Thursday, 24 February 2011

Venue magazine, Bristol

Ever since I moved to Bristol in the mid-1980s, I have read Venue magazine, Bristol and Bath's equivalent of Time Out. Around fifteen years ago, I began to write for the magazine as well. Initially, I wrote a few theatre reviews, then did a couple of features, then became editor of the theatre and art sections; from 2004-5 I was editor of the magazine; since 2005 I have continued to contribute in a number of ways; currently I'm Venue's sub-editor. The magazine was founded in 1982 and for more than half of its existence it was a wholly independent publication. Just over a decade ago, it was brought by Bristol Evening Post, the local newspaper, which is owned, in turn, by Northcliffe and the Daily Mail Group.
On Tuesday last week staff and freelancers were told that Northcliffe is to close the magazine as of issue #962 (published on 16 March). This is due to a decline in advertising revenue, rising print costs and a modest fall in circulation. The corporation's 'tolerance' of Venue's commercial performance has, in other words, run out.
Obviously, for those of us who work for the magazine, this is disastrous. However, the response to the news from Bristol and Bath in the last 48 hours has been extraordinary and reveals the extent of the damage the closure will do to the two cities' cultural life as a whole. Over the course of nearly 30 years, Venue has proved itself to be both a champion of local culture in general and an advocate of the kind of independently minded DIY attitude which underpins much of the best of the West Country 'scene' from The Cube and People's Republic of Stokes Croft to Massive Attack and Banksy. Time and again, it has written about artistic endeavours which other local media don't have the resources to cover properly - discussions, demonstrations, talks, poetry gigs, open mic/acoustic nights - and given creative people at the very earliest stages of their career the chance to talk about their work. It has also reviewed countless films, gigs, plays, comedy nights - and been instrumental in passing the likes of Massive Attack and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory on to a much wider audience. As many have pointed out in their responses to news of the closure, Venue should not be seen as a purely commercial venture: it is part and parcel of Bristol and Bath's cultural life and its owners should have a duty to protect it even when economic times are tough.
The demise of regional publications like Venue, however, is not merely a 'local' concern. It also reflects the growing centralism of UK culture as a whole, its reduction to a mono-centric metropolitan 'culture show' in which the same few voices are heard. How much more thriving would UK culture be, for instance, if every major city had a magazine/forum where its artists and their audience could have their say?
One argument, of course, is that the internet provides what local/regional magazines used to do. The truth is, it doesn't. It provides some information - and it's incredibly disparate. You miss as much as you find. The internet's a card index. You see the spines of the books but not what's inside them - blurbs, but not criticism and review. I'm not saying, by that, that magazines like Venue are always right - but it's the combination of information (all in one place) and insightful writing which makes it.
I'm biased, of course - but to show I'm not the only one, here are some links that'll illustrate what's been happening here since the news of Venue's imminent closure was announced:
Facebook - Save Venue
Facebook - Rescue Venue Awareness Info Page
Twitter - #savevenue