It was welcome to see news last week of the first rise in the number of grassroots music venues in London in nearly a decade, reversing a long pattern of decline. The capital has lost a third of such venues over recent years, having been host to 144 as recently as 2007. There are now 100 places in London to enjoy grassroots music, an increase from 94 last year. This is good progress, building on the reduced rate of decline over the previous two years.
Grassroots music venues are a key part of our cultural fabric, allowing up and coming musicians to hone their craft and giving them the opportunity to showcase their talent and make a name for themselves. Despite the rise of YouTube (and MySpace before it) as a platform for emerging artists, these venues remain an important route into the music business, a way to build a fanbase and a critical entry point to performing in front of an audience.
What sets them apart is their definition – that is, live music venues that are focused on cultural activity, run by music experts, taking risks with their programme, enlivening night-time economies and playing a role in their local community through education, networking and engagement with local tradespeople. These are the institutions that work with our young people, build our culture, and help stitch neighbourhoods together.
They should, of course, be prized first and foremost for their cultural value, but their economic impact is important too. They contribute over £90 million to London’s economy each year, support more than 2,200 jobs, generate vast tax revenues and help stimulate local economies by boosting the footfall of nearby local businesses.
So the news that we’ve finally put a halt to the net loss of these crucial cultural incubators will be welcomed across the board. But we mustn’t be complacent. Although there was an overall rise, London still lost eight grassroots venues during the past 12 months. Also, the increase has been driven largely by twelve existing venues starting to offer grassroots live music. Only three of the additions are on brand new sites. Clearly there’s more work to be done.
The information on the uplift in venue numbers comes from the Mayor’s cultural infrastructure plan, which, for the first time, allows us to track the opening and closure of a range of cultural facilities. The plan includes a recently-launched cultural map of the capital, allowing Londoners to see what’s in their area and get a sense of the geographical spread of our cultural assets.
One noticeable pattern has been the shift eastwards. Ten or 15 years ago, one might reasonably have expected Camden to have had the greatest density of grassroots venues. Today, Hackney accounts for a fifth of them – 20 in total. And while venues in Tower Hamlets would undoubtedly have been few and far between a decade ago, both that borough (with seven) and Lewisham (six) have seen a pattern of growth, reflecting the larger trend of London moving east. With cultural venues planned for the Royal Docks in Newham, I am hopeful that more will open in East London in the coming years.
What the data also highlight is the shortage of any such venues from a range of boroughs, especially those in Outer London. Croydon and Bromley are among those with none at all, but this issue also affects boroughs that have some Inner London characteristics, such as Enfield, Brent and Haringey. This shows that more work is needed to try to improve the spread of venues across the city, giving Londoners the length and breadth of our capital the chance to hone their skills close to home.
The Mayor is doing a good job on this issue with the limited powers at his disposal. The creation of a culture-at-risk officer and work with the Music Venues Trust to create a guide on how to open a grassroots venue have been enormously important steps. Additionally, his London Plan will help to protect venues by introducing an “agent of change” principle, which puts the onus on new developments to accommodate themselves to their surroundings through measures such as soundproofing. Previously, existing venues have been forced to close due to the needs of a new development taking precedence. The changes made under this Mayor are all contributory factors to the growth we’ve seen.
There are still challenges to overcome. Rising business rates, rents and the stagnant economy mean there is less money around and music venues still face an uphill struggle to make ends meet. So maybe next time you have a free evening, pop down to a grassroots music venue. You’ll be backing up and coming artists and the spaces that support them, as well as contributing to the cultural lifeblood of our great city.
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