Following on from our last post about how London is rapidly becoming a worse place for being in a band, here’s the follow-up: how the changing nature of the London scene affects small businesses such as ours.
It may sound like something out of a public relations handbook, but we become good friends with many of the bands who come, especially those who rehearse with us week in, week out. We start to get into the routine of remembering which bands like which studios, which members take milk and sugar in their tea, and which guitarists prefer valve or solid-state amps. In a way they start to feel like family, but not all families are destined to stay together, and in the same way that some parents have to sit their kids down to have a talk about how they are going to make the transition from being “one unhappy family” to being “two happy families”, from time to time we get a Facebook message, a phone call or an e mail from a band telling us how they will no longer be coming to use our facilities as the band has come to an end.
They have decided to split up not due to “creative differences” and not because they have “come to the end of their natural journey”. In most cases it is due to the band members deciding that instead of their time and money being spent on Marshall Bluesbeaker amplifiers, wah pedals, Gibson Les Pauls and 6 hour weekend rehearsals, instead it needs to go towards funding a survey on a 1 bedroom flat in South Woodford or towards securing a nursery place for their new born. They would love to keep the band going, but with London living being such a drain on their wallet, they have to make a choice. In many cases this means giving up on the band.
To us this is sad, but totally understandable. That’s just the way that London is, and inevitably there will come a point when the amount of hours and money being put into the band is unlikely to be matched by the rewards that they will make, and whilst it is regrettable, sadly the financial sums just do not add up. It is a lot easier for us to relate to this than it should be, though, as we went through the exact same situation ourselves. In 2005 we looked to open 1 recording/rehearsal studio in London, and we ended up opening 2 of them at once, with an extra long term rental studio. in 2006 we added a third studio, a forth in 2007 and in 2009 a fifth. In 2005, on the week that we took over a studio complex with 16 years of trading behind it, we had an average 19 hours per week of use, yet in June 2009, on one day we had 68 hours of sessions between 5 studios over 18 different band sessions. An average of 13 and a half hours of use per studio in one day. We turned up at 10am and we left at midnight with over 120 cups of tea and coffee being made, and it made for an exhausting but exhilarating day. We took 19 new sessions of bookings. The next day we decided we wanted to expand the studios to new locations.
Over 2010 we put in many months of planning, and in early 2011, we were looking at opening more rehearsal studios in potential areas of Caledonian Rd, Crouch End, Wimbledon and Lambeth. Yet in all cases, despite us trying to set up businesses that would employ people and raise revenues for the taxman, it was clear that there was no desire to want to assist us from any government offices. The feedback that we got was that music based companies were not wanted. Business plans were sent in to councils and not read for months, meetings we had with landlords were cancelled with 30 minutes notice, we sent a letter to each and every single council based in London to see if they could help us find a property that was suitable for a rehearsal studios without even getting a single reply, and despite investigating over 120 properties ourselves, the only place that we were able to secure would have been an industrial building in Hayes – and only then until 2018. “When Crossrail opens more people will want to be based here, so you will have to move out then.” In all other cases we were told to “complete the soundproofing work, and we will let you know after 4 weeks if we will let you continue the studios.” The thought of putting in £30k of soundproofing work and maybe having to close the studios down after 4 weeks was not an option, and our request of exact and specific guidelines as to how much noise we could make was turned away with a “it’s tricky, it depends if any of the neighbours complain.” Upon telling them that the current neighbours had no problem about it, we were told, “well, the next neighbours might have a problem”.
We sent 31 emails to Network Rail to try to secure various locations in railway arches, the first 5 in hope and the remaining 26 in sheer persistence, yet they were all ignored. At the 2011 Business seminar at the O2 Arena in London we identified the man who manned Network Rail’s trade stall as the man that we had been emailing, and approached him, handing over our business card.
He took one look at it and within seconds was on a defensive-offensive: “Wow, I am so glad that you came here as I have been intending to get in touch with you!!” He even asked “can I just grab a glass of water first before we start, so I can collect my thoughts as well?” as if he was in a mild-panic. His hand actually trembled as he sipped his water and he then told us that he had been instructed to ignore any e mails from any business that was a “likely noise polluter”. Just like other landlords, they were too afraid of letting us know that our enquiries were not wanted, yet unlike the other landlords they had neglected to actually tell us this.
Now, of course, we more than respect neighbours being bothered by the noise: after all, we wouldn’t want to live next to a rehearsal studios ourselves. Yes, it is a problem: On one hand you have a family with a new born baby that they want to get to sleep at 9pm, and on the other hand you have a band that wants to blow off steam and create the next million seller album at 11pm, and sadly these two pursuits simply do not mix. It’s definitely a problem for everyone concerned: the council, the studios, the people who live near the studios, and this is understandable. The difference is that when there are problems in all other matters that the council have, they find a solution. When Crossrail hit an ancient graveyard they increase the budget by tens of millions of pounds to solve the problem. The schedule for the Olympics build is slipping behind? Let’s throw hundreds of millions of pounds at it to get around that problem. Not enough trees in Central London? The solution is to spend £175Million on a garden bridge with trees on it. The toilets in the house of lords looking a bit tired? Let’s spend £100,000 on them to make them fresh again. All of these projects were investments that solved problems, and in each and every case the government found a way to make it happen. They did not give up, they dug their heels in to make it work.
Yet when there is a problem with trying to open music based companies in London, no attempt is made to get around these problems. The Astoria in the way of Crossrail? Bulldoze it. In the case of Earls Court the government never even made a real effort to save it. Their attitude was along the lines of ‘It’s a nice building, it’s a shame we’re just going to have to demolish it’. Want to open a rehearsal studios? ‘That would be a bother, so I don’t think we can do it’. Neighbours complaining about the noise from a music venue? ‘Better close it down.’ As a result, the music industry is so much the weaker for it. London seems to have a massive problem with anything based around music, and the feedback that we are getting from bands is that it is harder and harder to be in a band. London is a bad place to be running a business based in the music industry, and as a result is is becoming a worse plan to be in a band.
Speaking as people who had a demand for studio sessions yet could not fulfill them, our experience was that being based in London was a hurdle on the same scale of a sprinter having to run in 12 inches of water. So we did the same as the other bands did: we gave up. We continue the studios, but have no intention of growing them despite there being the demand to do so. On one day in 2010 we had 22 bands ask us for a session. We were able to accommodate 14 of them in the 5 studios, yet we had to turn 8 of them away, and it was frustrating as hell.
We had the income to invest in infrastructure, but we did not want to invest it without being given assurances that we would be able to stay at the location for a sufficient amount of time to earn that investment back, which is about as basic a business approach as it is possible to have. If a landlord had said, “as long as you stay within the noise guidelines and pay your rent on time, I can give you a 10 year lease” then we could have done it in a flash. Despite contacting over 70 estate agents and every single council in London, not once was this even a possibility. I am not saying that no good buildings were offered to us, I am saying that none at all were made available without huge caveats. We were told the same at every turn – “a 28 day test period, then we will let you know if you can continue.”
Eventually we dropped the idea, and now, 3 years after hitting a brick wall with trying to set up new studios in London, and 2 years after trying to open a music venue instead and running into the same brick walls, Bally’s owners will now be starting their third year outside of the country having moved away in early 2013 when it became clear that if there was going to be any progress made, it would need to be done away outside the UK. The only conclusion that we could come to was that the people who decide the future of the UK, and in particular London, were going to make it as hard as they could for us to develop our business, so we stopped developing it here and moved away. We got the message: our business growth was not wanted.
After securing a potential £90,000 of backing for a long term rehearsal studios in London, and despite being able to put down a year of rent in advance to secure a location, it was still impossible to find a location that was suitable without there being caveats and restrictions being placed on the building that would have made it impossible to run a business there. In all cases, landlords told us things like “the last thing I need is the council shutting me down”, “I would love to help you but the council doesn’t like noise pollution” or “I wouldn’t want to bother the neighbours”. A quick check of websites like Gumtree show that there is a huge demand for soundproofed units, but when the commercial property market is so strong landlords have no desire to move into that market. The ones that do will charge astronomical rents as they know that they can, and the longer it continues, the harder it is for the unsigned music industry to grow.
When we were looking at starting the studio complex that would be rented out solely on long term rentals, we had 34 different people who wanted to take out a years rental with us, but as we could not secure a property on a long term basis, we could not fulfil the requests. As soon as councils hear about the chance of noise complaints they panic. As a result, bands rehearse less, and fewer reach their potential. The councils are holding back the music scene.
Whilst the option of terminating a lease at 4 weeks notice may be suitable for an office based company, where they can load their desks and telephones into the back of a white van and move at short notice, it is much harder for us to move our soundproofing with us considering the months of work it takes to install it. Our requests for a long term rental agreement were met with derision, and we are made to feel guilty for wanting to grow an independent business.
If it is possible that historic buildings can be demolished to make way for more office space and sandwich shops, why is it so hard to designate certain new dedicated soundproofed units as being “loud zones”, where musicians and studios can operate from without fear of bothering people? If just a few buildings dotted around London were built, set back by 50 metres from other businesses and residential buildings and reserved for the exclusive use of people who want to make a racket, it could give so many people a chance of establishing a solid business with long term plans in London instead of having to live month by month with the fear of being kicked out of their location at any time by a noise complaint. Rents could still be charged and profits made. All that it would need is a simple clause in the contract along the lines of “we understand that you will be making a lot of noise, and that’s OK,” and for these buildings to be located away from residential properties so that no-one would be bothered. We are not talking about everywhere, just a few places here and there, a maximum of 10 locations around London, a city that is 1,572 sq kms. 10 buildings that are designated as “loud zones”, where steps are taken to make sure that neighbours are not bothered, and protection in place to protect the people within them.
Some will say, “if there is the demand for it, the free market will provide it,” but realistically no landlord is going to take the chance of such a big investment if, as is currently the case, there is a chance that the whole operation could be closed down due to one complaint from a neighbour. Converting these units for such a use would cost £100,000’s, and there needs to be a certain amount of protection for people to invest that money. While councils still operate on this idiotic policy that is so incredibly one-sided it will be impossible for the situation to improve. It is hard enough for bands based in London as it is with all of the challenges that they have, but this makes it so much harder. When you consider that the very infrastructure that they will depend on to become successful is being stripped away before our very eyes, it makes you wonder if there is even a future for the creative arts in London.
If you are reading this and thinking, “but that’s London, the concentration is just too high to allow music venues/recording & rehearsal studios without bothering the neighbours”, then you are also saying that the London music scene has no future – and that is genuinely depressing.
To confirm, we are not saying that London needs to ignore all noise regulations and allow people to make as much noise as they want. That would be jumping from one extreme to the other. Instead London needs to work from the basis that bands and a thriving music industry will, by their very nature, create a lot of noise. Therefore steps should be taken to make sure that people that will use London as a base understand exactly how much noise they can make, are made aware of areas that they can be based where there is less chance of bothering people, as well as making sure that the venues that have been long established in London get the protection that they need. If a music venue moved in next door and cups started to fly off the shelves from the sound of a bass guitar coming through the wall then yes, of course such a venue needs to be closed down. On the other hand we have a situation where people move into a flat next door to music venue, knowing full well that it is a music venue, and then complain that they now live next door to a music venue and the law comes down on their side,and it is incredibly tough on the music scene.
If, however, the London councils do not feel that this is of a priority and if they intend to always come down hard on even the slightest noise complaint then they need to be clear that this is the case. They need to make an open declaration that companies and people that need such policies in place would be better off looking elsewhere to find them. That way, maybe more people will not have their time wasted as we did over the course of a whole year. In our opinion, this is the crux of the matter: London may have a future in the music industry, but if it does it will be despite the efforts of the local councils and not because of them.
Based on what we have seen the councils are trying to do everything that they can to stop the development of the London music scene that can create some of the biggest acts in the world, yet they are more than happy to cream off of the profits of the acts that play to 60,000+ in Hyde Park. As a general rule, bands do not sell out these kind of gigs in their first year: instead they have to build up to them over many years and this needs rehearsal studios, small venues, and a bit of freedom to make some noise. And yet with every day that passes in London, these three commodities become more and more scarce. The ratio for input>output for the music industry is incredible – a band with £5,000 of gear can make an album that sells 10 Million copies and earns their record label £3,000,000 – £4,000,000. Even better, it is the bands and record labels, the private market, that make the investments while the governments gets a share of the profits made without them needing to invest anything. As far as investments go, not even smuggling a suitcase of heroin will get you the same return on your investment, and so the music industry is a tax-cash-cow just waiting to be milked. All the benefits with little downsides. Yet no effort is being made to feed the cow – more accurately, the cow is months away from being taken behind the barn and shot.
There are few schemes to encourage participation in music, (certainly not on the same level that sport gets) no effort to save the infrastructure that the music industry is built upon, and no designated areas for people to create music. Nothing. Religious groups can declare themselves a charity and avoid paying tax by doing so, bankers that make hundreds of millions of pounds of profits through illegal rate-rigging get a slap on the wrists, and members of parliament that fiddle their expenses get asked to pay back “some” of these costs when they are caught, and in all cases there is a lack of correlation between the benefits to society and the laws that are being upheld. Meanwhile, a music venue that gets one complaint can be asked to close down while an investigation takes place, seemingly bypassing the whole “innocent until proven guilty” concept. We are not asking for special privileges, or a license to make as much noise as we want, just exact guidelines that allow us to know what the law is so that we can work towards abiding by it. At present we are not told what this is and it makes any kind of planning impossible. It is frustrating beyond belief.
In June 2013, 4 months after leaving London I found myself in Valencia, Spain, at the time just travelling but, by fortune, it would be the location where I would finally settle. About 3 weeks after arriving I was invited to an opening show of an “artistic collective” which was basically a show were 2 bands played music, artists displayed artwork and a whole manner of other creative people promoted their projects. Beer was served from bathtubs in Botellas (small 200ml bottles) for €1 each and the sound-system was makeshift, but the event had a lot of passion and love behind it. Still being at the stage of not speaking any Spanish I found myself talking to someone who was working for the local council at a low level who was more than happy to practice their English on me, and the conversation turned to jobs.
I asked, jokingly, if he was there to inspect the licence of the event? “No, it is just a small event, no need for a licence. It is just a few hours long, no need for worries” he replied, before asking me what my story was. Upon telling him of the studios in London his eyes lit up: “Are you here to open a studio?!?” No, I reassured him, I had had enough of that. “But why?” he enquired, and I proceeded to give him a quick synopsis of what had occurred over the last year. 80% of the way through the explanation he said, “But you cannot allow that to put you off, no? You must try to set something up over here?” My reply of “I’m not sure that I have the energy to, to be honest” was met with an enthusiastic “If I can help I will, both in an official and an unofficial capacity.”
It had been so long since I had been met with such a positive response that I was, I admit, a bit sceptical of his intentions. “What is your interest? Why would you be so keen to help?” I asked. He proceeded to finish a near three-quarters of the bottle of Cruzcampo beer in one gulp, take a drag on a roll-up cigarette and reply with “Because that’s my job. I work for the council, and the role of the council is to improve the area. A music venue, a studio, a festival, they make the area better. They create jobs, something to do, a fun day out, they draw people to the area. Cities like New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville made a lot of money out of music. People go to them for music. If we can have some music businesses here, we can make money. I mean, I like music, music is fun too, but it is good for business. It is great for tourism. Austin in Texas makes a lot of money from SXSW festival, no? Glastonbury makes money from music, maybe we can too. It’s worth a try, yes?” He was right, but in 8 years of being based in London and running a business in the music industry and hitting brick wall after brick wall, never once had I encountered the same positive attitude with a London council.
There are still times when we feel like expanding our business, especially when we have to turn multiple bands away, but at all times we are a noise complaint or two away from running into problems. Thankfully at our current location as we have been here for so long, with a business operating here since 1989, that any noise complaints would be made by people moving in so the law would be on our side, but if we were to take over units that were not previously used for businesses that were music related, then there would be little that we could do if there were any noise complaints. Hence we cannot grow our business. We get, on average, 12 people a month asking us for a job, and yet we are only a small company and don’t advertise any jobs. The potential for grow would be huge, if only we were given the opportunity to do so.
We are not looking for a handout or for charity, all we are asking is some clear rights as to how we can go about opening new studios, clear legislation that will inform us of exactly how much noise we can make, a list of certain buildings that the council can deem as being “noise-worthy” that we are more than happy to put the investment into to convert them to studios, and a change in the law that stops one noise complaint shutting down a business that people rely on for a living whilst also promoting something as important as the arts.
We are not asking for funding, no hand outs, and no special favours, just the opportunity for us to have a solid foundation for us to grow a business from, and for that we need clarity as to what we can and cannot do. Despite repeated requests we have not had this, and this is due to the policy that the London councils have of seeing London as an inconvenience that stops them selling property.
When the 12 Bar Club announced they were closing, and each and every time the same fate happens to another music venue, the idea of us investing money into expanding our operations grows less and less appealing for fear of losing the investment put into it. As a result the London music scene is being damaged, and it needn’t be. There comes a point when you just have to accept that the business you want to grow is not wanted, and we reached that stage two years ago. In the vast majority of cases that a music venue shuts down it will be because the lack of clarity on noise regulations make it impossible to attract investment. By all means, if the council wants to come up with noise regulations that are incredibly tough, at least we would know what we are working with and could plan accordingly. Working to tight guidelines is one thing, but it’s possible. Working with no guidelines is impossible, and as it is many people are operating with the constant fear of being closed down, which it is not only unfair on music based businesses, but also on people who live next to music venues that decide to push their luck. Clear guidelines would prevent this, and would go a long way to being a shot in the arm for the creative industries in the capital, and if there is one simple change that could help the London music industry the most, this would be it.
Bally Studios on a sunny day – the building on the Millmead Industrial Estate was an old car factory