The Maths of a Niche Revivalby Max Barashenkov / Images by Luke Daniel / 18.11.2011
Cape Town, it seems, is at the foot of a ‘heavy alternative’ revival, an ugly blanket term for music without mass appeal – anything from punk to metal to hardcore to rockabilly to experimental-blues-rock-n-roll. More and more people, driven by boredom and the homogeny of the scene, are willing to sweat it out at smaller shows, to experience rougher and fresher sounds in smoked-out pubs where there is no room for the glamour of lights, big stages and real money. While it is tempting to sing songs of DIY madness, of drunken unity, of inspirational diversity, this current trend is a peak to be scaled cautiously – sure footing in the music industry is hard to find. For a sustainable ‘heavy alternative’ scene to exist and to grow, several depressing facts need to be highlighted and kept constantly in mind, by both the bands and venues.
Argument 1: The Empty Crucible of High Schools
As much as we hate to admit, the foundations of our being and character are laid out in the formative years of high school. This, in many ways, can also be said about music preferences. The sounds and songs that we smile and bleed to in high school will remain with us forever and will inform the evolution of our music tastes. The rugby captains and teen nymphs don’t listen to metal, don’t trawl foreign blogs for obscure bands and, if they do shave a hawk for some initiation, they sure as hell will never introduce it to wood-glue. The likelihood of their sudden conversion to something more meaningful than the 5FM Top 20 is slim. It’s the losers, the fat kids, the pimply-faced wierdos that, in the future, will form the ranks of an alternative scene and, as it currently stands, they are deprived of the environment that would facilitate that. They simply have nowhere to belong, to feel like themselves – the slut-race of See You Next Wednesday at the Assembly is hardly a welcoming place for overweight geeks.
Seven or eight years ago, the high school gig circuit flourished, but now it has been drowned out by hard electro and easily-digestible indie rock, trampled by the cash-cow of dubstep, replaced by a scene that is much more about appearances than substance. All-ages shows have disappeared, dismissed due to the logistical nightmares associated with underage drinking. Yet, if a niche movement is to survive, the high schools are exactly where the, however idealistic, efforts should be directed, exposing a new generation to heavier, non-standard music. Looking around at such recent events as the ‘Punk Revival’ at the Kimberly Hotel or the string of punk-metal gigs at the Jolly Roger, there are a scant few young faces to be seen, the crowds consisting mostly of those who indulged in the music years ago, in their high school phase. If this trend continues, the revival will die in its infancy. So far, there exists only one public entity, something that can be easily accessed by the high school contingent, that is actively promoting local and international heavy music – the Danger Zone, a show on the internet station Zone Radio. From a three-hour Wednesday night program, they are expanding from live transmissions to shows and gigs and it is exactly these kinds of undertakings that plant the seeds for a fertile scene.
Argument 2: The Phantom Audience and the Starving Bands
Getting fucked and spazzing around to dirty rock ‘n roll, we tend to forget, in the carnival of like-minded faces, that Cape Town is an incredibly small pond – the number of paying feet-through-the-door and throats-to-be-liquored is severely limited. Out of the estimated hundred thousand white – as much as we throw the Rainbow Nation farce around, the rock scene remains a predominantly white affair – youth between the ages of 16 and 25 that reside in Cape Town, only about 10%, a mere ten thousand (an estimate that is backed by the average attendance numbers at RAMfest – around 6 or 7 thousand, including the outlying areas of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Worcester), are predisposed to heavy alternative music. These are, mind you, not all punks and metalheads, merely a group that is open to the idea of attending a niche gig. Considering that only a third of them will go out, the bands and venues are competing for an audience of about three thousand on the prime nights of Friday and Saturday. Spread that number around the twenty-something entertainment options – from concerts, to clubs, to bars – and your optimistic ‘good haul’ is a mere 150 people for a punk or metal show. The reality is far more dreary than the statistics, but the 150 number should be the benchmark to dance from, to curb the hubris that could see a venue or band fail. Careful management, communication and healthy, controlled competition are the only things that will make a gig circuit catering to such a small number sustainable.
The need for promoters and venues to be critical in their selection of acts is extremely crucial now, from a financial point of view – we cannot afford an explosion of garage punk bands, however enticing that sounds, that flood shows with shitty quality and poor performances, putting audiences off. A niche show should be an occasion to look forward to, a memory to treasure. While bands like Half-Price and Crossfire Collision have a certain throwback appeal, they are not the bricks from which to build something new. Now, at the beginning of the backlash to the commercial dominance, is the time to throw support behind emerging bands, to seduce a new crowd with the swagger of the Great Apes, to work them into frenzy with Dead Lucky, to challenge them with the Bone Collectors and Sixgun Gospel. The attempted success of young bands is as perilous as ever. While the audience and venue pool remains small, the number of niche genres has blossomed with the advent of the internet and acts will only survive if they manage to bridge the genre gaps, to have, at this early stage, a unifying alternative appeal. Considering that there are only three or four venues that will host young talent of this sort in Cape Town and that no person will come to the same venue more than twice a month, the need to not get stale, to tour, to produce EPs, to make the recordings freely available online is apparent.
CASE STUDY 1: The Jolly Roger Model
Perhaps it is fitting that one of the new focal points of the heavy alternative scene opened up not in the up-market area of the CBD, but in the warrens of Plumstead. Going to the Jolly Roger, even for the first time, feels like coming home – no pretense, no ridiculous cover charge, just like-minded people having a good time. Open only for a few months, it has already attracted a fair share of attention with line-ups that have scarcely been seen around the Cape Town woods for the past few years. Its model seems to be working and presents in itself an interesting scenario of a brand, in this case Sailor Jerry rum, successfully tapping into a certain image by creating, through co-finance, a space where the scene that embodies that image can exist. The Jolly Roger, functioning as a normal pub during the day and on nights when there are no shows, hosts a lot of free gigs, a strategy that has worked well so far in terms of drawing a crowd, but has to be cautiously continued due to the above mentioned numbers – reduced significantly by its location, catering basically to just the Southern Suburbs. On a full night it can draw up to a hundred people, cashing in an optimistic estimate of R12000 from the alcohol sold, a figure that, at this point, does not make it a stable paying venue for bands, who get a cut of the bar profits. While its very existence is inspirational to a scene that for so long had nothing to be excited about, it will take a major effort, an open conversation and creative collaborations – such as the Jolly Roger and Danger Zone partnership – to make it sustainable.
*All images © Luke Daniel.