“You can’t silence the sound of community,” a sign reads. The doors of the Sound Lounge are wallpapered with such signs made by music fans, writing to express the loss of their local music haunt. As bystanders pass by the abandoned venue, they can’t help but look in through the glass with curiosity—wondering what happened to the well-known venue that used to occupy Tooting.
It is a solemn day when small music venues, like the Sound Lounge, announce a business closure. After the closure was announced on Facebook, music fans and venue goers expressed their sadness to yet another community lost.
“People have lost their livelihoods, their sense of community and connectedness to those around them, and the opportunity to share in the expression of the human experience, whatever that experience may be,” said the Sound Lounge in their last statement. This venue is just the most recent business to have officially shut its doors.
There are two major challenges that independent music venues constantly face: redevelopment of areas and the cost of running a business. Tooting, along with many other areas of London, are going through a process of regeneration or gentrification. This is a double-edged sword. While some locals may be looking forward to community renovations, rents will often rise and affordability will decrease.
Tony Moore, director of music, art, and development at The Bedford in Balham, gives his view on independent music venue closures: “It’s a growing concern, and I think the threat comes from many different directions,” he says. “But primarily it’s in part to do with the changing of the law on the usage of buildings that was changed a few years ago.”
Throughout the past few years, London has seen a drastic increase in the rate of independent music venue closures. According to a 2015 report by UK Music, London’s grassroot music venues have decreased by 35 per cent since 2007. Venues that have been operating for about 20 to 30 years are now finding themselves to be replaced by new apartments and shops.
Moore, also a former member of heavy metallers Iron Maiden and 80s pop group Cutting Crew, says that one of the challenges is the lack of a central voice for small venues. “If you know anything about government you’ll know that government doesn’t really interact with individuals, it interacts with bodies,” he says. “So, if they’re dealing with actors, they’ll deal with equities or if they’re dealing with the music industry, they’ll deal with an organization called UK Music because these are the lobbying bodies.”
Jamie Shearer, general manager at Corsica Studios, believes there should be more concern regarding the loss of culture. “Essentially, we’re at a crunch point, and something has to be done. There should be a governmental shift towards the preservation of London’s counterculture. If something isn’t implemented soon, it won’t be long before there is nowhere to house our entertainment,” he says.
The city offers an abundance of music to choose from, such as rock, pop, indie, jazz, and punk. Shearer also addresses that the diversity of music in London remains strong, even if venues are struggling to operate. “We live in one of the best cities in the world for music,” says Shearer. “Currently, London’s music and nightlife scene is thriving. London offers an unparalleled amount of choice and as far as I can see, competition has never been so rife.”
Independent venues contribute about £91.8 million to London’s economy, according to Sadiq Khan’s Rescue Plan for London’s Grassroots Music Venues. The rescue plan was devised as a way to acknowledge the growing rate of small music venue closures, and to start thinking of ways the government and general public can help keep them alive.
“One of the things that we’re trying to get enshrined into British law is a thing called Agent of Change,” says Moore. Agent of Change is a rule that has been coined by the individuals involved in London’s music scene. Essentially, it is a law that is set out to protect all music venues from closing down. If a venue is built in an area that is surrounded by flats, it is the venue owner’s responsibility to confirm that the venue is sound proofed and that there will be no residents complaining about the noise. Residents should also be aware that they are moving into an area where there is a night-time economy.
People who have grown up with the music venues in their neighbourhoods, only to watch them close down, have lost an integral part of their community. A large part of the culture in London—particularly East London—was formulated because of the music scene, which was thriving decades ago. Now, it is unrecognizable. The polarity has never been clearer.
Action is being taken to prevent other business from facing the same fate as the Sound Lounge. Individuals of the music community are doing their best and are coming up with plans on how to keep the music scene alive in London and throughout the UK.
“There’s an organization called Music Venue Trust—a guy called Mark Davyd, who started this four years ago—dealing with exactly this problem really,” says Moore, “There’s never been an organization to solve these concerns before, so now the Music Venue Trust is an organization that’s been put together to solve this problem and give a centralised voice.”
Another way to ensure small venues survive is to give grants, as believed by Sophie Asquith, music and events manager at Bush Hall. “We definitely need more help in getting grants, especially for small grassroots music venues where artists of tomorrow are going to play those gigs. Government funding would also help a lot,” she says. “Unfortunately, there is a disparity between what gets help and what doesn’t.”
Ultimately, how much of an impact can small music venues make? “The truth is that part of the income of this country, a large part of the income in this country, comes from music. It comes from our export of music from bands like Coldplay or Radiohead, or all the big artists,” says Moore. “But in order to become as big as Coldplay, you have to start somewhere. You have to have learned your craft, you have to have developed your stage technique and just learn who you are as an artist. And that requires small venues that have prepared to take time and take that financial risk in believing in artists at a smaller level.”
The music scene in London used to be vibrant and there would be hundreds of gigs across London and the rest of the UK—gigs that are not available anymore. These bands helped create the foundation of the punk movement and the new wave movement. The energy and the excitement of a new movement of music, DIY culture was something these bands could be a part of so they could launch their careers. All of that came out of the fact that there was a network of places to play around London and around the country.
What will happen to UK music culture if venues continue to close their doors?