The rate at which clubs and music venues are shutting down in a city known for the best nightlife in the world, is alarming. According to some figures provided by Nesta, in just 10 years (from 2005 to 2015) some areas of London have experienced the closure of up to 60% of venues and clubs, threatening the great cultural reputation of the city and its creative economy.
Nesta states that some of the main reasons of these closures are the extremely high rents and licensing rules.
Are we losing the battle to save London’s creative and music scene? Or is it a changing cycle that allows different trends to take place? I set myself out on a mission to find someone involved in an alternative kind of partying. I had heard about an amazing underground raving scene, but I struggled to find someone willing to talk about it. The legal threat against people involved in this scene is pretty high due to the lack of license or permits over the spaces being used.
I was walking around London Bridge when I bumped into what looked like a normal art gallery that I decided to check out. Nadim Salem, who had been working in this space for about two months, was rearranging the current exhibition with all sorts of different works of modern art. Nadim explained how this space combined arts and music and has taken a role on the underground scene throwing some parties and gigs.
I talked to the boss of The Underdog Gallery Sammy Forway, to gain a better understanding about how the gallery contributes to the music scene in the capital. Sammy decided to combine his love for music and his desire to open a business and opened The Underdog Gallery in 2006. He had always been surrounded with both music and arts and decided to develop a space were these two elements could be merged.
For the last ten years, Sammy has put on different shows and events in the gallery displaying art expositions and all sorts of gigs including genres like jazz and indie. “London is probably one of the toughest cities to develop a career or business in music due to its high costs and its extremely big population. There are a lot of opportunities but you have to be really good at what you do. For venues, it is difficult but people will always like to see live music so I’m skeptical of it dying anytime soon”, he says. Even after discussing the statistics found in the study carried out by Nesta, Sammy continued to be optimistic: “Saying that the music scene in London is dying is bullshit. There will always be people willing to pick up a guitar or some drums and others willing to listen to it.”
After my chat with Sammy, Nadim came by and gave me a shot of whisky while we continued to talk about the actual threat to the music culture in one of the greatest cities in the world. A few years ago, Nadim came across with a collective that throws secret raves in the city and decided to join them. This collective started with a group of friends that discovered their love for the freedom and feeling of community that being in a place without restrictions and fully committed to the music gave them. The planning and licensing rules on clubs and arts had become ridiculous according to Nadim and had made it impossible to develop as an artist. Out of a desire to set free from these dictations and extremely high costs, a lot of new
trends like these community raves popped up. He passionately explained how old warehouses are being taken over and used for nights dedicated to music all over the country. “Other cities like Sheffield or Bristol have an amazing electronic music scene but it doesn’t compare to the one being developed in London. You can look into history and this clubbing subculture has always been present. You can never imagine how much more there is to it! There are raves all over the city, so many unusual spaces... I thought it was a myth but it really isn’t”, Nadim tells me. “This underground scene, it’s the best in the damn world. Something about the mix of all the different sounds created in this city combined just make the “London sound”, as I like to call it, amazing. It’s just so eclectic and different”, he adds. A man in his late 20s had been sitting beside us and looked like he wanted to jump in so we asked about his opinion.
Tom Daw, declares himself as a music lover and currently distributes and provides alcohol to a lot of different venues in the city such as The Underdog Gallery and Corsica Studios. Although he admitted the London scene to still be good, he stated to prefer other cities such as Belfast or Glasgow due to London’s extremely high prices. “How many spaces are affordable here nowadays? This is all leading to the closure of a lot of superclubs. There’s barely a few good ones left, maybe only EGG or Printworks. Rental of spaces like warehouses are expensive as well so people tend to look for these secret and free raves. The clubbing scene in a city is essential because it keeps it real”, he says.
I needed to experience what Nadim and Tom had talked to me about. That weekend through a personal invite on social media, I took the 43 bus direction to Aldwych to the pin location sent just a few hours before the rave. When we reached the stop, we were a bit surprised to be left off on a highway. Could this be right?
We carried on the way as we went on in an alley behind a garage where we could start to hear music. After being briefly checked, we went through the door to find a huge warehouse and a bunch of people vibing to some of the best electronic music sets that we had listened to. The DJs played with illusions and lights making a full experience of the night. The secrecy and intimacy of this event, allowed a feeling of community and family between all of us experiencing this.
Apart from these secret parties, there are also a lot of clubs making a shift from the commercial and mainstream wave that most of the parties in London are about nowadays. One of these clubs is the Oval Space which is a multi-use arts space located in Bethnal Green. This space has become one of the most forward-thinking and exciting venues in the capital. I have loved every time that I had been to one of Oval Space’s parties so I wanted some insight on how do they feel about the clubbing culture and how do they manage to support themselves and their exciting programmes.
Toby Wareham is in charge of the music management at Oval Space: “We do a lot of events and special nights. I’m in charge of booking the DJs and live events of our newest space located right in front of Oval Space called The Pickle Factory. This last one is a smaller and more intimate space dedicated to Friday and Saturday night techno and electronic music
events.”, he tells me. I asked Toby about the concept of these two spaces: “I would like to think that we operate on the more exoteric and best commercial techno spectrum. I book DJs for 200 people to come and see. The key is to book a lineup for a cult of people that go to hear the music they really love rather than a lineup that 1000 people would only kind of like.” Toby says. Toby and the Oval Space know what they are doing. Attending smaller parties with other people passionate about the DJ playing that night creates a special and intimate feeling. Addressing the geographic shift of clubbing spaces, Toby attributes it to the gentrification of the city. “This doesn’t necessarily have any negative implications on the music culture. Laws for music venues are highly restrictive so I think this move towards further out areas or the uprising of a more popular underground scene is only natural.” he says.
Lastly, I talked to Isabelle Letarte, a Montreal born and raised student doing an exchange in UCL. She decided to choose the British capital due to her love for electronic music since every DJ that she liked seemed to go to London. This excitement led to a disappointment when she arrived at the city and saw that every gig or night out was extremely pricey and would sold out in no time. “Going to a club here is like getting a plane: you have to plan it in advance, get ready for a long queue and security check. Once you are in, it’s a hardly enjoyable night. The vibe and people aren’t good, people seemed to be stressed all the time.”, she says. It wasn’t until she found the underground scene that she really felt that her high expectations were reached. “In the secret raves, there’s normally an association of a few DJs having their own small events where everyone feels like a family. You feel the love for the music and it’s always a smaller community.”
Music and clubbing are a continuous circle. It will never stop changing and evolving and we are definitely in a very exciting period for music lovers.