Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach is one of longest-running small live music venues in the city. In this blog post the Chief Executive Guto Brychan talks about the history of the venue, its position within Cardiff’s live music ecology, the Save Womanby Street campaign, the ‘Agent of Change’ principle, skills development and funding within the sector, and the importance of developing the next generation of fans. It is based on a telephone interview with Dr Emma Webster on 8th November 2017 and forms part of the UK Live Music Census project, where it was first published.
Clwb Ifor Bach opened in 1983 as a members’ club for Welsh speakers in Cardiff at a time when there were not many amenities for Welsh speakers in the city. It put on plays, music and other cultural bits and pieces. The venue is slap bang in the centre of the city, round the corner from the Millennium Stadium and what worked for us was to put on late night entertainment. In the 1980s, we mostly put on Welsh language bands and club nights but this wasn’t enough to sustain the business so we started hiring it out to external promoters who put on bands and club nights, and over the years that’s the part that’s really developed. Now there are other societies and organisations in Cardiff which cater to Welsh language speakers beyond music so in the late 1980s and early 1990s Clwb started to focus more on being a live music venue and nightclub. Most of the staff speak Welsh; originally the audience had to be members and had to speak Welsh to be a member. Then we developed an associate membership scheme which allowed non-Welsh speakers in and in the mid-1990s a change in the licensing laws allowed us to relax the rules of entry. There was a lot more regulation in the 1980s for late night establishments and we were one of the very few places that was allowed to open until 2am because we were members’ club, unlike pubs which had to close at 11pm. We also had to serve food but I’m not sure that the frozen baguettes in the freezer that nobody wanted to eat counted as that, but that’s what we had to do. The Licensing Act in 2003 made licensing much simpler and meant that we no long had to serve food and were no longer restrained by the membership hurdles. So now we’re serving the wider music community in Cardiff by providing space for other promoters to put on live bands and club nights. There are lots of nightclubs in Cardiff so we provide an alternative night out to the chain venues in the city centre.
There weren’t that many options for bands to perform back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was hard-going in terms of providing a live music infrastructure in the city and there weren’t really any ‘grassroots’ venues catering for that audience. And there weren’t that many other levels of venues here to support artists coming through. One of the issues that’s always faced us as a city, I think, is that we’ve got venues at certain levels but there are gaps in the provision. So when you’re starting off with a new band, you might get them at the 200 capacity level, but then there wasn’t a 500 cap; there was a 1,000 but there wasn’t a 2,000 or a 5,000. So bands would come at the start and they wouldn’t come again till much later in their career. A classic example is Coldplay who played Clwb in 1991/2 but didn’t come back to Cardiff until they played the Millennium Stadium in 2017! I think they did one gig in the Union but apart from that … And that’s something that’s started to change recently. Venues like the Tramshed have opened up which is 700-1,000, and the Union can do 1,200 to 1,500, but after that then you haven’t really got anything until you get to the Motorpoint which is 8,000, and then after that there’s the Millennium Stadium which is up to 70,000. So there’s a lot of gaps over the 1,500 capacity size. But the Council have announced their intention to build a 15,000 capacity venue and hopefully that will attract a lot more artists that wouldn’t have come to Cardiff in the past. There is also the geographical issue in that lots of bands go to Bristol and think ‘We’ve done the South West’. Cardiff suffers from agents saying that bands are only doing ‘major’ cities, the implication being that Cardiff is not one of those. If you look at the size of the city, we’re around 350,000 but within 20 miles you’ve got another million people quite easily if you take in the valleys, but it’s still developing in that sense.
The main challenge for us as a venue is that 70-80% of our profit comes from club events but this allows us to have a live music programme as it covers our venue costs and staffing. Clwb is a not-for-profit organisation; the money is ploughed back into the venue. If we were only a live music venue then we would have shut as the income isn’t there to sustain us at this level. We have two live rooms, one 150 capacity and one 250 capacity; we’re usually on bands’ first ‘proper’ tour. Over the years lots of bands have played at the venue, including Coldplay, The Strokes, The Killers, Kasabian. Our downstairs lobby has a huge graphic which shows many of the artists’ names who have played at the club; it’s a great visual representation of what the club’s done. We try to retain artists at the next level, from the club level at 150 then to 250. Then we will try to bring them back to bigger venues in the city so we now we also act as a promoter as well as a venue within the city. Without the grassroots music venues you lose the opportunities to develop the artists of the future but also for the bands to develop the relationship with the audience.
We are located on Womanby Street in Cardiff and at the start of the year there were five venues on the street putting on live music until in a short space of time three closed down (one has since reopened). And then the pub across the road wanted to put a planning application in to become a hotel. There is a derelict building right next door to our building and the owner wanted to put a planning application in to turn them into residential properties, All of that in a very short space of time galvanised the street. It was quite fortuitous timing because it was just before the council and general elections in 2017 so it became a very hot topic in terms of the local council elections. We did a rally and we had the leaders of Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats speaking and a lot of promises were made by both local councillors and politicians at the more national level. Out of that has come the fact that the Welsh government has pushed forward with adopting the Agent of Change principle within the planning law. We’ve had regular meetings with the council and they’re soon to announce that they’re engaging Sound Diplomacy to come in to develop a music strategy. And the main thing from our point of view is that they’ve announced their intention to buy the building next door and lease it to us on a long-term basis to allow us to develop it and create a bigger venue. It’s also got rid of the threat of development of the building next door because the building has been derelict ever since I can remember. We share a party wall with the building and both buildings are over 100 years old so any sort of residential development there would have been catastrophic for us. Soundproofing would be really difficult, for instance. The campaign worked really well and the local council is now very supportive and see it as something which brings jobs and tourism into the city. So it has actually had quite a positive impact in the end.
I think that the council support also came about because we have been around for a long time and are a central part of lots of people’s experiences going out and growing up. We’ve been around for 35 years and if you are interested in live music and are based in Cardiff then you will have come to Clwb at some point. We’re part of people’s stories, some of whom are now our local politicians. We were lucky that the local MP was very supportive and so was the shadow culture secretary, and that the local board councillors were very receptive to our plight. We’re lucky in that local and national government is based in Cardiff and so we were very much more in their eye line when the issue with Save Womanby Street came to the fore earlier in the year. It would probably be harder for people in other areas. But we now have a stronger relationship with them, to the point where they have appointed a go-between to liaise between venues and officials. It’s getting venues in other cities to do that as well so that they don’t feel that they’re operating in isolation.
One of the main challenges in the industry at the grassroots level is that people do it because they’re passionate about the music but they don’t necessarily have the skills in accounting or they don’t know where to get extra funding or business help or how to restructure the company. Clwb is changing its structure from an incorporated association to become a community interest company with new updated aims and objectives. One advantage of this is that it has opened up funding opportunities as we can now approach funding bodies to ask them for money for building development, for example. Giving the skills to the people running the venue in terms of how to get the best deal out of your brewery or how to look for funding or whatever, those skills that you don’t think about when you go into it because you love music, those are the bits and pieces that you need to get in place to ensure that you still exist five or ten years down the line. You also need to develop relationships with local politicians, councillors, etc.
In the future we want to develop links with further and higher education. We’re restricted in our ability to this at the moment but once we develop the building next door it will be one our primary focuses for the next stage of the business’s development. Lots of people want to work in live music, as photographers, promoters’ reps, sound engineers, etc. We want to create that link and to create work experience because there’s not enough openings at the moment. Students that have been on music tech courses often don’t have enough skills or practical experience. Lots of people who started at the venue as sound engineers are now touring the world. It has happened organically but now we want to create more formal links.
We employ nearly 10 full-time staff, another 40 part-time staff, and 10 self-employed sound engineers, before you count the security company that we employ. Then there’s the artists and promoters, so there’s a lot of money flowing through. Our turnover last year was healthy if you’re looking at it from the economic point of view, and also the impact on music tourism. 40-50% of our audience live within 2-3 miles of the venue but the rest travel in to Cardiff from 5, 10, 40 miles away, so you’re getting into music tourism territory then and it becomes a cultural destination. People stay in hotels, go out for food in town, and you multiply that when Coldplay play in the Millennium Stadium and you’re talking millions of pounds. But you don’t get to the Millennium Stadium level without doing the small gigs.
In 2016 we were still allowing 14+ audiences into the venue but since then we had to change it to being 16+. The problem we had was that our licence said that you had to be 14 to be here up until 11pm but it’s very difficult to prove that they are over 14 years-old. There aren’t a lot of ID options out there; you’ve got the PASS card but how many 14-18 year-olds have a PASS card and have gone to the bother of getting one? It was clear that if there was an incident here with someone who ended up being under 14 it could have serious repercussions with regard to our license. It was a risk that we could no longer take so we changed to 16+. It’s a shame but it has meant that we’ve created a more robust all-ages policy and we still have a strong programme midweek which caters for 16+ audiences. What we’ve found as well is that the majority of the audience under 18 tended to be 16 or 17; only a small percentage were 14 or 15. It’s something I’d like to look at again but it’s been quite a difficult licensing climate recently so we decided that we had to cater for the ones that we do know are coming rather than the small percentage. I’m disappointed about it but what I didn’t want to happen was that an incident occurred which forced us to change all events to 18+. If you go to the Arenas or other large venues then there’s seems to be a lot less issues around all ages shows but the problem that we have is that the authorities tend to view places like ourselves as pubs or late night establishments as opposed to entertainment or cultural entities like a theatre. But what is the difference between a theatre which also a bar and where people 14-and-over can go and perform there, and live music venues which have a bar?
By the time they’re 18 it’s too late; you’ve lost them to different kinds of social experiences. But they need a bit of rock & roll in their lives at that age, so we have to look at how you give them that exciting experience but also ensuring that it’s done in a safe environment that complies with all the various regulations that exist these days.