On 29th April thousands of music lovers marched through Cardiff under the banner ‘Save Womanby Street’. What’s that all about and why should we care?
In this globalised world it is increasingly difficult to tell apart different town and city centres. High streets are dominated by chain stores and local pubs are becoming a rarity, with corporate bars with names like the Slug and Lettuce becoming the norm. Whetherspoons rule the world as the bulk buying power of identikit chains force old skool family pubs out of business.
The towns and cities that are interesting, the ones that are worth visiting, are the ones that have their own character and home grown culture. Culture is the beating heart of a city, without culture the city dies. But culture cannot be manufactured. It has to grow organically from the grass roots, with its foundations in the local community.
Music, art and culture have for decades led the way for the regeneration of run down communities. Previously ignored districts suddenly become vibrant places where people want to live.
Ironically, vultures are never far behind, swooping in to develop properties in areas that are now suddenly sought after and ‘gentrification’ kicks in.
In the process the culture that made the place so vibrant is suffocated and all is left is hipsters charging eight quid for a bowl of breakfast cereal, a fiver for a half pint of home brew and barbers specialising in craft beards. The people that made the area are suddenly priced out of their own community and unwelcome.
In the last few decades hundreds of music venues have had to close down because developers move in and the new residents don’t like the noise coming from the venues that were there when their new des res was still an old slaughterhouse.
So why should we care? Well, unless the manufactured product of shows like the X-Factor are your cup of tea, small grassroots venues are vital for the growth of new bands. Big commercial venues are only interested in established acts that have a proven pulling power. But bands have to start from scratch to develop that fan base and to develop their sound. The Manic Street Preachers started out playing Blackwood’s Little Theatre, Cold Play had to cut their teeth as a support band in Blackwood Miners Institute, even the likes of Green Day started out playing venues like Newport’s TJs.
Cardiff has a proud history of live music, but venues have often closed as quickly as they have opened. Venues such as The Point and The Toucan have fallen foul of the ravages of corporate greed.
Womanby Street has been bucking the trend though. In the heart of the city, in spitting distance of both Cardiff Castle and the Millennium Stadium, it has slowly but surely grown into a thriving hub for music in the capital.
Clwb Ifor Bach, which first opened its doors in 1983 has grown to become one of the most respected small venues in the country. Dempseys and is predecessor the Four Bars has consistently hosted grassroots music upstairs for as long as we can remember.
In recent years, we have seen the arrival of The Moon Club, The Full Moon and Fuel Rock Club, all providing quality live music throughout the week. The City Arms as the bottom end of the street has live music tucked in the corner of its old skool bar.
This development of what was once little more than a back alley into a vibrant cultural hub has been a ray of hope for the music scene of Cardiff and, indeed Wales. Far from being a string of corporate bars, there has been a friendly grass roots vibe throughout the street and it even hosts its own festivals. Networks have developed, bands have formed, alliances have been made and the resultant ripples have had a positive knock on effect throughout wales.
Things started to take a negative turn in 2017. In a few short months the Moon Club was taken over by the Bootlegger chain and turned into a hipster jazz club selling expensive cocktails*; Dempseys was closed to be converted into yet another sports bar by welsh soccer legend Gareth Bale; Whetherspoons announced it was going to develop the Gatekeeper pub into a hotel (creating the potential for numerous noise complaints) and there is talk of the building next to Clwb Ifor being developed into flats (more noise complaints)
(*We have not yet visited the Bootlegger so cannot be too harsh on them. It might turn out to be OK, but it certainly aint going to have the down to earth realism of the old venue)
And then, The Full Moon closed its doors. The future of the street was looking grim. This was, as they say, the last straw.
Within a few short weeks the staff of the Full Moon and many others involved in the community got together and set up the Creative Republic of Cardiff – ‘a new, non-profit organisation that plans to rejuvenate Cardiff’s live music and creative culture. It has been set up by former staff & friends of The Full Moon’. Through crowd funding they have re-opened the The Full Moon as a ‘workers co-operative’ type thingy and a campaign ‘Save Womanby Street’ has been set up.
On Saturday 29th April, thousands turned out to march through the city (dwarfing the traditional May Day rally that took place earlier in the day) and marched to City Hall. The march was led by local MPs and the rally at the end of the march speeches were made by leading politicians from Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats (note the parties that were not there). Promises were made that development would have to fit in with the existing nature of the street and the music scene would be protected.
Whether or not these promises will be kept remains to be seen and ultimately capitalism and the market will dictate the final fate of the street. But one thing is for sure, the music community of Cardiff has come together and aint going to just roll over for ‘the man’. Instead of just moaning, they are doing something. Whatever the fate of this small street, something in Cardiff has been woken and we are sure it will keep grass roots music alive in the capital, whether it be in Womanby Street or somewhere else. But Womanby Street is one of the things that makes Cardiff so special – losing Womanby would be a loss to the culture of city – even for people who do not like music.
FOOTNOTE: Whilst Womanby Street is an important part of the music scene of Cardiff, we must not forget there are other music venues in the city worth saving, from the grassroots of the Gwdhiw and Cardiff Bus Club, to the mid-size Globe and the Tramshed (list not exhaustive). All of them worthy of your support. (But you can shove your Motorpoint Arena up your arse)