Has Wakefield Music Reached Extinction? (Part 1/4: Venues)

What happened to Wakefield Music? From an emerging and varied Indie scene looked upon with envy by other “B-towns” and much larger cities alike and announced as the countries third best musical city (PRS) to now, just five years later and a city on the brink of absolute musical extinction. 

In the first of four pieces, we look at one aspect in the ever narrowing circles of decline that have driven this deeply sad situation: Venues

In 2011, when I started Long Division festival I had to use Mustangs, a Wild West themed nightclub as my main venue. Aside of the Cathedral, which I also used, there were simply no other big spaces in the city. That was why Wakefield hadn’t seen any large bands through for so long.

Long Division changed that, albeit for one day a year. In those early years, I worked with The Hop to bring the festival to life. And at that time, that was ‘the venue’ which meant in Wakefield it was the place Chris Morse booked all the bands, as he had done at Escobar previously, when that was the place to be, to play, to see the likes of Glasvegas, Carl Barat, Kate Nash, that kind of thing.

Long Division had a big impact on The Hop, and the city.  Many bands came for the first time because of it. They were then impressed and wanted to come back, and often this would be to The Hop. It led to strange situations where a band would play to 300 at the festival, then 20 another time, but at least they were coming back. It was something that could be built on.

Now, in 2017 I am in the incredibly odd situation where all the bands I know from Long Division are getting in touch to book their April / May tours. They want to play Wakefield. “Where do you recommend?” they ask. Recommend? There are no venues left for them to play in. I’ve been awkwardly replying like this for a couple of years now.

The Hop stopped putting on music upstairs around 12/18 months ago after turning the upstairs room into the new offices for Ossett Brewery. There are other larger venues – Warehouse 23 brings some big names but a venue that size is too big to take the smaller bands that are the life blood of a city. And that is what we are talking about here. Shipping in Johnny Marr and The Undertones now and again is fine. But that doesn’t make a musical city. It doesn’t make a creative city. It keeps baby-boomers with disposable incomes happy. That’s not enough.

No discredit to Warehouse 23 at all, a city needs that kind of space. It’s not their job to support the grassroots in the city, bar offering support slots to locals, which they do.

Only last week The Bull & Fairhouse closed. It wasn’t an integral part of the city’s venues but they supported how they could. The Red Shed is still there if you want it but they don’t seem to like ‘loud’ bands.

Players was my big hope but it all went a bit wrong. They had no connection with what was happening locally, instead using out of town promoters. Now it is the new Snooty Fox. It looks like a lot of time and effort is going into it which is great. But it also seems to be sticking to its Metal and Rock roots. I think that’s great for them, but I’m sad they aren’t seeing the bigger picture and taking advantage of the massive hole in the market that has been there for well over a year. Theirs is the only 100/150 cap room in the whole city with its own PA.

There are other places; The Old Printworks hosts regular live music events for free, which considering some of the acts there is very good value. Other pubs put on half-hearted open mic nights or easy listening for the Westgate weekend masses.

But here’s the thing. All those bands who want to play Wakefield – there is nowhere to send them.

Where do The Lovely Eggs play? Where do Kid Canveral play? Where do Too Many T’s play? Where do The Twilight Sad play? Where do The Wytches play? Where does Roddy Woomble play? What a strange city, to have open mic nights, national artists like Public Image Limited, and nothing in between. It’s not healthy and it is why the city is dying.

But it’s not just about finding a room that ‘will do’. This drought made me forget what a real venue is. I only see it when I go to other places. A venue is more than a room. A pub with a band in the corner is not a venue. A room for hire is not a venue. I’ve thought hard about the essentials of a venue and this is what I have come up with:

  • A venue supports the grassroots artists of the city, in as big a variety as possible.
  • Its focus is culture, not just music, and understands all culture is an act of community. Exhibitions, working groups, seminars and other art strands are just as welcome as music.
  • A venue is a place you trust; to be honest, to have good taste, to be committed to what it does, through thick and thin.
  • A venue is a place you want to go not just to watch a performance, but to socialise too. A venue understands it is part of the cultural glue of a city. You’ll go even if you don’t know the band that is playing, or if no-one is playing that night.
  • A venue will build a reputation of integrity that attracts touring acts from outside the city. The venue becomes the place to go when those bands travel the country. It becomes the bridge to the outside of the city for those within.
  • The venue is run by people who understand the industry and for artistic not financial aims.
  • The venue reflects the best of the city and its culture.

And right now, we can barely find a room with a PA.

There’s some typically Wakefieldian irony that there is a group in the city that I believe would agree with my principals – the newly formed Crux – but they don’t have a building, at least not on a permanent basis. The ideals and principals of a modern, cultural venue are homeless in our city.

What is to be done? I don’t see the resources anywhere in the city to form a this kind of venue (and I repeat the caveat that The Snooty Fox is walking its own path and Warehouse 23 is bigger and a different animal – both have been great to work with for Long Division). Where is the cash? Where is the belief? Where is the vision?

But also: where is the demand? Because this isn’t a new situation, the damage of the city not having a venue that has connected with its performers in any meaningful way for probably 3-4 years, perhaps longer, is potentially irreversible. Because neglect of venues – in a proper city, the beating heart of a creative scene – leads to a decline in artists, in audiences and in interest.

I’m told that the last time things were this bad was when The Cribs were starting out. That blip in the city, prior to Escobar’s arrival, encouraged them to start gigging outside the city instead, and set them on their way.

I’d say that happened here a couple of years ago with a few smaller bands drawing a similar conclusion, but now we are left in the aftermath, with no Escobar style revolution on the horizon. All I want is a Wharf Chambers in Wakefield. That would do, that’d be our fresh start.

Without it, the next stage of the decline is with the bands and the artists. That’s already happened too, and that’s where we’ll pick up tomorrow.


See Part 2: Bands here.

See Part 3: Audiences here.

See Part 4: Interest here.

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