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The Hidden Sounds of the City: Alternative Gig Venues in Dublin

As cover charges and drink prices rise and punters grow weary of the same old venues, meet the people providing an alternative to the standard night out in Dublin.

It’s a Friday night in chilly November. You get the bus into Dublin city centre and meet your mates in a trendy central bar. Someone gets the first round in as you wait for the venue fill. Among the crowd, you see young, you see old, genuine fans, and a few who look like they’ve been dragged along. The lights go down, the band comes on and 90 minutes later it’s all over. Bhí an t-atmaisfeár leictreach.

But what if you want something a little different? A gig where the experience doesn’t depend on the quality of the band? One where the atmosphere isn’t just electric?

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Dublin has its fair share of reputable music venues, and they do a great job of providing a space for artists from home and abroad. However, sprinkled among dedicated music venues like the Workman’s Club, The Button Factory and Whelans, are a handful of alternative spaces. Over the past few years these have been host to a different sort of gig. And while the rental market has never been tighter, it’s not stopping people attempting to create an atmosphere and experience that doesn’t just depend on the band.

These spaces range from disused warehouses to creative hubs like D-Light studios in north inner city Dublin, MART and Tara street buildings, bringing music to previously silent rooms. Places like The Freemasons Hall, Unitarian Church and Pepper Canister Church have been popular spots for concerts with a difference over the past few years.

A venue that’s only recently opened its doors to concerts, was St. John the Baptist’s Church in Drumcondra. Hosting a series of concerts, titled, ‘New Sounds in an Old Place’. Glasdrum, the organisers, aimed to do exactly that. Speaking to Drumcondra native and member of the Glasdrum committee, Martin Byrne, he spoke about the reason behind setting up the concerts.

“It was just really to bring in acts that wouldn’t usually play Drumcondra, that they’d be city centre acts, that’s really what sparked it.”

The series so far has included a selection of Irish talent including Soule, Loah, Saint Sister and Slow Moving Clouds. Byrne mentioned the difficulties in finding a venue, but also stressed how lucky they were to find someone who supported them.

“…The previous vicar had moved on to some other parish. The new guy had arrived in and he was completely open to it, he was wonderful, he said, ‘listen we’ll see how the first one goes and we’ll take it from there,’ and we were fully in agreement with that.”

Byrne is confident about the concerts so far, “we’re about to sell out the second show. This just proves that there is an appetite for this sort of thing in the area.” Plans are currently underway for a third concert in February.

While Glasdrum aims to enrich their local community through artistic events, there are other event organisers who have their own reasons. Emmet Condon of HomeBeat is one such person. From organising alternative and traditional events in Dublin, starting his own record label, organising Another Love Story, one of the more unique festivals on the scene.

For Condon the whole process is, “…very much a labour of love, in terms of the effort of doing it.” Where Glasdrum’s concert series are only a recent development, HomeBeat has been in existence in one form or another for the last 7 years. Stemming from a series of house concerts Condon organised with friends, HomeBeat has become an extension of this, aiming to capture the intimate nature of those shows.

Speaking on the favourite aspect of his gigs Condon said, “I think the fact that people are altogether in a space they’re not used to being in…creates a different dynamic…from the very start of Homebeat…the noticeable thing was how the audience and the acts and ourselves would all chat together after the gig.”

Having attended a few HomeBeat shows in both the Fumbally Stables and D-light studios, they do seem to have that little bit extra. The shows often take place without a raised stage, removing another part of the barrier between artist and audience. This isn’t an experience you can find in a traditional venue.

Music has always drawn people together, but in so many gigs of late, I have found that the crowd is there to see the artist and the artist alone. Gigs like these tend to broaden the focus.

It’s no longer is it a direct feedback loop between artist and audience, the space is more shared and more open. There’s a sense of ownership stemming from both the crowd and the artist. Being in a new space or a space you’d never have heard music before lends itself to the atmosphere. The venue becomes its own entity within the show.

A topic which cropped up during conversation with Condon, was the obvious cost of putting on gigs in spaces which are not purpose-built. “…it’s going to cost an awful lot more to put it on. Instead of walking into a venue with a sound engineer in there waiting to go at 5 o clock in the evening, you’re arriving at 12 o’clock in the day and you’re there till 2 o’clock in the morning till you’ve pulled everything out…”

The things that are making it difficult are just the larger forces at play in Dublin, where space is at a premium. And even though buildings are sitting there empty, people are waiting for a golden ticket off a Google or a Facebook to come along and take it.” “Developers… the powers that be, have no interest in the small arts scene that’s craving this space…”

When I asked Condon about why he believes events like this are becoming more popular, he said, “As always, it’s the basics…legislation isn’t allowing other venues to stay open late. That’s generally why people are driven to these places. Or drink prices are expensive so you want to do something cheaper.” “If I was a bit more sharp nosed about it, I’d be just putting on things I thought would sell loads of tickets, in places where it’s cheaper to put on gigs.”

Having built up a following over the past few years Condon has established a strong relationship with HomeBeat audiences, which is part of the reason why he believes the crowds will continue coming back, “…I think at this stage, they trust us and they know that it doesn’t matter if its folk or techno, chances are it’ll be a good gig, it’ll be a good night.” T

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