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Taking Live Music In London To The Streets

Noisey recently followed London native Jamie N Commons in a quest to find the best buskers London has to offer. But there's more to street music than busking...
September 8, 2014, 10:37am

With London’s annual Notting Hill carnival taking place last weekend, live music literally took to the streets. Throwing caution to the wind and persistent downpour, the likes of Rinse FM hosted parties all over street corners in the west of the city, offering up acts that you’d normally fork out good money to see (Katy B, Bicep and Ms Dynamite among them) for free. This was, of course, a one-off. But with licensing laws changing, concert prices ever increasing and music venues more frequently becoming gastropubs, there’s been no better time for a revival of street music in the UK – for both musicians and consumers.

Noisey recently followed London native Jamie N Commons (a former busker himself) and Sam Harris of X-Ambassadors in a quest to find the best buskers and street musicians the world’s major cities have to offer for a new video series Going Underground. The six-part series sees stop-offs in London, NYC, Philadelphia and Rio de Janeiro, with any unearthed gems invited to Los Angeles to record a new version of their recent collaborative single "Jungle". Along the way they find instruments they have never seen before and places they didn’t even know existed.

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Of course, street music is not all about busking though. With venues across the country shutting down every month, the tradition of five-pound-entry, headline-act-and-supports is changing. The likes of the Bull & Gate in Kentish Town and TJs in Newport (ingrained in rock folklore for being the precise place where Kurt proposed to Courtney) have fallen victims to closure in recent years, while such staples as Ministry Of Sound are seemingly forever on the verge of being converted into residential flats. Just this January saw the first-ever Independent Venue Week celebrated, in hope of reversing the fortunes of “toilet circuit” venues.

Bands and promoters have thus been forced to look elsewhere to save on costs. One DIY label Reeks Of Effort have been known to host shows in abandoned swimming poolsand prom-style parties in art spaces. Events like these have led to the setting up of a permanent DIY space in the city, with the aptly-named DIY Space For London raising funds for a “self-sustaining, accessible space in London for DIY culture” that will host “gigs, events, community organising and much more”. So far, the venture has tallied up to £13,000 through donations and grants, ever closer to its utopian end goal.

Intimate shows are nothing new, though. Since the halcyon days of mid-2000s guerrilla gigs, more and more touring bands can be found in street-centric settings nowadays. We’re not talking Johnny Borrell walking down a street with an acoustic guitar here, but exciting bands playing one-off pop-ups. Sofar Sounds, Bandstand Buskingand, of course, Boiler Roomare just some of the people doing brilliant things. Jamie xx playing on a rooftop, First Aid Kit playing in a Shoreditch Park, and more, all performing to a lucky few, with everyone else able to watch at home.

As these last examples show, technology has revitalised street music. Previously a busker would be likely to get less exposure from a whole day soundtracking the subway at Charing Cross station than someone simply uploading a few demos to Bandcamp in ten minutes. But social media has allowed localised information to be shared more widely, no more felt than in the warehouse parties popping up in the South and East of the city, something of a revival of the early-90s rave scene. With Facebook posts more effective than the flyers of old, illegal raves can be arranged and publicised with a location revealed at the very last moment (lest the police get a whiff of things).

Street music’s heart, however, remains with hip-hop culture. Road Rap, which blossomed a few years back with the likes of Giggs and Fekky frontrunners in the scene, can be seen as the purest form of street music in London today. A direct descendant of Grime but taking the genre back to its roots, MCs utilise Youtube channels like SBTV (the modern day equivalent of pirate radio, if you will) to drop live session videos and mixtapes, reaching audiences much greater than the passers-by you might encounter in the streets from which the videos are filmed. With view counts topping the 300k mark, and the costs and profits of being a musician ever in conflict, it just goes to show the importance of doing things yourselves these days.