Voices: In deciding the fate of Brixton Academy, the future of live music is in our hands

Once a venue is closed, it is highly unlikely to be replaced (Getty)
Once a venue is closed, it is highly unlikely to be replaced (Getty)

How do you deal with a problem? Do you swat it aside? Or do you sit down and fix it?

Those are the options facing Lambeth Council’s licensing committee, which holds the fate of the Brixton Academy in its hands.

The South London venue – to which the word “legendary” is often attached with good reason – has been closed since the appalling tragedy that occurred there at the end of last year.

Rebecca Ikumelo, 33, and security guard Gaby Hutchinson, 23, died in hospital after a crush during a gig by the Afrobeats singer Asake. There were multiple injuries too.

I confess I was shocked to my core in the immediate aftermath. I’m a regular at the venue. A disabled gig goer to boot, one with a certain level of anxiety to overcome. I’ve suffered from a high degree of claustrophobia since being crushed by a lorry. Not to mention frequent incidences of ableist abuse.

But at Brixton? There are some venues I automatically think twice about when I see shows advertised. The Academy is not one of them.

The experiences I’ve had there have never been anything other than positive. The staff on the viewing platform are particularly good. They don’t tolerate so much as a hint of bad behaviour.

Nonetheless, something clearly went badly wrong on the night in question. A number of people appeared to enter without tickets. Questions were subsequently raised about the security, staffing levels, the strength of the venue’s doors, and the level of medical cover on hand.

Going to a gig should be a joyous, life affirming experience. It usually is. It shouldn’t carry the risk of injury, let alone of death. People should exit with a smile, not by ambulance.

So, the venue and its owners have work to do. They have a lot to prove. But, in consultation with the authorities, they should be allowed to do that work, as has been the case on several previous occasions.

The Manchester Arena springs to mind where the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande show took place in 2017.

Operator SMG applied to revamp its operations schedule at the venue, after 22 people were killed there in 2021. The local council said it needed to show the Manchester Arena Inquiry’s findings were “demonstrably addressed”. SMG said it would work with the authorities. It did so, and the objections of licensing officials and Manchester Police were dealt with.

That is how it should be done.

It matters that similar efforts are made in Brixton. It matters to the local economy, which is losing hundreds of thousands of pounds per week in lost revenue time at a time when the hospitality industry is still struggling to recover from the impact of the pandemic, not to mention surging costs and the effect of the cost-of-living crisis on customers. The Night Time Industries Association tells me some local businesses are on the verge of closure.

Equally as troubling is the loss of a cultural resource. The Brixton Academy fills an important niche, catering for popular acts that don’t have the capacity to fill arenas. Smaller bands can get a taste of playing at a prestige venue by serving as support acts.

If it is lost, it might never be replaced. The number of live venues in Britain has been in steady decline, depriving its buoyant music industry of a means of developing and showcasing talent. The pandemic exacerbated the trend. Many grass-roots venues were kept alive only through the support of organisations such as the Music Venue Trust during lockdowns. However, the Trust says 46 venues have already closed this year, with another 53 at risk.

The situation is grim. Once a venue is closed, it is highly unlikely to be replaced. I remember a couple of years ago speaking to Ryan Smith, the leader singer of Bdrmm, a rising indie band, about the loss of two of Hull’s venues. One of them – the Welly – was ultimately saved. Smith described its rescue as “so important”. He was a regular there when he was young. It shaped his taste. It helped create a band which produced an album described as “a modern shoe-gaze” classic when released through Sonic Cathedral.

Small wonder that a diverse array of artists, including The Chemical Brothers, Skunk Anansie, Garbage, Primal Scream, Blur, and the Prodigy have backed the campaign to save the Academy, which they have described as an “essential” London venue. It is. A petition attracted 110,000 signatures. Lambeth has received more than 20,000 representations from the public.

There is also an inclusion issue here. It would sadden me greatly, as a disabled lover of live music, to see the loss of a venue that has always made me feel welcome. I have no doubt others feel the same way.

By all means, hold Academy Music Group’s feet to the fire. But we too often in Britain resort to break and ban when we should instead look to repair and reform. This is a prime example.