On Saturday I went to see Little Dragon a the O2 Academy in Birmingham. I’ve been very little since it moved from the site of the once defunct and now reinstated Birmingham Ballroom, and last night really made it clear why. In short, it’s a soulless, miserable excuse for a venue. We were in Academy 2, the second room in size, and the whole place is designed entirely to squash fans in like cattle. A horrible, claustrophobic box with over-priced pish on tap and the worst possible positioning of a lavatory I’ve ever been witness to. If, for the sake of argument, you wanted a little wee wee and were stood anywhere other than right next to it, you would have to fight your way through miserable punters, tutting and whining in case you accidentally spilt a drop of Carlsberg’s finest fizzy piss on their brown patent leather brogues. Ridiculous positioning of the bar also means that the main thoroughfare from door to stage, via lavatories involves elbowing the thirsty from your midst in order to get a better view of the distant gloomy dais.
Topology aside, the sound in that room is diabolical as well. Not to disrespect the sound engineers, I know one of them and it’s not down to talent or skill on their part. The room was evidently designed by some tool who’s only thought was “MOAR PUNTARS! MOAR NOIZE!” Instead of, “this room is an awkward shape, how can I build a sound system to cope with that and deliver some clarity?” Instead they’ve just put in a PA that’s far too big for the room and turned it up to eleven. Yes, melting off my face and making it hard to breathe will mask the subtle shortcomings of your room dynamics, by melting off my face and making it hard to breathe.
And that’s just the second pokey room. The main room is, without a doubt, designed entirely as a club with the live music as an afterthought. It’s a stupid shape; low ceilings around the edge mean one can’t see anything unless you press into the sweaty gyrations of the fanfolk, which isn’t always desirable. The bar is located in another place where the press of the perspiring sycophants means you’re constantly either being elbowed, pushed out of a thoroughfare or squashed by fellow thirst-quenchers wielding their sweat-dampened beer-tokens at the vapid staff. In my youth I’d have relished this, but as I get older and nurse a long term knee-injury, sometimes I just want to stand at the back and admire the musicianship. Sometimes, I like to use my seventeen stone frame to trample hipsters in my mosh-tickled excitement too, but the point is, I like to have the choice. If I’ve just invested over three hundred Great British pence on a plastic flagon of barely cooled, fruity horse-piss, I’d like to drink it, with the associated grimace, rather than wear it having being rubbed up to by some pilled-up twat in a cravat and a knock-off Casio watch.
In short, I feel like I’m intruding on the club night. Like my very being there, with my over-priced ticked (that I paid a £1.50 premium just to print out myself) and my warm coat of Urea de Donkey, is an inconvenience to the real business of letting 18-24 year-olds rub each other up and down to the latest darlings of NME, while pumping them full of vaguely boozy yellow water and fluorescent shots of syrupy filth. After all, we wouldn’t want to deprive the pavement of Bristol Street its weekly dose of 200 litres of child vomit and chips would we? The height of human artistic achievement, they’ll have you know, is the grinding up the leg of a vaguely conscious fashion victim while she pulsates weakly to Zane Lowe’s newest jams. The music they had on two hours ago by a band, who probably really care about their art, is now a distant memory, if you even came for that in the first place.
Of course, we kid ourself that it was ever about showcasing talent, or allowing us to enjoy our favourite artists. We kid ourselves and yet music promotion has turned into a dark art, almost exploitation. We pretend that yes, it’s about the music, not the money. Live music is big business, if the Fire Service tell you you can fit 800 people in a room, ram 850 in, charge them booking fees and handling costs and ticket printing waivers and artist tithes, water down their already pissy beers and charge them an extra quid-fifty than the nearest pub, take £2 off them to look after their coat, then lose it. They don’t care, the punters, they’ll put up with any old crap, and they bloody will as well. When did it become so wrong to want to enjoy music, I feel like an insurgent at a gig nowadays, like my sorts aren’t welcome. I don’t want to be excluded because a band I like got big, but I feel less and less inclined to want to go venues larger than a pub function room because I know I’m getting ripped off.
Maybe I’m being an idealist and my memories of having fun at the Wolverhampton Civic or the Wulfrun or the old Carling Academy have been skewed with time. Perhaps it was always like this. Perhaps it was always shit.