Dundee DIY Newsletter: Venues, Scenes & Spaces

Article by Derrick Johnston | 24 Oct 2016

In our latest missive from Dundee's DIY music scene, Derrick Johnston of Make-That-A-Take looks at the changing state of gig venues in the City of Discovery

I feel lucky to have got into music when I did, in the mid '90s; my interest piqued by punk as Britpop sprang to life. Rock was mainstream, the older (and cooler) kids around me all played in bands. Our school held 'talent shows' with bands playing Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene covers. Our local music community was tight and welcomed us once they figured we were serious. We had support and learned about DIY before we knew what “DIY” was.

We put on shows in Guide huts, town halls, community centres; anywhere we could. My first bar show was at the legendary old Westport Bar in Dundee on my 16th birthday, with older local bands who encouraged and inspired us; the 'scene' created space for us to evolve. We made mistakes but learned from them, lessons we carry with us to this day – “better looking at it than looking for it” was the motto. My worry is that this culture no longer exists.

We are in economic flux, especially post-Brexit. Venues are under threat; the Music Venue Trust's recent day of action was illustrative of such. Draconian council noise abatement policies threaten venues and have taken scalps already (eg, Downstairs in Aberdeen). Licensed businesses are closing across Scotland; there's no denying it's a tough fight. In times of austerity, leisure is first to go.

Venues need to generate income and may feel they can't do so by catering to the local music community, instead employing 'hotshot booking' with expensive 'big' bands, guest DJs, reunion tours and nostalgia. Few will gamble on unproven new local bands. That's how we end up with a dozen pubs hosting cover bands and no original rock shows of a Saturday night. 

Does this reflect an aspirational City of Culture with millions of pounds of development funds being poured in? There are decreasing numbers of accommodating venues, and no accessible all-ages space freely available for young and DIY bands to host their own shows. Without the support for, and accommodation of, the local music community, no scene or music business can survive. With no roots, nothing grows.

Life is cyclical, scenes come and go. Dundee has lost its classic venues; Non-Zeros, Drouthies, The Balcony, The Westie, The Doghouse. Young bands need to be sloppy, to make mistakes, to learn their craft, but few will sell 100 tickets and keep your till ticking over. With no room to grow, the next generation is silenced, harming the community and disrupting that natural cycle. Great bands don't develop in isolation, but with an audience and support network.

The need to express yourself may be strongest as a teenager, when we forge lifelong passions and identities. The making and consumption of music must be accessible to people of all ages from all backgrounds, not just to those who see it as capital. Music must not become thought of as “economically nonviable”'; it is a primal need. If bands can't evolve, they won't progress and may be lost to music forever. This is a tragedy.

There will always be hope so long as there are kids picking up guitars. We need to create spaces to develop new opportunities, to create new possibilities and to develop the next generation of musicians. Youthful creativity, expression and energy must not be stifled under the weight of expectant businesses concerned more with money than a music scene. This is how scenes destroy themselves. 

For now, we do what we can with what we've got.

Dundee Gig Highlights

Fri 28 Oct – The Little Kicks Single Launch @ Buskers, Dundee

Sun 30 Oct – The Cool Cat Club presents Brix and The Extricated / Stoor / The Cathode Ray @ Beat Generator, Dundee 

Fri 4 Nov – Frauen / Civil Elegies / Stonethrower / Gone Wishing @ Conroy's Basement, Dundee 

Follow Derrick on twitter @drdeeker