The London Astoria (via)
One hot Australian September back in 1979, a wake turned into a riot. Drowning their sorrows in cheap beer, thousands had arrived to commiserate the untimely demise of The Star, an iconic music venue that hosted live music every night. When the police pulled the plug halfway through, a 4,000 strong maelstrom of devotees battled to protect their cultural hub.
Since the 19th century, the venue welcomed a motley crew of drag queens, sailors, students, and a fuck-load of bands. Last year it was sold off to make way for private flats and a car park.
The demise of The Star Hotel is not an anomaly. Across the world, dedicated music spaces are dropping dead like flies in sulphur mustard. Iconic New York venue 285 Kent closed last month and in London, the casualties caused by gentrification, TFL, and uninspiring slabs of concrete rank high. We’re losing dedicated music spaces and we’re losing them fast.
Sure, you may not give a fuck that The Flowerpot closed up shop, or that the Luminaire shuffled off this mortal coil and took with it Kilburn's only shred of decency. But how about Oxford Street's spongy placenta of golden era British punk – the 100 club – which was nearly stubbed out a few years back because yet another criminal landlord was threatening to go loco with the rent? And just last year, planning permission was granted to build a block of flats at the back and to the side of the much-maligned (but still vital venue), The Macbeth. Will Cafe Oto find itself at the centre of a similar shit storm, with new residents from the surrounding apartments filing noise complaints to Hackney Council? Imagine a dystopian future where dedicated music spaces are as alien as the sound of the dial-up Internet - would you care?
Blood Orange, live at the 100 club
Chris Tipton of London DIY lynchpin Upset The Rhythm has spent over ten years promoting shows. “Looking back at the early years, it's a real surprise to think how many of the spaces we were using are no more; The Swan, The Verge, Needles, The Spitz, Barden's Boudoir, The Luminaire, The Red Rose Club, Hugo's Speaker Palace, Gramaphone, Camp Basement… they've all met their fate. In most cases they've been turned into flats or restaurants, swanky bars and the like, and in most cases they haven't been replaced by new venues.”
Chris continues. “It goes without saying that London has always been an expensive city to live in. Rents for potential venues have always been high, so some serious money is needed to set up a dedicated live music venue. This almost always shuts down the option of a music venue for its own sake and so the concert space is treated as an add-on to a more reliable model, i.e. the back of a room for a pub, the unused basement of a restaurant, a bonus before the club night. It's not treated that seriously, only tolerated whilst it's profitable.”
Warehouse spaces also used to be thrifty and three a penny, as Steve Rose of tireless London promoter, Sexbeat, notes. “There was a ton of spaces that you could put shows on a few years ago. But it got to a point when Prince Harry was being seen at warehouses and everyone wanted to hire them. I stopped using them as people started charging ridiculous amounts for hire and demanding minimum bar spends; these spaces became even harder to work with than bars. As well as this, I think that gentrification has meant that the people who live in warehouses are now different kinds of people – maybe not the sort who want to put on shows in their house. This hasn't helped either.”
The Ace Hotel in Shoreditch (via)
Just as London venues continue to fall prey to opportunistic capitalism, a rash of swanky hotels start serving up chunks of live music. The other week, some DIY bands played the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch and I asked one of them what it was like. “It was sort of City Boys meets aged leathery LA rock star in silver suit,” he quipped. “There was a bloke in the corner of the room, soundtracking my escort to the basement, who looked like the appropriate urban mountaineer and sounded like Newton Faulkner. You wouldn’t know there was a show happening here and the hotel seemed to be quite content without it.”
The Ace Hotel isn't a homogeneous nocturnal purgatory, like say, a Travelodge or the Jury's Inn in Kings Cross – it's even worse; it's one those 'boutique' hotels which languish on glass coffee tables in the glossy pages of expensive hardback books. However, since opening last year, it has played host to some pretty good stuff - Courtney Barnett and Actress, for example. But it's about as punk as Jeremy Clarkson at Ascot. Like The Basement of Fitzrovia's new Edition hotel or South Place in the city – which puts on decent enough DJs - you can always throw a curveball and go dancing there, if that's your bag. The Ace Hotel bar stays opens until 1am on weeknights and at £4.50 for a pint, it can be a feasible after-hours alternative to the gaudy lights of the busy pool hall. But is it OK for hotels to be banking wads of London's cultural currency? And apart from the small issue of rent capping, what's the answer?
One inspiring antidote to the struggle for sustainable independent spaces is the co-operative members club model like Wharf Chambers - a venue run by a not-for-profit workers' collective in Leeds - and now the DIY Space For London project, which was launched in 2012, and which hopes to provide “a self-sustaining, accessible space in London for DIY culture and radical activity: somewhere suitable for gigs, events, community organising and much more.” Bucking the trend, these are excellent examples of pro-active, like-minded people coming together to take matters into their own hands.
This is because, as Chris Tipton agrees, promoter curated spaces dedicated to the music alone are now in the minority in London. You can get a hot dog at the Troxy or a burger at The Windmill. Birthdays, Sebright Arms and most recently, Oslo on Mare Street, turn in extra profits by catching a post-work, pre-show crowd looking to line their stomachs. Music venues have always done food but it would appear, particularly in London, now more so than ever before.
If my gig comes with an optional side order of food then that's fine; it's not being forcibly rammed down my neck and I'm sure you'll agree that having a show is better than having nothing at all. But, should we be watching stuff in spaces where music plays second fiddle to commercial pursuits, as with hotels? Shouldn't we be ploughing every morsel we have into keeping the few remaining independent venues alive – or better, starting our own, a la Wharf Chambers?
Five years from now, do you really want to find yourself watching a band at some swanky hotel, sucking up overpriced magaritas through a quirky straw because all of the sticky-floor venues have gone? I don’t.
Follow April on Twitter: @AprilClareWelsh