Along roads blocked by construction work and shaking lorries carrying concrete blocks, buildings partly obscured by scaffolding hint at this part of east London’s constant “regeneration.” I’m in Hackney Wick, what was once an industrial area of manufacturing warehouses, and now seems to usher in new-build flats at every turn. But look, this is a music site and not one about the history of London, so I’m here to try and explore the ripple effects of this new construction on the musicians and producers who once used to consider this area the epicentre of their creative work.
I meet Nima Tehranchi, of political art punk band Arrows of Love, as he walks me around his former stomping ground. With a cigarette in one hand and lighter in the other, he points towards a half knocked-down building: “It used to be quite amazing here. At one point with our band, Arrows of Love, I remember doing a single and a video maker was in the same building – he worked with The Fat White Family – who then did a video for us. Downstairs from him was a screenprint guy and he did our t-shirts. Next to him was another recording studio so we recorded our demos there.” It was all interconnected, essentially.
Nima is talking about Vittoria Wharf, a decade-old creative community space where around 60 to 65 artists were based, including a BAFTA nominee, until the crew were asked to leave in July 2016 by the Mayor of London's London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). All to make way for a footbridge. Vittoria Wharf hosted loads of musicians and artists in the early stages of their careers who relied on affordable spaces and supportive communities. And now… well, now there’ll soon be a handy pedestrian bridge in its place, a stone’s throw away from two other bridges on either side.
It’s a well-known story by now that across the UK’s most expensive city, cheap housing, cheaper studio spaces and grotty basement bars are being pushed out in favour of build-a-block flats and the cold-pressed coffee shops that occupy their ground floors. Sky-high costs of living, coupled with venue closures and noise restrictions, are slowly turning London into more of an obstacle course for people at the start of their music careers.
In the last two years I started to notice a quiet exodus happening. Independent artists, from post-punk band Shopping to feminist post-hardcore four-piece Petrol Girls have skipped town, for reasons I'll get into in a bit. It all begs the question: what happens to the city's smaller, DIY acts when they can no longer afford London life?
Laura Kidd, an indie multi-instrumentalist who releases music as She Makes War, tells me she left London after 13 years in the city. “It’s given me the chance to have more of a life. To have time off and be with loved ones. I don't have to work 50 to 60 hours a week, with no time to make music, because I'm frantically trying to make the rent.” After moving to Bristol, Laura made two albums over a shorter period of time than the two she released while in London: “I've definitely become a better artist here because I have more time and space. I live in a house with a garden rather than a maisonette, without a garden and very small room to work in.”
London can be unforgiving. Once you’ve had enough crotches placed directly in your eye line on a packed Tube or settled on an eight-person house share in Streatham just to make rent each month, it’s easy to seriously contemplate sacking it all off for a lemon-coloured house by the sea. For many of the musicians I spoke to, their moves seem to have been for the better. Following the demise of DIY Dalston punk venue Power Lunches, drummer Andrew Milk and guitarist Rachel Aggs from Shopping moved to Glasgow. Lured by the prospect of working less for more living space Petrol Girls relocated from London to Austria. Singer, Ren Aldridge, currently lives in Glasgow until she can move over with the band.
“Our friends in Austria and Germany and a few other mainland European countries seem to work half the hours to live in rooms five times the size with proper heating, and have a disposable income on top,” says Ren. “Even though we lived in a crazy-cheap place in London, it was still tough to see how we'd be able to make rent, do our music and activism, and live in a sustainable way. Since I’ve moved away from London I feel a bit calmer and significantly less angry.”
It’s difficult to sum up a city as big and diverse as London, or to do the same with the experiences of the musicians living in it. But hearing the stories of a weight lifted off the shoulders of musicians who packed the city in, it’s worth considering what will happen to some corners of the capital’s music scenes if these anecdotal instances were to turn into a much wider trend. Every cultural movement needs a base from which to grow. 70s punk had grimy west London squats to hole up in, 90s Camden and Shoreditch in the early 00s brought people together to creatively spark off one another. But now?
“It’s becoming such a boring city that for the first time in my life, after always being proud as a Londoner, I’ve just not felt proud of it over the last two years,” says Nima, of Arrows of Love. “We're losing all our venues, all our independent places – and it’s not an interesting city. When people say they're coming to London for a visit I feel embarrassed now.”
It is up for debate whether artists aid gentrification in an area or merely signify its arrival. East London’s Shoreditch is consistently used as an example of the link between art and gentrification. As more artists and start-up businesses moved in, the world turned its eye to the scuffy area, increasing rental prices. Now the area is a shadow of its former self, becoming one of the world’s most expensive tech and creative districts in 2017.
Previously the spiritual home to punks with little more than a couple of quid and a dream in their pocket, Power Lunches in Dalston closed it doors in 2015. Shopping’s Andrew and Rachel, who both worked and played there, were part of a swath of artists that relied on the dingy yet homely space for support and community. Following its demise many musicians were unsure where to turn. And so there’s a potential fight to be had, pushing against the current tide that threatens to sweep jobbing artists out of the city. Though Night Czar Amy Lamé has been tasked with saving London’s nightlife since she was appointed in 2016, we’re yet to see whether her reach will stretch to the small clubs that nurture up-and-coming bands. The future of London probably isn’t going to lie in any government scheme. Where there’s a floor to sleep on, a guitar to borrow or a pub backroom that will cut you a deal, there’s a way.
“I believe that the DIY music scene can survive in London,” Ren says, “because I know so many super humans are putting a lot into it – and that’s despite all of the ways London takes your time and energy. But DIY music does and will continue to exist elsewhere. The future of that music is certainly not confined to any one place.”
Petrol Girls drummer Zock agrees adding: “DIY Space for London (DSFL) and the folks that run it, put on shows there prove, that in the capitalist hellhole that is London, true community and taking action can make a lot of progressive things happen.” The south London venue is a cooperatively run social centre that hosts everything from punk gigs to pay-what-you-can exercise classes, where King Krule played his first London show to promote 2017’s The OOZ. In many ways, DIY Space for London’s taken over the role Power Lunches had in musicians’ lives as an accessible, cheap venue.
Nima and his friends may have been kicked out of their space, but he reflects on the positives. Their campaign to hold onto Vittoria Wharf saved the buildings next to his, which are now mixed-use art and community spaces, lauded by delegations from Brussels, Denmark and South Korea as models of culture-led regeneration. “It’s a sad story in some sense,” says Nima, “but during the course we saw a lot of good happen. We watched a community come together across the whole area.”
The surprise journey that landed in Nima’s lap when he and the rest of Vittoria Wharf were told they needed to leave almost two years ago taught him a valuable lesson about community activism. “For me it was like, I was ‘just in a punk band’ in July 2016, and it does go to show if you decide to dedicate your activities to cleaning up the mess on your doorstep instead of going ‘Donald Trump, Theresa May’,” then you can actually focus on what’s going on in your area. Now what was left of Nima’s community lies in partial ruins. The artists left in the remaining building only have a thin sheet of plastic separating them from a new London – one that's clattering into existence around them, one scaffolded construction site at a time.
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