Electioneering - #SaveLondonMusic
by Jimmy Mulvihill
May 22nd 2015
A couple of months ago we wrote two blog pieces about the decline, and the potential escalation of the decline of the London music scene,
which had a really strong response from lots of people. The crux of the blogs was that if music venues and rehearsal studios keep on closing at the rate that they currently are, pretty soon London is going to be a music-free zone. We also went into detail about the unnecessary challenges that we personally ran into when trying to set up our long term rehearsal studios complex, a complex that would have employed people, generated tax revenue and added to the creative spark within the capital.
In our view the problem was clear: the short term profits that are made from luxury property (in London particularly) , and the prohibitive laws that strangle any sense of creative enterprise is eroding the creative scene within London that most cities would be immensely proud of. Meanwhile, the people who have a strong influence in the city of London seem to take this fine heritage for granted, and are seemingly oblivious to the consequences of their actions. The same applies, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the UK.
Mill Hill Music Complex had already been running their own campaign on the same subject, and they did their own blog post
and by now we were being contacted by other people saying that they too felt that something needed to be done to stop the destruction of such a vital part of our culture, economy and heritage.
But what to do? Well, with an election coming up, we though we would contact the only people who have the power to protect the businesses within the music industry – i.e. politicians: for only they can actually change the law to give the music industry the protection that it deserves – to ask them whether they agreed with our concerns, and if so, what they planned to do to clarify the law and bring about some much needed stability. Our argument was clear: not only do the creative arts make London a fantastic place to live with a creative scene that is the envy of the world, but also that it makes good sense economically and socially to support the arts.
We wrote one letter to send out to all of the major political parties, and we then appealed to as many other studios as possible to see if they wanted to put their name behind the letter too. This is the letter we wrote.
We felt that the more businesses there were that supported it, the more chance there was of it being taken seriously. We sent it out, and the following people put their support behind it.
Bally Studios Mill Hill Music Complex Studios Downs SoundsSoup Studios BonafideStudio London Terminal Studios The Secret Warehouse Of Sound The Engine Rooms The Premises Studios The Rehearsal Rooms M.A.D Tweeters Rehearsal Studios Lucky Stone Studio Voltage Studios Spiral Studios Neon Sound Studios ALTERNATOR – Recording Studio & Rehearsal Rooms Nepenthe Recording Studios The Pit Recording Studio & Rehearsal Rooms Rocket Park Studios Ascape Studios
Meet and Jam Music Venue Trust Music Producers Guild Alt Mu Magazine (ALT-MU)
Mill Hill Music Complex had already made excellent progress with their #SaveLondonMusic campaign that had a lot of momentum behind it, so we put our efforts behind this hashtag.
Here’s how it has been going.
Part 1: Getting support.
– please note, that the above businesses put their support behind the initial letter that we sent out, and that from here onwards our feedback is solely a response to our personal experiences. –
We contacted many studios to see if they wanted to support the campaign, and have personally spoken online to at least 80 of them. Whilst there was an almost complete agreement about wanting to help and the need for action to be taken, there was a marked difference in their responses.
There were many studios that are well established that have been trading for many years. They would have either recouped their initial investment, or were established enough to have a sizeable and loyal customer base, and so would not have had the same financial constraints as newer businesses. These studios were more financially stable, had a bit of a financial buffer and were strapping themselves in for the long term, and the majority of them joined the campaign with passion. All of these more established studios – the ones that we most hoped would sign up – expressed their support quickly, and added their name to the cause without hesitation.
Then there are others that were less established who have been forced to take a much shorter term view of their studios development. From talking to them they agreed that they are left vulnerable by the lack of clarity in the law, but they also accepted that they knew that this was the situation when they set up the studios. Many of them have admitted to us that they didn’t expect to last too long anyway: not through a lack of business or not wanting to, but simply as they realised that there was a strong chance that they would be forced to shut down due to either rent rises or noise complaints. When setting up they had taken this into account and calculated how much money to invest in their business accordingly, looking to break even very quickly, which meant that they invested less into their business than they otherwise would have to keep the risk of losing money low.
By all means, they WANTED to invest money, but seeing as they felt they could be shut down at any time, they decided it was too big a risk to take. So they started trading knowing that they would probably get complaints and that they would have to close within 12 months, but hopefully they could make enough money in that time to make it worthwhile. It really surprised us to hear that many of them were actually using the ambiguity of the law to their advantage. They reasoned that while strict limits and guidelines on noise pollution would help protect music venues and rehearsal spaces that were able to meet them in the long term, they could also be used as a stick to punish the businesses that did not.
We would reply that if there were concrete regulations in place they would only need to invest money to meet them, and that from then onwards they would never have to worry about noise complaints, which would make their trading much more predictable. Yes, it would take a bigger initial investment and more work, but surely it was worth it for the long term certainty? They agreed with this, but this then brought up a new problem: about 90% of the 30 businesses had the response of “what if I put all of the money into soundproofing the studios to meet these standards, and then the landlord puts the rent up or asks me to move out? What do I do then?”
This was exactly the point that we made on our Meet & Jam blog post.
At present businesses within the music industry can get closed down at such short notice that it makes any investment that they make very risky. If laws were brought in to bring about stability and predictability then businesses could invest with confidence. However, in that case there would need to be TOTAL stability and confidence. Getting an industry 90% predictable and stable serves no purpose since the final 10% of the industry that is ambiguous could undo all other progress, and while we have a situation where people do not know what their rent is going to be next year or whether they will even be able to trade next month, there is no way for them to know how much they can earn back on their investment, and therefore how much to spend on investments such as soundproofing.
Studios and live music venues get shut down due to noise complaints, and the way to solve those noise complaints is to soundproof their premises, but business owners cannot do that in case they get kicked out of their current location before they have a chance to recoup the cost of that investment. As a result of the rental market being so unprotected for businesses, and with the cost of property in London especially being too high to rule out buying their premises, these studios reacted to the short term nature of renting property by also focusing on the short term.
However, these businesses also felt that there was a relatively easy fix: all that they would need is a guarantee that if they invested in soundproofing and committed the money that this needed, that in return they would be able to operate without fear of being unfairly closed down. By upholding their side of the bargain they could be sure that, so long as they stayed within the terms of their lease, they would be able to stay at their current location long enough to re-coup that investment, whilst paying a rent that allowed them to be able to make a profit good enough to justify that investment. They understood that rent rises may be needed, they just wanted to know what they would be. They wanted to know what they needed to do, how much to spend, how long they have to earn that money back, and what their costs will be in the future so that they could make plans around known facts – all pretty sensible requests.
Sadly, whilst agreeing with the sentiments of the campaign, the vast majority of these businesses did not want to put their name behind it for fear of drawing attention to themselves. They said that if they openly declared how easy it would be for the rent to be increased, while stating that they would have little choice other than to pay it, that it could increase the chance of it happening. The phrase “I don’t want to give my landlord any ideas” was mentioned a lot. Ironically enough, they are also the people who needed the clarity that we were asking for the most.
Most of their whole approach, they told us, has been about trying to stay under the radar as much as possible, running on as low a budget as possible and being able to eek out a small profit on a small customer base. The phrases, “stick our head above the parapet” and “don’t want to make any enemies” were also mentioned many times. 27 different studios honestly told us that they had this approach. Many of them had the customer base needed to expand, yet were still unable to take the risk of doing so. In their mind, as their whole plan of running their business up until that point had been based around the fact that they could be closed down at any time, a campaign such as this would actually be a leap into the unknown. If it could be achieved, great, but if not then they may have made things worse.
To us, this contrasting attitude between the studios with short and long term focus shows that the unsigned music industry is becoming strongly polarized. The studios with more financial backing are able to invest, can improve their standards and can grow stronger with a longer term plan, while the ones that are living hand-to-mouth and day-to-day have to get by without the same solid foundation, which puts them at an even bigger disadvantage since they will find it hard to progress and improve. As a result, it is harder for new studios to flourish, which is not only bad for bands and the music industry in that it limits the availability of rehearsal studios, but it is surely bad for the whole idea of any kind of social mobility. If the only people who are able to set up a new studios are people who are able to take a risk on losing a lot of money, or people who have the money to own their own building and not have to worry about being evicted or rent rises, then the music industry will soon become one that is only open to investment from the wealthy, or one that has a small set of established companies with a growing influence.
Even though we (Bally) have been at the same location since 1989 and have a solid foundation which means that we would be one of the studios who would stand to actually benefit from these obstacles (as they would hurt our competition more than us), it still makes us sick to think that such obstacles could exist in 2015 for people who want to start or build up their own business. All businesses that work in the music industry in London should be passionate about making the London music scene as strong as possible. Even if it means that it helps more people enter the industry and makes for fiercer competition, it still benefits everyone. The whole reason we are able to generate the trade we need is because there is such a strong demand for music in the capital, but if the means to supply that music dries up, so too will the ability to deliver it. As people become exposed to less great music, the demand will quickly start to drop off. Soon, everyone will lose.
In Nashville competition in country music is fierce; in Los Angeles it is as competitive a market for rap music as you could imagine, and there comes a time in the Reggae industry when you need to focus on areas such as Kingston, Jamaica. In all of these cases, the areas with the most competition are also the areas that it is best to be located in and the most lucrative, and in all cases, the increased competition draws people to the area, which then benefits everyone within the area including the businesses. This is what London is in danger of losing.
We felt that this confirmed our feelings about the music industry – that the lack of clear guidelines makes it very susceptible to being unstable. A competitive music industry with strong foundations is one that benefits everyone. A customer can get a better standard of service and the businesses within it are kept on their toes from the increase of competition, while the industry also has a stream of passionate new people who are joining it with new ideas. If the odd session is lost here and there it would not matter as much as businesses would be able to make up those sessions over the long term.
However instead, with the lack of any clear guidelines in the law that we currently have, many people are forced to focus on the short term, trading on vague guidelines, which hurts not only them, and not only the music industry, but the UK economy too. Even though it was the less established businesses that were most at risk from this, that is also not to say that the more established studios have it easy either: the phrases “only a matter of time….” “what can you do…..” and “make hay while the sun shines” were mentioned many times as well.
Despite these problems that limited the amount of names we could collect, we still had a good roster of names behind the letter.
2) Putting the letters to political parties.
Now we needed to get the letter to the people who could deliver the changes that we asked for – the political parties. The parties that we contacted were the ones who either had a chance of being voted into power by a majority, ones that had a chance of being asked to join a coalition, or that had a chance of getting publicity for a cause that they supported or opposed. These parties were Conservatives, The Labour PartyLiberal Democrats Green Party of England and Wales and UK Independence Party (UKIP) We will now go into our experience that we had in getting answers from these people, but, to be clear, the conclusions that we have drawn from this experience are ours alone, and may or may not be shared by the other studios that put their name to the letter.
Despite having lots of businesses behind the scheme and a very clear letter, we had no response at all when the letters and e mails first were sent out. We contacted them again to confirm that they had been received, and still nothing: we were just told, politely, in all cases to refer to their printed manifesto. We then started contacting people within these organisations lower down the chain and started to get feedback.
In all cases we were given stock answers along the lines of ‘please refer to our manifesto, all of our policies are in there,’ or they simply read from their manifesto. Naturally, candidates were unable to give their opinion on the matter if the party itself had no official position. When we mentioned to many of the parties that their manifestos had no specific details about protecting music venues in particular, or any policies regarding music at all, we were directed to their policies towards culture and the arts, and in all cases it gave them an opportunity to deliver neatly packaged soundbites.
When we pressed – and believe me, this was a task that was about as frustratingly slow as you could imagine – we were told that none of these parties has any official policy on specifically bringing in the guidelines that we have suggested (which is to be expected), but also that four out of the five parties had no specific policies with regards to helping the music industry, music venues, and the businesses that operate within the music industry. The Green Party were the only party that had this policy, or that even mentions live music venues in their manifesto. (Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP’s manifestos do not mention the word “Music” in it at all. The Conservative mentions it twice, once in relation to banning certain music videos to under 18s, and once in terms of being proud of the UK’s musical heritage. Apart from that, there are no other mentions of music from all of these parties.)
The parties all have policies on the arts in general, and on community development, and they said that they would all support the council if the needed to enforce noise complaints, but apart from the Green Party, none on them had any policies on live music specifically. Here is what each of them said are their official policies on matters closest to our cause.
Conservatives: "We will keep our major national museums and galleries free to enter and enable our cultural institutions to benefit from greater financial autonomy to use their budgets as they see fit. We will support a Great Exhibition in the North; back plans for a new theatre, The Factory, Manchester; and help the Manchester Museum, in partnership with the British Museum, to establish a new India Gallery. We are also supporting plans to develop a modern world class concert hall for London"
http://issuu.com/conservativeparty/docs/ge_manifesto_low_res_bdecb3a47a0faf?e=16696947%2F12362115#search (page 43)
Labour: "We will increase the number of apprenticeships in the creative industries. We will create a Prime Minister’s Committee on the Arts, Culture and Creative Industries, with a membership drawn from all sectors and regions. The Committee will bring issues of concern direct to the attention of the Prime Minister."
"Support growth in the creative industries, including video gaming, by continuing to support the Creative Industries Council, promoting creative skills, supporting modern and flexible patent, copyright and licensing rules, and addressing the barriers to finance faced by small creative businesses."
https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/libdems/pages/8907/attachments/original/1429028133/Liberal_Democrat_General_Election_Manifesto_2015.pdf?1429028133 (page 37)
The Green Party: "Increase government arts funding by £500 million a year to restore the cuts made since 2010 and reinstate proper levels of funding for local authorities, helping to keep local museums, theatres, libraries and art galleries open. Reduce VAT to 5% for live performances. Work to support fair pay productions in the arts. Give local authorities powers to encourage local live performance in the arts by moving funding from the regional to the local level and modifying regulations so that small-scale live performance in pubs and similar venues is not stifled."
https://www.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/manifesto/Green_Party_2015_General_Election_Manifesto_Searchable.pdf (page 61)
UKIP: "We will abolish government departments when their essential powers and functions can be merged into other departments. Such departments will include the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Department for International Development, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport."
Full link: http://issuu.com/ukip/docs/theukipmanifesto2015/1?e=16718137%2F12380620 (page 9)
Now, to be clear, we do not wish to enter into a political debate about which parties we think you should vote for, nor will we try to influence anyone either way. We simply wanted to find out what their position on these matters were, all of the parties told us to quote them from their manifesto, which is what we have done, and all of them said that they would not give any specific statement on what we asked for. Naturally the people who work at Bally have their own thoughts and feelings on which parties they will vote for, but as a company we have little desire to stand on a political soap box. However, we wanted to share our feedback of the correspondence that we had with each party, as well as the parties in general.