So, I got to thinking the other day about the venues I play in… I’ve been playing in some of them for 26 years now, some are new, some have disappeared for ever and some have had more visual changes than The Mountain in GoT.
Before we start with this I need to remind you of my location, I live and gig in the South West part of England, a glorious county called Devonshire, better known as Devon, affectionately referred to as The Shire. From around here we’ve seen bands such as Jethro Tull and Muse (as well as many others) spring to life and has been the breeding ground for bands such as Radiohead and Coldplay. So, we’re not shy in having a live music scene.
When I started gigging, waaaaaaaaay back in the early 90’s I mainly played in pubs. Proper British pubs, usually owned by the Landlord and/or Landlady and they loved live music. A few of the pubs were owned by the Brewery, but they were left alone to do their thing. Throughout the 90’s I played in all sorts of bands, from classic rock to tribute bands and even some very early reach into a country rock band. As far as I can remember (and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then) every one of those pubs, or clubs, sounded great. And by that I mean that acoustically they were fantastic, there wasn’t much in the way of sound bouncing around, loads of stuff up to absorb reflections and we could rock up, tune up, turn it up and rock out without fear of the room making us sound any worse than we already are… And let’s face it, I was 17 when I started gigging so just by the gear we could afford we didn’t sound as good as we could have!
Towards the end of the 90’s I left this area to go to University to study stuff that I didn’t need to know, and by the time I had left I was married and kids followed shortly. Most of my gear was sold off, you know the score, and I was pretty resigned to not playing in a band anymore, because ‘life’. I still hung out on the scene sometimes, attended the odd jam to keep my ear in, but it was by then something I used to do rather than still did.
All this kind of changed when I started with Brian, I started to accumulate gear again, my interest in playing the guitar reached new levels of intensity (I was interested in the notes I played now rather than how many I could play) and when an opportunity to join a band again came up last year (the band I took my first tentative steps into country with) I welcomed it with open legs!
Being back on the circuit was a weird experience. Some of the places were unrecognisable from what they used to be, some were pretty well identical, and new venues in locations you would never expect were all over the place. Here is the thing that really became obvious to me though, many of the real venues (of those that are left, but that might be a subject for a more intense rant at a later date) were now owned by large corporations, chain bars, theme bars etc etc. I don’t know if those things are ‘a thing’ over the other side of the pond, but certainly here the local pub seems to have died somewhat. You walk into a venue these days and you’ll be greeted with the same place as the place you played in last week, just in a different town. Guaranteed that these places will have hard floors, very little in the way of seating/tables and there are mirrors everywhere, massive windows… Basically, it all looks like it’s fallen out of a plastic factory into a prefabricated pub construction machine.
Nett result for live music? You’ll sound crap no matter what gear you have. And believe me, in this band the instruments/toys/back line items on display are incredible. We have GREAT gear. But, the sound bounces off these surfaces and just accumulates everywhere and tumbles into itself and the high ends become shrill, the low end just disappears and even a small pub has a lot of overbearing natural reverb. And that’s just plain awful.
Now, I’m not stupid, I understand why these places have changed, well – why a lot of them have anyway. These big chain corporations exist to make money, and mostly they do. They appeal to a transitional customer base, so they have big flat screens all over the place showing live sports, hideous music blaring out and sell high powered small drinks that are designed to have a high turnover. But NONE of this relates to a live music pub. None of it relates to making the band sound good. None of this relates to encouraging the next generation of future rock stars, or old farts like me who just like making music with their buddies, to get out there and do it. A room doesn’t need to be specifically tuned, far from it, it just needs ‘stuff’ to soak up the reflections. Carpets. Curtains/blinds on the windows. Seating. Tables… and don’t get me started on ceiling height!
We have seen many an excited landlord tell us of their plans for refurbishment that means ripping out the carpets and ‘opening the place up’ and every time we hear it our hearts drop through the bottom of our shoes, out the door into a bottle someplace back in to the annals of history. We foolishly thought that when smoking in licenced premises was banned here in 2006 we would see more places embrace the soft floor model (as let’s face it, cigarette burn marks on carpets are disgusting) yet even more now you see the ‘wipe clean’ version appear everywhere. You see hard walls with glass front posters hung, you see endless wide open spaces with the odd stool dotted around and you know that unless the place gets packed with people who intend to stay until the end, you are going to sound painfully loud and harsh for a lot of that room.
So, here is what I would like to say from this particular soapbox. If you are a live music venue and pride yourself in being one, take note of what the bands that play there sound like and ask them what they think of the room acoustics. I can guarantee you that at least one of them (in the band I play in, it’s the bass player) who can tell you exactly what makes your room sound better or worse than the rest of the circuit. Take note of the sound of the band ALL around the room they are playing in. If they sound awesome when you are stood right in front of them but back by the bar it sounds like the guitar tone is splitting your ears apart, there is a problem. Go around to other venues in your area and listen to the bands you have in your venue sound like and think about what the differences are. You’ll be amazed what a few small, and relatively cheap, changes can make to the live music experience. It’s not hard to see why the rooms with the best sound attract the better bands and most importantly, the customers who are going to stay and drink the pumps dry.
I could list all of the places around here that sound amazing, all the ones that sound terrible and all the ones that have recently made a change for the better or the worse. I won’t, because I want to continue playing in them because let’s face it, I’m not in it for the glory or the chicks, I’m in it purely because I love the music we play and I think I play with one of the most naturally gifted bass players alive today. Why he’s playing in a band with a guy like me I’ll never know, but he’s ace. It’s just a shame that a lot of the places we play in you can’t really hear how ace he is.
I’m not one for blatant self-promotion, but if you read this, and you have a venue near you (that is in charge of their own destiny) that sounds great, or not so great, post this on their social media, even if one place puts something up to make the room sound better – and it literally could be something as small as curtains on windows on the back wall, then job done.
*and yes, the header picture of this piece is that bunch of old farts I mentioned above, including me, playing live in a GREAT sounding venue!