Les Lignes Droites playing a set at Paris venue Espace B
Photo by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank
Sending In The Arrières-Gardes: A New Paris Music Collective Wants To Preserve The City's Independent Music Scene
Passed packed tables of young people out on a weekend night and a kitchen serving overflowing plates of couscous, music pounds from the nondescript café Espace B on the edge of Paris. On this late September evening, bands ranging from psychedelic to punk to electronic draw hundreds into an overstuffed back room.
Between sets, sweat-drenched attendees flood the street, joining Orthodox Jews leaving Saturday service and late-night diners at nearby African restaurants. The crowd stays past 2 a.m., moshing as smoke and red lights flood the stage during a performance by the trio Noyades. A set later, the audience sways to the upbeat melodies of Os Noctàmbulos, a garage rock band who squeezed five people on stage, including a pedal steel guitarist.
The event was the debut of Arrières-Gardes, a new collective of concert performance bookers and musicians who want to keep the city's alternative music scene alive. As a bohemian capital, Paris was shaped by generations of creative spirits, from the artists whose studios dotted hilly Montmartre to the musicians and actors who performed in restaurants and bars, dubbed café-concerts. But like many large cities, Paris is suffering the fate of no longer being able to support the creative atmosphere it once cultivated. Currently, it’s one of the world’s most expensive places to live, with the price per square meter having risen 66 percent in the past 10 years, according to the Notaires du Grand Paris.
In recent years, some of Paris' iconic venues have closed, facing rapidly rising real estate prices and gentrifying neighborhoods that are increasingly inhospitable to raucous nightlife. Once known for concerts, Le Pop In and La Mécanique Ondulatoire now only serve as non-live band event spaces, facing too many security and noise challenges to support louder performances.
Live music, particularly outside of mainstream acts, has been pushed to the banlieues (suburbs) or petites salles (small concert rooms) often located in existing cafés and bars. Arrières-Gardes seeks to revive an appreciation for local and international groups and bring a level of professionalism to an industry defined by its precarity.
The five venues in Arrières-Gardes are hidden away from public view, giving them the quality of a private club or an "in the know" speakeasy. The collective’s name is a play on the idea of the avant-garde: In contrast to the widespread popularity of electronic music in France, Arrières-Gardes organizers largely promote more old school rock and other genres. Inspired by zine culture and a return to pre-social media communication, Arrières-Gardes produces a monthly print calendar of concerts. While some of the venues like Espace B have put on shows for decades, collaborative marketing allows for newer spots to find an audience.
"I think that taking yourself too seriously is a factor of exclusion," said Vince Cuny, one of the creators of Arrières-Gardes. "I don't want people to feel excluded by the indie, the hipster."
Cuny, 34, is tall with shaggy light brown hair and is half of the team booking bands for Espace B. He has been in the music business for over a decade, organizing concerts for venues around Paris, helping put on music festivals and working for the label S.K. Records. Like all Arrières-Gardes members, he is also a musician and currently performs in Noyades. He wanted to start the collective as a form of "group therapy," a forum to share advice, equipment and spaces for joint concerts. He said in the Paris D.I.Y. scene, concert organizers serve as social media promoters, sound engineers and cultural emissaries for artists from around the world.
While attending a concert at La Pointe Lafayette along the Canal St.-Martin, Cuny saw what he said was a similar spirit to Espace B. The café served cheap drinks with 5-euro concert tickets and was managed by Kabyles, an Algerian ethnic group who own many Parisian bistros. He said while the Arrières-Gardes venues are all different, they have a common goal of promoting music.
"We all do things with the same energy and convictions, I think, only the size of the room and the colors of the walls change," said Cuny. "Gathering in a network will give us more strength and allow us to help each other, and laugh at the crap that happens around us over a pint."
Cuny's shows draw old and new concertgoers. Olivier Vilain first started going to gigs as a school student in the 1990s, sometimes sleeping in the metro station when he missed the last train home to Trappes, a Paris suburb. Vilain now attends two or three shows a week, many at Espace B, which he has frequented for almost 20 years. While he is often there to sell vinyl from small record labels, he said he still enjoys the sense of adrenaline from live music.
“Each time it's a different experience but it's a search for a kind of collective trance where you can hope to let go of yourself, to forget your daily life,” he said. “And the ease of access, the proximity of the audience to the artists, makes it possible for it to happen in places like Espace B.”
This inclusion and solidarity extend to banding together when performance spaces are threatened, sometimes even protesting in the streets and rallying local media attention. Espace B was one of the hundreds of Paris venues that faced administrative closures in recent years. While many of these closures are temporary, they can impact whether bands have opportunities to play in Paris. Espace B was closed for seven months because of safety issues, reopening in March 2019. It now has increased security, soundproofing and accessibility measures to avoid a shutdown, but many venues haven’t made these updates, which can have legal and financial consequences.
For example, the Ministries of Culture, Health and Environment install monitors at venues and festivals to measure decibel output. Laws have decreased the legal maximum volume level, partially to address potential issues with hearing loss. Going over the limit comes with fines and potential confiscation of sound equipment. Chair de Poule, whose concert bookers are part of Arrières-Gaurdes, only hosts quiet shows because of potential decibel violations or noise complaints.
In an article published in Libération, Frédéric Hocquard, the Paris mayor’s deputy responsible for nightlife, recognized the difficult situation many of these venues face. Hocquard said that since the 2016 fire at the Cuba Libre in Rouen, the police department has enforced stricter safety measures, leading to a rise in closures, including at venues that operated for years without any incidents.
Myrtille Picaud, a sociologist linked to the Centre of European Studies and Comparative Politics at Sciences Po, has researched Paris music venues. Picaud said there is a tension between city efforts to support creative communities and the actions of law enforcement in closing nightlife spaces.
"Even though the mayor of Paris has kind of proactive policy to limit closures linked to sound issues and to neighbors, it still happens," Picaud said. "There's kind of a fight between the mayor of Paris, which is the local level, and the Préfecture de police (police department), which represents the state in Paris."
Picaud also said government funding for the arts can help these spots meet safety standards. The Centre National de la Chanson, des Variétés et du Jazz (now known as the Centre National de la Musique) has supported venues making security renovations in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting at the Bataclan. While some venues feared the attack and other safety issues would have a chilling effect on concert attendance, ticket sales in France have increased.
"It's dangerous sometimes to go into these buildings where you know, maybe it's going to fall down," said Nick Wheeldon, a member of Arrières-Gardes. "But that's the spirit of what we do: We take the risk, we take on the danger to do things that make our lives better."
In addition to playing in six bands whose music ranges from country to 1960s-inspired pop, Wheeldon has served as La Pointe Lafayette's promoter since January 2019. He books more than 15 concerts a month, featuring two or three groups performing in a space the size of a glorified storage closet that is painted black with a Buddha mural behind the stage.
"We're just trying to keep the music scene alive and keep it affordable for people, keep it interesting," said Wheeldon. "And what's really important is that there's a place for bands to play. Because here, the agenda, it's mostly international bands. I find that pretty amazing for a tiny place like this."
Newer venues are trying to develop a similar inclusive space. In May 2019, the collective Pieg decided to take over an unused room in Café de Paris. On a given night, half the patrons going down the bar’s staircase are just looking for a bathroom, having no clue about the live music in the basement.
But the goal is to eventually turn the upstairs concert hall into a feature of the Paris scene. It is a long-term project: Pieg member Johan Saint estimated the necessary soundproofing will be an expensive undertaking.
He said, "We are a reception area for touring bands and for Parisian musicians who want to try things, a kind of laboratory where we try to make sure that everything goes well and that there is not too much economic pressure."
The business model of Arrières-Gardes venues is also a contrast to changes in the entertainment industry over recent years. According to Picaud, the sociologist, multinational corporations like the American Live Nation, Anschutz Entertainment Group and French Fimalac Entertainment are playing an increasing role in ownership and control of live music. She said when these companies purchase venues, they draw crowds away from independent spots and allow less autonomy and diversity in who is allowed to perform.
While these companies are not a direct threat to the small Arrières-Gardes venues, Wheeldon of La Pointe Lafayette said the commercialization of the music industry can switch the focus away from creative expression. But he said he feels no pressure to book larger bands that will increase ticket sales. He recalled an outside festival that brought hundreds to La Pointe Lafayette and a one-woman choir who performed to a handful of fans.
“When you put a gig on, even if there's five people or 50 or 100, those people make connections with each other and maybe will be friends all their lives,” said Wheeldon. “There's loads of concert places in Paris where they do look at if you've got enough Facebook likes, and they don't give a shit about the music. They just want to bring people in for the money."