From Hiatt Baker to Thekla: How Bristol’s student DJs have overcome the city’s suffering nightlife scene
As iconic venues continue to close, these students have found a way to adapt
In the past 15-years, 10 clubs have closed down in Bristol.
What was once a haven for live music teeters towards a discotheque graveyard, as we kiss goodbye to iconic venues such as Old Crown Courts, alongside Blue Mountain and the promised closure of Lakota.
With this in mind, as well as the devastating impact of Covid on the entertainment industry, leading to a 90% collapse in live music revenues, you have to wonder how Bristol’s beloved nightlife scene is managing to cope.
But there is hope yet – Bristol’s scholars are nothing if not innovative. We spoke to students who have overcome lockdowns, adapted to finding new spaces, and found a way to brand themselves to forge a new path in the ever-changing Bristol music scene.
Rishi Bagdai: Founder of events company no_one
Alongside studying at Bristol Uni, Rishi built up the events company no_one, selling out shows in some of Bristol’s best venues.
“It’s one of the reasons I came to Bristol. The club scene, the underground scene; the music I love was quite open in terms of if you wanted to do it you could,” Rishi said. “You could run an event, you could book a venue, you could do it all because people in Bristol will back it – and that hasn’t changed – but the opportunities through which you can develop have changed.
“Bristol used to have five, six, seven – both from UWE and UoB – student promoters and event managers that would push through and make this into their lives. But currently, I have not seen a single new brand of people doing this stuff, and that is ridiculous. The fact that this is the case shows that there has been this closing of the scene.”
Rishi emphasised the importance of scalable venues and the crucial role they play in helping those who are new to the scene to break through, by helping them to gradually increase the capacity of events.
But currently, with a distinct lack of midpoint venues, there is a vast leap for those looking to move forwards from venues with a smaller capacity.
“Blue Mountain was brilliant because on a weekday it would have a relatively cheap hire fee, and it was scalable.
“So, for example you could perform in just one room, at 250 capacity, and then go on to the main room at 350-400 capacity or the whole venue so 500-600 capacity, and what you could do as a result is build a brand – you could sell out an event from when its small to when it’s really really big – and that’s what I did.
“I’m fortunate in the sense that I was one of the last to come through using Blue Mountain.”
Rishi also explained how promotional techniques have shifted to align with new social media platforms: “Even from a marketing point of view, there’s so much,” he said.
“Facebook for marketing used to be so popular, but since there’s been a shift to Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, these platforms aren’t as effective, it means the awareness of an event isn’t as high. Facebook would tell you how many people were interested or going to certain events and you can see the responses very well.”
Despite these obvious obstacles, Bristol student promoter groups The Constitution and SUKI Sound have found ways to adapt.
The Constitution: From Hiatt Baker to Thekla
Starting from humble origins, The Constitution began hosting flat parties in none other than Hiatt Baker, going on to master their craft in smaller clubs in Newquay, Cornwall, before progressing through Bristol’s venues.
Having recently put on a sold-out event in Thekla with BBC Radio 1’s future artist of the month for February Nia Archives as the headliner, it’s difficult to ignore what The Constitution are up to.
“Stoke Bishop was like a weirdly fucked up village,” co-founder Ben said.
Now in second year, he explained: “It was actually possibly one of the best first years anyone could have had I think, so unique and weird and I spent the whole time completely surprised and on edge in the best way.”
Oli described how they progressed to Thekla through performing at Bristol’s smaller nightclubs.
“We are very excited about Thekla- to move past the smaller places like Take Five, Basement, Dare2- kind of size- is a big achievement for us.
“You’ve got to build a portfolio as you go along; you have to prove that you can successfully host and sell out shows in smaller venues, because these bigger venues won’t let you just hire the place and perform- they’ll tell you to go put on more shows at smaller venues first.
‘And getting these bigger names to headline acts as a catalyst for building up a portfolio, but having a big name in a smaller venue, you just can’t do it.’
On the marketing side of things, the boys explained that in a time where social media is over-saturated with promotion; it can be hard to stand out from the rest.
“Because it is so easy to promote via social media now, it’s hard to distinguish between events companies, and that makes it difficult to make people think of your events company.”
This element plays into how The Constitution values being different from the rest as one of their most important maxims.
“The skills we learnt in these random clubs in Cornwall set the foundations for us: you need a unique approach. We particularly enjoyed in-person promotion- wearing stupid costumes and handing out fliers on the beach.”
Oli provided examples of musicians who have created a brand for themselves through their own avante-garde approach: “Things like the Homebass van, the guy that DJs whilst he’s cycling, these people stand out because they’re doing something different.”
The group cast inspiration from Tribe of Frog, who have become infamous for their ability to turn a club night into a “magical experience, like that of a festival, you become completely overwhelmed by the decorations, the actors, as well as the music”.
Going down a similar path, The Constitution aspires to market themselves in a way that is memorable.
Ben utilises his skills in Graphic Design and Woodwork to create a unique brand for The Constitution- with wacky comic strips acting as fliers and posters as well as theatrical stage decorations.
“We’ve been really enjoying the Navy theme at the moment, because obviously Thekla is a club on a boat. I’ve also got this dream and it’s to get Conducta to perform with us and put him in a train on the stage.”
SUKI Sound: No venues, just use a hairdressers
SUKI Sound were formed by a group of now third year Bristol Uni students who met in their first year halls. Using lockdown to release a series of mixes, they’ve since expanded to hosting events this past year.
The group has found a creative solution to the lack of scalable venues in Bristol.
Charlie explained: “What we have been doing is taking non-club spaces, the last two being The Elemental Collective bakery and Glitch hairdressers, and transforming them into our take on a serene, welcoming club environment that gives an atmosphere much more akin to a private party than a club night.
“These non-club spaces also have far less limitations on what you can do with a space aesthetically compared to the few smaller clubs that Bristol has to offer, and this is one of the most important things for us as we see the surroundings you dance in to be equally important as the music.”
Charlie believes that whilst their audience is shifting from Facebook to Instagram, Instagram allows them to create “a strong tribal core of followers”.
“As an emerging label and events group we feel that creating a strong tribal core of followers on a kinda ‘if ye know ye know’ vibe more important than bringing in big names at big clubs and filling it with your average punter,” he said.
Like The Constitution, SUKI Sound are looking beyond Bristol to help them expand. They’ve lined up a trilogy of events this summer with Edinburgh collective Pure Honey in Bristol and Edinburgh before finishing with a headline show in London.
Charlie is open and optimistic about the future.
“Our vision is beyond clubs, it’s simply a medium at the moment which gives us the most expression possible in this primitive stage.
“The main thing is we want to make people feel good and will endeavour to find ways of doing that sonically.”
Despite the multitude of factors taking a knock on Bristol nightlife, the students dedicated to this life keep growing and adapting to thrive in this scene that is so vital to Bristol’s rich culture surrounding music.
When asked if he’d still go to Bristol given the choice again, Charlie said: “Ultimately I think if you want to be inspired from all directions, really want a culture shock and broaden your horizons, I don’t see why you would go anywhere other than Bristol.”