In Defence Of The York Music Scene

I had intended this post to be a direct response to something I saw on Facebook yesterday. Purely by chance, I came across a thread on the York Discussion Page which was talking about the York music scene. Sadly, what could have been a valid discussion was spoiled in many ways, not least of which was the original question, which boiled down to “So, York’s music scene is pretty rubbish, isn’t it?” Admittedly, it wasn’t worded quite so succinctly but it was phrased in such a way that it was provocative to say the least. By the time I threw my two-penneth in the thread, as far as I could tell, had descended into near-chaos, with the page admins (who, it seems, hide behind pseudonyms) shouting down pretty much every valid argument being put forward, throwing insults at musicians who were participating in the discussion (and other people who weren’t around to defend themselves) and ignoring valid questions being asked of them. It is, perhaps, telling that one comment I made managed to garner more “likes” than the original post did – mind you, as the original post only got two, that’s not hard. I missed a lot of the discussion as I was out during the evening but when I had a quick check on arriving home it looked as though the whole thing had basically descended even further into threats of violence.

I was going to revisit the thread today, in order to “research” this response but the page has disappeared. Not the thread, the whole page – a Google search brings up a link for it but if you click that link, it simply takes you to your own newsfeed.

Personally, on the basis of that one thread, I’m glad. It made me angry. Nameless and faceless people mud-slinging and not coming up with valid arguments to back up their case do nothing for me. Especially when it’s about a subject that I’m passionate about. So, without much proper research, here’s an alternative point of view. As usual, I will point out that music, to me, is about how it makes me feel – I don’t understand the technical side of it, I don’t play an instrument, I certainly don’t sing and I have no knowledge of what it takes to run a venue. Nor do I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of York bands or music in general.

So, the first actual question asked in the post was something along the lines of “do any York bands make any money?” Shed Seven were being held up as the last successful band to come out of York. I guess the real question is “are any current York bands successful?” Well, how do you measure success? I don’t think there are any York-based bands currently bothering the charts. But that wouldn’t necessarily make them successful. It would make them popular. Arguably, the two go hand-in-hand, at least in one direction. If you are popular, you are probably successful. But a band can also be successful in a small “market”. RSJ, York’s extreme-metal band, play festivals in the UK and abroad, are regularly featured in magazines covering the genre and have their videos played on the likes of Skuzz TV. I would argue that makes them successful. Music by Boss Caine has been played by Bob Harris on Radio 2, with the band also recording a live session for his show. Perhaps the most successful York band at the moment are Mostly Autumn, with ten studio albums and annual tours in the UK and Europe. I suspect, although I don’t know, that they are the only current York band who come anywhere near to making a living just out of their music. But they are still a niche market. Other bands such as Morpheus Rising and, I think, The Pauper Kings have recently signed record deals – not necessarily huge deals, but they are still considered good enough by a label.

These days, it is easier than ever to record and release music yourself. Any number of York bands release albums or EPs to critical acclaim. OK, they might not be covered by the major music press but that doesn’t mean they aren’t any good. Some, such as Dream of Apollo and Morpheus Rising, have funded album releases through pledge campaigns, effectively getting their fans to pay for the album to be made in return for incentives. Others, such as The Blueprints, do it all themselves. But it all involves hard work – writing, practising, playing live, recording, organising printing, the list goes on – for somebody to label that work as “not successful” because the output isn’t played on national radio, or the band haven’t auditioned for Britain’s Got The X-Factor just doesn’t seem fair to me.

The poster also took aim at York’s venues, specifically at The Duchess and Fibbers. Now, I’m often among the first to say that the sound at the former isn’t brilliant and, after its makeover I wasn’t particularly enamoured of the new-look Fibbers. However, I have it on good authority that sound can be affected by the number of people (or lack of) at a gig and, I am prepared to hold my hand up and say that I now like Fibbers a lot. Neither venue may be to everybody’s taste – they can be dingy and you have to be prepared to stand, although for certain gigs The Duchess does lay out a variety of tables and chairs. But they are what they are, small clubs where people can see live music. You’re not going to get huge names there. These are the places that bands on the way to being big start out in, or long-standing bands end up in. And, despite what the poster intimated, they aren’t York’s only venues. Bigger stars can by seen at The Barbican or the Grand Opera House. There’s also the Basement Bar (beneath the City Screen) for smaller gigs. On any given night there are a handful of pubs which feature live music, often covers bands but also originals. In my opinion, though, it’s places like The Duchess and Fibbers that really need supporting. Not that the pubs don’t, but if York is going to attract touring bands it needs its clubs. The city has already lost Stereo.

One question has to be what is actually meant by the “York music scene”? Is it York bands or bands playing York? Whichever definition you choose, I believe that the scene is pretty healthy. There is a long list of bands based in York, from solo acoustic acts to the aforementioned extreme metal, taking in pop, punk, prog, Americana, Blues, rock and probably other genres in between. Some play regularly, others not so much. Some only play locally, others tour. It seems to depend on your point of view as to which genre is the most popular  in the city. I have been told by one band that they find it difficult to get gigs in the city because it is all rock and another tell me that they don’t play the city because rock is dead. I doubt they are both right. I suspect that they are both wrong.

If the scene is what music you can experience in York then, again, my opinion is that it is very healthy. At the start of this year I had looked at the various what’s on lists and was disappointed that there was very little to interest me. Now, with three months of the year to go, it’s obvious that, even having chosen not to go to some gigs, I am going to break my record number of gigs attended. Admittedly, I have quite wide tastes in music, I am prepared to go see bands that I know very little about and I prefer supporting smaller bands and venues than watching a well-known band from the back of a stadium or arena but I still think that our venues put on something for everyone. During this year alone, I have seen upcoming bands from the UK (The Temperance Movement) and Ireland (Kodaline), American bands that have been around for decades (Skid Row and Y&T), relatives of more well-known musicians (Deborah Bonham, David Knopfler), established British bands and smaller local bands, and that’s just a small selection.

The sad thing is that, on some occasions, so few people seem to share my passion. Some bands have drawn large crowds and that’s good to see, especially if they are a relatively new band. Unfortunately, just as many draw hardly anybody. At one extreme was one gig, three Welsh acts touring together, which had just four people in the audience (and one of them had travelled over from Leeds). But there have been a few times when the crowd has been less than fifty people. And it’s times like that when I really worry about the York scene. Along with the York band who no longer play here, I know of two touring bands for whom it isn’t viable to play here any more and I worry that more will follow their example. I guess there will always be other bands to fill the gaps but eventually, if audiences continue to be small, venues will close. Even now, I believe that Fibbers and The Duchess rely on after-gig nightclubs to shore up the live music sides.

I’m lucky. My family understand how important live music is to me and rarely stand in the way of me going to a gig. Not everybody has that luxury. I appreciate that you can’t force people to go to gigs (or even, in some cases, to like music in the first place) but it seems to me that too many rely on bands they know playing large, impersonal venues. For me, gigs are as much a social event as they are a way of experiencing music. These days, it’s rare for me to go to a gig and not see somebody I know, people I now consider friends be they fellow audience members or the musicians themselves. Those of you who are music fans, why not try a local gig for a change? If you are prepared to spend tens of pounds and travel miles for a band you know, why not spend a few quid, a bus fare and take a chance on a new discovery? You never know, you might just see the next big thing before they are the next big thing.

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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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3 Responses to In Defence Of The York Music Scene

  1. Grae says:

    The seven years I spent living in York were, I believe, the years during which I enjoyed the best music scene of my life.

    Having spent my teens frequenting venues in Glasgow and Edinburgh seeing big names in big venues, I then spent years travelling the UK supporting bands I liked.

    In York I found a city which had a vibrant local music scene and a number of venues which attracted, as you say, those on the way up and those on the way down. The variety was fabulous, the frequency was hard to keep up with and, more often than not, the shows were excellent.

    My personal experience included pubs with jam nights, pubs with acoustic acts, venues with tribute bands, new bands, local bands, old bands, you name it, I could see it.

    Obviously I was directly involved in that ‘scene’ for my 4 years with Morpheus Rising, and that allowed me to see the grubby underside of it at times; even between the bands from York there was a snobbery and cliquey-ness to the scene, but with the likes of Mostly Autumn, Breathing Space and Panic Room (adopted Yorkies who, unfortunately, are unlikely to return for a while) catering for the ‘aged’, RSJ, Glamour of the Kill and theFallen providing the younger metal heads with their fix and the artists like Marc Atkinson and Chris Johnson regularly performing acoustic sets, not to mention the likes of Fox North Coalition and David Ward Maclean frequenting the likes of the Fulford Arms, I don’t see how anyone can complain about the ‘scene’?

    Add to that the likes of Fish, Nick Harper and others who always include a show in their tours, what more can you ask for?

    Chantel MacGregor used to play covers in the Roman Bath for God’s sake!!

  2. Tim Hall says:

    Probably because I’ve been an “away fan” of Mostly Autumn and Breathing Space”, York has been a “home from home” for me, and has a slightly more vibrant scene than my current home of Reading.

  3. Pingback: Gig Survival Guide. | Sans Sheriff Music

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