Sound Diplomacy has been working with the Greater London Authority (GLA) since 2015, with the objective of increasing London’s profile as a global music city. 

What we did:

Sound Diplomacy has worked with the Greater London Authority (GLA) since Autumn 2015, with the objective of increasing London’s profile as a global music city.

Working internally with the GLA, we helped to develop the role of a Night Czar for London. This role, currently held by Amy Lamé, is to champion London’s nightlife, including safeguarding venues across the city and working in partnership with the night time industries, local authorities, the Metropolitan Police, Transport for London and the public.

We also supported the development of a Night Time Commission to carry out research on London’s night time economy, and helped develop the London Music Board, to protect grassroots music venues and support London’s grassroots music scene.

On the public-facing side, we lobbied, conducted a feasibility study for, and delivered a Mayoral-led music campaign called Sounds Like London. The campaign was aimed at celebrating and marketing London’s outstanding music offer, as well as shining a light on some of the successes we’d achieved with the Night Czar and Music Board initiatives, including reversing the rate of grassroots music venue closures, working with the Met Police to scrap Form 696, and introducing the Agent Of Change principle within planning law.

Most recently, we delivered a study that aims to accurately map all of London’s music spaces. The map gives a full spectrum of music performance, recording and rehearsal spaces in London, highlighting the areas of threat, opportunity and growth.

London’s buzzing live music scene is world-renowned, having produced artists from Adele to Ed Sheeran, The Clash to The Rolling Stones. Grassroots venues are the foundation of our successful music industry. We’ve taken positive steps to address some of the challenges facing grassroots music venues, but there’s still much to be done.
— Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan



An International Benchmarking Study

The Madison Square Garden Company has announced plans to bring a large-scale, state-of-the-art, music and entertainment venue to London.

As part of its due diligence, MSG worked with Sound Diplomacy to assess the London venue market and to compare it with other major cities: ParisBerlinMadrid, and New York City.  Like London, these four cities are standard stops on venue tours, offering state-of-the-art venues to acts and music fans. 

By comparing the populations of these cities to how many venues they have, we identified the average population size per venue (ppv). London had the highest ratio, almost 1 million people-per-venue ahead of the next-most densely serviced city (Berlin). New York, the only city listed with a comparable population size, has almost four times as many venues, which means each venue has a quarter of the audience pressure of London’s venues.

The London Venue Market Report is available to download now. For more information about the report, contact us here.

SOUND DIPLOMACY Arena Report_V7-01.jpg


London’s music venues are recovering – but business rate review could stop them in their tracks

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

Much has been written about the revaluation of business rates and their impact up and down the country. Due to an outcry from a number of sectors and business lobbying groups, not least the CBI, the chancellor is considering measures to relieve those facing the highest increases. (In his recent Budget, indeed, he gave pubs a rebate of up to £1,000, though he did nothing for other sectors.)

Most of the businesses worst affected are in zones 1 and 2 in London, where property has, in some cases, doubled in value since the last valuation was conducted in 2008. And it is the independent retail and commercial sector that will feel these rises the most. A large high street chain can shoulder a rate increase of between 25 and 30 per cent; an independent cafe or restaurant often can't. Such an increase, after all, could mean an extra bill of up to £15,000 for a mid-sized premises. That would be enough to close an independent pizza shop, but allow Pizza Express to survive. 

Of these independent businesses that are most threatened, at the top of the list are our grassroots music venues and nightclubs. Over the past ten years, 50 per cent of London's nightclubs have closed, along with 35 per cent of its music venues.

In fact, there have recently been some signs of recovery in the ecosystem. Last month, the Greater London Authority published a report that found there had been no net loss of venues in 2016, a first since 2007. A few new venues have even opened, including The Soundlounge in Tooting, Sankeys East in Romford and, at the end of March, Soul Store West in Kilburn.

Now this rates rise threatens to derail this progress. And there remains something rotten in the way we value these places: when assessing and calculating their rates, we don’t consider their cultural or economic value. These premises are the incubators of the sector, each investing £500,000 directly into new and emerging talent each year. And yet, unlike community centres and libraries, for example, little relief is offered that recognises the benefits these places and spaces bring to their communities. 

Indeed, instead of recognising this value, we are doing the opposite. Take The Lexington, in Islington. In the past, it's hosted many artists who you wouldn't have heard of at the time, but almost certainly would have now. Yet the value of the land the venue sits on has increased significantly, increasing the value of the property and thus its business rate. (It's a similar system to council tax.)

There's another penalty: rates recategorisation often means an increase in annual alcohol licence fees that can also run into thousands of pounds. Paying for that means selling more alcohol, which puts pressure on the businesses to stop providing the unprofitable live music aspect. And so The Lexington, instead of being a music venue and community asset, becomes a solely alcohol-led premises, similar to a chain pub or bar.

All this is compounded by the way that venues in London are being penalised for their success in regenerating its town centres. Cafe Oto opened at a time when Dalston town centre was not as desirable as it is now. Its contribution to the local community – along with those of many other businesses and entrepreneurs – has led to Dalston changing and becoming more desirable. Yet Cafe Oto and the like have not been recognised as agents of change and arbiters of community cohesion; instead, the work they've done merely means the land they sit on has become more expensive, and so their rates are going up.

There is no standard classification of music venues and nightclubs in the system by which we assess rateable value: they not categorised as a particular type of business, so their floor space is assessed not on its need to welcome an audience, but on its size and its capacity to sell enough alcohol to fill that space. Yes, venues and nightclubs often live or die on their ability to sell alcohol, but without the music – the culture – people wouldn’t be drinking that alcohol in the first place. Yet this is not recognised: their cultural value is ignored, and venues are made to pick up the tab in more ways the one.

It would be best if such places were assessed for what they are, rather than being lumped into a general categorisation that more often than not impacts them negatively. They should all pay business rates – this is the only way core services can be delivered – but increases in those rates should take account of their community benefit, and recognise their cultural value. 

If we don’t take a good hard look at how our classification and rating systems measures music venues and nightclubs – or cultural infrastructure in general – we  will lose these places. The recent spate of good news will disappear, and we’ll be back to hearing about venue closures in London and beyond.  

And the same argument applies to other sectors, too: if we don't recognise the value of independent cafes, there is a danger that rate rises will one day mean that Costa Coffee is the only place that'll sell you a flat white. 


Toronto shows how we can save Britain's music venues – and build more housing at the same time

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty

Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty

Over the last few weeks, four more grassroots music venues in London have been threatened with closure. This is on top of the over 80 that have closed across the capital since 2007; across the country, another 15 to 20 are currently under threat, from The Fleece in Bristol to The Sunflower in Belfast.

The main reasons for this lie in the way our built environment is changing across the country, and our need – perceived and actual – for more homes. But while we do need more housing, we don’t need it at all costs.

One venue in London, for example, is facing eviction because its freehold owner changed – and the new owner would rather sell up to housing developers than retain the venue. To some, this is understandable, but I find it difficult to stomach. It is happening too much and too often.

Whether it's the construction of new housing, or noise complaints resulting in a noise enforcement by the local authority, it is becoming a full-time job to respond to these threats on behalf of each threatened venue.  The problem is that there is only so much that one can do to assuage the problem. Often, planning consent and permissions have been given long before the venue falls into trouble. 

To give just one example, if land in a town centre has been given a certain use designation, an area action plan may prioritise housing over all other uses, even if it contains a historic venue.  As a result, if the planning consent isn’t actively geared towards the venue use, the focus on housing will inevitably gobble up vulnerable venues.

Some venues, as with all businesses, will inevitably fail. Nor should we treat every single situation with the same response. Some venues are cultural incubators, some provide significant economic benefit to the local area and some are of historical significance. But fighting each threat, one-by-one, feel much like spinning a hamster’s wheel.

But being part of the Mayor's Music Venue Task Force, the team tasked with responding to these threats, I’ve wondered if there are other models we could explore that support both housing and our venues and galleries. And I have a solution. It’s not one that will tackle the issues that those venues which already under threat are dealing with – but it is one that I hope will create a stronger, more collaborative atmosphere, that will hopefully reduce such issues five or ten years down the line.

The plan

My solution is at odds with the manner in which land and property is treated in the UK. At present, the value of the land is more important than what occurs inside the building. We must change this. Here’s an example of how.

In Toronto, my hometown, an organisation called Artscape has constructed a theatre and music venue in a former industrial area in the west of the city. Above that venue, it has also constructed a number of housing units, available both at market rate and, for a select number of artists, a subsidised rate. The units are tenanted as normal and Artscape, in this business model, becomes a de-facto housing association. The arts organisation becomes the landlord: the housing and the venue business are interlinked.

With modern noise attenuation technologies and careful people flow and management strategies, this works. A non-profit organisation bought the land, built the venue and the flats above it, and earns profit from both. It assists in programming the venue as well as stewarding the site. Here, you’re not sacrificing the venue for the sake of housing: both uses are treated equally.  

This can happen here.  A significant amount of land is owned across London and the UK by local councils and boroughs. Transport for London owns a substantial amount of land; so does Network Rail. Not all is suitable for our purposes, but enough is to experiment. We have already seen artist housing spring up in an old hotel in Haringey, for example. If a venue, or rehearsal space, or studio, or art gallery was bolted onto such a housing scheme, all sides could, in theory, benefit.

It may be difficult to envisage this working in large-scale, privately-owned developments, but elements of this idea could still be implemented. All developments need to abide by a variety of Section 106 obligations, and all benefit by providing a product geared towards the communities they are working with.

The problem as present is that, when it comes to how our built environment is constructed, we live in an either/or ecosystem: it is either profit or affordable housing, either commercial high footfall retail or leisure.

The government introduced an amendment in planning law called “permitted development”, which allows offices or pubs to be changed into housing (or vice-versa) with minimal consent. But this has only exacerbated the problem: uses are changed more quickly, making them even more singularly focused. That office is now housing, and only housing.

So I am on the lookout for land and buildings – both public and privately owned – where we can explore such a project. And I need partners and allies, because we need more suitable, community focused housing as well as more venues. Why not have both in the same location? We can increase density. We can contribute to town centre development. And we can make our built environment more environmentally and culturally friendly.

Because there are only so many venues we can save, and there is only so much time to respond to threats one-by-one. These closures will continue to happen – but we need new venues, fit for all purposes, from live music to yoga, theatre to comedy, to replace them.

And if we think our cultural spaces are as beneficial to society as assuaging our housing crisis, we need to make alternative models less alternative.


Are music venues as valuable as houses – and can we prove it?

This article was first published in CityMetric

It is well documented that London has lost over a third of its grassroots music venues since 2007. One of the reasons given for this phenomenon is that, in our current economic climate and planning framework, venues are market failures.

What that means is that the value of a venue in London simply isn't comparable to that of the flats that could be built on its site. A venue worth £300,000 could be converted into 6 or 8 flats, each worth as much as the venue itself.

For a landowner in these circumstances, it is difficult to provide an economic argument to retain the venue (or art gallery, or rehearsal space, or comedy club, or...). And with our planning system prioritising housing over everything else, those flats are easy to develop, sell and profit from.

And yet, our councils, government and property developers all know that the cultural value of a grassroots music venue – or independent theatre, or cinema, or art gallery for that matter – can make an area desirable. One of the key reasons Hackney is one of London's fastest growing boroughs is its night time offer.

We can take this argument further. What if a venue was as valuable to the landowner as the aforementioned flats? What if, when a venue was supported, those businesses and residences around it would benefit economically? Land value would increase; more traders would open.

To argue this case, over a few cups of coffee a colleague of mine and I dissected his venue in Dalston.  Here’s our take.

Running the numbers

This venue sees 234 people go through its doors each day, each spending an average of £10 per head on entry fees, alcohol and food. It’s open seven days a week, and has a capacity of 250.

Let’s argue that, of these people, 60 per cent live locally. Half of those walked or cycled, while the other half took public transport to get to and from this venue, at a cost of £2.30 each way. The other 40 per cent commuted from other parts of the city. Of these, we estimate that 80 per cent took the tube and 20 per cent took taxis at a cost of £15 per ride.

Let's assume that one-third of these 234 people ate out, either before or after visiting this venue, each spending another £15 per head. On top of this, this venue contributes £64,000 each year in PAYE, alcohol duty, license costs and business rates to the exchequer. In addition, it pays £5,000 per month rent to the landowner, or £60,000 per year.

Using our iPhone calculators, we tallied up that his venue contributes £694,000 to the local economy each year, outside of its independent takings as a business. Include those, and the amount rises to £1.3m.

Furthermore, this venue employs 12 people at the London living wage. In total, this venue is worth, theoretically speaking, as much as £2m a year to the local and national economy.

And this is one venue. On Kingsland High Street in Dalston, there are half a dozen of these. Across Hackney, there are dozens.

Let’s compare this with the value of one flat in a local development in Dalston. A two-bed is retailing at £450,000, a price the developer will earn once. Council taxes and other fees on such a property, on average, add a further £2,500 to £4,000 to the local economy, not to mention another £4,000 to £6,000 in ancillary costs like utilities and other services.

The space this venue inhabits could accommodate perhaps four new properties, which would net a developer around £2m on the sales. That, though, is a one off return, not something that will be pumped into the economy year after year.

Our calculations are inevitably rough – but they merit further investigation. What they show is that the term "value" has different definitions, depending on the party doing the valuing. To a developer, building and then exiting a project is of more value that renting out equal space to a leaser to open a venue, regardless of art form.

But what if this venue, or all six on the High Street, closed? We would lose secondary and tertiary value: the service providers supporting the venue, its rate and PAYE bill, the value of the music (or art, or theatre) being incubated and of course, the space’s cultural value. What's more, the saleability of the flats would be impacted, because there would be fewer things to do in Dalston.

And with business rates returning to councils now, it is in local authorities’ best interests to understand and capitalise on the economies businesses create, both inside and outside their doors.

So when we look at that value of our grassroots music venues, our nightclubs – our music incubators, as they should be referred to – let’s value them both culturally and economically. If we measure their value properly, they are worth their weight in pounds and pence.


London has lost a quarter of its live music venues in just eight years. It needs to rethink its policies.

This article was first published in CityMetric

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

Last week, two bodies that represent major record labels, Music Canada and the IFPI, teamed up to publish a landmark study, The Mastering of a Music City. The report’s goal was to qualify and quantify the term “music city”: what it means, how to create one and if it’s worthwhile.

After surveying 22 cities, the study concluded that music, when incorporated into municipal policy, improves public spaces, licensing and noise issues and most importantly, quality of life. To achieve that, it said, a city needs to consider seven specific factors. Here’s the list:

  • Music- and musician-friendly policies;

  • Having a music office or music officer;

  • Establishing a music advisory board, within council chambers;

  • Engagement of the broader music community – that is, listeners, consumers, those who use music as a conduit to sell other things (restaurants, fashion outlets, hotels);

  • Access to space and places;

  • Audience development;

  • Music tourism.

The report also listed a number of cities that were successfully doing this, including Toronto, Melbourne, Austin, and Nashville.

It also listed London. Representatives of the Greater London Authority (GLA) told the researchers that they were attempting to make the British capital a richer city through musical capacity, engagement and outreach.

In many cases, this is true. London has a live music task force (a sort-of advisory council), a music officer and a wide music tourism offering, ranging from the Proms to Hyde Park’s concerts. Just last week, according to trade body UK Music, the UK’s music tourism takings hit £3.8bn per year; a good amount of this is spent in London.

However, if London is a music city, then we must ask how that makes it a better, more liveable city for all of us. The opportunities to experience music in licensed venues have shrunk. Over 350 venues existed in 2007; now, according to the Music Venue Trust, under 260 remain. New licensing provisions, such as the one Hackney Council recently sent out for consultation, are making the case for restricting the night time economy.

There are examples of groups using music to make London better, too. The Cathedral Group, a large property developer, is placing music at the heart of its pitch to buyers in selling The Old Vinyl Factory development, the former site of EMI in Hayes. There, music will feature in everything; place names, leisure activities and branding. 

But these solutions remain piecemeal and patchwork. For London to become more of a music city, we must accept that this is a strategy to promote and enhance London as a whole. We need a strategy that’s city wide, rather than borough-led.

More music encourages more usage of 24-hour transport – along with the West End, the adult entertainment community, and late night eateries. A multi-borough music strategy would be better placed to examine these impacts.

Borough-led enforcement creates inconsistencies, too: things that are ordinance violations in one part of London but not in another. Take busking. It would cost us less money for us to accept one busking policy across the capital, rather than supporting buskers in one council while arresting them in another.

Promoting London as a music city would also help us to tackle the raft of venue closures, the latest of which – The Purple Turtle in Mornington Crescent – was announced only last week. It would help us to understand why our venues are where they are and what that means for audience development, both inside and outside the gig-going community.

Few people would classify Croydon as a “musical borough” – yet it houses The Brit School, many festivals and an engaging music education strategy. In my own neighbourhood, Forest Gate, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Burdon played on Boxing Day in 1967, in the Forest Gate Hotel. It’s now closed. We need more such spaces to allow future stars to incubate; and we need to recognise London as a music city to make this possible.

If we analyse, mull over and approach the seven recommendations in the report, London will be a better city for it. And we don’t have to be musicians or music industry professionals to call for such change. If we value music in our lifts, our shopping malls, our tube stations and restaurants, not to mention our venues and streets, we should all say, unequivocally, that London is a music city. Right now, we’re not all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Not all cities should be music cities. But all cities should cater to, encourage and support music as an economic driver, from tourism to cultural offering and job creation and business development. London, however, is not just any other city. It is a world leader – it’s time that, musically, it acted like it.


Music venues are hubs for entrepreneurship. Cities should support them.

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

In 2014, according to CAMRA, pubs were closing at a rate of 31 per week. This is actually down, from over 50 per week in previous years – but nonetheless it reveals that our leisure habits are changing to a lifestyle that requires less local pubs to cater to our needs.

It isn’t just pubs, though. Over the last 12 months, over 30 music venues have closed down for a variety of reasons – from increased rents, to noise complaints, to redevelopment. In some cases, they went because they were in pubs that closed, such as The Grosvenor in Stockwell, which has been repurposed by Golfate, an Isle of Man property developer. We have seen the loss of the Freebutt and The Blind Tiger in Brighton, the 200 Club in Newport, the Kazimier in Liverpool, and Madame Jo Jo’s, The Buffalo Bar and every venue on Denmark Street in London.

Each closed for different reasons – but with less music venues than pubs, the problems felt by those who use them has been more acute. In response, the Greater London Authority has created the Mayor of Greater London’s Live Music Task Force to work with councils to incorporate venues into the debate around planning, land values, regeneration and the city’s cultural make-up; other councils have created funding structures around venues, such as The Waterfront in Norwich.  

Every article I have read that calls on us to support small venues makes a similar argument: if small venues disappear, developing artists have no outlet to practice their craft and increase their audience – or customer – base.

But I want to make a different case. My argument is that venues should be provided with the same support through our local authorities and governance structure as innovation hubs or cluster development structures. Because this is what a venue is: it is a hub for entrepreneurship, cross discipline innovation and business development. It is a place when Britain’s IP is developing, its businesses are trading and new products are being introduced, song by song.

If one breaks a successful, modern venue down into its component parts, the music is one spoke in a larger wheel: they don’t just create businesses in the creative sector, but also in technology and IP. Take Under The Bridge in Fulham, a venue housed inside Stamford Bridge Football Stadium, that houses an in-house LED screen, state-of-the-art speakers and live streaming capabilities. All the artists that use the space have access to that technology, spurning cross-disciplinary innovation and new ideas, not only for the product manufacturers, but also for the musical copyright holders, the bands.

Or take another example, my local pub in Forest Gate, The Wanstead Tap. By day it hosts day care services, yoga classes and birthdays; in the evening it puts on folk concerts, film screenings and dinner parties. Here is a venue that is cross-pollinating a number of creative sectors, offering incubation support to childcare, hospitality, film and, as always, music.

We do not look at venues as innovation hubs. One reason is that the term has yet to be properly defined (so says Oxford University); when used, it’s usually focused on the manufacturing of a product, be it an app or a new piece of technology.

But venues are not manufacturing sites – they are testing areas. New songs are trialled, that could become the most important three minutes of IP in an entire sector. The technology to support that ecosystem – from the lights and sound to the equipment hire, make-up of the stage, fridges, ticketing systems and so on – is all being tested, too. Each of these variables houses its own innovative sector – and each are combined in a venue.

And yet, in Britain, venues are closing.

In France and Germany, the state offers them capital for restoration and management capacities. I don’t believe that public funding is the answer here, but we must take more time to understand why we develop spaces – because this argument is not being aired each time a venue closes its doors.

We rely on innovation, the testing of new ideas and risk-taking in our business community. Yet we are closing the places that best service this for not only the music sector, but also a number of other, too. Let’s change this debate.


We Need To Change The Debate On London's Venues

This article first appeared in the Londonist

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

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.

Losing Money

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.