Home Lifestyle Is This The End Of Cape Town Live Music Venues?

Is This The End Of Cape Town Live Music Venues?

Is This The End Of Cape Town Live Music Venues?

Photography courtesy of Pierre Rommelaere

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.




  1. I don’t know where to begin. Articles this seems to indicate that the South African music community always has had a paralysing chip on it’s sholder and it is now reaping the rewards. It is difficult for me to say what I’m about to say since I have a friend or two in bands.

    “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. ”

    So your trick to get people to spend their money at the venues is to belittle and insult them? That coffee shop or microbrewery that charge those exuberant prices has never insulted me. Furthermore, they’ve never felt me up, puked on me, threw cups of piss at me, forced their drunken dumbass philosophies on me. But most importantly, they’ve never emotionally blackmailed me either!
    There’s a lot of people to blame but the one group you can never, ever alienate is your customer! I thought that would be obvious!

    That whole model upon which SA music was built on by Barney Simon and the like is completely self-defeating. Would you buy an iPhone if Apple begged you? Would you buy it if they told you 10000 kids will die if you didn’t? No and no! I don’t give a crap about your blood sweat and tears! Entertain me! Now!

    We should want to go to gigs, not be guilt-tripped into it! We should be convinced that our lives would end right here and now if we missed it!

    This whole race-to-the-bottom pricing is nonsense too. Despite most of the country being in the crapper, your potential target audience (or their parents) actually has a lot of money and they’ve been getting ever more well-off over the last 20 years. After all, how do you think they afford those craft beers? As stated, people should want to go to gigs. Charging the same as a kerkbasaar creates the perception that it’s crap. Hell, raise the price to R1000.00 per gig. Make it worth it, or make us believe it is, or don’t bother.

    I grant you, creating the mystical, mythical rock’nroll experience is an enormous task especially since the most important link in the chain, our local musicians, are such a bunch of D-students!

    After 50 years People still stand in line to hear Bob Dylan’s thoughts on love, life and everything else. Who’s interested in what Khan from Parlatones has to say? South African musos have no character or personality. the only possible exceptions are some of the Afrikaners, Francois Van Coke, Koos Kombuis (who’s almost 60) and Die Antwoord.

    Musicians should create an illusion of being somehow otherworldly yet be able to connect with us. The fact that Visions of Joanna means something to me doesn’t le me think for a moment that Bob Dylan and I could be pals.

    I think what I’m trying to say is, should we even have a local music scene? Should we have this protectionist attitude? Shouldn’t we cut out the dead wood and let the cream rise to the top? Can you really honestly say, when nobody’s watching, that there are many local bands to rival the Americans? Really? Honestly? I mean, all we could come up with was Seether who was the Oasis to Nirvana’s Beatles.

    Change is inevitable. Adapt or die.

    • In a nutshell…blaming fans for not supporting a music scene is a bit strange. Clearly that then means they are not fans of the scene, otherwise they would support it.
      Getting angry and making a rant about how people don’t want to buy a product isn’t going to make people want to buy that product (ie go to local live gigs)…maybe its time for local artists, sound engineers, lighting guys, marketing etc.. to set up the game and make better music/shows that people want to see…many times I’ve been to a local gig and I’ve seen a lot of slack from entertainers and behind the scenes staff members, no ones pushing limits and is often unprofessional. So it’s not interesting. That may be the cause of failing businesses.
      Not because there’s a fad for ‘craft’ beer.

  2. Good article, I think it says a lot of shit that needs to be said. Personally I think tastes are just more commercial in general these days, and that’s ok.. For those of us that love real music and real experiences I think we should go more underground… Garage parties, buckets of beer and good vibes… wait for everyone else to wake the fuck up 😉

  3. Atually local musicians ARE being heard:)

    many of them really are amazing !

    If youre curious on social media youll t find them .

    here are just a few facebook/ soundcloud and your tube including MANY MANY venues supporting them

    add to this list — folks let have something positive to say:)

    Los Tacos

    Sean Koch

    Hinds Brothers Band

    Jamie Jupiter

    Eland Gray

    Piu Nandi

    Nick Williams

    Marijuana: the Musical

    Gavin Minter

    ESP Band

    Andrew James


    Pastiche Jazz Orchestra

    Music Amore

    Ernestine Deane

    Wild Lettuce

    Ibrahim Maalouf

    Titilayo Adedokun

    Richard Ceasar



    Caroline Blundell Music

    Tova Luck Music

    Jazz Rendez-vous at Alliance Française du Cap

    Paige Mac

    Steve Van Music

    Faye & Wren

    Stone Jets


    Damian Salazar


    Midweek Sessions at the Church on Greenmarket Square

    Sannie Fox

    Derek Sassen

    Crimson House

    Cape Town Nu World Festival

    CueCumber Jazz

    Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts


    Adele Wyngaard

    Tina Schouw heartartist

    Woodstock Mafia

    Kaleidoscope Cafe

    Kelly Bell and Sistahood

    Up The Creek Music Festival

    Zone Radio


    Guy Buttery



    Valiant Swart

    Valiant Swart

    Piet Botha

    Dave Ledbetter

    Ronan Skillen


    Ann Jangle

    Heather Mac

    Simon & the Bande À Part

    The Cape Town Goema Orchestra


    Fiona Hare


    Natalie Chapman

    The Suitcase Hearts

    James Grace

    Karen Zoid

    Donnalou Stevens

    Goodnight Wembley

    The Dirty Skirts

    Jeremy Loops

    Taxi Violence

    Robin Auld




    Ashtray Electric

    Almost Famous Band

    7th Son

    Jeremy Douglas


    oh dark arrow

    The Nomadic Orchestra

    Josh Roxton

    Louise Day Band

    Nicole Berke

    Monique Hellenberg

    Amanda Tiffin

    Cherry Vynil

    Sebastian Wolff

  4. I thoroughly agree with the sentiment in this article, and a lot of what Craig mentioned needs to be said.

    It’s really a case of under-appreciation for what you’ve got, and I’ll be the first to admit that I went through a phase in my 1st three to four years of varsity at UCT where I rarely went to gigs or supported venues in Town. I lived in various spots in the Southern Suburbs, and often made excuses for not making the effort to hit Assembly or Mercury because of taxi fares, it’s too far, entrance fees, etc. Ironically, I still ended up spending my parent’s money on getting liquored up at parties and clubs like Tin Roof and Tiger Tiger, which could’ve been better spent supporting the scene.

    One thing that separates my story from the music fans that Craig describes is that I rarely, if ever, spent my money on fancy meals or drinks just to live a more glamorous, faux-hip lifestyle. I just wanted to maximize how drunk I could get with the allowance I got, and I chose places nearest to me, with the cheapest alcohol, and where most of my friends at the time were going to be. As time went on, I grew to appreciate what was right there all along – entertainment-wise – in my backyard.

    It’s so sad to see how the changes in the Cape Town social landscape have resulted in people neglecting the local music scene to such an extent that we have venues teetering on collapse because of dwindling attendance. You’d think that the upwardly-mobile young professionals/creatives could make a difference, what with a semblance of control over one’s finances and a more mature outlook on life? Wrong. Music (at least live music) somehow takes a backseat.

    Towards the end of last year, I took a career opportunity in Qatar in the Middle East, and it’s made me realize how incredibly fortunate Cape Townians are. Beers here cost roughly R120 to R150 each, entrance about the same, and we have a handful of cover bands (no originals) that service the very small, but dedicated live music circuit. All my wonderful tax-free moola can’t buy me a night at Assembly – so instead I have to settle for a spirited, yet predictable run of funk and classic rock hits each time I go out. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, people…

    (Oh, and because it’s an Islamic country, all bars and clubs close down here for the holy month of Ramadan (starting in the next few days). So imagine not having ANY gigs to go to for a whole month #Perspective)

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