"Ipswich doesn't have the right venues for its music scene to grow"
PUBLISHED: 20:00 18 June 2019
While superstars such as Ed Sheeran are well catered for with stadiums such as Portman Road, our reporter questions the lack of mid-sized venues for up-and-coming bands.
We can reel in the titanic prestige of Rod Stewart to the sodden grounds of Portman Road and even hold the likes of Ed Sheeran for four days running on his, near-enough, home performance but what's happening to Ipswich's music scene beneath the odd home legend and well-weathered icons?
The answer is simple: the town has a whole host of musical majesty that unfortunately is left to writhe in obscurity as Ipswich is still not able to develop it's local music scene. There is, of course, a myriad of reasons that Ipswich cannot carry rising talent to stages beyond their local pub but the sore thumb of the lot is the town's absence of a mid-sized venue.
Ipswich boasts a respectable number of pubs that facilitate live music - think Gardener's Arms or The Railway - along with its larger venues like the aforementioned Portman Road, the Cornhill Exchange and the Regent, but without a venue to fill the gap between, promoters are left taking a blind leap of faith to take local bands from singing in front of the pub regulars to filling the corners of a 1,500 capacity theatre hall; and that's before they even consider hiring security and sound engineers..
The town has certainly gotten less out of tune in the last couple years, auspicious steps were made with the introduction of The Smokehouse: an intimate 80-capacity venue that gives local stars the power to take the roof off, as well as providing touring bands another stop on their voyage.
Business has been good for The Smokehouse explains manager and founder Joe Bailey: "Since we opened in October 2016 we've gone from two gigs a month to up to 15 gigs a month, sometimes five gigs a week." And these aren't you're average pub residents trawling in as Bailey continues. "Everyone who walks who through that door in The SH means to be there, it's a dedicated venue. You know everyone there is there for live music."
Unfortunately the plucky little spot on South Street can only take new talent so far. Limited by its 80-head capacity, programme manager Marcus Neal explains: "A lot of touring bands aren't coming to Ipswich as a part of their itinerary because we don't have the medium-size venues that we need, coming to The Smokehouse is a brilliant first step on the ladder for them but after that where can you play if your audience is outgrowing this venue?"
Beneath the desperate pleads for this severely overdue venue there are clear positives; Ipswich may be being outgrown by its talent but the scene has talent nonetheless.
Ed Barnes, local DJ and business owner, has played witness to such work and maintains that Ipswich houses some of the best music out there.
The founder of IO radio said: "There are particularly some very good heavy-metal gigs going on down at the Music Room; Darren Smith is doing a great job running Deadsoul promotions where he's just lined up one of the guys from My Dying Bride which is an amazing doom metal band; to have that sort of calibre showing up is brilliant.
"We've also got the best Prince tribute act, Purple Rain, which comes from Ipswich, run by Jimmy Love who now tours the UK. Whenever they tour they play the Corn Exchange. So yes there's some incredible talent coming from this town."
But all the bludgeoning riffs and shredding solos from Ipswich's finest still cannot pitch the town up against the likes of Norwich and Colchester on the basis of the town's lacklustre live music infrastructure. Ed explains: "If you're a promoter and you put on a gig in Ipswich at the Corn Exchange you have to bring in sound equipment, you have to bring in security, it's a hell of a lot of stuff to make a gig work. If I went and put on a gig in the Colchester Arts Centre or the Norwich Waterfront I pay a flat fee for those venues and that's it!"
As a relatively small but hopeful artist, the journey to stardom can be unforgiving in the current climate. Garry Cane, currently a guitarist and backing vocalist for The Immortal Fire, says that seeing success as a musician in Ipswich is a matter of choosing the right sound and knowing the right people: "The artists that do well are the cover bands, pop musicians and bands that have industry contacts, you could be the best band in Suffolk but without contacts noone will consider you as an artist."
The 19-year-old, who is in two other bands, also recognises the need for competitive mid-range facilities that can rid many artists of the glue that keeps them stuck to Ipswich. "The mid-sized venue is where you get the up and coming, what I'd call, 'support act worthy' bands and that's where you find you're new favourites; artists need this mid-ground to build a fanbase."
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Such troubling tribulations don't go unnoticed. Gardner's Arms manager Jack Caughlan comments on the slog for new names to hit the ground running: "When new bands come out there's definitely a struggle to get in somewhere first and once you're in, you're in but it's just getting that foot in the door that is and always has been difficult."
The 25-year-old from Ipswich expounds claiming the issue is as much about money as it is recognition: "New bands always come to us and say we'll only charge this much to play but they don't wanna be undercutting themselves just to get their foot in the door and come out with a tenner!"
Bleak outlook aside, Ipswich should keep it's chin up. We have the talent in amongst underground wonders of metal and hip-hop and with The Smokehouse being jam-packed on the regular there is an undeniable outcry for that illusive mid-sized venue; we can only hope someone with the right money and the right vision sees that too.