When the music\’s over

Originally posted on Londonist 24 June 2015

As the annual exodus to Glastonbury begins, recently-published research reminds us that live music is about a lot more than wellies and sun cream. Wish You Were Here, published by UK Music, shows that London generated more than £660m income from music tourism last year, supporting nearly 5,000 jobs. The UK leads the world in music exports, and London is the proving ground for many of the artists who will be shuttling round the international festival scene this summer.

But, as London grows, are we choking the ecosystem that gave the sector such strength? Pressure is mounting on venues across the capital. The Astoria was lost to Crossrail, Soho’s 12 Bar Club and Madame JoJo’s to redevelopment, the Bull and Gate to a gastropub, the Foundry in Shoreditch to a chic hotel, the Luminaire in Kilburn to high spec apartments. Other venues, like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, remain under threat.

But development pressure is not the only challenge. The Night Time Industries Association, which represents gig venues, bars and clubs, this week launched a report arguing that the licensing regime is anachronistic, or even atavistic, holding on to outdated myths about binge-drinking and alcohol-fuelled crime, and viewing the night time economy as a risk to be regulated, not as a source of creativity, income generation and global soft power. Madam JoJo’s, for example, was shut down after a violent incident (though its demolition was already planned by the freeholder).

Is there space, NTIA asks, for a more constructive dialogue between venue owners, the police and licensing authorities, rather than the current battle against the night? Who should be responsible for managing the behaviour of revellers once they have left bars and clubs? Should licensing look at benefits as well as risks? How does the liberalisation of a 24-hour tube link to a clampdown on late licences? Does London really want to be a 24-hour city?

The issues that NTIA is grappling with reflect our uneasy and Janus-faced attitude towards the transformation of our city. We revel in the late-night opening and myriad clubs that are available to us when we are in our 20s, but then tut at the vomit-stained pavements and late night racket that they generate as we get older. We move in for the night life, but we stay for the peace and quiet.

This tension came to a head in the long battle between ‘megaclub’ Ministry of Sound in Elephant and Castle and a developer working on an adjacent site. MoS opposed the planning application, as it expected new residents to object immediately to noise levels, and force the nightclub to turn it down or simply shut down. The development will now go ahead following agreement of additional sound-proofing for the flats and acknowledgement by all parties that current sound levels can continue. But clubs are also going or gone in Vauxhall, at Farringdon, at Kings Cross — in all the once-marginal and permissive locations where hip clubland credentials sowed the seeds of sanitisation.

To be fair, there’s always been some churn in London venues, and middle-aged men like me need to be cautious about rosy-tinted nostalgia for their old haunts. Some of the venues I remember fondly were decidedly grotty, fully meriting their designation as the ‘toilet circuit’ (Kilburn’s Luminaire, which had an eccentric policy of treating punters like human beings, was an honourable exception).

And London’s nightlife is of course finding new hotpots – from Dalston, to Stratford, to New Cross.  But the loss of small music venues from inner city streets, and of clubs from its fringes, could be seen as faint warning signals that London is losing something — the diversity that makes a world city, the grit that creates pearls, the rich soil that supports shoots of creativity.

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