Shortly after publishing this article, we learnt that The Mercury Live is being reopened under new ownership, so please take in mind that this article was written prior to learning this news.
The past couple of years have been tragic for live music venues in Cape Town with many of them being forced to shut their doors as gig attendance dwindled and the owners could no longer afford to keep the venues open. Purple Turtle was one of the first to fade into the darkness and was quickly followed by Ragazzi, and then the almighty Zula Bar also fell to the same curse during 2014. At the turn of the New Year, venues like The Assembly, The Manila Bar, and The Mercury Live were still going to strong.
That was until we were stuck with the terrible news that Kevin Winder, the owner of The Mercury Live for the past 13 years, shall being closing the venue down. Their saving grace would have been the Witchdocter Productions takeover that was announced earlier this year, but that deal unfortunately fell through, and Winder has been forced to shut the doors for good – unless some kind-hearted souls would take it upon themselves to pump enough money into the venue in order for it to stay open regardless of whether gig attendance is at a bare minimum.
It seems even the mighty Mercury Live, a venue that played an integral role in growing the Cape Town music scene that we see around us today, could be felled by the bane of the South African music industry: disinterested and indifferent music fans that would rather pay exuberant prices for a simple coffee than pay a humble R40 or R50 to watch six or seven talented bands pour their blood, sweat and tears into giving fans a full evening of musical entertainment. It are these same “fans” that are now killing the few remaining live music venues in Cape Town.
The few remaining major venues, The Assembly, The Manila Bar, and ROAR are now being hit with the same problem which faced all the other venues: not enough people are attending their shows. I find this to be incredibly shocking with regards to The Assembly. It is a venue that has carved itself a niche as being the bastion for indie, rock and less commercial electronic, and has prided itself on being the staple hang-out spot for UCT students, and the various other colleges that find themselves located with close proximity to the CBD. Despite this, you can walk into The Assembly’s “See You Next Wednesday” student event and you would swear that you had just stumbled into an abandoned music venue. Student nights, in my experience as a student at Stellenbosch University, usually mean hundreds of sweating bodies grinding against each other as the club fills with the smell of alcohol, lust, stale cigarettes, and an overpowering odour of testosterone. Perhaps the students of UCT find it above themselves to degrade themselves to such grotesque displays of public lust, but who am I kidding really? They conform to the standard rules of students: party hard and pray that you pass your degree.
Perhaps it is rather the breed of student, and persons, that have started to dominate Cape Town. The breed of people that would rather pay R50 for a craft beer at the latest “hip and happening” location and fork out a ridiculous amount of money for gourmet food just so they can adhere to the latest dietary trends. Although, I am not one to point fingers at any particular people, but I will assign collective blame to the so-called music-loving community of Cape Town. Collective blame for writing out the death warrant for some of Cape Town’s most prestigious music venues, and being the harbingers of doom for these fine establishments. It is tragic to walk into The Assembly on a Saturday for gig that is being headlined by Desmond and the Tutus, and to see that only about 450 people attending the gig. We are talking about a band that usually headlines festivals, charts on the 5FM Top 40 with each singe they release, and often performs overseas. Yet, only 450 people can scrap a meagre R60 together to watch them, and a host of other talented local artists such as Early Hours and Mudblood perform on a Saturday night. Even those on a tight student budget can afford that entrance fee especially when paying R10 per a band, and get to see some of the finest musical talent that South Africa has to offer. It seems that Cape Town relishes in trussing the noose that is slowly being slipped around these venues’ necks.
People will always try to defend themselves, and one of their favourite arguments is that the venues make money from the bar. Yes, the venue does make money from the bar, but that does not mean that the promoter also makes money from the bar. The promoter and the venue are often two different entities, and more than often the promoter does not see a cent from the bar – which is just how things are done. This does mean that promoters have to work tirelessly to ensure that enough people are walking through the doors and paying the cover charge, and that is just not happening anymore. Therefore, the promoter no longer finds it viable to host gigs and the venue loses the stream of revenue that came from sales from the bar. The end result is tragic, and one that has become all too familiar in recent years.
Music lovers will easily lament the fact that their favourite bands do not come to South Africa while sipping on their grossly overpriced chai latte, but I wonder if the realise that by not supporting local music venues, and local bands, then they’re also ensuring that international acts don’t visit South Africa because bands cannot exist simply to perform at festivals. Perhaps people do not realise that they are tolling the death bell for live music venues, and if that is the case then this is their wake-up call. Shake yourself out of complacency and go attend gigs – you’ll thank me later when you find out that your “favourite” live music venue had just shut down. If it was your favourite then why did you let it shut down? If you get up and start attending more gigs then perhaps you won’t have to be faced with that guilty conscience when people start pointing fingers at who was to blame for the demise of live music in Cape Town.