London’s Live Music: Alive And Thriving?

The Dublin Castle: old favourite, still going strong.

With Kentish Town’s Bull & Gate added to the list of live music casualties in the capital, from some angles London’s gig scene is looking as bedraggled as the fingerless glove on a wasted bass player’s strumming hand.

Young’s, the pub chain who’ve bought up the Bull & Gate, said of their decision not to continue putting on bands: “The reality is that, in the current economic environment, independent music venues have struggled”. We caught up with a couple of industry insiders to see whether they agree with this bleak outlook.

Stacey Thomas runs two venues in the capital: the Lexington on Pentonville Road, near Angel, and the Buffalo Bar next to Highbury & Islington station. She has been in venue management for 13 years, and says Young’s comment on the state of the industry is “a load of crap”.

“You just have to make sure you do it right,” says Stacey. “At the Lexington we’ve got a working formula because we’ve also got the pub, that acts just as a pub but is also great as a meeting point before and after the bands. Whereas somewhere like the 100 Club doesn’t have that and they always struggle, they’re only able to open for a few hours each night and that’s difficult.”

So is it more important to have a pub with a live venue attached, or a live venue that happens to have a pub downstairs? “What’s important is the venue – live music is what keeps us cool, keeps us current.”

For a venue with a good reputation, there’s no need to go scouting around for bands – they come to you.

“An agent booking a tour for a band comes to us with a series of dates and we go back with a set of dates and we try to meet in the middle. We do punch above our weight, but bands like playing here. We have an excellent sound system and bands appreciate that, plus a great dressing room. And we are good to the artists, we look after them. There’s a reason bands like Yeasayer drink in the Lexington every time they come to London, because they’re friends now.”

Independent venues do compete with each other for the best acts. Birthdays, a Dalston bar and venue, is the most talked about of the plethora of new live music spots that have sprung up out east which, according to Jim Mattison of Bugbear Promotions, is certainly the direction London’s live scene is heading.

Bugbear put on gigs in a number of small venues, most notably the iconic Dublin Castle in Camden. Far from promoters struggling to find venues to put bands on, Jim thinks the opposite is true: “There’s no shortage of venues in London at the moment. The problem is there’s too many and most landlords’ approach to live music is to do things on the cheap.”

He thinks other venues have suffered from the Dalston explosion, but that they partly have themselves to blame. “There’s definitely been a migration of bands to east London and as a result Camden venues have suffered, but Camden has too many venues and most of them feature shoddily presented live music, which has killed the scene somewhat,” says Jim. “A load of bands playing through a rubbish PA for free has slowly become the norm, not just in Camden but all over London. Properly run venues like the Dublin Castle with decent PAs get lumped in with the bad ones.”

According to Jim, bands themselves are also culpable, through not settings their goals a little higher: “The fact is people are getting used to free gigs in substandard venues, and bands play them because they get given a few beers or petrol money. Sadly, for some bands that’s the limit of their ambitions. Whatever audience a band has gets diluted by the number of free gigs they play, so venues that have a proper set-up and need to charge an entrance fee suffer.”

Clearly the independent live scene has issues to contend with at the moment. However, certain well-run venues, both in developing areas of east London and in the more traditional gig heartlands of the capital, are demonstrating that with focus on the quality of the venue itself and the relationship with the bands playing there, there may be a few more chords in that ropey old glove yet.

By Chris Lockie

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  • http://twitter.com/tomhwilliams Tom Williams

    Enjoyed this article – top stuff Londonist!

  • fractos

    Can vouch for both the Lexington and the Dublin Castle. Awesome venues!

  • http://twitter.com/sparticus Mark Walley

    The sad thing is the Bull & Gate did/does things properly. The pub’s a bit odd I’ll grant you, but the beer’s good, and the PA is generally top quality, and for a room with a terrible roof like it has that’s not an easy thing. One feels Young’s see a simpler and easy profit to be made by doing up the pub and charging lots for Venison and Garlic Chorizo with Celeriac Mash and Sautéed Onion Gravy or similar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thms.rmn Thms Rmn

    Bugbear should also mention that their policies as to putting on live music are a bit of a rip-off though (basically asking bands to pay to play is not and will never be an acceptable way of doing things, however you try to package it.) If so many venues manage to pay bands without the “policies” that Bugbear sees fit to apply, I don’t see why they think what they are doing is cool (especially as they mention that they themselves were once musicians…).

    Maybe things have changed since I last spoke to them about arranging dates though…