The Castle Pub in north central London, a dark, ominous three-story tower, was built in the 1840s in the British-born but classically-inspired Italianate style. Its construction was a testament to the British capital’s vivacious, European instincts and, for a long time, what happened inside was no less grand or romantic. Its function for decades was a music venue, playing host to many of music’s most talked about and listened to characters: The Sex Pistols, Oasis, The Clash. A&R would sniff around, not unlike many central London gig spots, eagerly eyeing the musical horizon that every night would appear in a sacred little space somewhere between the drum kit and the set list.
Known throughout the years as Heroes, The Bullet Bar and Verge, the building’s most recent incarnation was as The Flowerpot in the late-2000s—its widely-considered golden era—when the venue played host to a burgeoning pool of ambitious, alternative sounds, including: Florence & The Machine, Laura Marling, The Drums, Jamie T and future Grammy-winners Mumford and Sons to name a few. In the end, all did not appreciate the good times: late-2010 the venue’s promoters were told they would have to leave. That Halloween would be their last show. Today, the venue sits dilapidated, boarded-up and surrounded by scaffolding.
The closure of The Flowerpot is a typical tale in a city where 35% of the city’s music venue stock has disappeared since 2007. “It all started about 5 years ago,” recalls Chris Wilson of Club Fandango, one of London’s most influential indie music promoters. “Property in London has become so overpriced and unattainable for real people that they can’t live close to great cultural assets like music venues—the love for them dies. Many venues get taken over by big companies to be turned into gastro pubs or new housing developments crop up beside them, built for the rich that in many cases have no interest in real music.”
Like every stakeholder in the city’s musical health, Club Fandango has been adversely impacted by London’s withering live music infrastructure. After nine successful and exciting years on the scene, the gang took up a residency at the Bull & Gate in 2010 and, in what is now a typical story, the building was sold above their heads. Despite protesting and even trying to purchase the property, the venue that once staged the gig that got Coldplay signed has now morphed into another soulless, upmarket eatery. “I started working here in the year before it got closed down,” says Wilson. “It got sold very quick to a corporate pub chain and turned into a gastro pub.”
“You can’t replace those venues where people had memories, where world-famous, influential performers have played over the last 50-plus years,” says Kelly Wood of the UK Musician’s Union. “Renowned venues have a really big pull, nationally and internationally, and this circuit of venues that have hosted gigs by some of the world’s best known musicians plays a big part in keeping the UK in the musical spotlight. It’s a significant threat to the careers of many established musicians and also to emerging artists who need local venues to grow their fan base and launch their career.”
One of the persistent troubles facing music venues in recent years is noise-abatement legislation, a side effect of the UK government’s incessant drive to build residential property in a city starved of affordable housing. For years, developers could purchase property adjacent to a venue, install insufficient sound protection and then file complaints about disruptive local noise. Something dramatic has happened, however. After two years of lobbying, the Music Venue Trust has recently announced a victory: from April 6th, changes to planning regulations mean that developers will have to seek prior approval on noise impacts before a change of use from an office to residential building can be carried out. In short, you won’t be able to change office blocks into flats if there’s a music venue nearby.
While this represents a significant victory for the music industry and for the city of London, the end is not yet in sight. Inspired by cities such as Amsterdam, this week the role of a nighttime mayor was formally put forward by the Mayor of London. First considered last fall, the role would reflect the increasing 24-hour nature of cities and the fact that, unfortunately, what happens after dark—cultural activities like gigs included—is often neglected. Berlin is reportedly considering a similar position, too.
But legislative progress hasn’t always been that—progress. The past few years have seen elements of government policy that were intended to be helpful proving far more problematic than first thought. 2012’s Live Music Act is one such example. As a result of the act, pubs and bars serving alcohol can host live music in premises that hold 200 audience members or less without having to apply for any license. “It was good in the sense that many venues could put on live music without a license,” says Chris. “But it also opened the door for a lot of bad venues putting on music and not treating bands right. It had good intentions but it ended up with many venues closing down completely because residents don’t want the noise that comes with it.”
The result of the industry’s long, collective trauma in London has resulted in some good: the official announcement of new bodies such as the London Music Development Board and the Night Time Commission from which the much-needed Night Mayor will eventually emerge. “We basically said that there needed to be a London music advisory board,” says Mark Davyd of the Music Venue Trust, the organization that has spearheaded most battles in the war to save venues. “What happened in London—to the music venues—only happened because there was nobody to coherently tell the authorities what was really happening. London has got boards on transport, textiles, and loads of other industries but it has never had one on music, which is crazy because music is worth so much to London, not just economically but culturally. Finally, it seems like this is being taken notice of.”