London’s mayoral election is nearly two years away, but already Labour’s hopefuls have been parading their wares hoping to catch the eye of party members in the capital. Oona King’s been making a great deal of the fact that she may have been a regular at the Ministry of Sound once upon a time, trying to cultivate some kind of trendy auntie image to contrast herself with Ken Livingstone. He’s now 65, but still eager to throw himself back into the role he was thrown out of two years ago,
But a piece by Ken for MayorWatch clearly shows his intention to seize the capital’s dancefloors from Oona – stating that he wants to champion London’s live music scene if he gets a third term in the top job.
Unfortunately, Ken’s wise words here aren’t matched by his deeds in office before 2008. I was no fan of the Astoria – but its loss last year means there is no large-size music venue in central London.
Where the Astoria once stood is now a huge building site for Ken’s cherished Crossrail scheme, and a revamp of Tottenham Court Road station. Obviously Crossrail is a scheme of huge importance, but I can’t help thinking that a mayor who was committed to the music industry would have helped it relocate elsewhere in the West End. After all, we’re at the point in the recession where Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh are bound to start grumbling about empty theatres – couldn’t they have been persuaded to lend us one of them for a new Astoria?
A new venue is promised on the Astoria site once Crossrail is finished – but that’s at least seven years and a whole generation of bands away.
Ken also mentions the long-running threat to Camden’s Electric Ballroom – but that was down to the mayor himself, whose Transport for London wanted the site to give Camden Town station a long-overdue revamp. Camden Council threw out the scheme in 2003.
Also under Ken’s watch, the Met Police began the process which led to the introduction of the hated Form 696, which asked venue owners to specify the type of music that would be played at a live event and if any particular racial group was likely to show up.
So Ken’s mayoralty wasn’t one which actively helped create the conditions in which live music can flourish. His words are also far too central London-focused – it would be good if he took action to promote the live scene in the suburbs. Outside zones 1 and 2, the only area of London with a music scene of any note these days is Kingston-upon-Thames.
But his most eye-catching idea is to create a London version of South By South West – the acclaimed industry get-together in Austin, Texas. Actually, SXSW is about a lot more than music, but would a London version – Kenstock? – go down so well?
The big problem any London version of SXSW faces is another English city got there first. Manchester’s In The City is a series of gigs and industry seminars. It’s been running since 1992 and has become a well-established date in the British music calendar.
It was the brainchild of the late, great impresario Tony Wilson – whose Factory Records brought the world Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, and who somehow managed to balance this career with appearing on TV as a regional news frontman. Like Ken is for London, he was a passionate advocate for his city, never failing to remind Mancunians that they lived in the finest city on earth – an attitude that’s all too rare among London figures.
Would the British music industry support two similar events? I’m not sure it would. And is it really the mayor’s job to directly intervene in a music industry that’s perfectly capable of coming up with the goods itself? All a mayor can really do is create the conditions for live music to flourish – and there wasn’t much of that happening in his first two terms.
Then again, protecting music venues and allowing the mayor to take over licensing would be useful things, and it’s good to see Ken bring these particular ideas up. But these are the thing’s he’s good at – legislating, planning, taking an overall view. As far as planning festivals goes, perhaps Ken would be wiser to leave it to the people who know best – the musicians.