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NOVEMBER 2ND 2016

Saving London's Music Venues: FIGHTBACK


historical venues, london music scene, mvt

By: Samantha Hooper, Sliced Events


On 16 September, following the spate of closures of many music venues in London and across the UK, the Music Venue Trust put out a public statement announcing that they were putting on a gig at The Roundhouse in Camden on 18 October. The gig was to raise much needed funds and awareness of the very real plight of the UK music scene, which is facing increasing pressure from developers and local councils to close venues all over the country. 

There were no bands booked, no budget, no backline, no crew, no marketing. They put out a call to the whole music community to help put on this gig in 4 weeks time…and boy, did the community step up. Over 800 bands had contacted the chairman offering to play within 48 hours of the announcement going out. This outburst of support was echoed from lighting and sound companies, freelance crew members, and production teams. I myself signed up to help out on the day as soon as I could. 

FIGHTBACK was born.

Between 2007 and 2015, London lost 35% of its grassroots music venues in the Capital. Venues like Madame Jojo’s, The Marquee Club, The Astoria, The 12 Bar, and The Black Gardenia have disappeared from Central London and leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of the city’s music scene. Many others are under threat, including beloved pubs like The Dublin Castle. This of course, doesn’t even touch on the other venue closures, including 50% of London’s clubs (most recently, Fabric).

Now based at the London Irish Centre in Camden, in a primarily residential area, I am extremely aware of the precarious position of a venue in this neighbourhood. Coming from another historic venue in the West End, I have experienced first-hand the power of the residential noise complaint and fought the battles that arise from it – even when that neighbour lives in WC1, surrounded by theatres, clubs and bars. Having paid their millions to buy their home in a central area, there is a growing group of London residents who are now looking to close those very venues that create the buzzing social scene that attracted them to the postcode in the first place. It seems that, for many, the lively neighbourhoods are great and worth investing in nearby property, but only if that liveliness comes with a noise limiter and an 11pm curfew.

The reason for the public outcry and rallying support?

It’s becoming a very real prospect that before long we will have lost a huge number of venues around the country; venues that play a huge part in the development of our music scene across all genres. The growing battle for residential space in towns and cities has led to developers looking at disused industrial buildings in built-up areas to convert into housing, meaning more residents are moving in alongside established venues and then complaining about the noise - a situation where the power currently lies with the resident and not with the venue, which is likely to have been there for many, many years.

At the beginning of 2016, it was estimated that more than 40% of London's live music venues had closed in the space of 10 years. Since January this year alone, it is believed that more than 8 venues in the capital have closed or are in the process of closing. It should be pointed out that this situation is not limited to London - in Bristol for example, 50% of live music venues in the city are currently under threat from local resident noise complaints.

If this worrying trend continues at its current rate, we risk losing that essential first step of venues for bands learning their craft. Acts such as Wolf Alice, Ed Harcourt, Paul McCartney and Midge Ure have publically championed these 'first tier' venues, crediting them with allowing them to hone their craft, build a fan base and network. No live act can jump straight into filling a 1000 capacity space, after all.

It's not the Hammersmith Apollo's, Koko's or Shepherds Bush Empire's that will disappear…at least, not yet…it's the dive bars with back rooms set up with a couple of amps and a wobbly drum kit; the pubs with rooms upstairs that play host to open mic nights, poetry slams and the first stand-up gigs for new faces trying out their first comedy set; the basement clubs that have been hosting new band sessions for 20+ years.

At Sliced Events, based at our Camden home The London Irish Centre, we take our responsibility to our neighbours extremely seriously. Putting control measures in place such as no loading out of equipment between 12am – 8am, increasing levels of security provision to ensure crowd noise is kept to a minimum outside the venue both during and after an event, and having noise limiters in the venue, helps us to maintain a good relationship with the local residents who can see we are making every effort to minimise any impact from live events – however, all of these provisions carry cost implications for the venue which many smaller places may not be in a position to cover.

We are happy to invest this money because we see the importance of our situation as an events venue with multiple performance spaces, in a borough of high cultural significance, which is in a stronger position than many of those smaller venues which are under a higher threat of closure. Should the worst happen to those pubs and clubs in Camden, we are in a good position (relatively speaking) to offer those bands, comedians and fringe theatre groups a new home in NW1, which we would wish to do with the support and encouragement of our residential neighbours.

However, even with a strong and ever-improving relationship with our neighbours, occasionally there are incidents which impact on them. Even if these are out of our control, it still reflects badly on us as a venue; for places with little or no support from local residents, this can potentially put their licence in jeopardy should a formal complaint be lodged with the Council.

In Australia, Melbourne's council have it spot on - the rights lie with the resident who was there first, i.e. if a venue moves into an existing residential area, the neighbour can complain if the noise levels are unacceptably high; however, it supports the venue if they have been there longer than the resident.

The UK are not there yet, but things are starting to look up - earlier this year in response to a public petition, the Government passed a legislation that forces housing developers to take existing premises and resulting noise levels into account when making their building application, essentially meaning that those moving into a new build/development must be aware of any neighbouring licenced venues before moving in. 

This is a great step for smaller cities and towns that have space to fill with new builds, but does not address the main issue in larger cities where both residents and venues are established in their neighbourhoods.

There is a lot more to do to protect not just the venues but also our future music scene, and time is starting to run out. FIGHTBACK and the Music Venue Trust's ongoing great work to raise awareness amongst the public, as well as funds to help venues with legal fees to fight Council complaints, has never been more crucial.

Seeing the Roundhouse full of people on the 18th, with 3 stages of live music, each crammed with the best musicians across multiple genres, and the wave of support coming from that crowd, was so heartening to see. It made me feel proud to be a part, even in a small way, of a community that has so much passion and love for what they do.

#FIGHTBACK was trending in the Top 2 on Twitter, people were talking about it. Not just musicians and venue owners, but members of the public; fans of live music who are seeing their local venues close despite public outcry and attempts to save them. Those conversations must continue, and the great work of the Music Venue Trust should be supported by all who love music, who value their local venues, and who don't want to see the UK's cultural heritage decimated by developers.

To find out more, or to see how you can get involved, visit the Music Venue Trust site:

http://musicvenuetrust.com/

 

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