Portsmouth’s Small Music Venues: Use Them or Lose Them

University of Portsmouth student Paul Beresford imagines a grim future for Portsmouth’s music venues, as he shows how the city’s independent and smaller venues are struggling to survive in an increasingly competitive commercial landscape.

The year is 2032. Albert Road bustles in quietly organised chaos, as locals rush by with a sense of urgency despite most of them having nowhere to be. The passengers of a clapped-out hatchback with tinted windows deafen the street with the pounding beat of the latest machine-churned drivel from Ibiza. A familiar chart-topper rasps from the cheap headphones of a passerby.

I swallow my irritation as my gaze fixes on a sombre sight. An empty building sits abandoned between a Co-op and a Costa. Old posters, mostly ripped, adorn a few windows and walls and a rugged banner flaps solemnly above the door, held up by two aging cable ties. This was the Wedgewood Rooms, once one of Portsmouth’s most popular music venues, now nothing more than an empty shell.

Some saw the news of its closure as a shock, while others showed blissful indifference. But some of us saw it coming.

A combination of rising rents, licensing reforms and area redevelopment have seen small music venues across the country forced to hang up the microphones, pack away the amplifiers and close up shop. These venues had a profound impact on the artists and bands we hear today, yet very little was done to preserve them. Venues like The Cockpit in Leeds, which played host to the White Stripes, Kaiser Chiefs and the late Amy Winehouse, are disappearing from our streets.

You don’t have to look too far back to see the same thing in Portsmouth.

For example, the closure of The Cellars in 2015: a popular venue that played host to a vast array of artists and bands, new and renowned, forced to close despite the team efforts of people dedicated to supporting and promoting local music. In hindsight, could its curtain call have been avoided?

Steve Pitt, former promotions manager at The Cellars (and now a Liberal Democrat councillor) told the audience on the venue’s final night that the reason for closing was simply, ‘Because it’s just not financially viable’.

The website for The Cellars only crashed once due to excessive traffic. The reason? A gig from a big-name artist? A special promotion? No. The website crashed due to a surge in traffic on the day they announced the venue’s closure. There’s an irony in this that underlies some of the problems facing small venues: if we don’t use them, we run the risk of losing them. In addition to the broader changes in licensing and the rising costs facing smaller venues, some close simply because there aren’t enough people attending gigs.

A report this year from UK Music on the contribution of live music to the national economy warns that while live music may be booming across the UK, the growth isn’t spreading evenly across larger and smaller venues.

…larger venues round the country are hosting more live music events…But we need to be wary that many of our smaller music venues including grassroots are shutting down or struggling for survival.

All our greatest acts started out in smaller venues and these places are a vital part of the ecosystem of our industry. If we lose them, we risk losing the UK stars of the future.

The survival of small music venues also affects the range of music from which local audiences can choose, as many early stage bands start their careers here. If we don’t support smaller venues, where are we going to go if, as the Music Venue Trust’s chairman Mark Davyd asks, we ‘don’t want to see Justin Bieber in a massive enormodome?’

In 2016, I asked Dean Clarke, music lecturer at South Downs College, about the impact small venues have on local music culture, and on the bands and artists who perform there. Losing smaller venues, Dean said, was akin to ‘cutting out a piece of the ladder’ for bands and artists to progress. We discussed how, from the outside, it often feels as though local authorities, funding bodies and property investors are part of the problem for smaller venues, as larger venues receive greater levels of support.

But Dean believed the situation for smaller venues was ‘not critical yet’. Despite the closures, Dean said that many local people, including a number of Portsmouth bands, are thinking ‘outside the box’: finding new venues and creating ‘a new system’ to support the musical scene.

There is an irony that my discussion with Dean took place during the the 40th anniversary of punk. The origins of punk are embedded in the history of the small venues and pubs in which it began. No matter who or where you were, you could leave the mainstream behind to find a sound and style that suited you. But 40 years on, the venues that helped give birth to the music and movement of punk are disappearing at a rapid rate, replaced too often by flats or chain stores.

When Finsbury Park venue Silver Bullet was fighting closure after the Goodman Restaurant Group bought the lease, the venues’s team released a statement that captures the importance of small venues to the music-loving communities they serve.

This is not just about corporate greed, it’s about closing down the meeting places of people with ideas, intelligence, diversity and non-conformist attitudes. DIY music venues are about non-conformity. They’re for passion, for culture, for art, and for good times. And for that, we shouldn’t stop fighting.

But back to where we came in to this story, the abandoned building that was the Wedgewood Rooms. The pounding drivel from the hatchback. The clearly audible mainstream nonsense from passing headphones. None of it diverse; none of it challenging the norm. This, as Dean would describe it, is a ‘cultural desert’. Bland, unappealing, devoid of individuality and of life.

Small venues give local bands the time and chance to develop their skills, to refine their sound before unleashing it on the wider world. They give audiences a place to experiment with new sounds and styles, and to find like-minded individuals to socialise with.

With venues like Portsmouth Guildhall, the Wedgewood Rooms, and the Pyramids, Portsmouth has a thriving live music scene but it can only continue to thrive if we support it by going to gigs. The ‘cultural desert’ doesn’t need to be our future. We’ve lost enough local music venues in Portsmouth, we need to make sure we support the ones that are left, or risk losing them.