Friday, 9 December 2011

Safe Spaces?


Posted by Sebastienne

Recently, I've seen some fab queer feminist performances. People like Better Strangers (queer. feminist. opera.) and CN Lester (epic queer singer-songwriter) have made me happy, thoughtful, and/or a little bit turned on. I could write blog posts about how awesome they are, but that's not what I'm doing today.

Today (and I hope Jessie, Clouds, and CN won't take this the wrong way..) I want to talk about how epically shit their venues were.

Now I'm not talking down from a position of perfection. I have played some atrocious gigs in my time and I know it's not always something that an artist has any control over. I know that a lot of the stuff I want to talk about is wrong with the gig scene, but I'm singling out these two recent gigs because they are fresh in my mind.

Venues matter to me as a performer. An audience doesn't experience what we're doing up on stage in some kind of art-appreciation vacuum; they experience the event as a whole. And, in the same way that we try to maintain this blog as a safe space, I like to think that we can try to do something similar with the shows that we encourage people to come to. But this dearth of decent venues makes it really difficult to do anything of the sort.

Here are some of the things I'm talking about:

First up, accessibility. Do I even need to expand on this one? Every small gig venue ever seems to be a room above a pub. There's rarely any reserved seating. The first year Lashings went to Edinburgh, we played at an "accessible" venue which told wheelchair users: "then we carry you up these three stairs".

Next up, atmosphere. Now obviously, this is something that can be created anywhere (check out Josie Long's Alternative Reality Tour for a great example of this), but the kinds of venues that are available to us when we are starting out really don't help matters. Better Strangers performed at "London's Little Opera House", so clearly the space is intended for their kind of music; and yet, in every pause and quiet passage, I could clearly make out the sound of the rock covers band playing in the pub downstairs. Lashings have fought against our surroundings often enough - under flourescent strip-lighting or up against first-floor windows, backlit by policecar lamps and kebab shops. None of these things are enough to ruin a performance, but they add up to it being less than it could be.

One thing that's been getting to me more and more - the other acts. Right after CN Lester's sweet, melancholy songs came that singer-songwriter staple: The Man With The Guitar Who Sings About His Exes. Only this guy didn't just sing the standard Nice-Guy Blues; his material was much more hateful. Downright misogynistic, in fact. That threw me right out of my "enjoying a night out" headspace and I headed off home pretty soon after that. Now this is not about whether or not the other acts are to my taste - I wouldn't have had to go home if Guitar-Man had been merely crap - this has a different, more politically sensitive element to it. Lashings have been quite lucky, in this regard; mostly we put on our own shows, or perform at gigs organised by awesome people like Hel of The Cutlery Drawer. But still, there have been times that I've winced to see fatphobia or class-drag at shows with Lashings on the bill. These things are a problem for two reasons:
  • A lot of people like Lashings because our humour doesn't screw anyone over. By lending our "brand" to a show, it feels like we're making a certain kind of guarantee about the content. I wouldn't want to mislead a Lashings-fan into attending a show that they'll find offensive.
  • If I've seen an audience laughing at a fatphobic joke, that makes it seriously difficult for me to stand up in front of them and sing "Fat". If I'm feeling strong, I can see it as an "educational moment", and hope to make a difference; but I'm not always feeling strong.
And so, diva-ish as it appears, I'm thinking of writing a wishlist. What would you add?

A Lashings gig venue should:

Be accessible - 
  • by public transport
  • by people with reduced mobility
  • to people on low incomes
Feel safe -
  • have gender-liberated toilets (the Royal Vauxhall Tavern mark theirs "toilets with urinals" and "toilets without urinals")
  • not have crowds of drunk men in the main bar area
  • be in an area where alternatively-dressed / gender-variant people can walk the streets
If you want Lashings to perform at your event, you should:

Not promote us in a heteronormatively sexualised manner
  • Our burlesque is not like that, and you let us and your audience down if you lead them to expect anything else.
Vouch for the other acts
  • We aren't asking for a veto on every single joke, just a general sense that our audience aren't going to be triggered by the comedy of hate.
Things we don't do yet, but could:

Think about other kinds of accessibility -
  • Many neuro-atypical people will have difficulty with noisy, crowded spaces. Can we provide "time-out" space?
  • All sorts of people have difficulty hearing lyrics of songs.
  • How can we make our gigs more accessible to everyone?
Stop moaning about how all the available venues are shit, and start our own -
  • Well hey there, kind reader, have you got a few hundred thousand quid to start us off?

What should we add to this list to make a Lashings gig a better experience for you? Am I asking for the moon on a stick, or would the world be better if we all shouted a little louder for this kind of consideration?


  1. Hey there - Great post! BSL interpreters are expensive but worth fundraising for. And/or subtitling if there's a video element. Also trying to create "fragrance free" zones for people with major sensitivities... difficult in the UK we find, but worth a shot.

    One note: to be fair to artists, often you just can't vouch for who you're performing with. When we're on tour, especially, we end up with all kinds... and that "staple" dude just always seems to appear ;-) It's a real problem, and many times reading their bio (if it's even available) beforehand doesn't help. Many supposed "activists" turn out to be wankers.

    Another problem is staff at venues -- often sexist, homo/transphobic and ableist. How to know this until you arrive?

    Thanks for raising these questions, as we think it's really important to look out for our audiences... once we went to a Le Tigre concert and the toilets were being violently gender-policed by huge cis & straight security guards. It was horrible.

    All the best! Looking forward to seeing one of your shows one day!
    Much love from Scotland,

  2. Hey there,

    Forgive the long, long reply *deep breath* but here goes:

    Getting started as an independent artist is all kinds of shit. You play where you can, whenever you can - when they say 'jump' you say 'how high?". I think it's particularly hard when you're an independent artist who challenges mainstream cultural assumptions - I'm upfront about who I am, and it's cost me gigs. There are venues/promoters I won't go back to because, after initially being respectful, they deliberately misgendered me to the audience, or made my fans feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Too many times what seemed like a good fit turns out to be a horrible one.

    I totally agree with what you've written here - but would add that it can be just as upsetting for the artist. So, the gig in question - I had previously performed there, and had found it (whilst hopelessly inaccessible) to be otherwise welcoming and friendly. If I'd have known what kind of shit the guy after me was going to spout (not just unpleasant, but downright triggering) I wouldn't have played there - not just for the audience's sake but because, after giving my all on stage and feeling utterly vulnerable and raw, having his hatred spill over us felt like salt in a wound.

    I feel lucky because (if all continues well) that's the last gig of its kind I'll ever have to play. I've paid my dues and all my upcoming gigs/concerts are either solo shows or with acts/promoters (like Zorras and Cutlery Drawer) who share the same values. All are in accessible venues where any kind of discrimination/intimidation is not tolerated.

    In terms of what would help going forward - creating a public database of good venues might help? And supporting struggling artists who face the same issues?

    Sorry for the rant! Thanks for bringing this up. How are we going to make things better if we don't discuss it?

    CN x

  3. Fascinated by this post. I used to work in club/gig venues, and one in particular where we had a burlesque promoter come to us to bring their night to our gaff. It was a small night at the time, but one which saw massive growth over the years.

    One of the real challenges for us as venue management (and remember, that not all venues have “management” in that sense, some will only have a bar manager, or a lone tech – it really just depends) was to create as safe a space as possible. I say “safe” because it echoes the terminology with which I’m assuming we’re all familiar here, but what’s probably more accurate is to say “respectful”. The nature of the pub/club/gig scene in the UK is such that it is *largely* dominated by heteronormative / cis / sexist machismo. It just is. And that presents a pretty big barrier to achieving this kind of safe space within a mainstream venue. And that reflects wider societal prejudices more than it does those of any individual venue, I think.

    One of my jobs was to liaise with the contractors – stewards, first aid, that kind of thing. I made a point of advancing the show to these groups as one which was not for the easily shocked, and one not for the “ooh-i-want-to-stare-at-tits” brigade. Luckily, we were able because of our size & purchasing power to specify this kind of thing – a smaller venue might not have had that luxury – and we were in particular lucky to be able to draw from a group of stewards who had worked similar shows elsewhere, and who for want of a better term “got it”. The event briefing which went to all other departments emphasised respect for performers and for audience members, trans-issues with regard to toilets, changes to standard search procedures, and a close eye being kept on groups of men who might break out into a chorus of get-yer-tits-out. We did the best we could, but you’re never going to be able to account for everyone who comes to a show, you can’t vet everyone who buys a ticket – and neither would you want to, I suspect.

    The cis/toilets issue is an interesting one, you do have to police them to a certain extent because if you end up with folk shagging in them it can be an issue when it comes to your licence. Plus, ever been in a female toilet where there’s a big notice saying that male attendants are on duty? Course you have, because there’s an expectation that cis-females couldn’t possibly pee next to someone who wasn’t also cis-female. So your stewards, if they work in your venue on a regular basis, are used to that, and if you expect or need there to be a different approach for a particular event, that’s got to be addressed in advance. We certainly didn’t realise that it was an issue until it was brought to our attention by one trans customer, and we incorporated the feedback into the briefing for the next event.

    I’m not sure about moon on a stick, but some factors – like public transport, or the physical fabric of the building, are very difficult to achieve from the venue’s point of view ;) Other points you make are really interesting, and do certainly clearly reflect the kind of show that you want to put on, in terms of the overall event, as influenced by your politics. Seems cool. I do wonder, do you have an advance/rider procedure for your shows? If you promote, rather than perform at other people’s events, there’s always a certain amount of negotiation you can do with the venue...

    New to the blog, hope to be back!

    (Posted anon for to be on the safe side of the sensitivities of my old employer...I’m not a spokesperson for ‘em or anything...)

  4. Wow, so many thoughtful comments!

    I just want to clarify that I am, ultimately, blaming "the scene" - not individual artists for their venue choices, nor individual venues for things beyond their control. These are things we can strive together to improve on, NOT ideals that we should be blamed or shamed for failing to live up to.

    Something like a "better venues project" sounds like a great idea - if pitched right, it could be a resource for performers seeking venues, and a resource for venues seeking to increase their inclusiveness/accessibility.

    I shall have to think awhile about how Lashings can best contribute to this. I really rather enjoyed the weekend I spent scoping out accessible venues in Brighton, but it's hardly a scalable approach!

    A one-off Lashings gig in Oxford or London is likely to attract 40-80 people. We're growing our audience slowly, but it's still not enough to (eg) hire out a whole venue, with the ensuing control over security, toilets, etc, that that implies. Most of the time, we're stuck with whatever a venue does "as standard", because we're sharing a venue with a regular clientele. Nevertheless I'm hoping that this blog post - and the conclusions that we draw from the comments - might be the beginnings of a "Lashings rider" that we can use to concisely explain our requirements to potential venues.