camden barfly

More than one thousand bands take to Barfly’s stage each year. Some are already stars, others never will be - but when you walk through the doors, there’s always a good chance you are watching the stars of tomorrow.
By Amy Freeborn

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Are you one of those music fans that jumps on the bandwagon after hearing the hype or are you the kind of music fiend who helps to put the wheels on and creates the hype? Well, if your stance is the latter then there’s no better place to be, any night of the week, than Camden’s Barfly.

More than 1000 bands grace the stage of Barfly each year and while some are the kind of stars that have already sold thousands of records and graced countless magazine covers, many are on their way to being dubbed “the next big thing”.

In the Barfly’s early days - in the now defunct Falcon pub on the outskirts of Camden in late 1996 - gig-goers flocked to hear music pounding out from the PA in the dark, dingy back room. But soon-to-be-big bands were, from day one, a key ingredient, bringing with them an endless line of discerning music fans. Ever since then, Barfly has had a committed policy of nurturing new talent.

And while not all of the acts which grace the hallowed Barfly stage, which found a new home at the Monarch in 2000, will find fame and fortune, the venue’s strike rate is pretty good.

"Barfly is ten years ahead of anybody’s time"
Noel Gallagher

Stereophonics played Barfly several times in their early, formative years, as did the likes of Death in Vegas, Feeder, Coldplay, Muse, Doves, Electric 6, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and of course Blur and Oasis.

As London listings magazine Time Out put it, Barfly has firmly established itself as the place to go to “glimpse the stars of the future”. Even Oasis’s Noel Gallagher (never a man to mince his words) was moved to comment that Barfly is “Ten years ahead of anybody’s time”.

“Getting the un-signed bands out there is definitely a very important part of the Barfly ethos. It always has been,’’ promoter Abbie Marshall says.

“We want to find the ‘next big thing’. We support the bands that are un-signed and on the way up before they get too big and hopefully they’ll remember us when they’re stars.’’

And, apparently, they generally do. “Barfly really has been a launching pad for so many bands,’’ Abbie says.

“A lot of the bands that are making it today played here when they were on their way up and they still come in.

“And it’s really nice to see the big bands still supporting the little venues.’’

Any night of the week you can wander into the Chalk Farm Rd Barfly venue and find the up-and-comers mixing it with the pros.

Each week the Barfly office receives about 500 demos from hopeful young acts, and while Ms Marshall and her team listen to “every single one’’ there are only around seven to 10 bands that will see the stage per week.

More recently, Barfly has played host to, amongst others, The Strokes, The Vines, Starsailor, Wheatus, Elbow, The Cooper Temple Clause and The Electric Soft Parade, not to mention being the main venue for filming of the still-talked-about Barfly Sessions TV series (which included the likes of Coldplay, Muse, JJ72 and Badly Drawn Boy).

Not that big names are what the Barfly is exclusively about. A policy of nurturing new talent has always been key to the ethos, with all those bands passing through the venue each and every year. Not all will make it big, of course, but all who play have passed a stringent quality control process before being allowed the opportunity to perform, ensuring that, even if the names are unfamiliar, the 50,000 customers a year will be guaranteed one thing – quality music.

“We decide which bands we think have the most potential – whether there’s been any previous interest in them from the media or other venues or not and regardless of the quality of their demos – and then we generate that interest, create that profile,’’ Abbie says.

“And every so often we’ll hear a story of an un-signed band playing a show here and an A&R person has liked what they’ve heard and signed them.’’

The chances of that happening, Abbie says, are pretty good considering the amount of record company talent scouts that regularly pass through the venue’s doors. “They’re here every night,’’ she says.

“We’re always getting calls in the office asking for A&R names to be put on the guest list. They know that nine out of 10 times there’s going to be a new band on that’s worth listening to.
“They know that because it’s the Barfly and that’s out reputation.’’

But even if, at the end of the night, there’s no record company representative waiting, contract in hand, it doesn’t mean the band will go home empty handed.

Abbie Marshall says just playing alongside acts that have been there and done that is reward enough. “The un-signed acts can really learn from the bigger acts,’’ she says. “They give them a few tips, like ‘have you ever tried playing that chord like this?’ or ‘have you ever tried doing this on stage?’

“It’s a real morale booster for the younger bands to be playing with the bigger bands and they can find out what they need to do to get signed.’’

And the amount of requests for repeat performances is testament to that. “All the young bands think it’s really wicked to play here,’’ Ms Marshall says. “They’re always saying to me “that was so good, thank you so much, can we re-book?’

“And even if that band only brought five people to see them play, if I thought they were good and they created a really good vibe, I’ll book them again.

Barfly has grown considerabl;y since its formative years at The Falcon. A second Barfly, in Cardiff, opened its doors in April 2001, the objective being to bring the same idea - local talent mixed with more established touring bands - to a new and eager audience. Success in Cardiff has lead to the opening of further venues, in Glasgow and Liverpool, as well as the purchase of a fifth in the shape of Fibbers in York. All continue to support local talent, and are established as cornerstones of the music scene in their respective areas.

“It’s all about getting a good vibe going,’’ Abbie Marshall reflects.

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