The Borderline staged its final gigs last week after 34 years. The 250-capacity venue bang in the middle of London was an important staging post for bands on the way up and played host to an impressive array of stars – from a secret gig by R.E.M – playing as “Bingo Hand Job” to promote 1991’s Out of Time album – to early Oasis, Muse, Debbie Harry, Ed Sheeran, Sheryl Crow, Ryan Adams, ex-Gene frontman Martin Rossiter, P J Harvey, Skunk Anansie, The Ordinary Boys and the Counting Crows.
For a generation it was a standby club night favourite – “the only decent place to go in the West End. You always knew there’d be decent music and you could wear jeans without anyone telling you off” says one late ’90s regular. More recently, Borderline was a centre for Americana music and a hot ticket for indie aficionados. Having passed through a variety of operators, it was given a plush makeover by owners DHP Family just two years ago. “This is a beautiful venue, you guys are lucky to have it,” Travis Hawley, the lead singer of LA band Night Riots (pictured) told the crowd on the last live music night on Thursday.
DHP said the decision to move came because of rising rent, rates and the redevelopment plans of landlords RDI REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust). Managing director George Akins told Music Venue Trust that if DHP couldn’t make the venue work, he doubted anyone seriously passionate about live music could. They’re retaining the Borderline name to use potentially in other locations: they also run the Garage, Hackney’s Oslo and venues in Bristol and Nottingham.
The north-east corner of Soho, next to the works for Crossrail at Tottenham Court Road, is transforming into an alien glass and metal landscape. Hoardings announce the forthcoming Outernet hub (including a huge “cultural amphitheatre” music space), Nimax’s “theatre for plays” and luxury flats. At the Lightbox, which houses Borderline in the basement and G-A-Y Late at ground floor level, RDI won planning permission in April for three new floors of office space, which may require the venue operators to leave their premises for an extended period.
Producer and designer Alex Parsonage, who fought to save Madame JoJo’s, said he was amazed that the Borderline has held out this long. Manette Street, through which the Borderline is accessed is, like other side streets off Charing Cross Road, a petty crime hotspot – Soho Dairy market stallholder and small business campaigner Robin Smith was the victim of a mugging there. The boarding up of the southern side of the street for redevelopment hasn’t made it feel any safer or more appealing.
The Music Venue Trust’s Beverley Whitrick says that DHP were “obviously gutted” to be shuttering the Borderline, given its history, and points out they have the interests of the whole group to consider. DHP made no submission to RDI’s planning proposals at the beginning of the year and Jeremy Joseph of G-A-Y, Borderline’s fellow tenant, says they only told him of their intention to shut down an hour before it became public knowledge. RDI confirms that DHP requested early termination of its lease, which they agreed to. There was no occasion for a lively campaign to save the Borderline, as there was for the 100 Club or for The Social in Fitzrovia. “You can’t save someone who wants to go” says Soho campaigner and documentary-maker Henry Scott-Irvine.
Rents across the area are spiralling. Sam Shaker who runs Jazz After Dark in Greek Street says his was hiked from £44,000 to £77,000 per annum six months ago. Neither RDI – which says it is “committed to becoming the UK’s leading income focused REIT” – nor DHP will confirm how much the Borderline’s rent has increased. But G-A-Y Late, in the equivalent space upstairs, saw its initial rent demand soar by 133 per cent, from £300,000 to £700,000. In compensation, Joseph lobbied for and was granted an exceptional 4 a.m. licence from Westminster Council (but had to reduce G-A-Y Old Compton’s opening hours in return).
With ticket price splits mostly going to the artist, there’s a limited amount that venues which are near-capacity can do to generate extra revenue without losing trade. “The only way we’re going to reverse this trend [of venue closures] is by ensuring rents are brought under control,” says West End ward Labour councillor Pancho Lewis. Former Green Party London Assembly Member Darren Johnson wants to see music megastars passionate about the grassroots scene buying up venues to be run as charitable trusts. The Music Venue Trust itself has the ambition of buying up freeholds.
Meanwhile, GLA-commissioned research found 21 of 95 grassroots London venues were at risk of closure as a result of the business rates revaluation of April 2017, accounting for £7.4 million in Gross Value Added productivity. Another 41 faced either significant financial challenges or were likely to cut the number of emerging artists they put on in favour of a more commercial programme. Both G-A-Y Late and the 100 Club in Oxford Street, a West End stalwart since 1964 (and with a predecessor dating from 1942), which has has more than one brush with closure in the last 10 years, faced business rates of around 47 per cent higher after revaluation. Owner Jeff Horton told the House of Commons DCMS committee that applying for hardship relief was “difficult” and “humiliating”. G-A-Y Late has recently been informed that, following a two year appeal process, its rates liability has
been reduced to below pre-revaluation levels.
The Music Venue Trust and industry body UK Music successfully campaigned to have the “agent of change” principle – making property companies responsible for sound-proofing residents in new-builds near venues, rather than the venues themselves – incorporated in the National Planning Policy Framework. They are now lobbying hard over business rates. While local authorities have the power to award discretionary relief, the Treasury’s ruling not to extend as standard the rates relief for small retailers, pubs, bars and restaurants to music venues as well was “a wrong decision” that left everyone “horrified” says Beverley Whitrick of Music Venue Trust. The Liberal Democrats have a party conference motion on extending rate relief to music venues, and another calling for a comprehensive review of business taxation.
Deputy shadow culture secretary Kevin Brennan thinks Philip Hammond’s unwillingness to budge on rates was due to an institutional reluctance by the Treasury to reopen the issue, for fear of getting a queue of people wanting exceptions. Tom Kiehl of UK Music hopes Hammond’s successor, Sajid Javid, who as communities minister approved the adoption of agent of change, will take a different, more entrepreneurial approach. As London Mayor, Boris Johnson launched a plan which called for a review into the potential for full rates relief for grassroots venues. But the only response campaigners have had from the new government so far is officials writing back to explain the business rate regime.
Latest figures show a year-on-year growth in the number of grassroots London music venues, from 94 to 100, including in outer areas such Leytonstone’s Ballroom and St John’s Church Music Hall. The landscape is volatile, however, with nine venues closing compared with 15 newcomers. Recent closures include Coldharbour Lane dance stalwart Club 414 and the Five Bells in New Cross, whose new owners unceremoniously told promoters there would be no more live music with immediate effect. Soho has seen an inexorable decline, losing the Astoria, LA2 and the Metro Club to Crossrail in 2009, and the earlier incarnation of Madame Jojo’s and Denmark Street venues 12 Bar Club and Alley Cat within a few months in 2014-15.
Lenny George, manager of the Borderline in 2001 when it was “a sweaty basement venue with a fantastic atmosphere” points out the connection of the West End with almost every British music scene. Music journalist Sean Hannam says artists relish the showbiz appeal of playing at a West End venue, “a vital part of the capital’s city centre and culture, and also its history”. “Every city needs a beating heart” says Henry Scott-Irvine. It remains to be seen what the 2,000-capacity music and events space at the Outernet and its two satellite venues will offer emerging as opposed to established artists. Borderline fan and repeat performer Don Graham takes the view that it’s now inevitable all West End grassroots venues will close and energies should be focused on protecting venues in North and East London.
Musician Peter Parker has run two venues, a drum shop and a clothing shop in Soho, all now closed. He’s now fighting to save his bolt-hole in Old Compton Street (“I feel like the last samurai”, he says). He observes that Soho has always evolved, but the pace of change is new. He doesn’t mind so much the arrival of upscale boutiques and restaurants because at least that’s transparent gentrification. But he’s strongly critical of Consolidated Group for making Denmark Street “a zombified version of what it used to be”, appropriating its bohemian cool while pushing out or marginalising small music businesses.
A draft Soho neighbourhood plan, drawn up under the auspices of the business and resident-led Soho Neighbourhood Forum, is out for consultation until 11 September. One proposal from earlier consultation rounds, a Soho special policy area, forms part of Westminster Council’s draft 2019-40 City Plan. It would include a check on knocking buildings together behind facades, assessing changes of use to restaurants and bars with a view to cumulative impact, and support for small and medium enterprise workspaces, and LGBT and new live music venues.
Conservative councillor for West End ward Jonathan Glanz is sympathetic to independent venues that are are finding it “increasingly difficult” in the economic environment, picking out for praise Jeremy Joseph for offering the variety which is fundamental to Soho’s character. But he also warns against trying to preserve Soho in aspic and suggests the teeming crowds that come to it on a summer evening are proof of the success of the council’s stewardship. For his part, Joseph wants landlords to be forced to care about community interest, with legal protection for businesses that have been in their premises for 10 years. Soho Dairy’s Robin Smith thinks that by the very nature of the area, Soho retailers and entrepreneurs have more than the average amount of fight in them, but he worries that local businesses might not survive long enough for policy changes designed to help them to be implemented.
RDI says it is too early to confirm when the basement vacated by the Borderline will be re-let, after reportedly rejecting G-A-Y’s proposal to take the space initially on a short lease. Live music fans feeling bereft will have to travel elsewhere for their fix – perhaps further out of town, to the new wave of venues cropping up in Zone 3 and beyond.
OnLondon.co.uk is dedicated to providing fair and thorough coverage of London’s politics, development and culture. It depends on donations, including from readers. Could you spare £5 a month to held the site keep going and growing? If so, follow this link. Thank you.