Emma Hudson examines star-studded activist group Save Soho, and the apparent decline of the area’s cultural heritage.
“Every time you convert an office to a flat, you lose a few hundred pounds worth of creative industry turnover”
REDEVELOPMENT THROUGH LONDON’S SOHO HAS THE CREATIVE COMMUNITY UP IN ARMS. BUT IS IT REALLY ALL THAT BLEAK? ACCESS INVESTIGATES…
Soho – one of London’s most infamous neighbourhoods – is under threat.
So say Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Izzard and Idris Elba. These famous faces, among others, are campaigning on behalf of Save Soho (founded by musician Tim Arnold) to stop the total redevelopment of the area’s creative offices and venues into residential properties.
From its historic origins in the 17th century as the capital’s underbelly, to the heady days of Paul Raymond’s Revuebar, to the streets now thick with media offices, Soho has a rich history as the beating heart for creative types.
But is Soho’s identity fading? And if it is, what’s the harm? We spoke to people on each side of the issue to find out why Soho should keep its mojo.
WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
Soho is one of those neighbourhoods that engenders passion from anyone connected to it. After all, as SohoCreate festival’s Tom Harvey tells us, the name of Soho and the culture that surrounds it – warts and all – has been a long time in the making.
“Things do not just pop up,” he says. “It takes 10
years minimum – often 20. Soho’s taken 450 years. You have somewhere like Soho that doesn’t exist anywhere else – why would you lose that with the idea that you might recreate it somewhere else in the world?”
It is a neighbourhood that has always welcomed and nurtured cultural and social diversity. Soho’s seedy underbelly lives in tandem with the bright young things who flock there; the area is bathed in warm memories of parties and characters and times long gone.
Like Earls Court before it, Soho’s creative culture has, however, priced out those who make the neighbourhood so vibrant.
It is smack in the middle of London’s Zone 1 – an area so in demand that property prices have skyrocketed (a two-bedroom flat on Dean Street can go for around £3m, according to property search site Zoopla).
According to the Music Venue Trust’s Mark Davyd, those soaring property values are the most dangerous threat to Soho’s cultural venues.
“The bricks and mortar value far exceeds what any music venue can generate,” he says.
It’s a two-pronged problem. First, in places like Soho, venues are regarded by legislation as a nuisance. And second, those venues haven’t spoken up to defend themselves.
“We’re arriving quite late in what is already quite a precarious situation,” he admits. “The sector has failed to explain its needs, and failed to speak up for itself, so legislation has been written that doesn’t specifically address the circumstances and needs of venues.”
Campaigners – from Music Venue Trust, Save Soho, the Soho Society, and SohoCreate (just to name a few) – worry that total redevelopment of the area will wipe out the creative economy of London.
Companies based in Soho will readily tell you that they generate around £7.5bn turnover – more, Harvey points out, than the City’s financial district.
“You can wax lyrical about the incredible place that Soho is for entertainment, its diversity, its creativity, its culture,” he says. “Those things are phenomenally important.
“But every time you convert an office to a flat, you lose a few hundred thousand pounds worth of creative industry turnover.”
WHY THIS MATTERS
Closing down the cultural sector in Soho and around the UK will have a massive effect on the live events industry.
Building up to a festival slot “starts on a rainy night in Bristol in front of eight people,” quips Davyd, but he’s only half joking. Name any of the headliners at the major festivals in the past five years; they all have one thing in common. They started in small, grimy venues.
“If you don’t have that space, you aren’t going to have your Ed Sheerans and your Adeles and your Amy Winehouses, because there won’t be anywhere anybody can learn to do that,” Davyd says.
“London has so many great exports, from David Bowie, to the Who, to Paloma Faith,” says Tim Arnold. “[These venues] are where people like Paloma learn their trade and learn their craft – and these venues are fast disappearing.”
But is a damp, grungy basement club really the best place for up-and-comers to cut their teeth? Many of the most successful artists are now making their way up through the Internet and YouTube. Is that not just as good a way of gaining experience, if not credibility?
Both Davyd and Arnold are sceptical, to put it mildly.
“It’s pointless to argue that young musicians can make their careers on the Internet or on television
contests – that is not enough,” Arnold says. “You must know what it’s like to work in a professional environment, even when you’re starting out. Creativity must be encouraged in reality, not just on television and not just on the Internet.”
Referring to everyone’s favourite YouTube brat, Davyd goes harsher. “In 20 years, who’s going to headline Glastonbury? I’m not convinced it’s going to be Justin Bieber,” he says. “I suspect he might suffer a little bit at Glastonbury.
“If the future of music isn’t coming out of small venues, I think the future of music is looking bleak.” Sombre words indeed – but do the people actually
running and organising the festivals, and booking the headliners, agree?
To find out, we rang Paul Reed, general manager of the Association of Independent Festivals, to get his perspective. >
“It’s all part of the ecosystem of live music,” he says. “Without those small venues, where artists can develop and cut their teeth, then essentially you don’t have any future festival line-ups or headliners, because there’s nowhere for them to get started.
“The main affect is that the role those venues play in artist development is disappearing, and we’re seeing a very troubling picture in the capital with these closures,” Reed added.
Despite the arguments for small music venues, it has to be said that it could be much worse.
Although 12 Bar Club’s original space on Denmark
Street closed, the venue made headlines recently by reopening in Islington.
Even Madame Jojo’s, the epicentre for many battling to ‘save’ Soho, will eventually reopen, according to the developers.
Battle lines have long since been drawn, but it is a good sign to see that both sides – the creative cam- paigners and the property developers – have in recent weeks agreed that they must work together to preserve the area’s authenticity.
The beating heart of creativity that is Soho will survive. It remains to be seen in what form.
SOLILOQUIES ON SOHO…
“I wouldn’t choose to engage with artists
who had completely bypassed any sort of spit and sawdust crowd. Most of the bands that anyone has really passionately invested in because of the music, all those bands went through that scene [in Soho]. –MARK DAVYD
“It’s the community that have supported me throughout my life; it’s where my grandfather worked in the 1950s with Paul Raymond; it’s where my mother started her career at the Windmill Theatre as a dancer. I come from a few generations of Soho.” –TIM ARNOLD
“Today Soho Estates is one of the landowners keen to honour the creative history of Soho and to secure the future for performing arts venues. Soho Estates have been granted permission to regenerate Walkers Court and the surrounding area, introducing new offices, retail, restaurants and a cabaret style theatre. Soho Estates have been granted licences for two clubs, one of these is expected to be for The Box, the other a re-incarnation of burlesque club Madame Jojo’s.” –SOHO ESTATES
“I think its very important that performing artists get privilege over other things or otherwise it will turn into Singapore Airport with lots of shiny glossy buildings which are just the same as glossy shiny buildings anywhere in the world. It’s the most creative square mile on the surface of the planet.” –STEPHEN FRY
“If you look at any generation, they are particularly nostalgic about certain music, places, people around their late teenage early 20s. And I think you’ve got a huge amount of people who began their careers in Soho, and are quite rightly romantic about it. Romance is a good thing, I like being romantic. I remember Soho very fondly but we have to be realistic as well, and that point about things do change and evolve and develop is an important one.” –TOM HARVEY
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ACCESS ALL AREAS‘ FEBRUARY 2015
MAIN PICTURE: RICHARD KAMINSKI/REX
WORDS: EMMA HUDSON