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We built this city...

Words: Simon Wicks
Music city illustration | Sam Chivers

… on rock and roll. Or so the song says. But can music really be used as an instrument for regenerating town and city centres? Simon Wicks listens

If you look at the creative economy and ways to make cities more vibrant, liveable and exciting,” says Shain Shapiro, managing director of music market development consultancy Sound Diplomacy, “the music industry is the most inexpensive way that you can bring about really valuable change.

“Often cities will build a museum or concert hall or library and they will forget about the small venues,” he adds. “But a successful small venue is incubating upwards of 30 small businesses a week. Bands are businesses.”

Call it experience or intuition, he is convinced of this – and in mid-May he organised the inaugural Music Cities Convention to discuss the phenomenon of ‘music cities’ worldwide.

Set alongside Brighton’s Great Escape Festival on 13 May, the conference brought together policymakers, planners, developers and music industry figures - 120 delegates from 50 cities and 20 countries - to debate urban regeneration through music.

This, says Shapiro, means peering beyond performance at the mechanics of music as business – one that generates GDP, provides employment and fosters valuable skills. The performances we enjoy are carried on the shoulders of venues, bookers, promoters, sound and lighting engineers, roadies, event managers, rehearsal spaces, music shops, music teachers, PR people, web designers, app developers – an interdependent web of mostly small businesses that also includes the cafés, restaurants and bars that are an integral part of the urban fabric.

Places supporting these clusters will benefit. “Around the world cities are competing with each other for talented young people and to retain those already there.

“Cultural policy is as important as housing policy. The fact that there is no music industry policy at a city level pretty much anywhere…” His voice trails. “Music is everywhere, and we all take it for granted. But often policy is based on the performance side of it.

“When we talk about regeneration in London, for example, the business behind the culture is not as catered to as the culture itself.”

The day the music died

At a time when national and local governments are responding to population growth by promoting inner city living, this discrepancy is a problem – not least because a failure to think things through brings residents into conflict with the night-time economy in urban spaces, and councils tend to side with complainants.

In the UK, permitted development legislation is said by some venue owners to be wrecking local music industries. Its impact is twofold: property owners earn more from residential than commercial use, so established small music venues are lost; and newcomers have a habit of complaining about the noise from the pub next door.

“Permitted developments are coming through quite thick and fast,” says Matt Newby, a London borough of Newham planning officer and Music Cities Convention steering committee member.

“In some ways it’s good because it delivers consents,” he says. “But we are losing the structure of where these venues are. In the longer term you can see a defragmented urban environment. Where are the new venues coming from?”

The small venues that hold the delicate web of businesses together face other threats, too. Understanding Small Venues, a report by the Institute of Contemporary Music for the new Music Venues Trust in early 2015, found venue owners complaining about relaxed licensing laws that made it easier for any location with fewer than 200 people to put on performances.

They also reported that relationships with local authorities were mixed. Some were supportive and understood the cultural and economic value of music venues. But in many cases, there was hostility from elected members, indifference from officers and a tendency to side with individual complainants, even against venues that had functioned well for years.

Ironically, regeneration itself is sometimes the threat. At the Elephant and Castle in London, The Coronet faces closure amid a rebuild of the area. Opened in 1878, The Coronet once hosted Charlie Chaplin, it is said.
Regeneration also risks gentrification, which prices ‘creatives’ out of the market.

We tend to treat the emergence of a place-based musical trend as an ephemeral thing. Merseybeat and Madchester are heritage now. Yet each emerged out of a particular venue – the Cavern Club and the Hacienda – and each of these venues was the centre of a dynamic cluster. Without sustained support, they die.

But local authorities and developers can save such venues – as is happening for The Fleece in Bristol (a residential development now has conditions attached to preserve the viability of the venue) and the Kazimier Club in Liverpool (where the developer is looking to integrate the club into a new scheme).

“The priorities in cities need to change,” says Shapiro. “They need to focus more on how to build sustainable music industries and businesses. That means reviewing planning and city ordnance laws looking at use of space.”

It also means building a persuasive case for local authorities and city-dwelling citizens to treasure the creativity in their midst.

We can work it out

The Music Venue Trust promotes the ‘agent of change’ principle, whereby the person or business responsible for enacting a change must manage the impact of that change.

Shapiro advocates a policy and funding-driven approach to music as business. “Just consider us an industry, please,” he says. “Look at how using our skills and strengths can create and sustain more liveable cities.”

He cites the example of Groningen, where an explicit music industry policy has been introduced to stop the city’s thousands of students migrating to Amsterdam. It’s a common challenge for mid-sized cities in the gravitational pull of a larger metropolis.

Groningen’s vice-mayor Paul de Rook spoke at the Music Cities Convention, as did speakers from Adelaide, Melbourne, Barcelona, Berlin, Mannheim, Liverpool and Addis Ababa – all cities where music industry policy is a force behind urban revival.

For the planner Newby, solutions can be found within the planning system. There are inbuilt constraints, he says, such as the use class system, which acts as a barrier to the emergence of fresh venues.

But planners and developers can overcome these. Citing the Great Escape Festival, where performances take place in unusual venues, he notes that ‘meanwhile uses’ can create a similar vibrancy in cities everywhere.

“Developers need to understand that these can be long-term venues or short-term meanwhile venues,” he says. “And it means vacant buildings can be brought to life for a short time, too, before they are redeveloped.”

Such innovations must take place within a framework of spatial planning and cultural policies that value the venues and their benefits while respecting the comfort of town centre residents.

“We have to focus towards town centre uses – good access to public transport, places where it’s more acceptable to have a club running until one in the morning,” says Newby. “It’s about strategically looking at land uses and avoiding conflict. There does need to be a careful assessment of what is going where and why.”

For Newby, the time is right because we are embarking on large-scale house building and infrastructure development. As pressure for devolution grows, there’s an opportunity for planners, policymakers and the creative industries to embed the idea of creative clusters into a city’s DNA.

“There are hard economic benefits these places can bring which need to be recognised further,” he says. There are “intangibles”, too. “One of the strongest is identity and association – for example, in London we think of Borough for food and Dalston for music.

“That’s one of the benefits you can get to an area. Planning does have a role in improving the cultural wellbeing of places. That is a principle in planning.”


The sound of the suburbs

Old Vinyl FactoryThe spirit of music is being revived at The Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes, West London, in an emerging mixed-used scheme on the site of an early 20th century gramophone factory, then record-pressing plant, that gave birth to EMI.

It was here – in art deco factory buildings designed by Wallace Gilbert and Partners – that The Beatles records were pressed. At its peak in 1960, the 150-acre site provided jobs for 22,000 people. The town of Hayes was built on its success.

But the industry moved on and the area declined. Efforts to regenerate the remaining 17-acre business park (that once provided 4,000 jobs) failed – not least because it has been classed a 100 per cent employment zone.

Developer Cathedral Group persuaded the local authority to allow a mixed-used development – provided they could guarantee the 4,000 jobs the council wanted. The Old Vinyl Factory is a £250 million scheme offering 650,000 square feet of commercial space, 500 homes, 30,000 square feet of cafés and bars.

Music is being used extensively in its marketing and Cathedral is speaking to music industry organisations to lure them there. Hayes, soon to have a Crossrail station, is just two miles from Heathrow and close to both the M25 and M40.

“It’s about vinyl and music and history and place. That town was built on pop music,” Cathedral design director Martyn Evans told a British Property Federation conference recently.

Emma Wilson of artist management company Edme Music has been plugging the development to the music industry.

“Over the past 10 years with so much of our pop music being delivered on the telly we’ve been really focused on the performance element of music,” she told The Planner. “What the Old Vinyl Factory does so well is demonstrate that thousands of people can all work in good jobs on the industry of music.

“With the Central Research Laboratory (an enterprise hub) there’s a real opportunity here to reflect the other music industry – the back end of it. Nowadays that might mean the technology that goes with the streaming and the hardware that give us the infrastructure that make the music industry happen.

“Everybody in Hayes knows about this site, including the people who have seen it through its dereliction. For them it’s a real justification that they were right to stay.”