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Steve Ball: NIMBYish London needs new venues

Columbo Group founder Steve Ball, whose latest acquisition, The Barfly in Camden, will reopen as The Camden Assembly next Friday, has said more needs to be done to foster London’s nightlife if the city is to compete with other global music capitals.

Speaking to IQ, Ball poured cold water on previous predictions of a small-venue renaissance in the UK capital, stating unsympathetic local authorities and restrictive licensing laws are putting the kibosh on any true recovery for London’s club scene.

“London is a global city,” he comments. “We’re competing with New York, Ibiza… [but] most local authorities don’t want new venues. New late-night licences aren’t being granted.”

The Columbo Group – whose portfolio also includes The Blues Kitchen chain, Xoyo in Shoreditch, The Old Queen’s Head in Islington and a number of other venues, bars, clubs and restaurants – bought the 420-capacity Jazz Café (which will keep its name) in January and the 200-cap. Barfly in May, both from Live Nation/MAMA.

Despite its turning The Barfly/Camden Assembly into a “completely new venue” (“I’ve seen some grotty buildings in my time but [The Barfly] was by far the grottiest!” he jokes), Ball says he’s concerned about the lack of truly new venues opening in London. “Many ‘new’ venues were already there – they’re old venues under the new management. What London needs is new venues.”

“The way licensing is in London means the decision lies with the boroughs, not with City Hall… When you put licensing at a borough level you get a NIMBYish attitude”

Does Ball see new mayor Sadiq Khan, who has pledged his support for beleaguered superclub Fabric and vowed to make the cultural sector one of the “top priorities” for his mayoralty, as being true to his word? Or are they just empty platitudes?

“It’s not an empty platitude, but it is just rhetoric,” he comments. “The way licensing is in London means the decision lies with the boroughs, not with City Hall – and I’d argue that licensing authorities can often be backwards in their views… When you put licensing at a borough level you get a NIMBYish attitude.”

Ball points to the path taken by cities such as Amsterdam and Berlin, where venues and clubs are frequently given 24-hour licences and dedicated night mayors oversee the cities’ nightlife, as a potential way forward for London.

Khan is currently recruiting a ‘night czar’ for London – but if much of the responsibility for nightlife and licensing is still devolved to the boroughs, what will the successful candidate actually be able to achieve? “That’s a very good question!” laughs Ball.

Still, for all its licensing woes London is still a great city in which to see live music, and Ball is optimistic ahead of the opening of what he calls a “new home for music in London”.

“The young music consumer of today has very broad tastes: they’ll listen to rock, indie, grime, dance… The Assembly is going to be broad in the music it showcases”

Why ‘The Camden Assembly’, IQ wonders? “We wanted a new name – The Barfly conjures up an image of noughties indie, and the young music consumer of today has very broad tastes: they’ll listen to rock, indie, grime, dance…

“The Assembly is going to be broad in the music it showcases.”

Ball says he thinks young people are listening to a wider range of music as a “byproduct of people not purchasing music” and instead streaming it. “Before, you were really invested in something,” he explains, “because you’d bought it. But now, if everyone’s listening to the latest Stormzy record, for example, you can just check it out.”

So the Assembly is a music venue for the streaming generation? [laughs] “I’m stealing that!”

The Camden Assembly will reopen on 16 September with a seven-hour ‘pub rave’ with dance music duo The 2 Bears, followed by Mikeq, Teki Latex, L-Vis 1990 and Rushmore on Saturday 17 September and Soweto Kinch, Andrew Ashong, Binker & Moses and Laura Misch on Sunday 18th.

The venue will also host the International Festival Forum‘s Opening Party on Tuesday 27th September, which features the ITB showcase of emerging artists from the agency’s roster.

Other upcoming highlights include The Horrors’ Farris Badwan on 23 September, Temples on 25 September and a DJ set by The Streets’ Mike Skinner on 25 November.

 


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London resurgent: The capital’s venues fight back

At least four new music venues will open in London in 2016, IQ has learnt, as the capital begins to stem the decline that has long characterised its grassroots music scene.

Following the news last week that Nottingham-based DHP Family had acquired ex-MAMA venues The Borderline (cap. 300) in Soho and The Garage (cap. 600) in Highbury, and with some of the Capital’s most established grassroots sites being renovated and relaunched, the tide appears to be turning for London’s live music circuit.

Steve Ball’s Columbo Group, which bought Camden venue The Jazz Café (cap. 420) in January, will also be relaunching its May acquisition, The Barfly (cap. 200), as The Camden Assembly over the coming months.

And speaking to IQ, Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of the Music Venue Trust (MVT), says he knows of four brand-new venues opening their doors in the year, with another three “likely” to follow suit before the end of the year. He also revealed that MVT is in discussions with “two or three” other new developments about the possibility of including music venues in their plans.

The past 18 months have undoubtedly seen what Davyd calls a “substantial change” in attitudes towards London’s music venues. Somewhere between the launch of MVT in late 2014 – when it was estimated some 40% of London venues had closed in the 10 years since 2004 – to incoming mayor Sadiq Khan promising last month the arts would be “a core priority for my administration, right up there with housing, the environment and security”, local authorities finally appear to have got the memo: that if the UK wants to retain its world-leading music industry, up-and-coming acts have to have somewhere to play.

“If the message coming from City Hall is, ‘We’re not prepared to see music venues closing’, you’d be surprised the impact it has”

“I think people now accept that every single venue that closes in London is damaging to the whole raft of all of them,” says Davyd. “Each one has come under much more scrutiny.”

“The report [London’s Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan] that was launched at Venues Day last year, written by Mark Davyd, Paul Broadhurst [of the Greater London Authority], myself and a few other people really helped,” says Shain Shapiro, head of the secretariat of the London Night Time Commission, which was launched by then-mayor Boris Johnson in May. “That really got the message in people’s heads.”

Perhaps MVT’s biggest coup was the passing by the British government of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) Order 2016 on 6 April, which provides a legal framework to protect existing music venues by encouraging local authorities to make it the responsibility of developers, not venues, to put in place noise-control measures on any new residential development. At the time, Jo Dipple, CEO of industry group UK Music, said the law gives small British venues “additional powers to help them survive and prosper.

Shapiro says it’s now “a lot easier to make our arguments now than it was three or four months ago. We don’t have to convince people as much. Now we’re just having substantive conversations about literal, specific things that need to change. That’s a win!”

Davyd adds that while “I don’t think you could point at any one thing anyone’s done over the past few years and say, ‘that’s caused it'”, he, like Shapiro, points to support from London’s governing Greater London Authority (GLA) as being key to the capital’s musical renaissance. “If the message coming from City Hall is, ‘We’re not prepared to see music venues closing’, you’d be surprised the impact that has on the number of venues that can actually be closed,” he says.

“One of the issues we face with opening new venues is that agents and promoters aren’t interested in exploring new parts of London”

Recent victories for venue owners include a successful court battle by 1,410-capacity Camden venue Koko to prevent a neighbouring pub being turned into flats (and Camden Council’s subsequent backtracking over its original approval for the development, calling it an “isolated error”); the rescue of Earls Court venue The Troubadour (cap. 132) from bankruptcy, which it blamed on a noise-abatement notice forcing it to close its garden after 21.00, leading to a loss in revenue; and the withdrawal of a planning application to develop 1,000-capacity Peckham venue, club and café space the Bussey Building.

It’s not as if housing developers don’t have anywhere to build: London has “some of the biggest development sites in the world,” says Shapiro, as it expands relentlessly outwards into surrounding counties (RIP Middlesex). For live music types, though, Shapiro says the industry collectively needs to “realise that London is changing – that you can play in both inner and outer London and it not impact your economic model. One of the issues we face with opening new venues is that agents and promoters aren’t interested in exploring new parts of London…”

Amid all the success stories there are, of course, still venues under threat, but Davyd explains that “of 88 [small venues programming original material] we know of five that have some sort of problem – which is a low number, to be honest. If we’d have done that two years ago the figure would be more like 20.”

For the first time in a long time, Davyd concludes, “I think people in the sector are feeling a lot more positive about their ability to sustain London’s music scene and be valued in what they’re doing.

“When the mayor’s report came out last year, Jeff [Horton] at the 100 Club said: ‘This is the most positive thing anybody in government has said about the 100 Club in 20 years!'”

 


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