How DIY Culture Is Thriving In The U.K.

Autonomous music spaces are having a resurgence—despite rising living costs and cuts to funding. Nine people from around Britain speak on why their communities are flourishing.

Being a part of the DIY community in London can be inspiring, enlivening, and has given me a sense of community I never thought I’d find. But it’s not without its struggles. Last week, beloved east London venue Power Lunches—a champion of the local, and sometimes global DIY music scene—announced it was shutting its doors after four years. “It has become financially unviable for us to carry on without compromising the integrity of what Power Lunches is known and loved for,” read a statement posted to Facebook. “We all know it has become increasingly difficult to do good stuff in a city that is so focused on making a profit without much concern for anything else."

Power Lunches holds great personal significance for me; I both worked and hung out there, on and off, for two years. Creatively, it was an encouraging environment, with an ethos at its core that anyone could have a go. I witnessed a load of local acts’ first—and last—shows, and hundreds of disparate performances from touring acts, from genderfluid rapper Mykki Blanco to Vancouver punks White Lung, and pioneering British power electronics band Whitehouse. I was introduced to the value and importance of queer safe spaces which I'd never found before in the unequal, fractured city of London. It wasn’t the only space in the world that was doing this kind of thing, but it was the one that was mine.

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Amy Hurst is behind the decks for the #paperdollhouse lp launch tonight #Aeonflower #powerlunches

A photo posted by Power Lunches (@powerlunchesltd) on

#bentfest starts today! Zine fair is free for all and begins at 2pm #queerpunk

A photo posted by Power Lunches (@powerlunchesltd) on

Power Lunches was an autonomous space that did everything on its own terms, but it’s getting harder and harder to do that in the U.K. any more without sawing off your own head to make the rent. Creatives in Britain exist in the shadow of an eroding arts landscape brought on by the current Conservative government’s cuts to public funding bodies—for instance, Arts Council England have had their budget slashed by 32% since 2010. Earlier this year, a task force commissioned by the Mayor of London reported that 35% of London’s small-sized music venues have disappeared since 2007. London is not a unique case, though, and echoes of the Power Lunches narrative reverberate throughout cities all over the world, whether recently-closed venues such as 285 Kent in New York and Stattbad in Berlin, or U.K. live music institutions such as Glasgow’s The Arches and Manchester's The Roadhouse.

Yet the DIY community is too resilient to let setbacks like this be overwhelming. In the face of these problems there are people who are taking matters into their own hands and opening new spaces, showing that such a venture can be both feasible and rewarding, as well as necessary. DIY Space for London is one such project, located in an industrial area of south east London. After opening this September, the initial goal was to “create a sustainable, collectively run space to put gigs on, hold meetings and building a communal infrastructure,” co-op member Ben Perkins explained over email. With ten interlinked volunteer collectives taking care of every aspect of running the space, from events management and maintenance to the bar, it’s rapidly grown from an original group of about twenty punks and activists to currently around 2,500 members who have paid a nominal £2 ($3) for full annual membership to the space. As well as putting on gigs from touring bands like Sheer Mag and Total Control, DIY Space for London hosts thoughtfully curated events, which have included a fat positive clothes swap, Edge Day, a Strike! Magazine launch and film screenings, including Shirley Clarke's 1985 free-form documentary of jazz innovator Ornette Coleman.

Away from the U.K. capital, autonomous spaces are also alive and well. Wharf Chambers is a not-for-profiit DIY hub in the medium-sized city of Leeds, located in the north of England, where programming includes shows from indie bands as well as meetings for left-leaning groups such as No Borders, and where a queer punk party might include a “free shop cuz fuck capitalism.” Their objective is modest, “to survive and be sustainable,” as I was told by Andrew Raine, one of nine members of a co-op that manages the day to day running of the space. “We've managed that thus far but that involved a lot of totally unpaid, hard work at the start and it's still pretty much hand to mouth—we don't have any spare money, improvements happen slowly, when we can afford them.”

Then there’s JT Soar, an ex-fruit and vegetable warehouse turned DIY music and arts space, just outside the centre of Nottingham—a small city three hours’ journey from London—as well as DIY practice spaces like the Lughole in Sheffield, and, at the tip of the country in Glasgow, Scotland, The Old Hairdreser’s, a music and arts venue with vegan kitchen and an “open source approach to programming.” Their words ring true: being part of the DIY community feels like being in a constant state of flux which encourages us to refresh, revive and rethink ideas so that we are always moving forward. The FADER spoke nine people from four of the U.K.'s DIY spaces to find out why—and how—they are thriving.

Why open your own space?

SEAN HAUGHTON, DIY SPACE FOR LONDON: “London is a clown car city that is becoming impossible to survive in. It’s becoming increasingly prohibitive to build anything remotely creative in this city and compromise has quite often become second nature….the feedback we’ve had highlights that London has gone far too long without something along these lines.”

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ANDREW RAINE, WHARF CHAMBERS, LEEDS: “There’s been a long history in Leeds of temporary squatted spaces that had served some of the functions that I think Wharf Chambers does now. They'd been really great as a meeting point between the activist scene/DIY music scene/DIY art scene/queer scene—and I wanted to take bits of all these places and make them into something permanent.”

BRYONY BEYNON, DIY SPACE FOR LONDON: “We want to be a space where self-organising music and culture can happen, but without displacing or erasing the histories of what's already gone. This means an ethos that is actively pro-feminist, anti-racist, that engages with struggles that affect the most marginalized in society and providing space for them to grow, amplifying the voices of those who don't get heard.”

How easy is it to run?

ROB CHURM, THE OLD HAIRDRESSER'S, GLASGOW: “There's always a lot of competition in the city, with other events on that clash with events here. The best way I have found to deal with this pressure is simply ignore it, try and put on events we find interesting and would go to.”

SOPHIE BROWN, DIY SPACE FOR LONDON: “Finding a suitable space was the first achievement, harder than you would think. In total, it took two years to find the right space. Then the heady 2015 ‘summer of plaster dust’ meant locking ourselves in a two room warehouse, knocking it into one and then rebuilding the entire space. All of this was done in three months purely on volunteer time, with many people forsaking paid work to make it happen.”

ANDREW RAINE, WHARF CHAMBERS, LEEDS: “We wouldn't exist if we hadn't managed to deal with the big, red tape issues—paperwork with planning applications, licence applications and problems with various neighbors objecting to things. We've overcome them by working out a lot of it for ourselves or with help from members/friends/family but then there's also times when it's worth just paying a professional to do something for you, if you can afford it.”

Why do spaces like this matter more than ever?
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COLETTE, DIY SPACE FOR LONDON: “I think empowerment to get involved and learn new skills across genders is a really good example of how the space can smash perceptions of who does what kind of work.”

PHIL BOOTH, JT SOAR, NOTTINGHAM: “If somebody told me five years ago that we'd be having bands from all over the world playing here on a regular basis, and that bands would make 14 hour round trips just to come and record here, I just wouldn't have believed them. JT has pretty much gifted me back my faith in humanity and really shown that if you put your mind to it, and your heart is in the right place, you can do anything.”

RACHEL AGGS, DIY SPACE FOR LONDON: "Physical space that's owned and run by musicians/punks/weirdos is essential to building a healthy music scene. Right now in London, genuinely independent venues are being squeezed out of town by places that are run by corporations—it's a creepy kind of capitalism that hides behind a mask of cool and tricks young people into being sold shit without them noticing the wolf under the sheepskin. I think if you’re a punk band that's politically aware but also trying to be as inclusive as possible, it's easy to find yourself playing a gig sponsored by Dr. Martens or Jack Daniels without knowing what you were signing up for.

Spaces like DIY Space For London help create a zone for true radical happenings, and bands/audiences/artists that thrive best when they are able to exist outside of the mainstream and to function to the maximum of their capabities (make a huge noise) without compromising their ethics.”

How sustainable are DIY spaces?

REBECCA WILCOX, THE OLD HAIRDRESSER'S, GLASGOW: “As long as we keep our ears and eyes open to practices new and old to share with people, then the process seems quite sustainable.”

PHIL BOOTH, JT SOAR, NOTTINGHAM: “When I put a show on, I make sure the money coming in at the door goes straight to the band. The gigs don't actually put any money into JT Soar itself, but does that matter to me? Nope. Not the greatest business decision I've been told many times, but if you looked at the whole idea of touring as an independent band, it just wouldn't exist full stop.”

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SOPHIE BROWN, DIY SPACE FOR LONDON: "The challenge is to be able to stay open, meeting our bills whilst also being able to offer low cost facilities to our members. Rent and rates in London are disgustingly and disproportionately high compared to equivalent DIY spaces around the U.K. Financially the model is working, we utilise all parts of the space to help pay the rent, this means we offer a venue, flexible working office space and meeting room, a bar and café, a record shop, practice space and soon a printmaking and photography space."

COLETTE, DIY SPACE FOR LONDON: “For me, community involvment and local organising is integral to my anarchist politics, and being able to work out of a space in a welcoming, non hierarchal way. I’d love nothing more to teach a girl down the street the rudimentary guitar skills I have using our music equipment, and allow local campaigning groups to use our meeting room.”

ANDREW RAINE, WHARF CHAMBERS, LEEDS: “It's a question of remaining somewhere people want to come— and that means continuing to improve the space, and questioning what you do and how you do it. Our safer spaces policy is currently being overhauled and improved and our next members meeting is going to be a discussion about racism in the DIY scene.”

BRYONY BEYNON, DIY SPACE FOR LONDON: "When our lease runs out and our building inevitably gets turned into luxury apartments, we can and will move on and retain the spark of the project.”

December 23, 2015
How DIY Culture Is Thriving In The U.K.