We’re all about promoting independent musicians and independent music venues, and want to do as much as possible to help them thrive. So today we have a special blog post from London-based Juan Ayala, providing insight on the struggles of being an independent musician and producer in the city’s modern climate.
Like countless others through many centuries have done, I came to the international cultural Mecca that London has always historically been and I’ve enjoyed my 11 years here enormously. However, like many other musician peers around me, I have to rethink how being a London-based musician in the current economic climate can work for me.
For the last seven years, I’ve run my own studio. My recent studio was a room I rented in a rather legendary studio complex called Battersea Park Studios (and previously known as Sphere Studios), but in September we had to leave the building because it was being sold to knock down the studio and build flats. It’s sadly a common story; the housing industry taking over every possible square inch of London whilst creative spaces become fewer and fewer and those remaining are not protected.
In Battersea Park Studios I was part of a wonderful, vibrant creative community of musicians, producers, engineers & artists. I was neighbours with some incredible talent including the band Duran Duran and many other legends older and newer in all spheres of the music industry. The building had a great atmosphere and was very collaborative, which was important for me too. The studio itself has seen the likes of Adele, Ed Sheeran, Mariah Carey and Queen passing through the doors over the years. Now sadly, the tens of thousands of pounds worth of specialist acoustic engineering will be bulldozed to make more flats.
I’m all for affordable housing but I think London also needs to be protecting its dwindling creative spaces. It had been the perfect space for me, and in the months since it closed I have been on the hunt for an appropriate new studio space in my area. There are now very few high spec, designated & purpose built recording spaces in London left- and even less of them are in South London!
Other friends and colleagues from Battersea Park Studios that also haven’t yet found a suitable re-location space have moved into home studios, studio shares or temporary spaces on the wrong side of town until something better comes up.
Independent studio closures too commonplace
Purpose-built recording studios are dropping like flies in London and closures like ours have become commonplace. In the process we are losing big chunks of an industry that has been part of the very character and fabric of London and the UK internationally. These are studios that have been the home and birthing place of music that itself has played a huge role in inspiring modern popular culture around the world.
Simultaneously, there has been a huge reduction of nearly 50% in grass roots music venues in the last 10 years in central London. If you couple these things with record label budget cuts caused by the decline in music sales generally (whilst the music industry still navigates the new digital era), we find that many musicians in London have less work at a time when the cost of living has skyrocketed.
For a lot of musicians, it’s not just the lack of available creative spaces which is a problem, it’s the very cost of hiring them when you can find one and the cost of living in London generally that has now become disproportionate with a musician’s earnings. London as a city seems to now have capitalist pound signs in the eyes at the expense of anything else, including, if we are not careful, our very culture. It has become a challenging time to be living as a musician in London.
Traditionally, the UK is one of the greatest exporters of music globally and well known for it’s live music scene internationally, as I’m sure it will continue to be. But London has always been proud to be the central hub of these assets, so is there now going to be a shift out of the capital due to the current climate? We musicians must move with the times and think outside the box to survive and thrive and I wonder if a move away from London will inevitably become part of the answer for many of us.
The solution? Perhaps some of us will need to relocate to Manchester or Birmingham, Bristol or Edinburgh and start a new arts capital in the UK? Perhaps we need to leave the UK altogether! For others of us, I am a believer that great art can often be born out of these difficult times, and I also think we can claim this city back with a little help from the local government if we are prepared to work for it.
Time for positive thinking
I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I do think we need to remain positive. I think that as a nation, we must not forget the wonderful part the arts have played historically in making London such a hive of creativity and drawing the attention of an international community. We should be seeking to protect creative spaces and take care of our resident artists and musicians in London.
We the artists must continue to give back creatively to this wonderful city where we have had such opportunity historically, but we also have to make ends meet and need to think creatively about this! We should see this as an invitation rather then an insult and think proactively. The way in which we make money through our art is changing with the times and we need to keep up. If there are fewer opportunities to perform in grass roots venues or less work on the ground from labels, then we need to look at where the money has shifted. I think there’s a lot more opportunity and money in synchronisation, such as commercials, films and library music for example.
Collaboration and self-sufficiency
One thing I would like us to fight for is the ability to collaborate. It is very important for a music producer to have a bit of extra cash in the pocket to be able to hire services from other people and other companies. This is a way of supporting different sectors of the industry. For instance, as a producer I need to trade with people that give service to equipment, hire great musicians to work and play on records, to buy from software companies, to invest constantly in new technologies, to hire recording studios, mastering engineers etc. It’s important to have access to these people and services.
With the cost of living so high, our creative flexibility can be reduced due to the limited availability of funds needed to engage with these things. The quality of our work and final product can be compromised and even stylistically changed to work within limitations. Many producers in London are meeting this challenge by taking more of a DIY approach to making records, leaving highly-skilled musical professionals with less work to go around.
On one hand, becoming more self-sufficient is a great solution, and it’s wonderful that technology allows for this. But it’s also important to remember that the collaborative part of making music together is ultimately essential for our cultural growth. Whilst budgets are lower and the cost of living is higher at the moment, I’ve been experimenting with outsourcing brass or orchestral recordings for my projects to other cities or even to other countries such as Eastern European or Latin American countries. I feel sad to not be able to offer our fabulous British players the work, but at least I’m not giving up on live collaboration completely and recording only digital sample strings ‘in the box’. Trading internationally this way is another good middle ground temporary solution to survival.
Places like London, and creative industries such as music, keep on changing, which is as it’s meant to be. We need to navigate through it and use our energy by creating and contributing to the scene and to the evolving society around us through our art. It is good to find a voice to address and raise awareness of some of these issues, but the main thing is to do whatever it takes to keep creating and stay positive.
I now haven’t had a studio for more than three months, but I’ve managed to be creative with my limitations and even enjoyed the challenge! I have to be extra efficient with my time, but technology allows us to be flexible. For the time being I have to hire expensive recording studios to track and record vocals and instruments, which before were easy in my own studio. The rest I do from home, or I outsource.
For editing, I manage well on my laptop at home or in café’s and on the move. I’m not taking anything for granted, and I’m sure the right studio space in the right location will reveal itself to me again at the right time. This season has definitely made me think out of the box, it’s made me work in unusual ways out of necessity, and for that challenge I am grateful.
Will my family be relocating? I’m still currently in London, but like many of my colleagues, we are definitely looking at other options further afield now. Will the future main creative honeypot of the UK shift out of the capital to Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Edinburgh, or somewhere else altogether? I guess time will tell.
Born and raised in a small coastal city in Baja California Sur, Mexico, Juan knew he wanted to be a musician from a young age, began to learn instruments including guitar, organ, piano, and bass guitar, and became interested in making records as a producer. He graduated from University of Westminster 11 years ago and has since made a life as a musician, songwriter and music producer, as well as co-producing a live music TV show called The Ayala Show. Follow Juan on Twitter.