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Why, Despite Its Downsides, London is One of the Best Places for New Musicians
MY mind is split between the desire to…
live and work in London and, on the other hand, look at music away from the city. I have already reviewed and interviewed a few London artists this year and, as the weeks progress; I will look at other capital-based musicians for inspiration. I have become somewhat inflamed because so many people I know are finding work in London – it is somewhere, and Manchester, I want to live/work. It is always hard finding appropriate work in such a competitive market and getting up there as quickly as hoped – there are some who have figured it out. I will continue to plug but, in terms of musicians; there is a split between those flocking to London and those who are moving to quieter areas. There is this idealised version of London as the home of opportunity and money: where one goes to obtain fortune and success. That is true if you are in a certain industry: for musicians, in such a competitive and low-paid role, that is not always the case. Although rent prices are starting to fall and it is become, gradually, more accessible – I feel an overhaul and review needs to happen so people can afford to live in London. Compared to where I work; the cost of renting in London is actually affordable and reasonable. There is plenty of choice and, depending on where you want to work/gig, you can get somewhere near a Tube line. There are, among the positives, some downsides that are still putting many off.
I was chatting with a photographer I know and she says the reason she lives away from London (Bath) is (because of) the pace of life. I can understand the zeal and determination associated with a music career; getting to the capital and settling in a vibrant hub. With that common mindset is an inevitable outcome: a masses of bodies and little room for movement! Others, when talking about the drawbacks of London, revert to that ‘people-point’: the folk are not as friendly and accepting as elsewhere. Again, compared to where I am; I have not really noticed much of a difference – maybe that is all the more reason to go there. I grant, for the non-musician; there is something daunting and cold about London. A lot of people want to be calm and mingle in an area where you can converse and feel safe. It does not matter which large city you go to – New York, Tokyo or Paris – there is always going to be a certain element of rudeness and cram. That is not necessarily the fault of the individual(s): putting that many people into a small-ish space, all needing to get where they are going, and you are going to struggle for conversation and breath. Musicians, largely, are not as bothered by that: one of the reasons they settle in places liked London is the energy and people.
What worries me, especially with the ascent and dominance of social media, is the fact there is a social split. People are either not going out (and communicating) or, owing to the mass of bodies, finding it hard to connect with anyone. Musicians are among the fastest-growing sector of the professional population. From all around the world; musical peeps are coming to lay roots here. Too many I know are finding the pressure of city-life stressful; there is a lack of available social outlet; they are tiring and seeing a negative impact on their mental-health. Again, maybe this is a sign of the over-populated city: I feel there are solutions are remedies that would make a London lifestyle more appealing. I was reading an article - published in Noisey a few years back - that highlighted the financial squeeze musicians are feeling:
“The decimation of London’s art squats is a metaphor for the city’s recalibrated attitude towards art, and 2015 London has all the spluttering symptoms of a city hurtling towards cultural void. Investors pick up housing estates as if they’re glass ketchup bottles, turning them upside down and smacking the bottom until all the inhabitants fall out. Wages have stagnated, living costs have soared, rents have rocketed, venues are being methodically demolished, 150,000 of us are working two jobs, and everyone with a creative one is considering a move to Woodford.
Over in the fallows of central London, bankers body pump to “Everybody’s Free” at morning raves, each new bead of sweat more resinous than the previous, as last night’s cocaine residue is taxied out of their bloodstream. The same month London Mayor Boris Johnson launches his #BackBusking campaign, his police force are heavy handedly arresting musicians in broad daylight for doing just that in Leicester Square”.
The author makes interesting points and, perhaps, that is still the biggest drawback: the rent prices are still too high and oppressive. If you look at flat-sharing websites (like Spareroom) and you can get a good impression of rental prices. If you want a double room – most of do, let’s be fair – with enough room to swing a cat; flatmates who are easy to get on with; amenities nearby and a generally good living standard – it does vary depending on where you look! Even if you are looking out towards the more ‘lavish’ parts of the capital: you might be able to pick up a flat for £700 P.C.M. That might sound excessive but that price is for a very good place – it does vary, obviously, regarding location and landlord/landlady.
I am looking for places and most of the good-looking, decent-sized flats are around £650. That is steep compared with other parts of the U.K. but is manageable for most. The biggest issue comes when you throw in travel and living. It is ‘doable’ if you economise and skimp but that leads to a deterioration and mental-health issues. If you want to maintain a steady social life; eat properly and travel – you might have to (nearly) double that rent price. Most of us barely earn that much a month (£1,300-is) and, if you want to save up and travel; it is not going to be possible. Everyone has a different budget/salary – so there will be variables – but it is going to be tight for everyone. Flat-sharing, for a musician, can be a good way to make friends and take away (some of) the pressure of The Big City. Even if you pitch in with three or four others; it still gets a bit costly when you tot-up all the other ins-and-outs of a month. I will end the ‘negative’ end of the piece addressing music venues and perception; but I wonder: is the gentrification of the music industry itself forcing honest musicians out of the market?! Returning (briefly) to that article and a very good point was raised:
“The growing impossibility of starting from the bottom and actually making it in today’s music industry is mirrored by the ugly portrait of successful British music. As Gavin Haynes wrote for Noisey in January: “We are living in an age where a certain kind of lozenge-folk have come to dominate. It’s no longer just the children of lawyers and architects. It’s the kids of the balls-out elite. Sam Smith’s £500k-a-year banker mother. The Mumfords—Winston Marshall’s dad being the chairman of one of the country’s largest hedge-funds.”
The pursuit of funding for artists trapped at this level is the much publicized but largely artificial carrot dangled up front. The British government made a song and dance out of their £2.5 million slush fund for musicians last summer. In Kafkaesque fashion, bands were encouraged to fill out endless reams of forms, usually to discover that they were eliminated in round 3,843, and the money would be going to The Wombats”.
Those points were made in 2015 but, looking at this year; can we say things have changed that much?! Artists like Florence & The Machine and Ed Sheeran are still popular and performing – two artists accused of being out-of-touch and lacking working-class ideals – whereas previous ‘accused’ like Mumford & Sons have, I think, bitten the dust. There is still that centrality of middle-class, intangible musicians – those who have more-privileged backgrounds compared to most; they do not possess the struggle and pains most of us take for granted. I have been wondering whether music’s core has become less middle-class and more ‘real – looking out at the mainstream and the answer seems to be (a resounding) ‘no’! There have, sure, been changes and improvements but the constitution of the mainstream favours the better-of and elite. The (more) better-off artists you have coming to London, the higher rent prices get. It also means a certain sound/artist is favoured – and those hard-working, original artists take longer to find acceptance.
London is a dream but it is a city that does not patiently foster and support a struggling artist. Even if rent rises are levelling and stabilising; I wonder whether the predictably middle-class mainstream and gentrification of the city means anyone outside that circle is being ostracised and isolated. It is almost like the state-educated artists are going to a private school and finding that social shift alarming and hard to take. I understand cities need to develop and improve but London is losing some of its honesty and ethics – fewer low-cost properties and working-class/proper areas mean artists who used to fit seamlessly into those parts are either having to adapt or work harder to get their music heard. Back in past decades, when there was a band of working-class bands in the mainstream, there was a rush of artists towards London; rent was not too bad – the city still had its mix of classes, areas and tastes. Things are becoming more homogenised and that is having a detrimental effect on musicians. I will end with my conclusion regarding London: the positives outweigh the bad sides. Even if there is not a mass exodus out of the city; I am seeing many artists go up the M1 and/or take the first flight to other nations! Areas further north are appealing; cities like Berlin are proving to be more hospitable and affordable for many artists – is it only to do with cost?!
In tandem with the expense inherent is the security of music venues. I investigated this yesterday but, when we look at the state of our smaller venues – it is troubling seeing how many are closing and how fragile others are. Artists move to London for those gigs and the chance to get their sounds to the people. Whilst other parts of the country are not immune; I am concerned by the shakiness of the London venue scene. Whether increased noise-pollution will threaten the existence of these venues, I am not sure. There is a feeling things are not as secure and solid as they should be – making cities/towns further north a bit more attractive. I know a lot of artists going to places like Brighton – where there is a great community and a load of great venues. The more compacted and crowded the capital becomes; the more people available to go to gigs and support musicians. If these venues are being closed, and artists are going elsewhere, then that will great a long-term malaise London might struggle to overcome. It is, aside from all the negative prophesies, a city teeming with opportunity, hope and excitement.
London is, like every great city, flawed and over-populated. The only reason it is busy and populous is the attractiveness of living there. For musicians, it has always had that lure and impossible seductiveness. Even with problems and cracks; the advantages and bonuses of being in London outweigh all the bad stuff (in my opinion). The social downsides are evident – venues closing will keep people indoors – but there are so many spaces for artists to play. Pubs and smaller venues are starting to diversify and offer open mic. nights; events and special showcases are being run that allows the new musician the chance to show their wares. I come to the capital to experience the colours, scents and substance. London is unique and is a huge tourist hotspot. A lot of people come to London to see music and embrace the entertainment. This provides a window for artists to take advantage and perform as much as possible. I have suggested venues are closing – and there are fewer than past years – but it is not like the city has closed its doors. Competition might be high but there is somewhere for everyone: put the effort in and you will find a stage with your name on it. London has those transport links; making it easy to travel around the county and get about. It is that endlessly practical city where you can dive into the bustle and hustle or get away somewhere quieter.
Rents are starting to stabilise a bit so I feel, in years to come, the attraction of London will return. Those moving here can enjoy higher wages and a great quality of life. A lot of musicians do need to take a second job. If you are able to get a reasonably-paid job and balance that with your music; the rewards are endless. London has a fantastic buzz and the nightlife is incredible. A musician is never far away from like-minded souls and, given the eclectic nature of the city; the inspirational juices are always flowing. Whereas some areas are homogenous and limited; London has so many different races and nationalities sitting alongside one another. It is a city that wants change and to remain in Europe; it wants to be together and work towards a better way of life – that is not something you can say about other parts of the country! London gets that ‘cold’ tag without proper patience and investigation. If you are caught in the swelter of a rush-hour Tube trip then, yes, your impression of London will be somewhat strained. Most of the time, the reality is different and I am seeing more togetherness and unity than ever before. Maybe this is a counteraction of the Election result or the desire to show positivity – the spirit and bond of the people is stronger and more electric than past years. All of this will combine to create a more harmonious and attractive city.
The biggest attraction, for musicians and non-musicians alike, is the spirit and feeling of London. It does not take a sunny day to get you smiling and fascinated. One can, with proper planning and hard work, make a living here and survive without too much struggle. So many labels and stations are located in London; media eyes are trained here and, whether good or bad, that means you are never too far away from an eager journalist or ready record label – many attending gigs and events to discover that ‘next-big-thing’. The city is large but the spotlight is never far away. Musicians know the periscope is trained to the capital and with good reason: it is a thriving and sumptuous city that is producing some of the best music in the world. Whilst I am keen to see parity in terms of the North-South divide; I cannot resist the heady bouquet of London. It is a place to be inspired by and realise dreams. It may take a while – and hurdles will be placed in the way – but it is a city whose majesty cannot be dented. Tastes will dictate its coolness and relevance (those who will hate London no matter what) but, in pragmatic terms; there is no denying the quality and quantity of great music based in London. Changes are happening and, because of the political landscape; we are unsure how things will work out in the next few years. Against the descent and division is a city that wants to embrace and unify: there is no quarter provided to anti-European, discriminatory attitudes.
The most ‘divisive’ aspect of London is, actually, its greatest strength: the multicultural communities and composition. The landmarks and tourist attractions compel awe and inspiration; the people are among the most compelling I have ever seen. There is an indoctrinated spirit that runs through the spine of London that has, for decades, wooed artists, musicians and creative. Our capital’s cultural and art is the envy of the world; we have one of the most impressive music scenes in the world – this will never be dimmed or under threat. Everyone knows what London can offer but issues like the high cost of living and crowded streets are understandable concerns. It is not easy to overhaul these problems but, on balance, London offers more benefits and joy than despair - patience and perseverance are virtues one needs if they are to adapt to a London lifestyle. If more can be done to cure issues occurring – more attention to musicians further north; get rent and high prices down – it will be even more appealing to those who want to embroil themselves in the myriad wonders of the capital. It has its faults – and is far from perfect – but, for those ambitious and hungry musicians, there is nowhere…
QUITE like London.