The Death of the London Music Scene: Part 1

The music industry is one of the most competitive industries imaginable, and London is it’s epicentre. For hundreds of years many acts from all over the world have travelled here to use the capital as a launchpad for their careers, and there are also numerous bands fortunate enough to have been brought up here. Many of which are our customers, and typically their locational fortune is not lost upon them. Like a goldfish that grows to it’s bowl their ambitions grow to the size of their potential market, and considering their market is more than 10 million people, this means that we deal with a lot of bands who have grand ambitions and a focus to match, and this genuinely makes working in a rehearsal studios one of the more enjoyable jobs that we could imagine.

Yet progress is not always easy, and the vast majority of bands that come to Bally will talk to us about the band is progressing for them. We are also thankful that many bands feel that they can be honest with us, with many of these conversations being focused on the immense challenges that they face as a band – like how they only managed to pull 18 or 19 people to their last gig, just under the amount needed to get paid, but how they are hopeful that their next gig will be more successful, or how the promoter of the show had failed to even try to match bands with their stylistic counterparts. We see bands working hard getting flyers printed, with money being saved for new recordings, new songs being worked on, and demos being placed on the desk for other bands to take, and this entire process is based around one simple idea – progress: writing songs that are better, getting more people to come to concerts, getting better recordings made, getting more press coverage, etc.

Although the bands work hard and there is a genuine abundance of talent amongst them, it would be a lie to say that the rewards that the average band gets for their efforts is anywhere near what they hoped, or that is it even approaching what they deserve. In the majority of cases their progress is stunted and they fall short of their potential due to factors other than their musical ability or dedication to their craft. Based on what we see, the biggest stumbling block bands have is not based around their talent, work ethic or focus to their music. Instead, it is everything else apart from the actual music that they find the most challenging – things like getting people to come to their gigs, getting radio play, making enough money from gigs to cover their costs, and finding the time in their busy schedule to rehearse.. There are some bands that have come to us that have gone on to be very successful, while other bands that were equally as talented never made the same progress as they were simply unable to get the same breaks . When people hear their music the reaction is positive, it just so happens that not enough people hear it in the first place.

Amongst all of this hard work and struggle there is genuine hope and optimism, bursts of progress here and there and a mix of successful and not so successful gigs, but thankfully, in the case of the vast majority of bands, they also tell us how much joy being in a band brings them and how they are happy despite their lack of commercial success and critical acclaim. It’s great to hear from bands who have this attitude, not only because it shows that they are in a band for the right reasons, but also as it means that the entire fate of the band does not rely on factors that are out of their own control. Yet it is still very frustrating to see so many bands not get the commercial success that they deserve, and the worst part of it is that in most cases it is down to reasons other than the quality of their music.

If a band made poor music and never became successful that would be fair, but when you see bands make great music yet end up being held back because they do not have enough money left over after paying for their rent, transport and bills to invest in the band, or how their fan-base cannot afford to come to gigs despite really wanting to as they have increased tuition fees, or they cannot afford the transport to the gig, it becomes incredible depressing. Sadly the only conclusion that we can come to is that as London becomes more populated, more expensive and more gentrified, it is also slowly becoming an awful location for a band to be based in.

Every now and then you also get glimpses of huge optimism of what London can offer bands who, until recently, were also just starting to make their way in the music scene. During the Christmas period we read this article about Bombay Bicycle Club playing a sold out gig at Earl’s Court, with Dave Gilmour coming out on stage to play two songs with them, one of them being Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/davehillblog/2014/dec/15/earls-court-final-curtain-is-sad-reflection-on-boris-johnsons-london It’s something that most bands could only dream about, and it’s great to read these success stories to balance the stories of less successful gigs. To see a band that first started rehearsing at Bally as teenagers, who were talented, hardworking, lovely people getting such success fills us with hope that other bands can also hope for the same, and that somehow all of the effort that bands put in will be rewarded. One minute they were washing their own cups in our 99p plastic washing up bowel, the next minute they are playing to 10,000+ people. It helps to encourage bands that such success is still possible, and that there is some kind of correlation in the efforts that bands put in, and the results that they get for this effort.

It would have been great if that is what the article had been about, but sadly it was not a congratulatory pat on the back for them. Instead it was about how it was the last ever gig at Earls Court, a music venue that has stood since 1887 but is now being demolished to make way for a property development that has 0% affordable housing, with flats that will be sold from £545,000 in the first phase. It would seem that as housing is worth more than music venues, the music venues have to go, and it further bring home just what a challenge bands have, particularly in London. Of course more housing is desperately needed here, but to lose so many historic music venues to do it shows what scant regard there is for the music scene in the capital. The people who are making the decisions as to what direction London goes in seem to have given no concern at all to it’s musical heritage. None at all. Bands are entering and investing lots of their own personal money into an industry that is deemed expendable and irrelevant by the powers that be, despite it bringing in £3.8 Billion into the UK economy in 2013-2014 and being such an integral part of the UK’s culture and identity.

New bands based here have so many challenges: both the smaller and larger venues are being closed down, rehearsal studios are being bulldozed, noise regulation rules are cutting the opportunity to set up their own studios, while the rise in the cost of living makes it harder for them to find the time to create such great music, and harder still to sell it to their fan base who have less disposable income to spend. Their fan-base are working longer hours and so have less chance to see bands live, and musicians can barely find the time to build up a buzz about their band. The odds are stacked against them, and when you work in a rehearsal studios you get to see many more of those challenges when you chat to bands. We have seen numerous bands give up, loving the process of making and playing music but growing tired of having so many other challenges to overcome. Speaking honestly, there are so many bands that we talk to that share in the same frustrations that it is clear to see that this train of thought is becoming more and more common.

Over the Christmas period the media was giving blanket coverage about how “only 8.4Million people watched the X-Factor final, the lowest ratings since 2004”. 10,000 people turned up to Wembley Arena to watch it live, and the media were calling it a “disappointing decline.” All the while, the winner of the show was getting lots of publicity, and the lure of the show was growing. The single released by the shows winner claimed the Christmas #1 slot, with earnings of £4Million in the first year being predicted, so it’s decline can’t have been that bad, yet still the media seemed to feel the need to draw all of our attention to it. By contrast in the week before the X Factor final, The 12 Bar Club announced that they were closing. Another London venue lost, in a building that has been standing since 1635, in addition to (off the top of my head) The Bull & Gate, Infinity, Powers Bar, The Luminaire, The Walthamstow Standard, Southern K, The Peel, The Pleasure Unit, The Flowerpot, The Astoria, Madame Jojo’s, The Buffalo Bar, The Black Horse, 93 Feet East, The Joiners Arms and numerous other venues have all closed down in London in recent years. The 100 Club nearly closed after “it’s rent increased from £11,000 to £166,000, in the 25 years since 1985,” but thankfully that was saved. It was a rare source of optimism.

Instead of the media concentrating on the demise of the real music scene, an industry that has added a genuine wealth of cultural, economic and creative wealth to the country for over 60 years, as well as the challenges that many bands today encounter that puts the future of this industry at risk, they instead choose to focus on how a TV show has a small drop in viewing figures, forgetting to mention the £6Million in revenues that it generated from the advertising breaks in the final alone or the further millions that came in from the premium rate phone lines. The viewing figures were a few percent down, and (apparently) that’s a real shame. Meanwhile, a music venue that has stood for 380 years that will be demolished to make way for a more profitable and more generic business gets little attention, and the media couldn’t care less. They couldn’t give less of a shit if they tried.

Within all of this there is an irony: the most successful star that the X-Factor has produced is Leona Lewis, and her most popular single was a cover of Snow Patrol’s “Run”, a band that spent 9 years on the underground circuit before their 3rd album propelled them to the mainstream. They were only able to build their success by coming up on the same circuit that is now being disassembled in the fight for quick profits, and they got little help from the media. When Lewis covered their song, the media gave her all of the attention she needed, despite the fact that she had been exposed to over 10 million a week, every week, for 3 months in a row, and had a fanbase in the millions.

All of the attention in the music industry seems to be going to the people who need it least, with none of it going to the grass roots and it is causing irreparable damage. In 2008, the government declared that Glastonbury Festival had generated more than £73 Million for the UK economy, and since then both the attendance and the money spent at the festival has risen despite the economic challenges that the country has faced. The average small business in Glastonbury earned an extra £3,000 due to the festival, an incredible economic impact, but without the infrastructure needed to support such bands we will lose the next generation of great talent that could play at the festival that this country should be proud to be supporting, and with it the economic and cultural benefits that they bring with them. Again, the media and the government seems to not care. Not one bit.

2 years after £8.9 Billion was spent on the London Olympics “to create the sporting success that the UK can be proud of,” little concern seems to being shown to protecting the musical legacy of the UK. If there is one industry that the UK has consistently punched above it’s weight at in the last 60 years it is the music industry, and when you consider the size of the UK, with less than 1% of the world’s population, the fact that (according to the official charts) 6 of the biggest 14 biggest selling bands of all time come from the UK, more than any other country in the world, the UK should be doing what they can to preserve the tradition of such great success. If only 0.1% of the amount of money spent on the 2012 Olympics could be spent on the grass-roots of the music industry, that would still be £8.9Million and the results could be incredible. Employment could be generated, exports of British products could rise, our culture could develop, VAT revenues could be increased, kids could be given a focus and great music could be created.

More than £1Trillion is made available to bail out the banks based on their integral place within the UK economy, with $850 Billion actually being spent, yet despite the music industry only needing infrastructural investments of a fraction of the amount, literally 0.0001% to 0.001% of that total, it does not appear to be forthcoming. As a result the slide of the unsigned music industry in London continues, with venues and rehearsal studios being closed down to generate more short term profits, and more and more bands moving elsewhere to find more lucrative music scenes. It would cost too much to build around the Astoria, with it being cheaper to demolish it. Flats above a music venue bring in more quick taxes in stamp duty, so they are given preference. Despite short-term thinking and the chase for quick profits over long term stability being behind the economic crash, this practice is being continued by a government that risks killing the careers of bands that could go on to sell 100 million records, with each record generating VAT revenues of £1.66, simply to generate more quick profits in the housing market.

Bands that come to us say that the promoters are demanding more and more tickets need to be sold to secure shows, and the promoters we talk to say this is due to their costs rising too, with some saying that they need to bring in over £400 in ticket sales to break even. As a result, it is getting harder and harder for new bands to make progress, and the London music scene is taking a hit because of it. Promoters are unwilling to take a chance on a band that is less established which stops new acts coming through, and the music industry starts to get stale from promoters concentrating on bands who have an established fan base, re-booking them again and again. Whatever way you look at it that’s incredibly sad, and if the media had any kind of perspective on the matter, THIS would be a better place to focus their attentions on rather than X Factor.

It is great to see this article about the closure of Earl’s Court, as it brings attention to an important matter – that London seems to see music based businesses and establishments as an unwanted inconvenience that need to be sidestepped instead of an integral part of the capital. It is just such a shame that attention needs to be brought to such a matter in the first place, and a shame that both the government and the music media seem to care so little about it happening to even address the problem.

Back in the 1950’s Detroit was built upon the motor industry, and as a result the vast majority of household’s had a band new car on their drive. Come a Saturday morning the bonnet would be buffed, the wing mirrors shined and family photos would be taken next to it. As a result of the families income being earned from the motor industry, there was a massive sense of pride to be associated with it, and it was held in high esteem. Kids dreamed of following their fathers into the car factories, and people spent 20,30 or 40 years in the same jobs, creating incredible economic stability. In the 1970s and 1980s the US government decided that it would be better to export these jobs to cheaper labour markets in an effort to “economise,” to save more money in the short term, and as a result the factories declined, jobs in the factories became more scarce, less consistent and less prestigious, and the city’s fortunes took a nosedive that matched the output of it’s car factories.

The city hit a crossroads: is the motor industry worth investing in? They decided that it was not, and with it a whole generation of workforce was wiped out. Within years unemployment was rife, crime rocketed and the city’s soul was ripped out. In 2014 the decision was taken that whatever money was spent on the city should be spent on ripping down buildings to prevent the risk of squatting. At exactly the time it needed rebuilding the most, the bulldozers moved in. Detroit, for years known as the “Motor City” had abandoned the very thing that the city had been built upon, the auto-mobile, and as usually happens when the foundations are ripped out, the city fell down.

Many people have used London as the bedrock of their development, but naturally London does not have the same dependence on music that Detroit had on the motor industry. However, it would be naïve to disregard the massive contribution that the music industry has made to London’s coffers as chump-change. Areas such as Brixton, Notting Hill and Hoxton have been able to attribute at least a part of their development to their vibrant music scenes, and there is no doubt in the part that music plays in the UK’s economic growth, and yet this is being eroded at a staggering rate. With the amount of venues that are being closed down, the rising cost of living, and the concentration of the population of London ever increasing,it seems that the future of London and the future of the music industry just do not mix.

When bands get huge London is happy to reap the rewards for that success, but it is not willing to help bands reach that stage. It is happy to take the hundreds of millions of pounds of economic boost that the gigs in Hyde Park bring with them, yet they put restrictions in place that means that power to the sound board is cut while Paul McCartney and Brice Springsteen are having a jam in front of 60,000 people – in case some neighbours are disturbed. It is an act that is as symbolic as it is inflammatory, and it shows how the council and authorities do not even attempt to hide the contempt that they holds the music industry in. They simply take the benefits without giving anything back, much like a parasite. As a result, the capital will be financially richer, but an infinitely poorer place to live.

Every day we see bands working hard, trying to do what they can to make great music, and hopefully create the next generation of a successful music industry. It is just a shame that the local authorities in London are not putting in the same effort, and that the mainstream music media is not doing their part to make sure that the issue is addressed to the extent that it should be.

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