Suffolk music scene insiders reveal why independent venues are so important

Underline The Sky performing at The Smokehouse in Ipswich. Picture: JODIE BURNS/BURNT OUT MEDIA

Underline The Sky performing at The Smokehouse in Ipswich. Picture: JODIE BURNS/BURNT OUT MEDIA - Credit: Archant

As dozens of events have been under way over the last few days for Independent Venue Week, Jason Noble catches up with those in Suffolk to find out why it is the memories as much as the music that is key

JS and the Lockerbillies performing live. Picture: GUIDO MENCARI

JS and the Lockerbillies performing live. Picture: GUIDO MENCARI - Credit: Guido Mencari

Led Zeppelin at Knebworth, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, The Beatles rooftop performance – live music is all about memories (or lack of them in the case of Woodstock).

And while those world-dominating enormo-shows will live long in the legend of great gigs, it is the smaller venues that often conjure up the most memorable shows – those nights where an up-and-coming star blows away the room just before they go global, discovering an unknown artist in a candlelit cafe or supporting a friend’s band.

It’s the memories that are as much associated with venues as the music, and as two independent venues in Suffolk – Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre and The Smokehouse in Ipswich – celebrate that with this week’s Independent Venue Week, those in the industry have highlighted why these spaces are worth celebrating.

Josh Locke, singer and guitarist in Ipswich band JS and the Lockerbillies, says: “The buzz word is intimacy, which usually means it’s small, it means the crowd was in your face, and they are singing the songs right back at you.

The John Peel Centre. Picture: PHIL MORLEY

The John Peel Centre. Picture: PHIL MORLEY - Credit: Archant

“I saw guys like Deaf Havana [at independent venues] and they are now able to do huge big festivals, but I got to see them in a little crowd.

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“They lift you up when you are on stage – those are the kind of venues where memories are made.”

Those who witnessed early shows by Ed Sheeran at the likes of The Swan and The Steamboat can attest to those kind of memories, and when does anyone ever regret going to a gig? It is only ever the regret of not having gone.

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Josh says that he “wouldn’t have any gigs at all” without independent venues, and has allowed him and his Lockerbillies to play prestigious gigs headlining Ipswich Music Day and appearing at Glastonbury Festival.

The Smokehouse, Ipswich's newest music venue at South Street Studios.
Joe Bailey at the venue.

The Smokehouse, Ipswich's newest music venue at South Street Studios. Joe Bailey at the venue. - Credit: Archant

But more than just supporting those who ply their trade, the money that goes into those gigs helps support independent businesses, the county’s nighttime economy and the creative arts as a whole.

The Smokehouse in Ipswich charges just £50 for venue hire, which means bands and promoters can put on a gig where they can make money and take advantage of a dedicated stage set-up with a sound engineer.

Alongside the rehearsal and recording studios and radio space, it has become a hub for creative arts in Ipswich.

“Independent Venue Week is a really important celebration to help spread the great work that small grass roots music venues do around the country,” says Joe Bailey, owner of The Smokehouse.

“It’s important to recognise the important role these venues play in the development of new original bands and what the venues give back to the music and cultural communities of the towns and cities where they are based.

“Small venues like The Smokehouse can create a scene and an eco-system for musicians, staff, volunteers and most importantly the gig goers.

“We hope that people attending our venue will be inspired by what they see, spread the word, start up bands and add to the musical culture of our great town.”

Joe has a passion to see more Ipswich bands such as Superglu, Gaffer Tape Sandy and Underline The Sky continue their current trajectories, and for people to be able to say they saw them before they were famous.

Indeed, as the John Peel Centre’s marketing director Andrew Stringer says, “you never progress from your bedroom to Wembley Stadium”.

He adds: “We have talent here and we are not ashamed to promote it – surely that’s a part of the economic future of town centres as they become less retail led and more life-style based?”

Many independent venues can offer support slots to local bands for touring acts that come through town, as well as taking a risk on a local band on a quieter night of the week that may just give them the leg-up they need.

Meanwhile, all the sound engineers who now oversee the multi-million pound tours by the likes of Madonna and U2 will have made their first foray into the industry at an independent venue.

Andrew Stringer believes there will be more Suffolk artists emerging in the next five years who will go on to national and international success, and says that without those venues for them to play first “music will die out”.

But even if said breakout star doesn’t happen in Suffolk, it doesn’t change what independent venues are about.

He adds: “If we never have a mega star here but we have a great time doing it, that is still a marvellous thing.”

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