London has lost a quarter of its live music venues in just eight years. It needs to rethink its policies

Denmark Street, the historic heart of London's music industry. Image: Getty.

Last week, two bodies that represent major record labels, Music Canada and the IFPI, teamed up to publish a landmark study, The Mastering of a Music City. The report’s goal was to qualify and quantify the term “music city”: what it means, how to create one and if it’s worthwhile.

After surveying 22 cities, the study concluded that music, when incorporated into municipal policy, improves public spaces, licensing and noise issues and most importantly, quality of life. To achieve that, it said, a city needs to consider seven specific factors. Here’s the list:

  • Music- and musician-friendly policies;
  • Having a music office or music officer;
  • Establishing a music advisory board, within council chambers;
  • Engagement of the broader music community – that is, listeners, consumers, those who use music as a conduit to sell other things (restaurants, fashion outlets, hotels);
  • Access to space and places;
  • Audience development;
  • Music tourism.

The report also listed a number of cities that were successfully doing this, including Toronto, Melbourne, Austin, and Nashville.

It also listed London. Representatives of the Greater London Authority (GLA) told the researchers that they were attempting to make the British capital a richer city through musical capacity, engagement and outreach.

In many cases, this is true. London has a live music task force (a sort-of advisory council), a music officer and a wide music tourism offering, ranging from the Proms to Hyde Park’s concerts. Just last week, according to trade body UK Music, the UK’s music tourism takings hit £3.8bn per year; a good amount of this is spent in London.

However, if London is a music city, then we must ask how that makes it a better, more liveable city for all of us. The opportunities to experience music in licensed venues have shrunk. Over 350 venues existed in 2007; now, according to the Music Venue Trust, under 260 remain. New licensing provisions, such as the one Hackney Council recently sent out for consultation, are making the case for restricting the night time economy.

There are examples of groups using music to make London better, too. The Cathedral Group, a large property developer, is placing music at the heart of its pitch to buyers in selling The Old Vinyl Factory development, the former site of EMI in Hayes. There, music will feature in everything; place names, leisure activities and branding. 


But these solutions remain piecemeal and patchwork. For London to become more of a music city, we must accept that this is a strategy to promote and enhance London as a whole. We need a strategy that’s city wide, rather than borough-led.

More music encourages more usage of 24-hour transport – along with the West End, the adult entertainment community, and late night eateries. A multi-borough music strategy would be better placed to examine these impacts.

Borough-led enforcement creates inconsistencies, too: things that are ordinance violations in one part of London but not in another. Take busking. It would cost us less money for us to accept one busking policy across the capital, rather than supporting buskers in one council while arresting them in another.

Promoting London as a music city would also help us to tackle the raft of venue closures, the latest of which – The Purple Turtle in Mornington Crescent – was announced only last week. It would help us to understand why our venues are where they are and what that means for audience development, both inside and outside the gig-going community.

Few people would classify Croydon as a “musical borough” – yet it houses The Brit School, many festivals and an engaging music education strategy. In my own neighbourhood, Forest Gate, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Burdon played on Boxing Day in 1967, in the Forest Gate Hotel. It’s now closed. We need more such spaces to allow future stars to incubate; and we need to recognise London as a music city to make this possible.

If we analyse, mull over and approach the seven recommendations in the report, London will be a better city for it. And we don’t have to be musicians or music industry professionals to call for such change. If we value music in our lifts, our shopping malls, our tube stations and restaurants, not to mention our venues and streets, we should all say, unequivocally, that London is a music city. Right now, we’re not all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Not all cities should be music cities. But all cities should cater to, encourage and support music as an economic driver, from tourism to cultural offering and job creation and business development. London, however, is not just any other city. It is a world leader – it’s time that, musically, it acted like it.

Shain Shapiro is the managing director of Sound Diplomacy,a leading music market development agency, and the founder of the Music Cities Convention.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.