We Need To Change The Debate On London's Venues
This article first appeared in the Londonist
While London continues to be a world leader in hosting live music, there’s a problem in our city: venues are closing down at a frightening rate. The Buffalo Bar in Highbury, the 12 Bar Club and Madame Jojo’s in Soho have all closed in favour of flats and offices within the last four months. On the site where The Luminaire stood, the ‘Luminaire Apartments’ now sit, with a one-bed flat available at £375 per week.
Only one new venue — Kentish Town’s The Stillery — has opened to replace these losses, and there's little sign of encouragement for anyone hoping to follow suit. The Kings Cross development — the largest construction site in Europe — has no new venues and a complex public planning structure that makes public events difficult, while Nine Elms does not have a comprehensive live music (or entertainment) strategy, despite being one of the largest redevelopment sites in the country.
One of the problems of this crisis is it produces arguments that are wearily familiar: venues are seen by the challenges they engender — noise, issues with local residents, use of space. Those who fight closures are those that use them most — artists, their representatives, the music industry in general. Their complaints are communicated in cultural arguments: fewer places to play, fewer opportunities for artists, fewer chances to hear music. It always ends at the music itself — the cultural expression and, as a result, cultural argument. But we need to think about this economically. Venues are not just cultural hubs, they are also economic drivers on London as well.
We need to change this tired dialogue. There is a much more expansive challenge, hiding a greater loss: losing venues loses cities money. Venues are the epicentre of a structure that impacts local businesses as well as quality of life. Music venues — like cinemas, comedy clubs and theatres — are economic indicators of the health of an area. For every venue that closes down, secondary and tertiary businesses are impacted. Venues are at the centre of a web of interconnectivity — their success creates both cultural and economic vibrancy, impacting restaurants and bars in the area, hotels, increased use of transport, taxis and even ISPs, who benefit from people sharing their experiences by using (and paying for) the use of data. The Mayor of London’s Music Venues Taskforce estimates the value of venues in London to be worth £1.6bn and even Mayor Boris Johnson said “live music is part of the soul of London and live music venues have been critical to the development of artists who have gone on to become conquering global heroes”. Not only that, they bring a return to the communities that house them.
This debate urgently needs to progress before we lose any more venues. We need to prove the economic worth of our venues, as much as their cultural value. Compared to film sets, museums and art galleries, venues are inexpensive in relation to their size and needs. One art gallery may have a show weekly or monthly while a small venue could host 20-25 small businesses (bands) per week. They provide more opportunities for creators than the aforementioned in the same timeframe and can operate as secondary use spaces, from yoga studios to restaurants. Pop-ups take place there, which provide incubation services for new businesses that cannot afford business rates or unit rental. But one-by-one, we’re losing them. And those who are most vocal are those with the least power — the artists and small independent venues — compared to our multinational developers, investment firms and high street chains.
For cities to remain vibrant, prosperous places to live, we need to focus as much on the words 'industry' and 'business' as we do on the word 'music' (or theatre or art). For this we need to fight for the venues, not only because of the music they host, but also because of the financial value they bring to local communities. £1.6bn is only the tip of the iceberg.