With news of a declining live music scene across the UK, one London borough is determined to buck the trend. James Wood reports
The tight-packed crowd jostles for position, necks craned with the vain hope of a better view of the stage where the band will soon appear. Roadies test instruments, murmured “one-twos” into microphones answered by eager cheers from the dimly lit pit – where the hum of anticipation drowns out the background pulse from the speakers. Then the house lights drop and a roar signals the start of an event that could be transformative, not only to become engraved in memories but capable of shaping identities.
“These are the moments that make us,” says Shain Shapiro, CEO of Sound Diplomacy, which seeks to persuade influential bodies how live music can diversify places, boost economies, build skills, create jobs and contribute to the development of an area.
In recent years, many venues have been forced to close their doors for reasons ranging from wage stagnation – with people no longer able to afford regular nights out – to public sector cuts to the arts. But as Shapiro points out, live music will always be in demand and in Southwark, its importance is valued.
“Southwark [Council] is very good at what it does,” says Shapiro. “They have a sense of what is needed: creating varied platforms for a diverse community. Its cultural register is strong and that’s rare for a local authority. They know people need to feel excited about where they live, seem able to resolve issues and are malleable to the demand of live music without impeding housebuilding priorities.”
Measuring Music 2016, the UK Music report on the economic value of the industry, calculated the total GVA contribution to the UK economy in 2015 as £4.1 billion, of which £907 million was generated by live music, a business which was then employing 25,150 people. Director of government and public affairs at UK Music, Tom Kiehl, says: “Not only that, but we are now analysing the influence of Brexit on the industry. If bands are prevented from playing in mainland Europe, it becomes more important that there are enough places for musicians to perform in the UK and that these places are up to scratch.
“London is intrinsic to this. Our report shows that this is the first year in a long time that the decline is reversing. This country has a very broad live music appeal and as a consequence, more venues are opening.”
Several of these are in Southwark. They range from established club venues and fashionable hangouts for a young population, to specialist performance spaces supporting grassroots acts across a range of genres.
Live music boosts the night-time economy. “You have iconic venues like the Ministry of Sound here,” points out Shapiro. “Experiences there might create memories that last forever and that can’t be underestimated.”
Labour maintained its majority in May's local council elections, holding 49 of the 63 seats on the council.