How To Survive (And Thrive) In London If You’re A Live Music Venue

Kyra Hanson
By Kyra Hanson Last edited 6 months ago
How To Survive (And Thrive) In London If You’re A Live Music Venue

"Back in the '70s, my shoes would be glued to the floor if I tried to walk away from you now". Ken Ansted, founder of the Village Blues Club nostalgia Facebook group says while the twang of Del Bromham's guitar (of STRAY fame) fills the newly opened hall at the Roundhouse Dagenham. The days when the carpet was so sticky it would rip the soles off your shoes were also the days when rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd played here. Now, after a 42-year absence, the Village Blues Club is back at its original home.

We spoke to the iconic venue and four others to find out how they are navigating the precarious path of rising rents, licensing restrictions, noise complaints and the threat of development to keep London's live music scene alive.

#1 The power of nostalgia

Dr Feelgood performing at the Village Blues Club reunion on Saturday 27 May. Photo: Chris Bocking. (2017)

Back in 2015, the Roundhouse Dagenham seemed set to become another stat in the long list of boarded up venues (at least 35% of which have closed since 2007). But the venue was thrown a lifeline by Barking and Dagenham Council, who granted it an Asset of Community Value (ACV), thus saving it from demolition and development.

In its heyday, the hall was dark, sweaty and rammed; now there's a new paving stone-grey carpet and wedding-style round tables, but the place can still pull a crowd thanks to Ansted and his nostalgia Facebook group. Last Saturday 200+ seasoned rock 'n' rollers with greying ponytails returned to reminisce and play air guitar — a visible expression of what the ACV status really means for a generation who have seen the slow decline of Tin Pan Alley and the closure of many of their old London haunts.

Ansted summarises his feelings about Saturday's gig on the Facebook group wall: "It seems unreal that after 42 years a venue is returning to the scene and that we have achieved something I never expected when I started this group. It has reunited old friends and acquaintances and introduced like minded people to new friendships".

The gigs are part of a concerted effort by new owner George Hand to restore the venue to its former glory. Now, Amy Winehouse tribute act posters and Elvis Presley memorabilia hang on the whitewashed walls. Unlike other venues who forgo history to attract a new crowd and put the prices up to meet costs, the Roundhouse favours tribute acts and it's one of the few places left where you can still get a pint for £2.50.  

#2 The rise of mixed-use development

The Garage's former mini bar is now the General Store, a retro-style coffee spot by day and craft and cocktail bar by night. Photo: Sarah Koury. (2017)

The Dagenham Roundhouse isn't the only venue to undergo a makeover to ensure its survival. In 2014 the Guardian described The Garage in Islington as having "lost some of its lustre", but new owners the DHP family (also behind Oslo in Hackney and newly opened Borderline in Soho) recently breathed new life (and glitter) into the tired venue.

At the relaunch, lipsticked PRs clinked glasses with journos while old gig-goers took in the glam new surroundings. The street level bar is now a retro-style coffee, craft beer and cocktail bar. Upstairs the Thousand Island room features pink glitter walls and a mirror-ball-covered ceiling, making it feel more like a setting for hen-dos than heavy metal gigs. The main room has been kitted out with a new PA and lighting system, a tyre-rubber-topped bar, plus new loos and improved backstage facilities.

As of April 1, the total business rates bill for music venues rose by 26%, putting other Islington venues the Lexington and the Macbeth at risk of closure, but Ed Lilo, head of venue programming at DHP remains optimistic. "We’re confident that if we make the venue a space where people want to spend time, we can turn it into a positive business."

For all the flack the refurb has attracted, (with some claiming it had "lost its identity") the 'cafe-by-day, club-by-night' model, also adopted by Dalston Superstore, is one way to ensure regular footfall and a steady stream of income. If a few pink sparkles mean the venue can continue to book established acts and new talent, then glitter it up.

#3 The rise of the day gig

Fanatic at Printworks London in April. Photo: Carolina Faruolo. (2017)

2016 was the first year since 2007, London's grassroots venues had remained stable, with club-fiends everywhere breathing a sigh of relief as it was announced Fabric would reopen. And further good news came in the form of industrial-scale new venue Printworks London. Although unable to gain a late licence it contains two fully soundproofed rooms, a useful hangover from its printing press days. LWE, an underground events company run all-dayers here and at Tobacco Dock in Wapping, another 6,000 capacity venue.

LWE says daytime parties aren't a new phenomenon, but now they're moving beyond the festival season. "Parties in the ‘off seasons’ are something new that we feel we sort of pioneered. When we first started holding events at Tobacco Dock, venues like Cable, Crucifix Lane and iCan Studios had all recently stopped operating; while Plastic People and Fabric were already having issues with licensing." So the day gigs provided an opportunity to turn unusual spaces that didn't hold late licenses into unforgettable events.

What does it take to throw a successful day gig? Aside from endless paperwork LWE say, "We have built up a good understanding of the process now, so we work closely with the police, council, venue owners and local community to put on an event that is low impact to them."

With the recent launch of Printworks electronic music series, there is a sense of hope within the London music scene. As with any venue or event, keeping the neighbourhood happy is the key to the success of these projects. A happy neighbourhood equals a happy council."

#4 Grow: a lesson in sustainability and collaboration

'Have Love Will Travel' a regular night at Grow in Hackney Wick. Photo: Martin Ruffin.
(2017)

Grow Studios was founded 10 years ago with the creative community in mind. Grow co-founder Jordanna Greaves describes what the former sausage factory was back then: "It had leaks everywhere, no electricity supply and was covered in rubble, industrial waste and was completely overgrown with brambles as high as your head". Now it's home to over 30 artists, musicians and artisan makers, including Grow, a thriving canal-side venue tucked into a spray-canned corner of a Hackney Wick car park.

Greaves explains the motivation behind Grow was to "test whether running a business based on collaboration and a sense of shared growth — not just profit — is indeed possible". Here the drinks are organic, the food is sustainably sourced and even the cutlery is made from plants. Grow has managed to carve a niche out of an area in the midst of rapid change, so how have they made it work? "We have no investment so it's a matter of doing what we can, being very resourceful and a lot of hard graft —luckily we have a good range of skills between the four co-founders."

Hackney Wick seems to be perpetually locked in a tug of war between artists and developers and judging by the presence of high vis jackets and masses of hoardings, the developers are winning. But thankfully momentum is gathering for London to introduce into law the 'agent of change' principle, which places the onus on developers to soundproof and protect venues against the threat of noise complaints from any new homeowners.

Furthermore, a successful campaign from the East End Traids Guild and Hackney Council forced chancellor Philp Hammond to introduce a cap on the business rates tax increases, meaning that small businesses will pay no more than £50 a month more in rates.  For Grow this was a lucky escape: "We need all the help we can get with low business tax rates and affordable rent. This is the only way small entrepreneurial businesses will be able to be part of local communities. Luckily for us, it didn’t rise as much as we feared".

Grow is another example of what can be achieved when a venue works together with the local community and council. Another is the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which is hoping to launch the UK's largest community buyout bid.

#5 "London’s worst development opportunity"

A night out at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, an LGBT venue where Lily Savage once started a riot. Photo: Dan Govan. (2015)

For some, it was their first introduction to London's LGBT nightlife and continues to be an inclusive space where the drinks are cheap, the staff are fabulous and the events are raucous. For others, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is prime real estate, and the sooner it is sold off and carved into flats the richer those others will be.

Thankfully, the current use of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern as an LGBT+ pub, club and performance space is effectively now "locked down". It is widely cited as night czar Amy Lamé's first success story, but it has taken two years of relentless campaigning from RVT Future and the wider LGBT+ community to reach this stage of relative security.

A combination of ACV status, an extension of the Vauxhall Conservation Area, Sui Generis classification (keeps the Tavern as a mix of pub, nightclub and performance space), and grade II listed status — (the first of its kind for a building due to its role in LGBT+ history) make the tavern "London’s worst development opportunity." Just down the road there are signs LGBT+ spaces are experiencing a revival. Bloc South, a new venue catering for the gay community opened its doors in April and managed to secure a 5am licence. And there are rumours TV personality Gok Wan plans to open his own club night to help out London's "diminishing" LGBT scene.

At the reopening of the Gladstone as a live music gastropub. Photo: the Gladstone Arms. (2017)

A couple of years ago, Londonist reported on the closure of popular live music pub the Gladstone Arms. Now, thanks to an emotional haranguing from the local community and conservation protection and ACV status from Southwark Council, the Glad is back open under new ownership and once again supporting live acts instead of the luxury flats we all feared would end up here.

Outdated licensing laws from 2003 are now being reviewed and it seems that in some cases the ACV status is successfully protecting venues from development. By 2029 London's nighttime economy is said to be worth £28.3bn, and it currently supports one in eight jobs. The team at LWE says "everyone is becoming aware that a healthy nighttime economy is needed for a city to operate successfully." Whether it's a swanky refurb, dipping into day events to pay for the nighttime ones or establishing a tight connection with the local community and council, these venues aren't just surviving, they are thriving. But experience says we can't just cross our fingers and hope they continue to do so.

What can you do to support London's live music scene?

Aside from making these venues your new drinking holes, sign up to the Music Venue Trust mailing list, donate to the trust's Emergency Response Fund, which helps venues out when they encounter legal/ licensing issues and join the Nightlife Matters campaign.  

Last Updated 02 June 2017