Cardiff's Music Scene Has Reached Crisis Point
With the recent closure of two key venues and a proposed Wetherspoons hotel now looming, the Welsh capital’s Womanby Street cultural hub stands on a knife edge.
Photo by Jeremy Segrott
Veer left off Cardiff's bustling St Mary's Street, lurch past the NPC car park and you'll find Womanby Street. A higgledy mash of bars, venues and pop-ups, it's the Welsh capital's lifeline. One step up from an alleyway, and often housing as many tour vans as can physically squeeze into a narrow cobbled street, it creaks with the weight of its past – that is, when its present isn't pumping out of grassroots venues like Clwb Ifor Bach, The Full Moon or Fuel.
Vintage market Cardiff Fashion Quarter clothes almost everyone who sets foot on the street, while the city's iconic Swn Festival owes almost everything to the street's cluster of venues, each of which holds its own personality. Clwb Ifor Bach's pub-like atmosphere hosts the twanging indie crop; The Full Moon's swing-and dance-loving crowd spills out into the street night after night. Fuel, meanwhile, is a blood-red-walled, warts'n'all rock club that's been graced by Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson himself on more than one occasion. It's the kind of place you can't fake – a "cultural hub" that any number of shipping-container-obsessed marketing bods would give their left arm for. And it may be about to change.
Huw Stephens is no stranger to the stretch. "Womanby Street is a special place in Cardiff," the Radio 1 DJ and co-founder of the city's Swn Festival says. When it comes to Clwb Ifor Beach, which has been around for 30 years, "You have people as diverse as High Contrast and Cerys Matthews who got early residencies in that building. It has been important for the Welsh language in the city, and also plays a vital part in live music in Cardiff. In the late 90s you'd see Coldplay, The Strokes and The Killers playing upstairs, and it still brings touring talent to the city. There's a real feel of independence there," he remembers, a hint of pride in his voice. "You also have the very popular Wetherspoons." Ah yes, the Spoons – that's what looks set to take a sledgehammer to everything that makes Womanby so special.
Plans emerged in late February to build 17 hotel rooms above The Gatekeeper – Cardiff's prime Wetherspoons and the focal point of many a Womanby sesh. Spitting distance from Clwb Ifor Bach, The Full Moon and Fuel, though, the three-storey pub's lofty ambitions – including plans to add on a fourth floor for the hotel – could spell death for its neighbours' noisy pursuits. A petition directed at the local council and wider Welsh Assembly government swiftly took off, with more than 6,000 people demanding a halt to the über-chain's already-approved plans at the time of writing.
"The worry is that the hotel opens, customers complain about noise from nearby venues, venues close – we've seen it happen elsewhere," says Huw, citing a number of recent venue shutdowns across the UK. South Welsh producer Romesh Dodangoda – who's twiddled the knobs for everyone from Motörhead and Bring Me The Horizon to Funeral For A Friend, Bullet For My Valentine and Kids In Glass Houses – voices a similar apprehension. "The obvious concern is something that we have seen time and time again, which is people putting housing or accommodation next to live venues and then threatening the venues with closure due to the sound levels." That list of recently lost arts spaces – from DIY spaces like London's Power Lunches and Norwich's The Owl Sanctuary, to longstanding centres of community like The Coronet in Elephant & Castle – seems to be spiralling higher by the day.
Womanby Street's beloved Irish bar Dempseys joined that list at the start of 2017, lumped with sudden, almost immediate closure by its owners, Brains Brewery. Along with its adjoining venue Four Bars, the boozer rang for its very last orders on the evening of 12 February; just a few days later, The Moon Club met a similar fate. Come the start of March, it was revealed that the former Dempseys site would now play host to a sports bar, co-owned by Cardiff-via-Hollywood footballer Gareth Bale. Unsurprisingly, the news was met with a chorus of boos from those in the live music world.
"Womanby Street is a loved passage of contained music and culture within Cardiff – it also shelters so many from the filth found around the rest of the city centre on the weekend," says Joshua Smith, vocalist of Cardiff post-punks Chain Of Flowers. He's not wrong – while St Mary's Street harbours fights and photo diaries of people passed out amongst kebab wrappers, Womanby provides a space for those less inspired by MTV's The Valleys to let their hair down. "It seems typical that with Brains already stripping Dempseys of its identity in lieu of a novelty front, that Wetherspoons now try to crank their presence in the street up whilst residing just a few doors down," Josh continues. "Should the council really be prepared to put the future of venues like Clwb Ifor Bach and The Full Moon at risk when having only just lost a music venue merely yards away?"
"Dempseys was more than just a pub for me," Romesh agrees. "It was a popular meeting place for many of Cardiff's musicians, not to mention the live music venue upstairs which we have now lost. I think it's very clear from the public's massive response to the closure how important it was to so many people around here."
With Womanby Street on the brink, Cardiff music's prospects look dire indeed. While a handful of venues are scattered across the rest of the city, the couple-hundred metre stretch is undoubtedly its main musical artery. A gig at Clwb Ifor Bach is the first tick on the bucket list for every local band, and outside those Welsh borders it's been an early haunt of everyone from Coldplay to Foals, James Murphy to Skrillex. Those other grassroots spaces are spread thin – Chapter resides a good couple of miles down the road, while The Globe is yet further in the opposite direction. Womanby Street's cluster is therefore invaluable: a self-contained petri dish of talent, without which Swn Festival couldn't exist, thousands of bands wouldn't have a platform, and innumerable friendships would never have formed. Yes, hotel rooms are useful places to house tourists for the night, and that contributes to the city's economy. But the impact of losing venues like this ripples beyond Cardiff, and even Wales – without places like this to cultivate, music scenes themselves risk death.
Unsurprisingly, much of the anger around Dempseys' closure is directed towards Brains Brewery. The Welsh super-brewery's influence is felt across the nation, and what was once a point of national pride for an older generation has started to split the opinion of younger groups. "When was the last time a member of head office had a pint in there, knew an event that was taking place, or the names of the regulars?" asks Connor Cupples, a Dempseys regular and owner of Jealous Lovers Club, a promoter and record label for Womanby Street's many venues. "It directly affected us as promoters from the get-go," he says. "We had to move two programmed shows to other venues, and cancel a number of planned bookings. Four Bars could have been a brilliant venue for upcoming bands, promoters and artists alike to use as a social hub to put on their events. It's pretty amazing that after talking half of the sports channels out of Dempseys, they've now decided to turn it into a sports bar. If they had just spent a few hours in Dempseys they would have seen the value of what they had – the value that doesn't come through on a profit and loss spreadsheet."
The preservation of that value needs to be front-and-centre for Cardiff and beyond. Without places like Womanby Street, the "land of song" is nothing. Welsh musical exports – from stadium fillers like Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics to beloved groups such as Los Campesinos! – owe almost everything to this stretch of patchwork paving and pints, and that ties into the rest of UK music at large. "The role that Womanby Street plays in the Welsh music scene and what it does for the up and coming artists is far more important than having a hotel in a Wetherspoons," says Romesh – a statement so obvious it almost feels laughable to need to hear out loud.
Looking ahead, though, it's Josh who perhaps best sums up the importance of the coming weeks, both for Cardiff's music scene, and the wider creative underground of Britain. "I thought that Cardiff Council appreciated and supported Womanby Street where they could – hopefully this remains to be the case," he says, shrugging. "Either way, there is something to be fought for here."
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(Lead image of Womanby Street by Jeremy Segrott)