Image Credit: Copyright Stephen Richards
The effort to protect what is left of York’s dance-floors, bars and music venues was recently hit by a double blow by the closure of Mansion and Fibbers. Victims of the persistent trend of the replacement of night-clubs and local music venues with apartment blocks, the loss of the clubs highlights the fraught situation of the city’s nightlife and music scene. Both clubs were central to the inclusion of independent, student-driven nights promoting local talent alongside more mainstream events, which helped to establish a distinctive personality and culture to the city’s nightlife. As such, their closures are troubling. The steady creep of capital investment, rising rents, the continuing threats to local music venues : all this creates a bitter cocktail that should prompt us to ask not only who owns our cities, but what kind of culture we want them to embody.
Cities are traditionally seen as transient. When nightclubs or local music venues shut, new ones spring up to replace them. However, as the ambitious proposals to redevelop Rougier Street suggest, York may not be following that model. The much-loved Society, a shrine to many students’ twin passions - absolute bangers and cheap jagerbombs - is threatened by these plans, as is Salvation. Mainstream venues with high revenues are being - or likely to be - closed down, and it is unlikely that local music venues that seek to protect and find local talent are to be afforded any saving grace. The music scene in York does not get the same protection as it’s other cultural attractions but without its diverse cultural offerings, the city stands in the danger of becoming a playground for the wealthy, tourists and day-trippers eager for museums and staid coffee shops.
The question of what aspects of culture are locally valued and protected must be set against the issues of nation-wide arts funding. Strikingly, the 2019 Conservative manifesto had no separate chapter or even a paragraph dedicated to culture, as has generally been the case. A hidden and unclearly funded £250 million pledge to “regional arts and libraries” is little more than a band-aid on the gaping wound of ten years of austerity-driven cuts. Regional theatres, regional museums, music venues - all three are likely to continue to be stifled and squeezed out of business for the next five years. A government that doesn’t find the space or care for libraries is unlikely to see value in art and cultural venues. The slow closure of such venues is central to the question of what culture means and how we can defend it. Key to this defense is vocal support via the mechanisms of the slow power of local politics, as the recent saving of The Crescent shows. Following the submission of planning applications to turn the next-door nursery into four apartments, local action organized by the owners meant those plans were rejected in a unanimous vote by local councilors. Venues like The Crescent protect and help local music talent, and encourage independent and unique music nights. The cultural loss of such venues closing must be placed against the benefits such developments may bring.
The future of York’s party and music scene initially shows little sign of these hopeless conditions improving . The failures of York Parties are ever-present in the mind of anyone who has ever spent an evening hopelessly queuing outside Salvos, only to be kicked out once inside by a bouncer for daring to behave like they might be enjoying themselves. Fibbers’ owners have pledged that it will re-open, but there is no prospective venue at the time of writing, and the replacement of its traditional Thursday night out with a temporary one in Kuda is not an entirely thrilling prospect. The rise of new student-driven independent nights at the Lounge and the Independent Venue Week at the end of January does bring a sense of optimism to the state of things. Though the deep pockets of investors and developers may be threatening to carve their path of choice through the city, the resolve of creative communities and of students to think around obstacles ensures that night-clubs, music venues and music culture can prevail.