by James Wood Thu 8 September 2016, 2:38 pm
Music venues are in decline. Bands, DJs, clubbers and event promoters have long been lamenting closures, but on Wednesday the volume of grievances was cranked up as a chorus of dismay greeted news that Islington Council had decided to revoke the license of London's best-known nightclub, Fabric.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan also expressed disappointment, releasing a statement pointing out that in the last eight years, the capital has lost 50% of its nightclubs and 40% of its live music venues. Those criticising the decision point out that drug-related deaths, as tragic as they are, will not be solved by axing the places where they are consumed.
Perhaps then, it would be logical to conclude that there are few reasons to be cheerful for music lovers, but a gathering of a wide range of industry bods, which happened to take place earlier on the day the Fabric decision was made, suggests that the future of live music is not as bleak as this closure suggests.
A property developer’s swanky London headquarters are possibly not the natural place that comes to mind for such an event, but U+I seems to place art and culture at the core of many of its schemes. The Old Vinyl Factory scheme in Hayes, for example, where EMI records were once produced, will include a venue for live events as well as a University Technical College, where music production will be a key subject.
As Richard Upton, U+I’s deputy chief executive says in the conference’s opening presentation: “There used to be a sign at Hayes station telling people this was the centre of the music world. We’re restoring that pride. Music and sound are very powerful devices which can connect you to memories and that is at the centre of what we’re doing.”
Sound Development, which organised the event, is steadfast in its belief that there are significant benefits live music venues can bring to new developments with a catalytic effect for the wider area. A diverse range of panellists and speakers at the event, including public sector representatives, music industry executives, organisations which seek to promote the value of grassroots venues and property developers, agreed on the cultural and economic benefits. A consensual belief also exists that in helping these goals come to fruition, it is important to promote effective collaboration to reverse the decline.
According to Shain Shapiro from Sound Development, proposals in various stages suggest that up to 18 music venues could open in London within the next five to seven years. A presentation from strategic planners at the Greater London Authority (GLA) explains how live music venues will form part of an individual policy in the next London Plan. As the GLA’s Andrew Russell points out, an industry that contributes £4 billion to the UK economy is one worth preserving.
The question is how to go about it. Clearly collaboration is a good place to start, but wider questions highlight some of the potential pitfalls.
Some of these include: who has responsibility for noise mitigation – should it fall on residential developers to ensure that homes are properly insulated against disturbances from existing venues? How can licensing and property laws integrate effectively to create a place where safety is prioritised and issues such as noise and antisocial behaviour are mitigated? How can property developers and the owners of grassroots venues work together effectively? (especially when those in the former are more concerned with economic value and those in the latter are interested in “booking great bands and rolling in the beer kegs” as Beverley Whitrick from Music Venue Trust puts it.)
The economic case for music and development focusses on the importance of the public sector. Waltham Forest Council has been singled out for praise in understanding these benefits, and Councillor Clare Coghill, the borough’s lead member for economic growth and high streets explains how the local authority is tackling this. Coghill believes that as well as creating new venues, making use of what’s already there can be effective.
“One important thing to note is that our pubs are being lost,” she says. “We had about 200 in 1997 and now it’s in the high 60s.
“The closing of pubs means people are less engaged in the community. It’s not just about the economic value, they are integral to creating a sense of place.
“We’re lucky in Waltham Forest because we have areas like the Blackhorse Road regeneration area and Wood Street where a rich artistic community is forming organically.”
Such positive attitudes are helpful. The new London mayor is determined to fix London’s flailing nightlife by appointing a night czar for the city, bringing together club and venue owners, local authorities, the Metropolitan Police and members of the public.
It is a model that has been successful in European cities such as Amsterdam. Mirik Milan, the night mayor of the Dutch capital, has overseen changes which have tried to get away from a nighttime economy which is synonymous with alcohol alone – perhaps a workable model for London.
The determination to resolve the decline of the UK’s live music scene is being promoted in many different quarters. While clubbers mourn for the loss of an institution in Fabric, perhaps the bad news can act as a tipping point; one which will encourage engagement from different stakeholders, who will work together to reopen grassroots venues and help retain and restore a proud musical heritage and industry throughout the UK.
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