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The Changing Face of Bristol’s Music Scene

13 March 2018 | Viktoria Roskams

Change is what makes cities. It makes them vibrant, exciting places to live, a foil to sleepy countryside villages. But when it comes to culture, we rely on things staying the same long enough to become rooted, to be designated a crucial must-see or must-do, to cement themselves in a city’s cultural core. It’s why ‘culture’ gets bandied around with words like ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ – it takes time to build up.

A music scene having a changing face is no bad thing. To remain exciting, music relies on new blood, shocks and scandals, and handing over the flame of innovation to future generations. Equally, however, the flame can only flicker in a well-established scene, which is why the recent threats to Bristol’s music venues are an important issue.


Image Credit: Bristol Post

The past couple of years have seen many venues closing down, and many more threatened with closure. Most recently, the Bierkeller closed its doors for good, with the owners of the site planning new, probably residential, developments. This is a blow to the city’s history, as the venue had played host to legendary alternative bands such as The Fall, Pixies, Stone Roses, PJ Harvey, Nirvana, and Lush. Into the new millennium, it remained a high-profile venue, featuring Arctic Monkeys, Biffy Clyro, Sleaford Mods, and Royal Blood. A similar novelty belongs to iconic venue Thekla, the boat moored on the dock near Queen’s Square.  

However, the selling-point of a gig on a boat hasn’t enshrined Thekla as an untouchable part of the city’s culture. In November 2017 the #savethekla campaign was launched on Twitter, as it was reported that residential developments planned nearby meant potential tussles with local council over noise complaints.

If a moored ship isn’t safe from the possibility of extinction, can any onshore venue be? The answer appears to be no – The Fleece, another independent venue whose website boasts past giggers such as Radiohead, Queens of the Stone Age, and Muse, and Fiddlers are similarly not immune, with talks of developments near both. They remain open for now – new government laws, passed in January, aim to protect music venues from noise complaints – but it’s clear there’s a sticking-point here. Which is more important to the city: its musical heritage and variety of places to hear live music, or building more and more flats?


Image Credit: Bristol Post

For those fully immersed in the Bristol music scene, potential closures are a big deal. No real scene can be fostered in chain venues that could crop up in any city. Beyond the individuality of bands and genres, venues themselves can have such a wealth of idiosyncrasies – whether that’s being on a boat or just having a particularly good bar – that mean a scene is just as much about its physical location as its music. When in a city it can be easy to feel that you might as well be living anywhere: shopping centres can be near-indistinguishable, and restaurants, cafés, buses, trains, can all be of a monotonous piece. To feel you’re getting to the heart of what makes a city individual, you need to scratch below that surface. If cities like Bristol are left with only cookie-cutter venues, there’s not going to be much below that surface. Culture ought to be a present part of a city, not just part of its history.
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