London’s music culture is losing its voice

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The start of 2015 signalled something special for London: the capital’s population surged past pre-war highs and is on course to reach 10 million by 2030.

Anyone who’s spent more than six months in the city can see the changes, whether it’s in the futuristic skyscrapers that resemble cheese graters, the eye of Sauron being erected in the heart of the skyline, or the demolition of the Heygate Estate (that wouldn’t look out of place in communist Russia).

Most people are calling this process gentrification, but something else is happening. London is slowly killing off its music culture.

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Music can hold negative connotations, especially when it comes to dance music and nightclubs. Some are dubious about mentioning the problems facing London’s music scene because of this negativity, and the media doesn’t give the capital’s nightlife the same kind of attention as movements like Yuppies Out or the New Era estate development.

When Russell Brand is at the helm of a movement then it’s hard not to mention it, but London has lost many of its clubs and music venues this year and it doesn’t look like it will stop soon.

In the past twelve months Plastic People, Madame Jojo’s, Escape, Peoples Club, Vibe Bar, Joiners Arms and Earls Court have all been casualties of a music culture massacre in London.

Looking further down the timeline of ill-fated music venues in the capital, Cable, Bagley’s, Velvet Rooms, The Bull and Gate (lost its music license and is now in renovation to be turned into a gastropub), The Cross, Turnmills and The End & AKA have also closed their doors.

Many faced impossible new council licensing agreements. Others were forced to close because of noise complaints and dozens were victims of gentrification. Seen as a spiritual home for many of London’s clubbers and electronic music fans, Fabric, recently faced closure, before meeting stricter Islington Council’s licensing requirements.

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The George Tavern

The George Tavern has stood in Stepney for 700 years and is a renowned music venue that’s also become a beacon for artists and creatives alike.

Landlord Pauline Forster is in the middle of a nine-year battle with developers; she’s recently lost an appeal to prevent six flats built in the direction of her beer garden and fears she might lose her licence because of noise complaints.

After she lost her appeal she told me: “I personally think that the new builds and the pre-fabricated buildings that we’re getting are pretty awful and inappropriately placed at the moment. It’s actually destroying the character of London, and the nightlife. Like, for instance, my music venue that is under threat from six private new builds flats that will have balconies placed right over the Tavern. That’s London!

“People [new residents] will want to protect their investments by wanting everything to clear off that perhaps threatens their investment … they will then complain about the music and complain about the noise, about people coming and going so they can live in what you describe as the gentrified parts of London.”

The campaign to save The George included support from Georgia May Jagger, poet John Cooper Clarke, Lianne La Havas, Kate Moss and Kaiser Chiefs’ frontman Ricky Wilson. She says if the venue loses its music license, it’s likely to close.

I mentioned to Pauline that Vibe Bar, Brick Lane, had also recently closed because of problems with the council and noise, and asked what she thought it meant for the people of London?

“It’s the ordinary people who are making London what it is that are being shut out,” she says. “They will close Vibe Bar and other places that have made London the most popular destination in the world. It’s why people love coming to London – for all the music, all the arts and all the fashion.

“I hear so much that people have been deserting London because it has gone too far. It’s changed so badly. It’s the people that make the bars of London who can’t afford to live here – the houses that have been built are way out of people’s price range. And what you get for your money is a space in the air that is so small, but you have to pay like £350,000 for it. You have to pay ground rent and other ‘heads, like I don’t know, service charges etc. It feels like we’re being scammed to me.”

The image of London turning into a corporate baron land similar to the Canary Wharf starts creeping into mind, a soulless metropolis with a diminishing music scene and nightlife.

 A scary thought. I ask Pauline how she thinks the council view these music institutions in the capital?

“You are a tax collector for the government with the tax that’s put on alcohol, VAT and all the overheads. It’s just crippling and to survive you work hard 24/7 – you don’t have a lot of time to shout out and get your voice out there.

“The developers have been fighting. So where does that leave me? I’m a single woman who is trying to take on a massive company who have money to slosh around and have already £50 million paid into it by the government. Perhaps they have to pay it back, but they won’t have to go to court just like the bankers have done recently.”

So what could be done to protect these music venues?

“The laws should be changed so that if a business is under threat of being closed down, it’s a good business that has never hurt people; it’s only helped people, so why should it be closed down because of one or two people complaining?”

Pauline isn’t the only example of someone fighting for survival. Ministry of Sound have locked horns with Southwark council and developers for years. The bars underneath Peckham Rye station are also battling the very same council, attempting to overturn redevelopment plans.

An e-petition has been set up that proposes a mandatory noise complaint waiver for anyone who buys or rents a property within close distance of a music venue. Almost 42,000 online signatures have been received.

I asked Aidan James Stevens – who started the petition and is also part of a band called You the Living –  what sort of situation he believes British music culture is in right now considering many famous institutes have shut or face the same threat?

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Madame Jojo’s

“I first moved to London in November 2008 to play bass for a friend’s band. Of all the venues in which I played my first gigs in the capital, only The Purple Turtle remains. The Bull & Gate is now becoming a gastropub, The Gaff on Holloway Road is now another Costa, Water Rats (where I played my first ever London show – I spotted Steve Lamacq in the front and I thought I was going to fall through the floor!) was killed slowly and painfully by Monto and Symptomatic before it closed.

“Now, Madame Jojo’s is gone and is being demolished. Buffalo Bar is probably going to become a storage basement for The Famous Cock. What this is resulting in is the loss of the roots of our rich and diverse music culture – the incubators of talent,” Aidan explains.

“Of course, without the roots, the entire proverbial tree could collapse. You The Living have only been a band for a year – during that time, the entire landscape of the UK’s music scene has changed.

“This is why it’s so important that we keep our small venues alive; without them, those who can’t afford to pay their way ahead will have nowhere to refine their art and work their way up the ladder. That’s why people like Ed Sheeran, Frank Turner and Natasha and I are fighting so hard to protect them – without a place to start, we wouldn’t have the careers we do now,” he explains.

“The people that are gentrifying neighbourhoods come from backgrounds without struggle, so they make music without any pain, hunger or urgency, or they’re not inspired to create art at all.

On the damage gentrification is doing to London’s music scene, band member Natasha says: “All we’ll get from the upper middle class is gastropubs, ‘artisanal’ coffee and bland, soulless music. Hard graft is an important part of most musicians’ growth – you can really tell when a band has paid to win because they’ve obviously not had time to grow on the ‘toilet circuit’.”

“Gentrification has served only to bulldoze all the character and individuality from the area,” Aidan responds. He recalls the venues mentioned – he played in them all throughout 2008-2009, but says they’ve fallen victim to gentrification. It isn’t always negative in London though, he points at an example of how it has benefited one borough.

“In one contrary case, the influx of creative-types that actually have money in Dalston and Stoke Newington has seen some great venues either open or enjoy significant growth. It really does depend on how a neighbourhood becomes gentrified, as there’s definitely a culture of financially-privileged creative people that colonise parts of London and set up shops. Of course, that causes problems for the locals that were there in the first place.

“Gentrification is an invasion – whilst one community expands into another, it forces the receiving community to shrink. Even when it may benefit music and creativity, this kind of gentrification is destructive to other communities. A balance has to be established.”

I ask Aidan why he started this petition: “I had a sudden brainwave, typed it up and submitted it. Looking back on my submission, I wish I had emphasised the element of resident protection a little more. I’ve noticed that a lot of my supporters are using the ‘Norman’ graphic; whilst there may be many ‘Normans’ out there, I’m sure there are more people who had no idea that there was a music venue in the area.

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The Vibe Bar

“Knowing estate agents, I’d imagine that they had described it as a ‘lively local pub’ which, to a 50-60 year old who fancies a pint every now and then to get some personal space – and give ‘err indoors’, well, ‘errs, too – would sound incredibly attractive and may even be a deciding factor in putting down a deposit. Imagine old Dave’s dismay when he discovers that his local isn’t the “darts and pork scratchings” boozer he was promised, but an EDM Mecca. Dave isn’t a Norman, and we need to protect the Daves as much as we need to protect the venues.”

Aidan is right in many ways. It’s easy to point the finger at those who complain or demand sourdough toast cafes in the place of music venues. These venues mean a lot to hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of people and smarter measures need to be taken to protect them.

They are the grass roots of entry for many musicians, artists and DJs. These are the places that make you feel welcome upon entry, and places that give you the freedom to dip in and out of as you please. Not the places where you are judged by the amount of champagne bottles on the table or a place with an allocation of 100 e-tickets only available months in advance on Resident Advisor.

London is a city with boundless opportunities, but there is also a cruel chaos squeezing the soul out of the city. Soho will never have the punch it once did. King’s Cross is more likely to become a candidate site for a new stadium for Chelsea FC than the clubbing Mecca it once was.

Shoreditch will fade into a suburb of the Royal Borough, as rich mummies and daddies buy up property for their children. Things will never be the same again – London is changing. New areas become ‘hip’ all the time, music venues shutting and relocating are just part of the process.

There has been a surge of venues appearing in Dalston and Stoke Newington, as well as a re-emergence of nightclubs further out of zone one. You only have to look at Studio Spaces in Wapping or Bussey Building in Peckham to guess where the next cluster of nightlife and live music may appear.

Perhaps it’s all just supply and demand?

London has been bursting at the seams for decades; but is it now getting beyond the limits of ordinary people? Even a tube line running for 24 hours-a-day over the weekend won’t make it easy to travel to Morden for a night out then commute back to whichever stretch of the capital you call home.

Music brings talent and youth from all aspects of culture together. If councils and developers don’t bring in smarter measures to protect venues then we’re in danger of kissing it all goodbye. London is still the best city in the world, for now…

 

Photography by Tom Buttrick