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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Has Chicago's Changed?

Tuesday 6th July’s gig at Chicago Rock has opened my eyes in more ways than one. Have I changed? Has Chicago Rock Café changed? Well I’ve never felt more compelled to put pen to paper and write about something that doesn’t concern me until now. But that’s the thing, it does affect me and it should concern anybody on this side of the bars, clubs and live music industry as there are lessons to be learned for anyone that want to improve turn over and refine their business.

Over the years we have all seen the slow demise of the entertainment industry leaving it ‘on its back’. We can blame the economy, the smoking ban or any number of issues that has affected the number of people going out to clubs for their entertainment, but the truth is, we are all to blame. The result, much like the government, has seen cut back after cut back. However, at the same time there has been a reel lack of change and people subconsciously have got bored and stopped going out to clubs and restaurants.

Who am I to say? Well…no economic guru that’s for sure. However, I have always felt that I have been in a prime position to observe, criticise and make judgement on various venues up and down the country much in the same way as a secret shopper. If you look at our situation, we travel all over the UK visiting and playing hundreds of different venues meeting different managers and owners alike.

Now I’m going to start sounding old and cynical…As a band we reminisce about “the good old days”. In the mid to late 90s we were averaging over 200 dates a year. Yes that’s averaging 4 gigs a week. But in real terms this would actually peak at 6 to 7 gigs a week in the busy months. We would play at a ‘Brannigans’ bar on a Monday night in Chester to a full house, then Birmingham on the Tuesday, and maybe a Jumpin Jaks on a Wednesday etc etc. You get the picture. However, Brannigan’s have long gone and others have followed suit so credit to Chicago Rock Café for standing the test of time.

So what’s changed? NOTHING! …and that’s the problem. I think subconsciously punters are bored with the same old stuff. What use to be a winning formula at all these different venues no longer works. Things need to change in much the same way as taste and culture changes with time. Basically punters want something new and exciting. Would you want the same meals every week or watch the same news every day? No...neither would I. So why is it that most clubs around the country have almost become clones of each other? They all seem to function in identical ways which is something that is obvious to us travelling to so many around the country. For example, I understand that a venue has a music policy but for some reason all of the DJ’s seem to be stuck in some sort of ‘Timewarp’. (I feel a song coming on.) I think everyone knows what they are going to play next before they do! It’s like an old radio ‘playlist’ that someone forgot to update. They play all the cheesy classics that we all supposedly love (until you actually ask). If they bring a band off they will follow it up with a few memorable rock classic like ‘Livin on A Prayer’ or ‘Summer of ‘69’ and this happens week after week.

Moving on..most acts are as much to blame. I say acts because you can’t call them bands. A new original artiste will come out, then all of a sudden you got several people saying they are the latest ‘Lady Ga Ga’ Tribute (or whatever) before they’ve even bought the backing tracks. Personally this is something that I really started to recent. With very little effort and no equipment you could set yourself up as a tribute artist earning a premium amount of money in comparison to some bands which I believe had a huge knock on effect. These acts could turn up last minute in their car, plug into the DJ’s sound system with their minidisc backing track and literally pack away an hour later. Some of these acts weren’t even that great it’s just because they was the latest thing to come out. People eventually realised and their work dropped-off only for them to change their act to the next latest artist. Again subconsciously I believe ‘punters’ have ‘cottoned on’ to this. How many times have they seen the same girl as a different tribute? Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and now Lady Ga Ga.

…and this is where other bands went wrong. Rather than stand their ground and do their job, you got a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude. Other bands would make comparisons and say things like…’If that’s all we’re getting then we won’t put the lighting in”, “Let’s do a bank job and put no sound equipment in”…”Let’s not do the show.” Well the truth is they only did their selves an injustice. In the long term it lowered the standard of acts going into these venues to a point where it didn’t matter if a band was on or not. Consequently a lot of the bands from years ago have packed up.

The Tribute Show has never compromised. Our whole ethos is to entertain like no other band around. Whether we achieve that we’ll let you decide, but one thing is for sure, we would never cut corners otherwise what’s the point in being an entertainer? If we get booked you’re going to get ‘one hell of a show’.

Next up is the venues themselves, which most are still using the same worn out sound equipment from ten years ago. The DJs are obviously no experts when it comes to sound systems (no matter what they say), they don’t know how to get the best out of the system. What’s more, it looks like there has been no maintenance on these systems for years and are run down and in much need of some tender loving care. You really wouldn’t believe some of the sights we’ve seen. Some of which are serious health and safety hazards….and again the buying public subconsciously are no fools. They know when something is right.

Peterborough case study. If I look back to what was my local venue, it fell into all these traps. Live music reached a poor standard and was inconsistent. As a result they eventually closed the restaurant which stopped the early doors and regular customers. This in itself then attracted the wrong type of customer that just wanted to get drunk which ran down the appearance and reputation of the club. While this was going on the DJ was churning out the same predictable songs through a poor sound system and people stopped going. It then became an untrendy place to go.

Summarising so far….You have live music restaurants that no longer sell food, have limited or no live music, poor or predictable music playlist with bad sound systems. No wonder why some of these companies went bust.

Onto the gig… The booking for Tuesday 6th July 2010 came via Empire Leisure the exclusive entertainments supplier to Atmosphere, Bars and Clubs and Chicago Rock Café amongst others. As I implied earlier there isn’t much work midweek so we assumed we would be performing to a handful of people…and how wrong we were with over 500 people in attendance..

On arrival we were greeted by Adrian who explained they had rebranded the night as ‘Camp Rock’ which has become Barnsley’s biggest gay night. Okay they’ve had a great idea and tapped into a niche market but they are doing far more than that right. Whether you’re gay, straight or bi-sexual you would be mad to miss one of the best nights in town or Yorkshire for that matter. So what’s so good about it?

Barnsley Chicago Rock Café has got it right on so many levels which made me reflect back to the mid ‘90s. So much so, that I wanted to write this report in the hope that we could all learn something from it. They really are making the most of everything they’ve got to offer and something which I haven’t seen for a very long time.

On arrival our female singer commented on how tidy the venue looked (despite not having a makeover). On that note I must say, other venues we have been to have had no soap or paper in the toilets, which only reflects badly on the club. Generally Chicago Rock Café Barnsley has clearly been looked after. Behind the DJ console everything was in order (unlike other venues we have visited). The sound system is working well and ‘banging out’ the music without distorting. The song playlist and choice was brilliant and I don’t think I heard a single cheesy party tune or gay anthem all night. Someone has been creative with the ‘Camp Rock’ theme and got a couple of members of staff to add to this by dressing up as a couple of ‘Drag Queen’s’. This provides some light hearted entertainment for the customers. Drinks are no more than £1.50 all night and the venue is open until 3.30am. The result is a rammed club of over 500 people on a Tuesday night. This in itself creates a great atmosphere and repeat business. What more could you ask for.

There is talk of Chicago Rock rolling out ‘Camp Rock’ to its other venues. However although a good niche market I believe it’s the small things that Barnsley is doing which is making the difference. Because of its turnover it can then consistently provide quality live entertainment and long may it continue. General Manager Tye Healey clearly runs a very tight ship so all credit to Mr Healey, Rachel, Adrian and not forgetting Tess and the rest of the team. Well done Chicago Rock Barnsley it’s just a shame that you wasn’t my local, because gay night or not I would certainly go for a great night out.

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