FEATURE: The Bulldozer’s Lament: Gentrification and Its Impact on Music



The Bulldozer’s Lament


ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Unsplash 

Gentrification and Its Impact on Music


I wonder what damage the gentrification…


of Britain is doing to the music industry. I walk down various streets and notice a couple of things. More and more shops and bars are closing (is the first). They are being replaced by other businesses which, in a few months, close down for the next thing to arrive. Either that happens or something gaudy forms: older, established buildings are being torn down and regenerated as glamorous and expensive flats. That seems to be the way things go in Britain: any inch of greenery is built on to accommodate families and those who do not really care about anything but themselves. There are enough people struggling to find housing in the country – it seems the wealthier get chances, regardless of what they give back to this nation. The U.K. has shown itself, in referendums and elections, alienated and unwilling to bond with its European nations. Not only are we detaching ourselves from neighbours and other nations: we are determined to replace anything lived-in and older with the brand-new and soulless. Gentrification does not mean demolishing anything that seems ugly and bringing in fashionable and pretty things. The reason gentrification can be good is making somewhere safer to live in; reducing crime and replacing any unsafe/disused buildings with something practical and safe. The latest casualty of the ongoing gentrification and whitewashing of London is the imminent demolition of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. It is a divisive building: some see it as ugly and outdated whereas others find it to be a foundation and bedrock of the community.


IN THIS PHOTO: Elephant and Castle Shopping Cente/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Whatever you think of it; the erosion and replacement of the Shopping Centre will change the area forever. Applying this to music and we can see it everywhere around us. We all know certain venues have closed over the years: many others are under threat and risk a shaky future. I worry what will happen to the fabric of live music when developers have their ways and new flats come onto the high-street. If we look back to Elephant and Castle and, when the wrecking ball comes in; that will mean small businesses are closing and the people who run them pushed elsewhere. The diverse landscape will become whiter, cleaner and gentrified – established residents marginalised and a wealthier option coming in. It is not only London that is experiencing this widespread and unending rebranding and retooling: every city in the U.K., in some way, is experiencing this. If we replace every building with a crack and tear every characterful object down; what impact is that going to have on the music industry and artists? On a physical basis; venues are always going to be threatened. Most of the ones we have now are smaller, underfunded and ‘distinct’. So many people want to see their streets samey and indistinct. A lot of our venues have a particular look and project noise.


People who move into an area do not want to be distracted by sound or the clientele of a venue. If a venue is struggling or needs a lick of paint; why is it easier knocking it down and building new flats/shops?! Money is not being spent rejuvenating venues and ensuring (venues) are protected. A lot of clubs are being closed in Britain because they are either not pulling in enough money or are starting to peel away. There is a very fungible definition as to what constitutes a ‘problem’. Unless there are structural defects and infestations in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre; I wonder what has promoted it demise and demolition. The same can be said of a lot of venues in the country. Sure; many are struggling and going through tough times. The way to get them back on-course is to invest money in them or research what factors are contributing. Rather than spending infinitely more money on gentrifying areas and replacing venues/shops with flashier options – we need to retain these spaces and ensure they do not face the smash of the bulldozer. I love cities but always hate when working-class, decent areas are replaced by middle-class and sanitised buildings. Not only does that replace the skyline and vibe: the inhabitants and local residents, often, are priced-out and forced to move elsewhere.


Music industries rely on surrounding flats and shops to make them a success. If we remove the client base and local residents that means new people come in – those who do not know the area and, as such, do not visit venues. It is not only venues themselves being threatened by gentrification and ‘edification’. The wealthier and more exclusive areas become; that means fewer musicians will be able to afford to move there. I am hearing from peers who had hopes of moving into the city and, instead, are reserved to the boundaries. They have to choose cheaper options which is, in turn, seeing wealthier people move to the cities. The only way we can maintain thriving and interesting scene is keeping the population varied. The closer of smaller clubs in cities – R&B and Rap – means a lot of the young, black population are relocating and moving to other parts. Doors close and, before you know it, flats and restaurants come in instead. The same can be said of pubs. They provide open mic nights and provide a stage for new artists. Take them away and, again, musicians have nowhere to play – it means they have to rely on the Internet or other options. I am all for removing hazardous buildings and closing venues/spaces that are dangerous, beyond revival or impotent.


This is not what is happening in a lot of cases. Developers and councils are not willing to spend money trying to sustain somewhere struggling – the easier option is starting from scratch and building something, they know, brings a lot of money/wealthier people to an area. One of the biggest tragedies of modern London is the way it is becoming stale and wealthy. A lot of vibrant and mixed areas are being blanched and stripped of their purity. I am seeing it in other parts of the U.K., too. It is not only Britain that faces the scourge of gentrification: the U.S. is seeing many of its established and legendary music cities facing threats. Last year; an article in The Guardian looked at the changing fortunes of Austin (Texas) and New Orleans:

It’s a difficult reality for the city to confront. Austin is one of the three major US “music cities”, alongside New Orleans and Nashville, that have capitalised on this local culture at the risk of ruining the scenes that made them famous in the first place. In Austin, the local live music scene is now paying the price for its success. Brian Block, of the city’s economic development office, says despite an apparent city-wide financial boom, local musicians’ income is “at best stagnating, and possibly declining”.


IN THIS PHOTO: A musician in New Orleans

“…Across the state border in Louisiana, New Orleans is facing similar problems as it develops and gentrifies. There are fears that without local government actively supporting musicians, the scene’s survival could be at risk…How do you keep a [music scene] real and authentic and yet encourage people to get involved? It’s a paradox,” says Jan Ramsey, editor of local magazine OffBeat. “There’s an authenticity to the music and the people who make it, and the integration of black and white culture here – we never want to lose that.”

It is worrying seeing how things are changing in the world and how the music industry is being impacted. So then…what do cities and musicians need to do to ensure their venues and native populations are protected and listened to? This piece explains the realities before us – explaining some solutions and pragmatic movements:

According to (As Sound Diplomacy Founder and CEO Shain Shapiro) Shapiro, musicians and music industry professionals, who tend to think and operate in the short term, need to start advocating to be included into city zoning and planning strategies that may be looking 5, 10, or 15 years in the future. “Cities write their local plans to reflect how land is going to be used for decades. If we don’t think about our music infrastructure and how we fit into those issues, then we’re constantly going to be the recipients of an end-use model. The building will just be there and then we’ll be inserted into it, rather than us having a responsibility and dialogue before, so we can play a part in how it’s created.”


“…Musicians, says Shapiro, also need to start learning to speak the language of developers. “We can’t just say, give us a music venue. What if that’s not a profitable use of land?” And while much of new development in cities is crowding out the creative industries, there are a growing number of developers who are investing in music venues. Peter Cornforth, who leads retail development for UK-based firm Benson Elliot Capital Management, has been advocating within his company for the ‘positive externality’ that music brings to mixed-use developments; according to him, music should sit in the value and not the cost side of real estate”.

Last year saw a lot of commentators look at gentrification and how our streets are struggling to adapt and maintain their natural good looks. A piece in The Conversation investigated the link between rising business rates and the impact that has in cultural and economic terms:

The government’s review of business rates could see a rise in the level of rates they will pay of up to 55%. For some music venues, this could easily be the difference between staying operational or going under. This wouldn’t just be a loss to the economy. Local venues are a cultural as well as an economic resource. The social and musical networks they house are not easily replaced and the larger spaces, ultimately, depend on healthy grassroots for tomorrow’s headliners.

The challenges are widespread, and face venues of all kinds. A squeeze on funding has seen local authorities reduce their spending on the arts, and music education also faces an uncertain future”.


It is a hard line to draw between necessary development and change and that which is excessive, selfish and ignorant. Maybe our current Government is to blame (for the gentrification and changing face of our cities) or it is business rates and unreasonable rents – or this is the way things are going to go from now on. What bothers me is a lack of connection between the councils/Government and the music industry. Small shops and businesses closing can impact musicians and venues; rising rents and expensive areas alienates artists and means musicians struggle to find gigs (paid, at least) – do those who make the big decisions realise that?! I would think not. The clatter of the bulldozers and the dizzying dreams of developers is taking away a lot more than bricks and concrete: human lives, livelihoods and businesses are being transplanted and extinguished. Whilst we do need to protect the safety of the streets and ensure any unstable structure is addressed; that does not mean removing areas/buildings that do not ‘fit in’. Elephant and Castle’s dilemma could have devastating effects on the community and wider area. Look around you, walk the streets and see the people around. Things are changing, right?! Are they for the better?! It might not matter to those (wealthier people) who move to an area – the gentrification of a town/city has an impact on the music industry, its patrons and smaller venues. To those who have little regard for an area and the consequences of removing buildings/changing the skyline, I would offer this caution: consider the human cost and those who will lose out when the bulldozers swing in. It (demolition) might not mean a lot to them but, for many people who live and play in these areas, the cost of faceless gentrification is a lot higher…


THAN the financial profit for developers.