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Requiem for a scene
As two more music venues face closure, what becomes of our local culture?
The music scene, or lack thereof, in Medway has always been a baffling one to me.
To be clear, there is certainly a scene here. But there should be so much more for an area the size of Medway. Medway has a similar population to a city like Brighton but a fraction of the cultural activity.
That isn’t to say people don’t try to do things here. I speak from experience on that one. Many years ago, long before I was your friendly neighbourhood newsletter writer, I was a gig promoter in these towns. In a heady period between 2011 and 2013, I (and my Tea Concerts comrades Matt and Louise) put on some incredible shows in these towns.
Ultimately, we stopped because we were running out of suitable venues to put shows on in. Sadly, that isn’t a problem that has changed much in ten years.
And now we face losing one of our most established venues and much more.
It’s another crushing blow for a music scene that was already not in a great place.
Medway has a long and storied music history. I’m not the person to tell that story, and Stephen Morris has literally written the book on it. I came fairly late to the music scene here.
The local music I was excited about wasn’t the great bands of the past like The Dentists or The Claim or Billy Childish, not that those bands don’t hold an important part in our shared culture. For me, it was the scene that was around a decade ago. Frau Pouch, Pity Party, Balance Lost, Stuart Turner, Bear vs Manero, Punching Swans, Brigadier Ambrose, Theatre Royal, UpCDownC, Hand of Stabs, and a whole bunch of others.
When I got involved in local music back then, there was an exciting if scrappy scene. Regular gigs in whatever venues would have them, and a good mix between the elders of the scene still kicking around and new bands doing interesting things.
There’s been a feeling of stagnation in the years since though. Not necessarily because people aren’t trying to make music. The biggest problem was always finding spaces to play and, almost as importantly, even just to practice.
When I started putting on shows, we had to use whatever kind of spaces we could get hold of at the time. The basement of a Chinese restaurant. The function hall of a hotel. A ship in the arse end of nowhere. It was a struggle, but it led to some exciting shows in unusual spaces.
It didn’t take long before the problems started to arise. Venue after venue started facing noise abatement notices triggered by local residents who had moved in next to entertainment spaces that were there long before they were. Venues understandably became jumpy about putting on shows with the threat that could come to their licences. Some venues closed and got converted into housing, like the Beacon Court in Gillingham or the Good Intent in Rochester. The ship literally floated up the river to Gravesend.
Then there’s the council.
Some councils are great at engaging with their local scenes. Medway isn’t one of them. Either through lack of interest or lack of understanding, they just don’t seem to get how difficult sustaining a music scene in towns like these can be. They’d rather lose tens of thousands on huge Castle Concerts than put even a fraction of those resources into fostering a grassroots scene. A decade ago I sat in on meetings with Medway Council raising concerns about noise abatement notices, asking for perhaps some temporary access to unused spaces, or even some limited promotional support. All those requests went nowhere.
So it’s not necessarily surprising that we’ve ended up where we are. There are of course a few people managing to do good work with very few resources. Careful Now Promotions over in Rainham put on incredible gigs at the Oast Community Centre. But we really need more. Or at least not to lose the little we still have.
There’s no other space in Medway like the Royal Function Rooms. While most of our venues are largely pub back rooms, the Function Rooms is a proper venue, with a capacity that while still modest is bigger than anything else nearby. It’s supposedly also the site of the second oldest stage in England too, which surely has to count for something. The Billabong Club downstairs provides a smaller space for gigs. Neither has been my favourite venue over the years, but good god they are needed now more than ever.
It’s not just the venues either. Jim Riley’s Ranscombe Studios next to the Billabong has seen legendary artists, both local and further afield, make their records there. There are so few places to make music locally that this would take away another vital resource for what remains of our scene.
I don’t know what the future is likely to hold for these venues. Places like this have struggled to be financially viable in a world of rising costs and years of lost pandemic takings. Venues across the country are closing at an alarming rate, often converted to housing or something other use that might be economically more viable but culturally worthless.
I’ve been listening to this song/spoken word piece from Yr Poetry a lot lately. They are a band from Birmingham writing about the loss of venues across London, but the themes are universal.
If you can support these venues in the immediate term, please do so. There are a few events coming up at the Function Rooms between now and the end of the year when they have to close. Go and spend some money at the bar if you can. In January there is a fundraiser to help Ranscombe Studios try to move to a new venue so they can keep going:
The response to the news of Function Room closures has been unanimous. These venues must be saved if there is any way to do so. It’s hard to know what form that might take yet. There’s talk of getting the site listed as an Asset of Community Value. This would offer some immediate protection from them being sold off or converted for another use. But a long and difficult road is potentially ahead to see these buildings as they currently are.
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If you’re interested in the efforts to save the Royal Function Rooms and their associated venues, please get in touch by hitting reply or dropping me a DM on Twitter.
Music that soundtracked the creation of this newsletter: Out of Time by R.E.M., and We're Gonna Walk Around This City With Our Headphones On To Block Out The Noise by Nosferatu D2.