OPINION | MUSIC VENUES: WHY WE NEED TO SAVE THEM

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When it was announced that The Coronet was to shut after 138 years, it felt like the door had finally closed on London’s creative soul. Situated in Elephant and Castle among run-down pound stores, kebab shops and next door to cheap pub The Charlie Chaplin, The Coronet on New Kent Road is, like many other music venues, a beautiful institution. A 2,600-capacity venue that has retained all of its original art deco features and weathered London’s changing landscape. But, despite surviving the Blitz during the Second World War, sadly, the venue can’t survive the London of 2016.

Today’s London is one of increased gentrification, tough licensing laws, rises in property prices and non-stop development. As recently as 2002, The Coronet raised £3 million for refurbishment to ensure its lasting legacy, one which in recent years has seen bands like Oasis, The Libertines, Grinderman, LCD Soundsystem, Caribou and Placebo take to the same stage that was used by Charlie Chaplin 137 years ago.

While marginalized souls and devotees of the macabre grace its opulent rooms for Halloween, there are sporting events, conferences and private parties held here throughout the year. But it is no longer enough. This story resonates throughout the capital: The Magic Theatre has been forced to relocate from Brockley’s 1950s Rivoli Ballroom, while The Astoria, Cable, The Bull and Gate, The Buffalo Bar, Madam Jojo’s and countless other venues are gone completely – all in the name of progress.

And that’s what really hurts – the notion of modernisation in the name of progress. We know that change is inevitable, that cities and their interaction with the public move on, and we adapt and comply. We don’t have any choice, we just shut up and pay our escalating rents year on year. We’ve lost Denmark Street, once host to The Sex Pistols, David Bowie, The Small Faces, The Kinks, Elton John and The Rolling Stones.

Instead, redevelopment at Tottenham Court Road now boasts a really big Primark, and all the spit and sawdust venues like the 12 Bar Club, Enterprise Studios or The Intrepid Fox – the places which gave London character – are boarded up and demolished. The closing of these venues is more than an account of homogenisation and urban decline. It is a refusal by the modern world to preserve an important and rich history. 2016 London is refusing to keep our heritage intact.

Buildings play a cultural role. They teach us a history that happened before we were born, they promote an unspoken respect for those who lived and breathed in different times. Music venues in particular connect us with likeminded people we will never know. Our parents’ or grandparents’ generation of Teddy Boys, Skiffle music, Mods and Rockers, the records passed down and the stories told are woven into the fabric of these buildings.

These venues should be given the respect they deserve – new and innovative designs are great, but how is knocking them down and building a Starbucks in their place progress? Neighbourhoods are destroyed, cultural pilgrimage points for music fans of future generations are dead. There can be no stories when you no longer recognise anything that marked that place as special. When we preserve items in museums, people visit those places and learn about our cultural heritage. When we demolish buildings and venues rich in history, we also obliterate a person’s opportunity to learn about that past.

It is estimated that 40 per cent of music venues have closed in London over the last decade – and results are similar UK wide. The Picture House in Edinburgh, The Cockpit in Leeds, The Roadhouse in Manchester, The Barfly in Cardiff, Blind Tiger Club in Brighton – all gone. While there’s a defiance and passion in music fans, today it seems like gig-going and keeping the spirit of music alive is an uphill struggle in an increasingly corporate world.

I’ve been in London almost a decade now and in that time have seen gentrification and the demise of more and more venues. Where once London was the musical centrepoint of the UK and, indeed, Europe, cleaning up areas like Soho has meant that it has become almost completely sanitised.

Counter-cultural Camden is testament to this. Resurrection Records has become a tourist market shop; gone are the metallers, the punks, the psychobilly listeners and cyber goths. Our grass-roots music venues and an entire sub culture is being destroyed. Only half a decade ago, the East-London neighbourhood where I lived was cheap (I paid only £70 p/w in 2009) and because of this it was full of young musicians, writers, designers and artists. This made the area vibrant.

But suddenly, scanning machines were introduced to clubs like Cargo which would host gigs by bands like Caspian and in between songs R&B would punctuate the air as the club tried to appeal to mass audiences. The atmosphere well and truly destroyed, next to go was Vibe bar, then the music magazine I worked at had to relocate to Whitechapel as rents soared in Brick Lane. Relentless security measures in venues and prioritising expensive housing projects often bought by foreign investors as a means to make more and more money ensures that London is losing its creative spark.

Music venues have taken me to some interesting places: I have travelled all over the world and planned holidays around touring bands. From America to Japan and Iceland to Israel, I have been fortunate to visit beautiful and legendary venues. Seeing ASIWYFA at Moby Dick Club Madrid, or Mark Lanegan at Paradiso Amsterdam, Speedy Ortiz perform in The Magnet Club in Berlin, Melissa Auf Der Maur at La Trebendo Paris, Smashing Pumpkins at Lisbon’s Bull Ring… the list is neverending.

But in terms of excitement, the UK is right up there with the rest of Europe. Trash Talk smashing up the Buffalo Bar, or The Xcerts pulling down the Pav Tav’s chandelier at The Great Escape in 2010 are some of the most fun and memorable times I’ve had. Just as watching The Vibrators, JJ72, Snowfall Report, Madflower and Breed 77 at The Studio Hartlepool were to me as a teenager. Nothing beats the feeling of discovering new bands in small venues. The night ASIWYFA played with Maybeshewill at Dublin Castle one rainy November night back in 2008 to me and perhaps five other people will forever be etched in my brain. And as I write this, Maybeshewill have played their final gig to a sold out KOKO.

The proposed alternatives to losing buildings of historical merit are to pack in as many people as possible to overpriced soulless buildings. While big venues have a place, watching Leonard Cohen at the O2 Arena was more than a little sclerotic, depressing and emotionally bankrupt. I love Leonard Cohen, but £90 to watch him attempt to fill that vast, utilitarian construction? Funnily enough, he didn’t deliver. Same with Metallica in 2008, because places like that are staid, and no amount of chain restaurants promising ‘happy hours’ that bombard you for thirty minutes with their logos like some William Gibson nightmare as you try to get to the arena will change that.

Policy makers in England are trying to take the passion and love out of things to drag down everyone – especially the young – to the same boring, disaffected society that music provides an escape from. Petty-minded restrictions, curfews, large security teams, uniform dictation to make everything family and profit friendly is killing London.

Interestingly, the UK has some of the most powerful conservation laws in the world, with legislation passed over 100 years ago to give the government power to act directly when a historic site is under threat. But apparently, that doesn’t extend to music, a British industry and institution in its own right, is not regarded as important despite the UK producing some of the best bands in the world. While change is inevitable, it is important that we remember why these areas are desirable and cool in the first place – and no, they have nothing to do with Urban Outfitters showcasing must-have vinyl in their windows.

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While 12 Bar Club relocated to Holloway Road to join places like The Big Red and new venues like Oslo, The Village Underground, The Sebright Arms, Moth Club, Shacklewell Arms and The Black Heart defiantly rise up and inhabit new spaces, it’s still a great loss and we should bemoan the direction the city is taking in aping shitholes where culture simply exists in the form of commercialisation and greed. In the process ripping out the heart, soul and history of London’s fantastic musical heritage.

Instead of the country’s media concentrating on the demise of the music scene – one which has added an abundance of cultural – and economic – wealth to the city for decades, they ignore the demolition of dozens of music venues some standing for hundreds of years. While the government happily bail out banks and host the Olympics to generate revenue, venues are destroyed simply to generate short term profits. As the cost of living soars and the concentration of the population of London increases it seems that the future of London and the future of its venues simply have no place in the new world.

The result of Brexit didn’t surprise me, but the attitudes since from the leave camp sicken me to my core. While I won’t use this article to express my utter abhorrence at the reported 42 per cent increase in hate crimes in England and Wales since Brexit, or the fact many are quietly using Brexit as means of complicit racism, I will point out the fact that in its wake we’re now left with a new prime minister intent on a more authoritarian, austerity blighted and further divided Britain in the shape of Theresa May. And it’s fair to assume that the government’s offensive against creative communities, industries, values and institutions is going to have an even more detrimental effect as we ‘progress’ further forwards.

While negotiations are not yet underway in discussing our exit strategy, for many it feels like the freedom of the Schengen Area, and its 26 countries on mainland Europe that we have taken great pleasure from – could be taken away from us along with our home-grown venues.

For bands intent on leaving the UK to play in Europe, or for those travelling from Europe to play the UK there will be a lot of paperwork and even the possibility of needing to attain working visas for bands. This will have the effect of raising the cost of touring, something bands with working-class backgrounds will struggle to do.

The EU gives more than £1 billion to the creative industries, and UK applications for arts funding has over a 40 per cent success rate. This has been pivotal in keeping many venues running thanks to programmes that help host emerging European artists on bills and in the process enabling the UK to see more varied music while aiding venues in their bids to stay afloat in a country intent on closing them down.

The creative musical culture in the UK has been under threat for some time, but in the wake of Brexit, what comes next is unknown. In January 2014, Music Venue Trust was formed to protect, secure and develop the future of Grassroots Music Venues in the UK. Its immediate focus on securing the legacy of iconic venues such as the 100 Club, Exeter Cavern and more. Similarly, Independent Venue Week was established a few years ago to promote and celebrate small venues and the culture of live music, and to keep them alive.

Following Brexit it is vital that organisations and initiatives like this continue to fight to keep the doors of venues open – to everyone. And for people who love and care about music, we need to rally together. Music is all encompassing, tolerant and universal. Right now these things are more important than ever before.

Faye Lewis
@FayeLewis85

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