Cavern Club, Exeter

David Jones from Exeter’s Cavern Club outlines the challenges facing small venues in our Independent Venue Week interview…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 29 Jan 2015
  • min read
Exeter's Cavern Club has been a pillar of the south of England's small gig community since  it opened its doors back in 1991.

Originally set up to bring punk outfits to the region, the venue has gone to act as a platform for many of the biggest bands and talents from the UK and beyond. Coldplay, Muse, Biffy Clyro and Scouting for Girls are a handful of the acts who've gone on to achieve widespread success in the wake of their performance at the club.

It's fitting then that a venue so rooted in supporting bands from their early days is part of Independent Venue Week (IVW). The seven day celebration of live music is doing its bit to highlight the small venues and just how important they are to the UK's musical infrastructure. Here David Jones from Exeter's Cavern Club let us in on the challenges and opportunities facing these local live music hubs...

When did you start working in live music?

I got into the idea of putting on bands when I was a little kid at Aylesbury Grammar School. We organised a show with the Tours and the Piranhas as a kind of school project in 1979. Then I started putting on indie bands in the mid-eighties when I was at Exeter Art College. By the late eighties we had started bringing US punk bands like Fugazi to Exeter, and then I opened up the Cavern - our first show was Quicksand, St Valentine's Day 1991.

How has the business changed since then?

This might sound like an unlikely answer, but I don't think, in essence, it's changed at all. Okay, so settlements would be done on the back of a flyer and bands didn't have SatNav but they still managed to turn up on time, play and get paid! Economic shifts affect certain aspects of how it works. For example the number of overseas bands playing small venues has dwindled as record labels have been unable to finance tours, but there were recessions in the nineties and 2000s that had the same kind of effect. These things level and you'll have another surge of interest.

How have the relationships between artists, promoters and venues changed?

We've largely operated on the DIY scene, which I think has a steady ethos of cooperation. I based the Cavern on venues we visited when my band Annalise used to go on tour, European punk venues like the Pits in Kortrijt. Their hospitality towards touring bands was something we wanted to duplicate.

How have audiences changed?

I think today's audiences are more interested in 'the spectacle' than they used to be. Before the internet watching a band was something one could only do at a live show. Television never featured anything from the underground scene - which changed when P-Rock started a 24-hour punk channel in the late nineties. Now of course the production, distribution and consumption of all kinds of genres has moved online, so people need to feel part of an 'event' much more than they used to.

Why are independent music venues so important to communities and local economies?

When we first started, I saw the promotion of underground bands as a way of terraforming our environment. It was simply something we had to do, in order to have somewhere to go. The secondary advantage of the venue was that it acted as a platform for local talent, with local bands understanding their level by being able to compare what they were doing with what touring bands were doing. They were also able to form relationships with these bands, and get to play new places (to me this is the ultimate payoff for being in a band, getting to see new places and people). I think a nice side-effect of all this is that a town can use popular bands that grew up there as part of their cultural identity, a bit like you would with a successful football team.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an indie venue?

The biggest challenge for any small venue is the same challenge any small business has - paying bills. It's a particularly work-intensive and cost-intensive enterprise, largely because people will only walk through the door if there's something on they want to see. A regular bar can open its doors and survive on a consistent atmosphere, whereas a venue survives show by show due to the partisan nature of musical genres. You can't just put on the odd show, a bit like a cinema can't just put on the odd film.

Why did you get involved in IVW and how does the initiative help your business?

IVW is an interesting idea, an initiative that attempts to create strength through numbers. I'm not sure it can help business, but any forum that circulates new ideas has got to be a good thing.

What can be done to better support and protect the UK's small venues?

There is something of a paradox, for me, surrounding the idea of outside support for any independent venue, in as much as independence by definition relies on 'going it alone'. The underground scene in particular is a fragile ecosystem that can be negatively affected by help from the wrong quarters. If, for example, the local council start funding what you do, you have to understand that they want their payoff, and that payoff is often something that suits the consensus reality of their voters, but might not suit you. For example, they would love the fact the Cavern has links with early shows by Muse and Coldplay but cringe if you put their logo on a Fucked Up poster. Then do you!

There are also ethical questions - for example taking help from a body such as a multinational corporation might be seen as a bad thing for a venue but lottery funding is somehow seen as okay, even though it's essentially exploiting the poor, and forcing them to gamble away what little they have. I kind of prefer a Darwinian approach where you live or die doing things the way you want to do them.

What advice can you give to artists trying to establish themselves as a decent live act?

It's difficult to say what makes any form of art work at a particular time, but I would say most successful bands understand that rock, indie, drum and bass is mainly about describing an urban environment, and creating a generation gap while doing that. What people also want is authenticity of some kind, so artists have to understand what comes across as true, and what comes across as fake. The nostalgia trip a lot of musician are on at the moment can put them behind other art forms, and let's face it - people aren't just comparing seeing your band to seeing another band, they're also comparing it to staying in and watching Breaking Bad or playing GTA.

Visit the IVW website to find out more info and pick up tickets for Cavern Club events.

Check out our interviews with IVW ambassador Frank Turner, Frankie and the Heartstrings and rockers You Me At Six on how playing these small stages helped give them a leg up on their careers.