Tuesday 25 September 2018

Why London needs space for artists and musicians

Can you imagine a world without music and art? There are few activities that we do for enjoyment that don't have a musical element. Whether it is a romantic dinner, a visit  to a gig, dancing, driving the car or just sitting at home relaxing. As for paintings, sculptures etc, these brighten up our public spaces, give us pause for thought. Many artists survive by doing commercial works and commissions but it is always a precarious existence.

The UK makes a huge amount of money from our creative industries. Our music, film, advertising and design industries are underpinned by brilliant people and the UK has a massive bank of talent. Whilst many things can be automated, creative brilliance and left field thought is not one of these things. This weekend, I drove my daughters to York and Leeds Universities. In each direction, the journey was over three hours. To relieve the boredom, I listened to a selection of my favourite CD's. Amongst the classic albums we played were Never mind the bollocks by the Sex Pistols, Today Wonder by Ed Kuepper, Transformer by Lou Reed and a live bootleg of the Steve Miller band recorded in 1973. Each of  these is a work of genius in its own way. Without this soundtrack, the journey would have been awful.

But as a society, we put no value on these skills. Many even resent paying for music. For many, if you say that there is a great new album, the first thing they will do is try and download it for free. We don't  expect to "download a crate of beer for free", do we? But musicians who massively enrich our life are expected to work for nothing.

London is the heart of the UK arts and music industry.  Back in the 1970's, when I started playing guitar, London was full of squats teeming with artists and musicians. At the time the UK was in what seemed like terminal decline and there were hundreds of empty buildings, being used as studio and living space. As a result, there was a huge explosion of creative talent, the independent music scene started. Artists lived and worked in places like Kings Cross. As the financial situation in the UK improved, these properties became valuable assets and the artists and musicians moved out. Several years ago, one of Barnets MP's, Mike Freer championed a bill banning squatting in residential properties. This was as a result of squatters taking over a property owned by Libyan Dictator Colonel Gadaffi. Squatters were banished to commercial properties. Many long standing communities of artists and musicians were decimated. It seems to me criminal that people are thrown out on the street, to leave residential dwellings empty.

Back in 1979, I found myself in the dilemma that many musicians have. I had a band with nowhere to rehearse. I was extremely lucky. My Father was a businessman and he had an unused area (a derelict caretakers cottage) which he was prepared to rent to me for a modest sum. By forming a consortium with other local musicians, we were able to fit it out and have somewhere to practice. I charged the other bands a nominal amount for the space and as I was at school, this covered the costs of the rent, electricity and gave me a few quid to spend.

As the business evolved, my former partners departed. By 1994, we were running the studios on professional basis and actively marketing it. We had a business plan to build the studios into one of the major arts facilities in London. In 2012, we saw a major step change in the business, with the opening of our new studio and reception block, which cost us over a million pounds to put up. This was a huge commitment on our part. One of the biggest dilemmas we've had from day 1 (which was the 14th Feb 1979), was that we wanted to ensure that everyone could afford to rehearse.

Our solution to this problem was to bring in peak and off peak rates. Our reasoning was that people with jobs could afford to pay a commercial rate and so we made evenings and weekends peak rate, with daytime rates in the week being cheaper. We also did something uprecedented for a commercial organisation. We decided to run a studio at a loss. Our reasoning was that by only charging £3.50 an hour for a  fully equipped studio in off peak hours, bands who were on the dole or had other challenges could afford to rehearse in a proper studio. Our theory was that they would develop and as they got more proficient, they would move to other studios. We equipped the room with the most basic equipment, that did the job, but with no frills at all. A couple of years ago, we had to raise the charge by 50p an hour to £4, as many bookings were being made using Paypal and with the charges, it was totally uneconomical.

Studio 10 – London’s Cheapest fully equipped Rehearsal room

From £4 per hour
Ideal for 3-4 people
Read more
Whilst there are various deals and charities that offer free space, it is the cheapest space you will find in London in a commercial studio, which you can book without any strings or restrictions (other than it has to be in a off peak time (11am-6pm Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm & 5pm-8pm Sat, 11am-2pm & 8pm-11pm Sun).

The studio is extremely popular. Musicians travel across London to take advantage of it. I was shocked to speak to one band, who had a block booking for every Saturday morning for nearly two years to find that they travelled from Mile End. They explained that travel time wasn't an issue, wheras cash was. That band toured the USA last year. In short their hard work and our cheap space worked for them. What really troubles me is just how many spaces such as ours have closed. In the vast majority of cases, this is not because their business model is flawed, but because Landlords have cashed in on the property boom. The most recent and most tragic for me is the closure of Survival studios in Acton. They started at the same time as us, were our biggest competitors and used as an alternative by most of our customers. Unlike many short sighted businessmen, I see a thriving scene as vital for the health of London.

Every time you hear some music on the radio, being played by a band, they have had to rehearse somewhere. Every band you see at a gig or on telly has had to rehearse somewhere. One way or another they have had to pay for the privilege. They also have to live and eat. I've done my bit, by keeping a rehearsal space alive and thriving for the last 39 and a half years. What we need is for London Councils to recognise the need for space. My preference would be for councils to work with independents and co-operative groups to establish both studio and living space. Our studios are proof that you don't need a public subsidy, but you do need a landlord with a long term commitment to the space.

Anyway, I am currently working on a little scheme to open up some studio space for artists in Mill Hill. This is at a very early stage. All I am asking at this point is for any artists who may need studio space in NW7 to let me know how much they need and how much they can afford to pay. If I can make it work, I will. I would urge anyone else who has commercial space in other parts of London, which they are not using, to investigate whether there is any way that this can be recycled as studio space. And I would urge council planning committees to take a positive view of any such proposals.

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