Throughout June we’re working with the Mayor of London’s Sounds Like London campaign to bring you profiles on the most interesting and exciting women in London music. Beavering away behind the scenes, keeping London’s venues full of vibrant acts, are a small but growing community of women – we tracked down three of them to find out how they ensure London’s live scene is one of the best in the world.
Next time you show up to a gig, ticket in hand, bag open ready to be searched, take a second to consider how many people have been involved in making this very moment happen for you. It starts with a kid picking up a guitar or downloading Logic and ends with you sloshing half a pint over the person in front of you when you get over excited during the big chorus, but there are hundreds of people between those two points, not least the venue managers who keep the lights lit, the bar stocked and the bands coming into town.
“Dalston was burgeoning with loads of up-and-coming venues – few places have been here the same length of time as us.” – Alice, Servant Jazz Quarters
She started out on a Newcastle street team, but Lucinda Brown’s career has seen her put time in at a host of iconic London venues like the O2 Academy Islington and The O2 Kentish Town Forum. As venue business manager for the Islington Assembly Hall, her day may mostly be taken up with paperwork now but she still has to be prepared to roll her sleeves up and get stuck into whatever needs doing. “Working in a venue means every day is different,” she says. “You have to be prepared to muck in with any job, from moving furniture to presenting your future plans to senior management.” On the day we spoke, she had been working with their tech manager to bathe the venue in green light to mark the anniversary of the Grenfell fire.
Over in West London, Bush Hall’s music and general manager Sophie Asquith was dealing with wrestlers for the first time. “We try to keep it super diverse here – like this evening, we’ve got a Q&A with a WWE wrestler so that’s a different one…”. Sophie worked her way up from waitressing in the Bush Hall restaurant to fund her art studio to being one of a three-person team that keeps the venue running. Although live music is the venue’s focus, private events like weddings and other avenues help keep the coffers full. “It’s such an old building as well so there’s constantly something to maintain.”
“you’ve got to work out what your niche is and really, really play up to it in order to keep going.” – Sophie, Bush Hall
Unlike Bush Hall which was built as a dancehall and Islington Assembly Hall which was always used for, er, assembling, Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters, didn’t start life as a live music venue. It was actually classified as a storage unit when Alice Passey and some friends started putting on pop up shows around ten years ago. They bought the space in 2011 with no real idea of what they were getting themselves into. “We had no intention of becoming a live venue,” she explains. “But Dalston at the time was burgeoning, with loads of up-and-coming venues – few places have been here the same length of time as us.”
It helps to be a rabid music fan when you’re running a venue. “It’s really hard not to get sucked into your own music taste,” Sophie admits. “Even just from a selfish point of view so I can look at the programme and just be like, ‘Oh my God. I’m so excited about all of these things coming in!’” She’d move heaven and earth to get Nick Cave back on Bush Hall’s stage. Alice will feel her work is done when she gets golden-haired Connan Mockasin onto SJQ’s stage while Lucinda is keen to book Wiley and all the drama he’d no doubt bring with him.
Each of the women we spoke to had come up against gender discrimination of one form or another, from the tour manager who assumed a visiting bearded brewery rep would be the one to know where the monitors board should go to sexist comments from colleagues (former, we hasten to add). Lucinda laughs when I ask if there have been any advantages to being a woman. “Sexism has been a serious barrier to career progression,” she sighs. “I know it’s the same in every industry but I foolishly believed that all of the left wing, supposedly progressive men who worked in music would create a more positive environment.”
“Sexism has been a serious barrier to career progression,” – Lucinda, Islington Assembly Hall
Sophie, whose small office is full of women “bossing it”, revels in the memory of saving the bewildered brewery rep by stepping in with clear instructions about loading in. “I was just like ha-HA!” she crows. “Fuck you! I know what I’m doing! It was really satisfying. It doesn’t happen that often here but when it does it’s just so blindingly obvious.”
“My main obstacles,” Alice tells us, “were not really gender specific. They were more to do with the fact I’d never run a business before. But it has come together in a much more organic process which feels more like a female approach: not as cut-throat and hard-nosed.” She points to the eclectic mix of artists playing SJQ as a marker of that. “We’ve never had to be mindful of gender [when booking acts]; we do notice that if you get an up’n’coming band it’s more likely to be all men than all women, but we’ve always had a lot of female artists.”
As for backstage goss, we try to weasel some out but there’s a strict code of silence that runs through each interview. “I think we all know those wouldn’t be fit for print!” Lucinda says, deftly sidestepping the question. And with that we let them get back to filling their stages with the most exciting bands they can get their hands on – someone get Wiley on the phone.