Category Archives: Issues

“They don’t know where to put it…”

It was kind of satisfying to read Harriet Moss’s comments in the Independent earlier this week about the (not so) unusual situation that faced Nils Frahm’s Barbican concert in the summer. The event sold out, and had lots of support from eclectically minded DJs like Gilles Peterson and Mary Ann Hobbs, but not one classical reviewer came.

No problem, you might think. In a sense, you would be right. The concert sold out. Broadsheet classical reviewers not showing up is just another sign of the changing media landscape.

I should also say that the lack of reviews surrounding the world of contemporary crossover classical is not the fault of the reviewers. They are fighting for column inches, print and online just as orchestras and venues are. As readerships fall, arts editors are increasingly pushed for space, and if something doesn’t have an immediate genre fit it doesn’t go in.

Again, perhaps no problem. There are so many other channels to market available that not having broadsheet coverage isn’t the issue that it was maybe 20 years ago.

The article does highlight a wider issue though: many people in classical music are increasingly looking to break out of perceived genre shackles, and there are plenty of artists from other genres who are keen to help them to do this.

But classical music in the main remains risk averse. I remember that when we invited Ljova to work with CLS a couple of years back. Audiences loved him, our musicians were inspired. Success. Except that no reviewers turned up to see him either, and one promoter friend, who is a fan of Ljova, congratulated me on being so ‘brave’ in promoting him. It was meant as a supportive but I remember feeling terrified when they said it!

 

CLoSer: Sketches of Miles. 6 April 2016. Village Underground.
Gwilym Simcock performing with CLS in April 2016 Credit: James Berry

When the Jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock joins us, it’s perhaps less of a problem as jazz audiences are keen to hear the expanded tonal palette an orchestra gives someone like Gwilym (although the world of jazz can be as reactionary as some corners of classical music). Gwilym is happy to explore the flexible hinterland between two genres, and has created some memorable concerts with us.

sam-lee-tfit1-by-frederic-aranda-lo-res
Sam Lee joins CLS on 17 November. Image credit Frederic Aranda

 

When Sam Lee joins us in November, I imagine that we will face the same problem. Sam is a folk artist, we are an orchestra. Never the twain, etc. Except that classical music has borrowed from folk music for centuries (L’Homme arme anyone?). I think part of what makes CLS what it is is that we can find artists who are prepared to give this tradition of cross genre collaboration some contemporary relevance. It would be too easy with both folk and jazz, and Ljova’s hybrid mix of classical and klezmer to look backwards – we want to create something new in those experimental hinterlands.

Sam’s music is every bit as contemporary as Nils Frahm’s in its own way. Sam borrows ancient Travellers’ songs, but the surrounds he gives them, while definitely folk could not be from any time other than our own. It will be incredible to hear them on an even bigger scale than his albums and usual live shows allow.

We’ll get good audiences – Sam has a great following – but will we get any reviewers? Perhaps if their editors work out where to put it….

Matthew Swann, CLS Chief Executive

Sam Lee joins City of London Sinfonia for CLoSer: Died for Love on 17 November at St John at Hackney. 

Advertisements

Let’s keep creativity close-by

By Matthew Swann, CLS Chief Executive

MatthewheadshotThere has been a lot of talk in recent years and months about musicians and artists of all hues finding it more and more difficult to survive in London. This has prompted the Deputy Mayor for Culture to announce dedicated “Artist Zones”, where artists and organisations would be given help to purchase unused spaces. A great idea, but I think we can go further…

Some context. Music venues are closing across the country, but especially in the capital, where a conservative estimate suggests that a third of London’s gig venues have closed in the last 10 years. The low earnings that afflict many artists and musicians, especially those starting out, are incompatible with London rents, let alone mortgages. Conversely, part of what has made London a magnet for so many people and so much investment is the incredibly diverse cultural offerings available. We see this in microcosm as bold, risk-taking artists establish themselves somewhere cheap and forgotten like Shoreditch was 20 years ago, only to be priced out as those who want a slice of vicarious ‘cool’ follow them. The artists get chased north up the Kingsland Road into Dalston, then east into Hackney, now south into Peckham. Even in Peckham, young artists and local populations are being squeezed out as more vicarious cool is sought. Decades ago the same happened to Soho and Notting Hill – once down at heel but culturally vibrant, now beyond the means of artists beyond a handful of outlier megastars.

Classical music is by no means immune. The CLS office is in Brixton, having moved from (a very grotty and cheap) office in the City five years ago because Central London was beyond our reach. Now Brixton is becoming too expensive – in Autumn 2018 we will likely have to look further afield for office space. Our landlords have seen what is happening in the centre of London, have invested in the building’s infrastructure and are attracting bigger companies who can pay higher rents.

Just as bands and visual artists are losing performance spaces, so is classical music. Already, one of our favourite venues has had to hike its hire fees in a bid to keep up with rents. One church we would love to perform in more, close to one of the ‘cool’ areas above, has seen its commercial potential and priced itself beyond what we think is reasonable. Affordable venues are all oversubscribed. Rehearsal venues are a particular issue, in that London simply does not have enough of them of a big enough size, and they are very expensive. It is even becoming an issue for our Meet the Music programme. Our education team have spent the last few days desperately trying to find a suitable, and importantly, available and affordable, East London venue for a schools project later in the Autumn. At a time when so many London orchestras, including our own CLoSer series, are attracting new, young and cross cultural audiences, we are in danger of becoming victims of our own success as the venues we champion fall to encroaching speculative development.

If all this sounds like a moan, it’s not meant to be. One of London’s joys is its ever shifting cultural tectonic plates. When I first moved to Camberwell in South East London a dozen years or so ago, telling people I lived there usually elicited a sharp intake of breath. Neighbouring Peckham was a no go zone after dark. Brixton a generation ago was a by-word for inner-city violence. Now, I can drink cocktails on top of the multi-story car park in Peckham, and take my kids to the cinema on its ground floor. Brixton is a by-word for outstanding food (and home to CLS towers!). Camberwell is the epicentre of scruffy artistic chic. Problems and poverty still remain in those areas and in many ways are more entrenched, but there are opportunities which did not exist 10 years ago.

But like the Mayor’s office I do think that we need to guard against London gaining investment but losing its creative soul. The Deputy Mayor’s “Artist Zones” are a great idea, but require capital investment and a long term leveraged commitment which doesn’t suit everyone. I think we can go further, and help both artists and businesses at the same time.

It’s been mooted before, but why don’t we create an English Heritage style Grade system for cultural venues, preventing them from change of use and unsustainable rent hikes. The business of development and investment could continue around them, still benefitting from having creativity nearby  that would otherwise up sticks for the next cheap and forgotten area of London. But let’s extend this to rehearsal rooms, artists workshops, independent theatres, the lot. Any venue that has been in continuous use for creating music, art, etc for five years is protected. That way artists and musicians are not constantly pushed around, and eventually out, of London.

Second, any new office development in much widened “artist zones” has to provide at least 5% of its space to non-profit creative organisations either free of charge or well under market rates. Then the music, performing arts and visual arts organisations (and Orchestras!) that fuel London’s creative infrastructure, and in turn fuel investment, can concentrate on empowering artists, rather than spending exponentially increasing portions of their budgets on rent

I think that businesses and investors stand to benefit as much from these ideas as artists and the organisations that support them. Some businesses already understand the benefits of keeping creative organisations in their developments, but unilateral altruism isn’t going to solve the problem.

“Artist Zones” are a great idea, but let’s go further and benefit everyone by keeping creativity close.