As the slow decline of London’s music scene rumbles on towards the Christmas period, a time in which a combination of people saving up for presents and attending work Christmas parties means that gigs traditionally have a marked drop in attendance, Boris Johnson has seemingly given the music industry a cause for hope with his backing of a potential Night Mayor for London. This would be a position created solely to concentrate on boosting the capital’s night time economy, particularly concentrating on entertainment, and considering how many late-night live music venues have been closing recently, it’s easy to see at first glance where the optimism it has caused has come from.
A closer investigation would suggest that Nightmare would be a more apt title, seeing as there is a great chance that the new position could, in fact, actually make things even worse than they currently are. Considering how far London’s music scene has fallen, it may be the tipping point for many venues that have been under consistent pressure for too long and are reaching breaking point. Here are just 4 reasons why the announcement may bring about more bad than good, and why much of the optimism that has been forthcoming by the news may be premature.
Amsterdam is not London.
1) Much of this optimism has been hung on the recent success of Amsterdam’s Night Mayor, but this is a pointless comparison to make since the cities are in no way comparable. Since 1830 Amsterdam has had legal brothels, since 1988 prostitution has been recognised as a legal profession, and since 2000 there have even been regulations and minimum standards that must be upheld by both brothels and prostitutes. It is also legal to buy cannabis in certain regulated cafes across the city.
So the government has declared that you can get stoned and pay for sex on a Saturday night, and this shows the different perspective that the Dutch government has – whether right or wrong. When there is much less regulation and when people are allowed on a longer leash, of course it is going to be beneficial to people who work in an industry of providing entertainment to people. The cause of the booming night economy is not due to the night mayor, but due to the huge differences in their attitude to life in general by the different governments.
The UK does not have this same attitude of freedom and liberty. Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands and it was the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage, which illustrates the vast contrasts between the cultures. Amsterdam has an incredibly progressive outlook and is willing to take chances, London is less so. Saying “well it worked for the Dutch, it could work for us!” is the same as saying, “the Weatherspoons have been a roaring success in the UK, and Saudi Arabia’s a hot country with lots of rich citizens, I bet they’d love nothing better than sinking a few cold bottles of Becks to cool off……..” You can’t transfer the success of one city that was built on it’s culture to another country with a completely different culture and expect the same outcome. It doesn’t work like that.
That’s not to say that anything that works in the Netherlands is doomed to work here, but instead that it shows how flawed the thought process that a night mayor can be the answer to our problems is. It reeks of an easy solution to an incredibly complex problem, and a failure to understand the actual causes of the decline of London’s music industry. The Netherlands is one of the most liberal countries in Europe, if not the world, and liberalism is built on “ideas of liberty and equality”. By contrast, the UK government recently put a woman on trial for putting a sticker on a door during a protest, in an effort to deter further people from political protests, while at the same time cutting taxes for the rich and cutting tax credits for the poor. These are not the actions of people who are liberal or that want a society based on equality.
A couple of weeks ago an audience member in the Question Time audience captured the political limelight by berating Conservative MP Amber Rudd on tax credit cuts.
On one hand, good for her. On the other, she must be politically aware, otherwise why would she be in the audience for Question Time, and she must have seen the media coverage on the bedroom tax and the effects of other government policies, and yet she still voted Conservative. We can only assume that at the time she agreed with the Conservatives plans to slowly remove the financial safety net that the government provides and then, a few months afterwards, she is outraged because she has been negatively affected by the changes brought in.
No matter what your political feelings are, the tax credit cuts are well within line with what the Conservatives have done since 2010. They want to cut benefits, they want to encourage people to work, and they are willing to cause potential hardship along the way to achieve this. Whether you agree or disagree at least there is a consistency, and yet a few months ago this woman voted for them, and now she is on TV berating them. The reason? Before she was reading about other people being worse off, but now she is the one that is worse off. It’s always easier to support a government that makes tough decisions when it’s someone else’s hardship. I don’t mean to single this woman out in particular, as she is not an anomaly. We’ve now become a society where our own needs are all that matters.
This woman is only displaying characteristics that are to be expected today. The Dutch government aims to appease all demographics of the population by working towards a common good, such as in their tight regulation of social housing, whereas in the UK, and especially London, we have a culture that pits people against each other in an incredibly aggressive and competitive economy, which causes huge factions in society. In London people have to queue overnight in the streets to be first in line to buy a 1 bedroom flat on the Heathrow flight path for £300,000, not because it is such a great deal – it’s isn’t – but because of the fear of being left behind. In such an atmosphere, don’t be surprised if people only start to look out for themselves with little regard for how it affects other people. You know what that’s called? Survival.
The contrast between London’s pressure-cooker style intensity and the laid back and tolerant attitude of the Dutch is passed onto their citizens. Not everyone in Amsterdam smokes weed and wants casual sex for pay, but the people who don’t are not trying to shut down businesses that appeal to people that do, and this is the exact opposite of London’s “I-don’t-like-music-venues-so-I-want-them-closed-down” NIMBY attitude that is putting us in the situation we are currently in.
Multinational companies don’t want to shut music venues down – they don’t get any personal joy from it – instead they just don’t really give a shit what the effects on other people are. They think about what their needs are, and to hell with anyone else. Welcome to 2015’s London.
The housing market is the perfect analogy of this. The government knows that most homeowners are asset rich, and as prices rise the people not on the property ladder are put at an even greater disadvantage. Over time this trend causes society to become more divided and polarised. The success that one person has will come at a cost to another person, and the more this happens, the worse the problem gets. And what has the government done to rectify this? Well, quite the reverse; they bring in legislation such as “right to buy” to stoke the fire even further and exacerbate the problem. It’s bad for other people, but as it personally benefits their core voters and the politicians themselves, 153 of which personally earn money from property (including David Cameron), they fail to see the repercussions. Or fail to try.
This gets to the heart of why so many music venues are closing in the UK. It is not that the government has an ideological hatred of them, or that there is some conspiracy to bring the music industry to it’s knees, instead it is that the government sees no shame in pitting people against each other in the UK, and they are happy to act as mercenary and take sides too. If the government thinks that they can make more money from giving planning permission for luxury flats, they’ll do it. It makes society less equal, and one person’s gain comes from the loss to someone else, but that is an aside.
In the UK if “the greater good” means that one person may have to lose out, then so be it. If 99 people have to miss out, but the 100th person ends up paying more tax revenues overall, the 100th person gets the nod. Even if it makes society less equal, it is accepted as par for the course, whereas in a more liberal national such as Netherlands, the ideal is that the greater good can only come from a system that works towards equality.
Thus, any comparisons between Amsterdam and London are in no way relevant. Even if we had a Night Mayor here, they would still be working within the confines of a system where the needs of certain people, and in this case certain music venues are seen as expendable. No matter how great the Night Mayor is, they will not be able to override the culture within the UK where the value of a business is based not in the benefits that it brings its customers or society in general, but instead in terms of how much tax revenue it creates.
They will also have the impossible task of creating a cohesive economy, with businesses working and living side by side in harmony at the same time that the government is purposefully driving people against each other for economic gain, and that is what the property market does. Contrast that to other economic models for a city. In the 1950’s-1960’s Detroit encouraged car factories to open with the city limits, and each and every one that opened benefited the industry as a whole. The workforce became better skilled, the supply factories to the car factories were able to expand, lowering costs of materials, and as a result multiple car manufacturers thrived. It is in stark contrast to today’s property market where success can only be forged by crushing competition and by rigging the scales in your favour.
Add that to the London culture of its adult taxpaying citizens constantly being treated like children who need to be kept in line, and the brutal culture where weakness and disadvantage are seen as attributes to be exploited instead of invested into, and you have a toxic environment for any business that needs freedom and creativity to thrive in, not least a company entering perhaps the most competitive city in the world, and certainly the most expensive. It is no wonder that the two industries that are thriving the most are the property and banking industries, for these both thrive on such conditions.
Quite frankly, if there was someone in the world who could get good results for the music industry within such an environment, the assembly for London would not have the budget to be able to afford them. Worse, creating this position gives false hope at exactly the time we need realism most of all.
2) Who has created this problem the most? The UK government. So who will we get to fix it? Erm…….
Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Music venues are being closed down, in part, due to the government having too many rules and regulations and not putting enough planning and action into saving them. In many cases a single noise complaint can cause the shutters to come down permanently, and there is simply not enough being done on the part of politicians to stick their neck on the line and do what needs to be done to save the grass-roots music scene. Both Labour from 1997-2010 and the Conservatives of 2010 onwards needs to accept the role that they have played in the decline of the UK music scene, but they’re not going to admit this willingly, they need to be made to face that realisation.
Therefore, if the government has played a role in the industries demise, why do we think that adding an extra layer to the government will solve the problem? There is not a chance in hell that the government will willingly delegate power over London’s music scene to an independent body that actually wants to help the music scene, which means we’ll be left with an extension of what we already have. Are we suggesting that the same people who caused the problem are also the best people to solve it? The sooner we realise that the government are a huge part of the problem, and not the solution, the sooner we can start to make progress.
We need a new body to create the change that is desperately needed, with people who have the experience of working in the music industry, as well as the will and the passion to create the changes so desperately needed, and the only way to do that is to work outside the establishment. Asking the establishment to help solve an establishment problem isn’t the solution.
Take the rise of UKIP, for example. Their development in British politics was pivotal in David Cameron’s announcement that the Conservatives would hold an in-out referendum if they were voted back into power. When their support was low they were ignored, but in November 2012 UKIP polled 14% in the Corby by-election, followed by a 21% share of the vote in Rotherham. As soon as the Conservatives realised that the rise of UKIP would eat away at their share of the vote the most, they changed their policies to recapture it. UKIP did this by playing the anti-establishment card. The leader was pictured with pint in hand, making off the cuff remarks, and despite UKIP being full of ex Tories, and being led by a former commodities trader, they were embraced as the solution to what many people saw was the problem simply as they were seen to be anti-establishment If you want to bring about drastic change you need to do it through non-established means, yet the whole Night Mayor campaign is embracing the establishment, and doing that is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. It’s fighting a PR battle with “The Kings of PR” themselves; Politicians.
UKIP was an organisation that was based on a single issue – leaving the EU – and they stood against the Conservatives, yet the Conservatives actually (somehow) twisted the situation to their benefit by jumping on the issue to win more votes. And it worked. Many people voted for the Conservatives based on their promise of the referendum, so the Conservatives used the results of a campaign that was run against them by UKIP as the market research to create a plan to boost their own credibility. The Tories used the weaknesses that UKIP had identified as a way to connect with their audience better. You have to hand it to them, that’s pretty damn astute.
On that basis, allowing Boris Johnson to make such a statement that shows that he “supports” the plan actually falls into exactly the same trap, and risks misguiding people into believing that the government are working on the same side as the people looking to save the music industry, when they’re not. If they were on our side we would not need this campaign.
I don’t mean this as a harsh criticism of the people behind the plan, as I genuinely think that they are doing great work in trying to protect the interests of the music industry and are achieving a lot more than anyone else out there which is to their immense credit, but allowing the Mayor to make a statement such as this:
without holding him directly to account and challenging him allows him to dictate the tone of the whole process. It makes it appear to the average person that everyone is on the same page, when this is simply not true. The video is incredibly misleading. “Hi folks, I’m Boris Johnson, I’m Mayor of London, and for the last six or seven years I’ve been making a passionate speech in which I point out that London has more live music venues than any other city on earth……” Excuse me? Are you taking the piss? Each and every one of the tens of venues that have closed down could have been saved by your will to save them, and yet at the very time that there is a campaign to draw attention to how much London’s music industry is in decline, you use this as an opportunity to brag about how well the music industry is doing? You’ve been drawing our attention to this? Really? When, exactly, did you do this?” Boris has basically taken 20 minutes to read a report and then said, “how can I win over the voters by using this as a political football?” Worse, he’s been allowed to.
By contrast, when politicians are backed into a corner and held to account in no uncertain terms, as Nick Clegg was by these teenagers and young adults
it creates actual results. Every time the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg in particular were vehemently challenged they fell further and further in the polls to the point where, in 2015, you can fit all of their politicians in a Toyota Previa. When he would claim that the Liberal Democrats were on the side of the people, he was left in no doubt that this was an outright lie. As the guy at 1:45 in the above video says to Clegg, “you’re either stupid, malicious or mad.” If you want change you need to hold people to account for their actions and be definite in attributing blame where it needs to be attributed, not allow them to piggy back on the great work that you are doing.
You also need to be willing to be confrontational and show your anger at the situation. It would have made a better statement to have dubbed Boris Johnson’s video statement with someone else’s voice, in the same way that Gerry Adams was dubbed in the 1980s-1990s, to have picked apart his statement to show the double standards and hypocritical nature of it, or to have shown the video but kept it on mute, with a disclaimer that he had given his opinion on London’s music venues closing but that you were muting it in protest of his role in that. Instead, at the very time that the plan has nationwide press attention, BoJo gets to be the face of a campaign to save music venues when, in fact, he is the one person who has caused the decline of the London Music scene more than any others. In the PR wars, he’s already 10 metres ahead at the first bend.
3) Playing politics.
If this role is created it would easily allow the government to deflect political blame for a lack of progress, or for the continued decline of the music industry, and thus increases the chances of this decline actually happening. Creating this position means that in 2020 they will each be able to say, “Yes, the London Mayor/the Conservative party did not do what they could to boost the music industry over the last 10 years, but now we have listened to the people who represent the music industry and have created this new department. Action needed to be taken, you asked us to take it, and we have taken it,” and that buys them another 5 years of time, which will take us up to 2025. At present venues are shutting down at a staggering rate, we want more of them to stay open and for the ones that have been closed to re-open, and the middle step to achieving this is a Night Mayor. Yet by allowing this to be the focus to the media, it means that people focus on the intermediary middle step instead of the actual end target.
If London gets a Night Mayor it could easily lull people into a false sense of security and create an immense smoke screen. For the first 5 years of that position being created it will essentially be bulletproof. Anyone who criticises it in that initial period will be told that they need to give the position time – we must be patient while they find their feet and judge them at the end of their first term – yet this is the exact time when drastic action needs to be taken most quickly. No matter what criticism they get, the government can say, “ we have implemented the changes you wanted, give it time and let’s see the results.”
At present we know who we can blame, and we need to hold these people to account now, not in 5 years when the music industry has declined even further, but changing the system means there is ample opportunity to shift the blame at exactly the time that we need to be pinning it down the most. This could also allow the government to still dictate the policy towards the UK music industry, but also distance themselves from the repercussions if things fail. If the live music scene picks up they get the credit since they were the ones who elected the Night Mayor, if it fails they can blame the people who made the suggestion, and “rectify” the matter by dissolving the newly created position, and claim that doing so will fix the problem. They can even say, “we listened to the very organisation that had the best interests of the country at heart, and it was their suggestion to create the night mayor, and we did it. What more do you want us to do?” Essentially the music industry could be walking into a trap of appearing to take more control, when the reverse is actually true. Creating the role now means playing into the hands of politicians who love to play politics.
4) If we are going to have a Night Mayor, get it done now!!
Crucially, the new position is simply a suggestion, and there is no certainty or even likelihood that it will ever come to fruition. Whilst there are actually cases for why the position might create long term stability if it was created in the best way and if the person who got the job was given appropriate powers and performed their job well, there is no doubt that in the short term the ambiguity of not knowing whether the position will even be created, and what the terms for the role will be could be damaging. If the music industry was stable and thriving I would say that it would be a perfect time to create such a position, but I fear that implementing such a drastic change when the music industry is at a historic low may be a risk too far at the wrong time.
There is no industry in the world that likes unpredictability and instability, and yet this is what has been introduced. People may be unwilling to invest money into the music industry while they don’t know if there will be a night mayor, and if there is what their plans will be, since they won’t know what the rules of the industry are investing in are. It helps no-one while it is unclear as to whether the position will even be created.
The plans need to be agreed to within weeks. Something as fundamental as whether the government encourages lots of smaller venues or fewer larger ones, and their location has huge repercussions since it will be different people who will be attracted to each choice, and no matter what direction the government goes in, both sides can react to the plans as they are released. Yet this lack of clarity over the time frame of the new position gives the government the perfect delay tactic. We don’t know if the position will be created, when the position will be created, and if it is created, what it will do. The vagueness across the whole board is incredibly worrying and it brings ambiguity at exactly the time we need clarification.
When we had a run on the banks in 2008, action was taken immediately. On 17thSeptember HBOS crashed and was rescued by Lloyds. On 8th October over £500Billion was invested to prop up the industry. In this case they acted immediately with action in less than 3 weeks. If the government declared a plan that had £25million worth of investment to protect music venues, that also encouraged the private sector to invest more, and changes in the law were brought in in the same way as in the wake of the banking collapse, it would have an incredible effect. Allocate £100,000 of soundproofing to each venue and you could have an extra 250 music venues protected across the UK, and all for 0.005% of the amount that went to the bankers. Even better, there is more chance of that money actually being recovered than compared to the banking crises, and it will have extra societal benefits too.
Yet the music industry has been in decline for many years, with a list of venues as long as your arm closing down from 2008-2015, and only now, 7 years later is there action being taken, and yet we still don’t know what the action will be? And we are meant to be filled with hope by this vague declaration by Boris Johnson of his possible backing? Should we be happy at declarations of intentions and preferences? Have we lowered our standards to such a level that we are happy to get some attention by the mayor and a pat on the head from him?
There are certain limitations to what can be achieved and the time frame of any progress since the people behind the campaign of creating a Night Mayor do not have any say at all in whether the position is created, and so blame certainly cannot be laid at their door for the ambiguity that has been created, but they need to do more to challenge Boris Johnson on his commitment. If Boris is allowed to dictate the pace, change will never come.
It also illustrates the risk of relying on the government being won over to reach our objectives, and make no mistake, that is what we are trying to do. We are trying to win over the very people that are playing the biggest role in the destruction of the music industry. Asking only gets you do far, instead the Mayor needs to be made to give an official declaration of how many venues will be saved, by when, how much the investment will be, and this needs to be a guarantee.
Instead of creating an unnecessary new position that will either not have the power to make changes or that will simply be an extension of the system that has led us to this point, we need to get to the real causes of why the music industry is in decline, and blame needs to be attributed accordingly. Action needs to be taken, not asked for. Now.
In conclusion, this position is untested in London, will take time to find it’s feet at the very stage that action needs to be as quick as possible, it will keep power with the very people who have caused the mess that we are in, will give the only people who can make a difference the opportunity to wriggle out of doing so, and all whilst also bringing another layer of bureaucracy cost to the government, which will mean vital investment being diverted. If change is going to come about, the plan for action will need to be a lot more drastic than that. An industry that is being killed by extremes needs to be fought in a much more dramatic way than this. In Part 2 we will explore some of these ideas.
For extra background information on the need to protect London’s music scene, and more details on it’s decline, there is more information on the following links.
The Death of the London music scene – Part 1
The Death of the London music scene – Part 2