Throughout a clumsily-eased lockdown, the outlook for our cultural institutions has been dire. In late June, the government unveiled a ‘five-stage roadmap’ for reopening venues that included no funding details or even an accompanying timetable. As the half-hearted plan was announced, the Music Venue Trust estimated that 90 per cent of venues were at risk of closure unless they were provided with financial relief.
In an open letter to the government, independent venues affiliated with the trust called for a £50 million relief package and VAT reduction on ticket sales to aid their survival. At the start of July, three months after culture venues were forced to shut their doors, the government finally announced a rescue package of £1.57 billion to cover the entire UK arts and culture sector. Labour called the fund ‘too little, too late’. The harsh reality is that the threats facing independent music venues have been exacerbated, not created, by Covid-19.
Among the signatories to the trust’s letter are The Cluny and Little Buildings, two venues based in the Ouseburn area of Newcastle. Arguably the city’s worst kept secret, Ouseburn is full of colourful graffiti, repurposed factories and a refreshing amount of greenery. In 2018, The Guardian described Ouseburn as ‘Newcastle’s Shoreditch’. Like that London ‘destination’, modern Ouseburn is in many ways the product of gentrification.
As researchers James Whitting and Kevin Hannan highlighted in a 2017 study, Ouseburn was one of the oldest industrial districts in Newcastle, and its conversion into a creative locality was facilitated by local authorities as part of a broader effort to regenerate the city. This process, typified in large part through the conversion in disused industrial sites into creative spaces, has resulted in a vibrant ecosystem of pubs, art studios and live music venues owned and frequented by local people. The regeneration also placed Ouseburn at the centre of Newcastle’s musical life, with venues like The Cluny hosting acts from Solange Knowles to Code Orange to Newcastle’s own Maximo Park, as well as countless smaller outfits.
As the region gained a reputation as a northern bohemia however, it increasingly attracted wealthy investors and property developers which threaten to fundamentally alter the area’s character.
As with austerity, COVID-19 threatens to devastate working-class creative spaces
In 2018, for instance, Miller Partnership Architects applied for planning permission to build an ‘aparthotel’ complex near the Tyne Bar, one of Newcastle’s most popular live music venues. The news was met with an immediate backlash from locals, with many fearing the complex would stifle the live music scene as residents would inevitably file noise complaints. Although 11,000 people signed a petition against the proposals, plans were approved by Newcastle City Council in November 2018.
Similarly, in January last year the tiny venue and rehearsal space Little Buildings was forced to relocate after its landlord announced plans to re-let its original premises to a higher-paying tenant. In a petition to save the venue, manager Allan Scorer decried the increasing gentrification, lamenting: ‘Where else in the city can bands play on a stage in front of 20 people and gain confidence?’
The gentrification of Ouseburn is not occurring in isolation. A short walk from Ouseburn is Newcastle’s Quayside, once the epicentre of the Tyne’s shipbuilding industry. The Quayside has been the site of substantial redevelopment since the 1990s. Some projects, such as the Sage and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, undoubtedly did much to breathe new life into the region. A number of more recent developments, however, seem to be build with the intention of attracting wealthy consumers, including a planned giant Ferris wheel nicknamed (I kid you not) the ‘Whey Eye’.
The gentrification of cultural spaces is about who has access to make and enjoy culture as much as it is about access to the space itself. In Steal as Much as You Can, Nathalie Olah examines the decline of working class and minority voices within mainstream cultural institutions. Olah points to the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent austerity as a catalyst in mainstream cultural institutions becoming increasingly inaccessible to marginalised people as they grew more cautious in their recruitment practices and arts budgets that were a lifeline for smaller artists and venues whittled away. Music education has also come under sustained attack, depriving working-class students of other means of access to the arts. At the same time, middle class people have become increasingly represented, effectively resulting in a gentrification of Britain’s cultural landscape.
The exclusion of working-class artists from mainstream culture and the growing pressure on independent venues through gentrification go hand in hand. As with austerity, Covid-19 threatens to devastate working-class creative spaces.
It is hardly surprising that the government dragged its heels in support of the arts at large. Boris Johnson and his affluent allies lose nothing if the Music Venue Trust’s independent venues close. When the ‘emergency fund’ was announced, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden stated, ‘Sadly, not everyone is going to be able to survive and not every job is going to be protected’. He emphasised that the primary aim of the relief funding was preserving the ‘crown jewels of the UK’s art sector’. Small venues are not cultural institutions of the elite.
Their hope is that the people of Newcastle, as elsewhere, will be distracted from the changes to their city by a new shiny attraction. As Owen Hatherley explained last year in architecture magazine Dezeen, the Whey Eye is just the latest, lazy Ferris-wheel attraction to spring up in a global city centre. For Hatherley, the wheels are a ‘symptom of how decision makers in many cities are desperately pretending nothing has changed since the financial crisis, and we can go on doing the same old nonsense’.
But no number of giant, gaudy wheels or aparthotels can replace Newcastle’s independent live music venues. They help facilitate the creation of support networks and provide an environment for new, emerging or niche acts, particularly from marginalised backgrounds, to cultivate an audience or simply sustain themselves. And for audiences, these venues allow us to experience culture on our own terms – as well as avoid the pressure of huge crowds and sky-high ticket prices that go hand-in-hand with larger venues.
There is some cause for hope. That the government was forced into providing some relief demonstrates these cultural spaces are valued. Ouseburn, at least, has an active community trust. Nevertheless, the risk remains that these spaces will forever disappear, replaced by playgrounds for the rich.