at the Buffalo Bar, a music venue in my hometown of Cardiff that shut for good after a big New Year’s party. Her never-to-be-experienced-again solo set in 2007 was witnessed by 60-odd lucky punters before she was famous. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But this isn’t about Adele. The fact that once in a blue moon, famous people grace small music venues on the way to the top isn’t the only reason to keep them open. This is about grassroots musicians, for whom venues like Buffalo are our lifeblood. But mostly it’s about communities, democracy and politics – and you.
Buffalo Bar ceased trading due to increased business rates in the city centre. Another venue, Gwdihŵ, (named after the sound an owl makes in Welsh – keep up!) is due to close in a matter of weeks because the street that it’s on, Guildford Crescent, is set for demolition. This will also obliterate two well-established local restaurants. It’s people’s lives we’re talking about here.
I can’t speak on their behalf, but what I can say is I’ve organised and played countless shows at these two music venues, and places like them around the world. They’re where musicians like me have had formative experiences – and a fair few moments of discouragement too – but they all add up to make us who we are now. We live to play in these kind of places. We eke out a living between that and low wages and/or tax credits because we love what we do. You may laugh, but the chances are you’ve seen us at it and cheered us on our way.
And yeah, I’ve been watching you lot in the audience over the years as intently as you’ve been watching me. I’ve seen deals made, plans hatched, campaigns born and bonds that last a lifetime created in small music venues. I’ve seen confidences made and broken, and self-esteem that lasts a lifetime come about because someone pushed someone else on stage to do a song for a laugh. I’ve seen people fall in and out of love and lust. I’ve seen these kind of places play host to wedding receptions, post-funeral gatherings and bar mitzvahs.
Gwdihŵ were particularly supportive when I started helping organise shows with the local Folk Against Fascism collective. We had some wild nights there with everything from Eritrean harps to Welsh-language folk to Somali dance grooves straight out of Butetown and more. I saw people from all over the world and from all sort of backgrounds – posh, common, queer, trans, refugees, Muslims, Christians, militant atheists and those who couldn’t care less – get on stage, get on down, get wasted or get sober and get into it.
The fact is, when any grassroots campaign needs to raise funds, venues like that are the first port of call to organise a benefit show. When there is an injustice to be righted or a cause to be fought – locally or internationally – they have always been there for us and our lives have been better for it. That is why we need to be there for them.
The question remains, though, why are these closures happening? Strong voices in what can be a supine Welsh media are doing a good job right now. As well as the increased business rates I mentioned, we know thanks to WalesOnline that the Rapport family are are behind the proposed demolition of Guildford Crescent.
It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, the area in and around Cardiff city centre was home to several communities. These days we have mostly high-end accommodation, shopping malls, a planned development for BBC offices, the closures of public roads and parks for ticketed events and the expulsion of homeless people. As the corporatisation of public space in this city and beyond continues unchecked, surely we need to ask who is making these decisions – and who benefits?
The good news is a campaign called Save Womanby Street managed to prevent another local venue, the Moon, getting closed a while back. Perhaps the trick can be repeated. You can find out more about the campaign to save Gwdihw and Guildford Crescent here and here. There’s a march going on tomorrow, Saturday 20th January, and you can find more info here.
Let’s see if we can turn this thing around.