Is it Time Gay Bars Changed the Record?

This is a conversation I have had with friends dozens of times. Why is all of the music in the gay scene the same? Bland pop and dance from this decade, the one before, and the one before that. Is this a problem confined just to Newcastle, or does it extend to other cities too? This is something I will be asking for you, dear readers, to contact me about later. But for now, I am going to discuss Newcastle.

Newcastle has a perfectly happy and sustained gay scene – reasonable prices, basic cleanliness, little trouble. But I spend very little time there. Why? Because when I decide to go somewhere and spend my money, I want to enjoy what I am listening to.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for the occasional Pink, Gloria Gaynor or Girls Aloud track, but why are the customers pigeonholed in this way? Is there not room for a rock gay bar, drum and bass, indie, even? Perhaps it all hangs on the tourism factor – travelling into town for the classic queer experience. But what of the locals, the regulars? I know that plenty of those who head to the scene for a night out enjoy the music, enjoy the kitsch aspect. There are many other of we queers however, who don’t bother going (bar perhaps the cursory birthday night out) because we would rather head to establishments that have a varied playlist.

Surely the gay bars are missing a trick? They tend to be populated by teens and the middle-aged. What about we young professionals, we with the disposable incomes? I would gladly go to a gay bar that played a 6 Music-style selection, and prized itself on its range of cocktails rather than its selection of lurid liquids. In fact, I would be a regular.

There are alternative LGBT nights in Newcastle, but, they are few and far between, and often not directly in the gay area (POKE is good fun). It seems to be that if you play into the stereotype, you succeed, but if you strive to be different and appeal to a broader market, you struggle, and your shelf-life is limited. Why can’t there be an every-day POKE? The gay scene has been dominated by

Is it just a problem on The Tyne?

what friends and I have dubbed ‘the gay experience’. On any given night you’ll see students, hen nights, groups of teens, getting their dose of kitsch. It seems that this catering to the ‘experience’ alienates the every-day queer.

It might be asked why there would be a need for such a place, when plenty of bars in Newcastle offer the kind of musical variety I am referring to.  But, bars aren’t just for drinking, listening to music and dancing. For a lot of people they’re a way to meet others. How can you meet someone you like in a place you don’t?

Bits of clicking around on the internet tell me little about the case nationwide with music on the gay scene. Is this a situation particular to the toon, or is it that the only way any gay scene sustains itself is through what is essentially the tourist element, at the expense of the local? And have I missed a trick in Newcastle, does this mythical ideal exist and I haven’t seen it? Let me know!

This piece was written by Amy Ekins, writer of fiction and non-fiction alike. She is training as a Project Manager for a publishing company, a graduate of English Literature and Creative Writing, and can be found at www.twitter.com/amyeek – Go on, give her a tweet!

7 comments

  1. Jamie
    Author

    Quentin Crisp once said : “A lifetime of listening to disco music is a high price to pay for one’s sexual preference”

    This always makes me laugh and I think it’s very true. Personally I like dance/pop music so it’s not really a problem.

    In Leeds there was an ‘alternative’ gay night which was mostly indie but after a couple of months it failed and closed down.

  2. Tony

    While not really qualified to talk about the music choices provided by the gay scene, as a part time DJ, and living in a social club, I am able to speak a little about the provision of music in licensed premises from the DJ’s point of view…

    The problem with catering for specific musical niches is they don’t offer many returns – with so many pubs and clubs going to the wall in the current climate, ANY degree of specialization is a big gamble for anyone to take in the trade. And the only reason the ‘doors open’ at all is for the foldy green stuff, to be honest.

    But many pubs and clubs are actually quite receptive to suggestions on how they can improve their attractiveness to potential punters – its a case of mutual benefit after all.

    The difficulty is the often poor return on ‘promised interest’. The whole ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ notion is the epitaph on the gravestones of countless establishments. Even in a world-famous nightlife zone like Newcastle. In fact, walk up the ‘legendary Bigg Market’ on any given night right now and count how many premises are actually CLOSED… all is not well, even in the Mecca of pub-land.

    Returning to musical entertainment, though, and from my own experience, I’ve lost track of the number of ideas that have been warmly received in an alcohol-fuelled bar discussion – ‘Yeah! That sounds great – do that! I’d definitely come to that!”…

    Case in point – I agreed to do a free disco night on the Halloween Saturday a few years ago. No actual Halloween theme – just a free night for the locals, regulars and members. Despite earnest promises of appearances by large numbers of people, exactly ONE person came on the night. As such, it was cancelled two hours in, and we didn’t even make enough money to cover switching the lights on, let alone the disco.

    And even when something does well, if it becomes a regular event, apathy is VERY quick to set in – ‘oh, we’ll go NEXT week’ quickly becomes ‘not going back at all.’…

    Meanwhile, I can also totally understand the ‘playing-it-safe’ approach with the kitch music Amy finds so irritating. Life for a DJ is much easier if we have the safety net of music the audience expect to hear already.

    If I’m doing a kids disco, for example, I know I’m expected to play Barbie Girl and Crazy Frog at some point. Sometimes even more than once. But so what – I’m still being paid for it. And the majority of the audience (although probably not the parents) enjoy it.

    I can understand the frustration of repeated clichés on the sound system too – or indeed how annoying the constant same songs can become. However, spare a thought at this time for the actual DJs (and, in fact, the bar staff too) – they have to hear it more than anyone else.

    (Personally I’d rather slap on some Foo Fighters and Faith No More – but it’s simply not going to happen during most gigs – unless I’m specifically ASKED for it. My most played track when DJing is actually Amy Winehouse’s cover of Valerie – because it’s a safe bet for most audiences. By my reckoning, it’s accounted for a full five hours of my DJ time over the last few years!)

    It’s when there is evidence the music actually drives punters away that action is more likely to be taken. One of our punters made a point of playing Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie’ several times a night on the jukebox – for no other reason than he knew it annoyed the hell out of everyone else. Said punter eventually got pulled to one side and was given ‘a good talking to’ when people started to mention ‘Ernie’ was putting them off coming in… but it wasn’t until this was mentioned that action could be taken. After all, he WAS feeding the jukebox.

    Anyway, I guess my point is, if you want your nights out to have a better soundtrack, no matter what your orientation, you’re going to have to make sure you ask for it – often. You may find it gets played more often. And if you get what you want, make sure you let the DJ know you like it (even if you’re not dancing), and will continue to come in and support it. Otherwise the DJ is gonna stick with what he knows works or fills a dance floor, even if he’s heartily sick of it… I know I do. But I still quietly pray for the gigs when kids don’t ask me to play Barbie Girl… again…

    Oh, and one more tip, everyone – if you DO ask a DJ to ‘play something different’? Have a suggestion or two ready beforehand. Because when we ask ‘Like what?’ and we get the replies ‘er, dunno’ or ‘something a bit more dance-y’…? Well – that REALLY bloody annoys us…

    • Jamie
      Author

      Thanks for a great comment Tony, interesting to get DJ’s perspective!

      I think you’re completely right when you say to just request something. I’m a big fan of 80s Electro and you’d be amazed how often they play it for me.

  3. Cris

    Well it’s difficult to comment after Tony’s brilliant comment, but I agree. I used to avoid going out as the gay scene was so obliterated with pop, pop, pop and more pop. I crave something different than the same churned out X Factor (which I do NOT watch) garbage year in year out. It is nice to have a bit of dance, electro, alternative, or down right rock mixed in with the pure cheese.

    I think working in gay bars is part of the problem as hearing ‘I Am what I Am’ every night of the week can soon cause blood to come spurting out of your ears. Plus you end up having a vendetta against the DJ himself/herself, rather than his/her music, which obviously is not their fault, rather the 30 or more 16-19 squealing the worlds to ‘Barbie Girl’ on the dance floor.

    The death for me of Leeds gay scene was the introduction of ‘Drag’ DJ’s. Now you get the same canned Pop on repeat but you also get the odd scathing remark thrown in there too, which after 2 hours, you are so bored of listening to you just want to yank their wig off.

    But hey, my partner has the worst taste in Music (Aqua, S Club & Steps all feature in his ‘Most Played’) and we get on fine!

  4. zephyr_uk

    I’m from Newcastle and this was actually one of the reasons why I left the city to live in London.  I think to get these type of nights that play ‘different’ music and to make them work, you need a critical mass of a ‘certain type’ of people.  Namely, the creative and educated.  It does sound pretty snobby to say so, but I don’t think Newcastle has a sufficient number of gay people in the creative / educated niche to make something like that commercially viable – I’m sure we can all think of a million ‘alternative’ club nights that have tried and failed in Newcastle over the years.  I think the root behind it all is the North East’s socio / economic problems.  In essence, the people needed to make an alternative night work – those creative and the educated people again – have largely moved away from Newcastle (usually to London) because there simply aren’t sufficient jobs or opportunities in Newcastle for them to make use of their talents.  Again, that was another major reason why I left Newcastle.  I would also say that it’s not a problem confined to the North East only.  Having lived in Manchester too, I know experience that even they have problems in making ‘different’ nights work on a regular basis, for exactly the same problems.  A quick look at Canal Street shows you that it’s full of the ‘lowest common denominator’ type bars, playing the same awful music as Newcastle.

    So i think the basic problem is that, until the UK stops centralising everything around London, then there is always going to be this creative drain from the provincial cities, which saps inovation and keeps the gay scenes pretty awful.

  5. zephyr_uk

    I would also add that there’s probably some pretty fascinating sociological debates to be had about how much social class affects the type of entertainment you see.  I’m sure there has been quite a lot of studies done into (unfortunately none that I can name off the top of my head) looking at how, the ‘lower’ down the social spectrum you go, the more likely you are to see the type of entertainment you mention above – the kind of old fashioned Burlesque, Music Hall type stuff;  drag acts and songs that everyone knows the words to, and being generally intolerant of anything that strays away from that familiar formula.  (Think of the type of things you’d see at Butlins or Blackpool and consider which social demographic they are aimed at).  I was always fascinated in Newcastle about how most of the gay bars provided exactly the same type of entertainment as pretty rough straight bars i.e. the Black Garter near Eldon Square, and often found myself thinking ‘if this were a straight bar, I’d never come anywhere near it.’  Because Newcastle’s gay scene is largely populated by the remnants of the old industrial working class, I think it’s another strong factor as to why Newcastle’s gay bars are why they are.

    Again, drawing from my experiences in London, in the less affluent parts of the city you inevitably find the same old cocktail of drag acts and bad music as you get in Newcastle.  But, if you venture into  East London, where the creative class tend to go, you’ll find the experience is much more ‘arty,’ experimental and progressive – with a much better range of music.  I think it underlines my point (below) about Newcastle not having a critical mass of the creative class to make something like that work.

    I also think Manchester had its contrasts too, even on Canal Street.  Although much less stark than London, you’d generally find there was a subtle class division in the bars.  The further up Canal Street you went, generally speaking the punters would be better off, and the bars more understated.  The further down the street you went (the New Union etc.) the rougher they became, the higher the prevalence of drag acts and bad music, with the punters there seeming to be much less financially well off.

    So, in short, I think there’s a really interesting discussion to be had about the effects that social class and education have on the type of entertainment you get in an area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *