Live and well: how local music thrives in Glasgow in the face of global pressures

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Glasgow’s famous Barrowland Ballroom. CREDIT – Rob Sinclair

The past few years have not been kind to small music venues in the UK. The sudden halting of live music enforced by Covid lockdowns has been swiftly followed by the sky-rocketing prices of the cost of living crisis, leaving local venues on the brink – or, in many cases, pushing them past the point of no return.

Figures from the Music Venue Trust (MVT) revealed that Britain lost 125 small venues in the past 12 months, accounting for a sixth of all those that were left. The Trust also noted a 16.7% fall in the number of live performances in the UK compared with 2019, with venues reporting an average profit margin of just 0.2%. The assertion of MVT’s CEO Mark Davyd that “the current economics no longer stack up” does not seem far of the mark.

And yet, Scotland’s largest city seems somehow to buck this trend, managing largely to avoid venue closures, and maintaining a thriving ecosystem of local bands and venues. With an average of 130 gigs on every week, Glasgow was recently ranked 42nd for nightlife in the World’s Best Cities annual report, a testament to the city’s cultural resilience.

How is it that Glasgow has proven so resistant to the broader decline? The city has a long heritage of supporting and facilitating live music, and was the first in the UK to become a Unesco City of Music way back in 2008 – only Liverpool has since joined it. And the city’s well-established musical traditions continue to breed new generations of people for whom going to local gigs is just the done thing.

Drew Pender is the manager of The Hug & Pint, a small venue right at the heart of the local scene. For him, as a Glasgow youth, going to gigs was one of few options. “It’s just normal here. You grow up as a teenager, you go to gigs with your mates. You can’t really do anything else.”

Could there be a connection between Glasgow’s renowned live music attendances and its notorious weather? “The weather here is shit, but a lot of other things here are shit as well. Life in general can be tough for people, and live music can be a good escape from that.”

Gig-going revelry at local venue The Hug & Pint. CREDIT – Rosie Sco Photography

When it comes to filling slots, there’s no shortage of bands. “During busy times, we can do seven gigs a week – seven good gigs, seven quality bands, each with their own following, their own genre. If you wanna go out Glasgow, there’s always something on that will spark your interest.”

While a culture of supporting local artists may feel like the norm for Glaswegians, Bologna-born Caterina Conti brings a different perspective to her work as Operations Manager at Scottish promoter 432 Presents.

“The reason I’m even here is because small venues exist in the UK. In Italy, they don’t exist. The music scene is dead, because there’s only big bands playing big shows. In Bologna, which is similar in size to Glasgow, there’s maybe 2 pubs you can play music in.”

What does she attribute this difference to? “There’s a completely different culture of music. There’s not this culture of going to see a gig, of being willing to pay to go and see a smaller band. In Italy, there’s a feeling of ‘why would I pay for a ticket?’” Does the weather play its part? “Well… it does help that it’s always fucking raining here.”

Central to any music scene is of course the musicians. Melissa Brisbane is the lead singer and songwriter of Glasgow band Teose, as well as working as a live sound engineer. As someone firmly ensconced within it, what are her impressions of the Glasgow scene?

“It’s thriving. There’s been loads of bands doing really well recently, and I think there’s a new wave of artists coming up that are going to follow them.” Is there a culture of going to small local gigs in Glasgow? “Yeah, definitely. A lot of people who are also in other bands tend to go and see the smaller gigs. There’s a very good community.”

Melissa Brisbane, left, performs in Glasgow with Teose. CREDIT – Teose

She also emphasises the opportunities available for new bands, referencing specific nights that cater to up and coming artists at venues like The Hug and McChuills, as well as the legendary King Tuts. “Being a new band now, you’re constantly getting offers for gigs. There’s a real appetite for new bands.”

All three interviewees speak ardently of the crucial role that small venues play in supporting a local music scene. Drew sums up the general sentiment when he says “they’re the genesis. They’re where you start. You can’t just walk into a larger venue, you have to play at these small clubs and venues first. The music scene wouldn’t exist without them – this is where bands start.”

Caterina stresses a different, laundry-related reason that small venues are needed. “If you sell out a small venue, that’s how you get people’s attention and get to start playing bigger places. And no one wants to play their first gig ever in front of 1000 people – you’re gonna shit yourself!’”

So, somehow, local music is live and well in Glasgow. As the broader picture shows though, this is the exception. It will only remain so if people continue to support small venues and upcoming artists. Take the wonderful, vibrant Glasgow scene for granted at your peril – and its own peril too.

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