A third of London’s music venues have vanished in under 10 years. What can be done to reverse the trend?
By Shain Shapiro
London’s venues and studios are disappearing – and nowhere more so than in music, where a third of performance spaces have closed since 2007. Music is currently the third-largest industry in the United Kingdom (thank you, Adele), yet the incubators and talent development portals where artists begin their journeys are being lost. Artists like Ed Sheeran or singer/songwriter Frank Turner would not have had the careers they have had (careers that promote British creativity internationally and provide significant returns to the British exchequer) without these venues.
A lack of smaller, ‘development’ venues has a knock-on effect, leading to fewer big acts to headline festivals, as the promoter Harvey Goldsmith has pointed out: ‘We are not producing a new generation of the kind of acts – the likes of the Rolling Stones, Muse, even Arctic Monkeys – that can headline. It is a big, big problem.’ In 1994, Oasis played 25 venues on their debut UK tour as part of Independent Venue Week. Only 12 of those venues remain. The next Oasis will, it seems, have twice as much work to do.
Six months ago I began working with the Mayor of London’s Music Venues Task Force, which has been created by the GLA and the music industry to address the significant threat to our music ecosystem – the loss of the building blocks that help in creating, sustaining and marketing talent. Some venues will always shut as a side effect of shifting markets, but there was alarm about the rate of the closures, our lack of understanding of the reasons for the very high numbers and of what we might do to respond.
In October, the Task Force produced a report, the Music Venues Rescue Plan. We found it fairly easy to answer the question of why so many venues are closing; the problem is similar to that plaguing other cultural and community-led spaces across the capital. Artists are being turned into cultural commuters, unable to sustain themselves in the capital because of a lack of spaces – adequate housing, studios and rehearsal spaces – and, now, stepping-stone venues. We need more homes, but we also need cultural venues to support those who move into them. Rental and leasehold costs are also increasing, to the point that it is increasingly difficult to sustain a grassroots music venue financially, particularly one of under-500 capacity. When you weigh up the value of a music venue compared to housing or commercial retail on the same site, especially in Zones 1 and 2, the result is unlikely to favour the venue.
At the time of writing, there are five venues under threat in the capital, including The Half Moon in Herne Hill, a once-famous folk club where the Police and Van Morrison honed their craft. The 100 Club in the West End, where Adele and many other world-famous artists played their entry-level shows, has been saved at the eleventh hour by a sponsorship deal with Converse.
Beyond the grubby basement
Solving issues of land values and housing is difficult, but there are some things that can be done. A number of planning and licensing laws over the past five to 10 years have made it increasingly difficult to run a venue. We need to change mindsets, particularly about the connotations of a venue – which, to me, is not just a place where bands perform but also an innovation hub. A flourishing venue will be supporting a number of secondary and tertiary industries: staging and lighting, hospitality and security, graphic design and ticketing. A venue is a tech incubator. If an average of 20 artists perform across one week, than that’s 80 British (and international) SMEs being supported a month. If one act has a hit, that will have an impact on the entire value chain.
Venues can also support other uses, including daytime activities, from public health initiatives to film screenings, comedy and theatre. And if some of the existing venues are not built to accommodate such uses, we can make sure that new ones are.
We need to look at the way our planning and licensing laws operate across the capital. The words ‘music venue’ or ‘arts venue’ are not mentioned in the London Plan. Licensing is borough-led and often reactive. Licensing restrictions – especially on independent venues with no legal teams to support them – make business difficult. Many councils are restricting the issuing of late licenses, further challenging the competitiveness of the market and increasing the stigma around the night-time economy. Decisions are often not made in the round, pragmatically, but complaint by complaint. Noise complaints often result in enforcements, rather than focusing attention on the need to ensure that buildings are adequately soundproofed and relationships developed between premises and residents. Enforcements are expensive to carry through on all sides, affecting council budgets and costing venues a good deal to appeal.
We are working with licensing authorities to produce new guidance and at all levels of government to address the way that the National Policy Planning Framework on permitted development is inhibiting the ability of venues to survive. Current national planning laws prioritise the financial value of the land over what is housed inside premises, even though venues – across all artforms – are often what drive people to reside in a particular area. We are assembling a music advisory board for London. It will be the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, and London will be the largest city in the world with such a board when it is established in May.
Illustration by Lucinda Rogers
Our ambition is to bring together planners, property developers, licensing authorities and the industry to establish supplementary planning guidance for councils and developers on the value of music venues to local areas. We hope to introduce a further basis for licensing on the grounds of protecting local culture and heritage. In addition, if music venues were to be clearly designated in the London Plan, all 33 councils would be helped to manage existing venues and new ones could be encouraged to open. I know of half-a-dozen new venues opening in London in the next year. With a bit of effort behind these initiatives, we could double or even triple that figure.
The challenges to creativity in London are complex. Often, the options for artists are framed as culture-for-culture’s-sake versus content geared specifically toward the mass market. But there is a wealth of content that falls in the middle, involving artists, musicians and other practitioners who are striving for sustainability rather than stardom. And this is the group that London is letting down the most – due, primarily, to the loss of spaces for them to practise, to fail and to refine their work. While we cannot alter the manner in which London’s property market operates, we could think creatively about how to manage it. A non-profit organisation in Canada, for example, purchases land and builds venues with flats above, using the revenue from the latter to support the former. Each building is designed to ensure noise is kept down and the flow of people is regulated. This could happen here on a number of sites across the capital primed for new housing. There’s no reason, with proper planning and a robust approach to how the spaces are used, why venues, arts centres, studios and rehearsal spaces could not be built alongside these new homes. Using music and music policy as one of the tools in our arsenal against the challenges to life in the city will make London a more vibrant, sustainable and outright better place to live.