10 years later: mind the gaps in the live music sector
This summer marks my 10th anniversary living in London. A lot’s happened in the past decade, but it’s not hard for me to remember some of the highlights of my first year in the big city.
I was living in South London, and whilst I worked in Soho I found myself gravitating to East London and the Shoreditch district in particular.
One of the best spots was Hearn Street arches and the adjacent car park, where the likes of mulletover would put on some of the best European deep house and techno around.
The building next door to these part-time party venues would later be home to my first startup’s first office. In that scrappy-looking block were old-school Cockney furriers (led by a chap we knew only as John The Mink), a dance school, designers and a whole bunch of other eclectic and unlikely tenants.
Incidentally, less than 5 years after we moved out, the entire block has been flattened to make way for 40+ storeys of chrome and glass, presumably for the City to creep further into the Shoreditch district. John The Mink is nowhere to be seen.
The place I remember most fondly from that first summer was in the Tea Building on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road. Back then there was no Boxpark, no overground train station, and definitely no Pret. Sitting within the Tea Building was the simply named T Bar.
It had a simple concept; plenty of space, minimal lighting and decor, a well-stocked bar, Funktion One soundsystem, and some of the world’s best house, techno and disco DJs, 3 or 4 evenings a week from 7pm. For free.
Sure, it had its downsides; drinks were on the pricey side (although the fact it got slated for £5 for wine and £8 for cocktails shows how expensive London has become); there were a fair few of the less endearing Shoreditch stereotypes in there when bigger names were booked to play; and the place got pretty hot when it was full.
But when you’re getting to hear the likes of Michael Mayer, Audion, Loco Dice and James Jones play on a great soundsystem with no door charge, no advance tickets, just after work on a Thursday (or even Monday) evening…
T Bar also put a bunch of relatively unknown but excellent DJs in the driving seat for the full Friday and Saturday nights; Boris Horel & Greg Sonata’s Foreign Muck party was one of my favourites.
Unfortunately, it was all over in 2008, and despite a short-lived return to a venue nearby, T Bar is now something of the past. The venue is now a pizza restaurant.
10 Years Later…
Remembering my experiences around East London during this period, and at T Bar in particular, really brings home the current situation in the city with the lack of suitable space and the possible opportunities to reach new, underserved and broader audiences.
Space & Opportunity
Like many inner city areas and scenes, things are cyclical in their nature and places comes and go, but Shoreditch had many more music venues when I was first exploring the area than are operating there now. The physical spaces available for music & broader culture feel like they’re being hoovered up by other sectors more quickly than ever.
Alan Miller, the chairman of the Nighttime Industries Association, posted this piece on The Guardian earlier this week.
According to Miller, the number of nightclubs in the UK has plummeted from 3,144 to 1,733 in the last decade. The article and the comments that follow it both point to the stark differences in culture and approach in European cities like Amsterdam and Berlin vs London.
It’s concerning that cultural venues are being pushed out of areas like Shoreditch, and actually out of wider boroughs as well (well-respected Dalston venue Dance Tunnel is closing in August due to licensing regulations)
As a step to help prevent more of these closures, the Night Time Industries Association are currently running a year-long campaign called Night Life Matters, more info here.
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a document released by the Mayor of London’s office, entitled ‘London’s Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan’
The document has been around for 6 months as far as I can see, and no one I’ve spoken with has heard of it before.
It feels like a good step for the Mayor’s office to be taking, but the level of wider public awareness and distribution around this and what it stands for seem to be sorely lacking.
Music venues and particularly nightclubs often get unfairly siloed as havens of crime and something almost unsightly in a 21st century city landscape.
With music becoming part of a wider bundle of content that makes up consumers’ wider leisure and entertainment activities, it feels like it’s well overdue to lose some of that stigma.
London could do this by learning from Amsterdam and Berlin’s approaches (the idea of a night mayor would be a good start), consider innovating on the conventional models, and embrace night life as both a key component and driver of how people choose to spend their valuable leisure time.
A space such as Amsterdam’s De School (from the creators of the legendary Trouw club) feels like a great blueprint for what the next generation of multi-use music, arts and work spaces will look like.
Money on the Table
Relating to the challenges that night time venues are facing, I’ve been thinking about the amount of money being left on the table by the music industry and also how better serving other markets and audiences may help solve some of stigma challenges I mention.
We all know music consumption and revenue streams have shifted immensely in the last few years, and I won’t dwell on the reasons for that, it’s been done to death. The only thing I’ll say on it is that the industry needs to shift its focus from complaining about Spotify…
Despite all these changes, there seems to be a lack of innovation and change in the live sector as to how events can be delivered.
Such are the effects of time, I am no longer 22 years old as I was in 2006. I’ve grown up (for better and for worse), and I prefer channelling my leisure time into early mornings, breakfasts with friends, reading…and watching an entire season of The Walking Dead in one sitting.
Going out to catch electronic artists play shows at 4am doesn’t really fit my lifestyle any more. To be honest, it never really did…hence my love for T Bar.
So why is the convention to put on shows (electronic music in particular) on at times when you surely can’t reach the optimal number of fans?
The concept that most attendees want to drink and do drugs (and thus more likely to want to go out all night?) holds weight to an extent, but I don’t think it’s a solid enough argument, particularly with the ongoing blurring of the lines between different genres.
Simply, within significant portions of the live music sector there is an excess demand that is underserved.
In addition to VR experiences (the subject of a future article), this could be addressed in a couple of ways;
- Change/extend/duplicate performance times
- Better serve demand through improved / more tailored experiences
3 simple examples come to mind that I’ve experienced recently.
- Filling time-based demand
An electronic artist played a London show on a cold winter Saturday night, stage time around 3am.
I had plans for Sunday morning and didn’t want to get home at 6/7am, so I didn’t buy a ticket and thus didn’t go. I don’t see how anyone wins in this situation.
The artist could have played either an unannounced or very tightly segmented show earlier in the night.
Or to help mend the stigma I mention above (and broaden revenue streams), why not package food and drink together more closely?
Brilliant Corners is a great little venue in Dalston where you can eat some great food, have a few drinks, and hear underrated gems of DJs like Jonny Rock (who incidentally also played at T Bar a lot) play records on a superb sound system. Yeah it’s not Fabric, but the model is sound.
For further reading on this subject, Cortney Harding explores related matters here, and this recent Guardian article explores a seemingly growing trend around young people shunning the traditional clubbing experience in favour of other activities.
2. Service level and transparency
A disabled friend had tickets to a show at a large London venue last week; when checking ticket collection options and the stage time of the headliner (my friend’s disability means she can’t stand or sit in one place for more than an hour or so, and didn’t want to miss the main event), the venue didn’t answer their phone, and it took 20 minutes of searching for me to find out who the promoter was.
Upon calling them, no one in their office knew if they were even promoting the gig, and there was no information on the artist’s website other than the venue name and opening time.
I can’t see why the service here is so opaque — this one fan loved the superb artist she got to see but the rest of the experience left a lot to be desired.
Will she go back? I’m not sure.
A couple of ways of improving this area include new ways of dealing with customer service (chat-bots for simple enquiries?), and more visibility of who is promoting shows and what they stand for; promoters can also be excellent curators after all.
3. Baby boomers
Despite marketers focusing intensely on Generation Z & Millennials (don’t get me started on this…), I feel lines are being blurred between demographics and their behaviours, and herein lies opportunity.
An example of this opportunity is Field Day’s extension to 2 days. Through smart programming they now attract a broader range of customers without diluting their core values.
A case in point is that my parents will be going to the festival with my brother and I on the Sunday.
This group (in my parents’ case aged 63 and 62, living an hour or so from a major city) hold around 70% of the population’s disposable income, are becoming more adventurous in the experiences they want to have, and are willing to pay for quality. Coachella’s new event Desert Trip is a signifier of this.
For a number of practical reasons my Dad is very unlikely to see bands on a midweek evening in London, but he will happily pay for a quality festival experience with a range of both new, established and heritage artists. He’s become a fan of several artists from last year’s event and has spent money on their music since.
The balance in appealing to a range of markets like this is not easy (and certainly not suitable not for all promoters and events — not everyone wants to hang out with their parents of course), but in any case there are underserved audiences that the music industry could surely do better to serve.
The baby boomers with 25–35 year old children is an interesting segment to explore here.
I love London and part of what makes it so special is its diverse range of culture and creativity.
Music should be a key part of that.
I just hope that the spaces and places sustain, and that the industry does a better job of serving its audiences and communicating its value so an even broader range of people can enjoy great live music experiences.
None of this is easy and the answers are not simple, but just because the live sector is one of the industry’s strongest areas it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for doing things better.