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27 April 2023

Why we should save O2 Academy Brixton

The police’s suggestion that the venue should shut is an unimaginative, narrow-minded decision that pits the state against culture. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In recent months, the south London music scene has felt different. Since December 2022 one of the area’s most prominent venues, O2 Academy Brixton, has been closed after a crowd crush resulted in two deaths. Rebecca Ikumelo, a 33-year-old concert-goer, and Gaby Hutchinson, a 23-year-old security guard, died as fans attempted to enter a show by the Nigerian Afrobeats artist Asake.

Initial reports of a ticketless mob swarming the doors were contested. Onlookers claim some of those stuck outside were ticket-holders. The problem lay with the security staff, witnesses said, who “kettled” them into a small space. This week, following a three-month suspension, the Metropolitan Police has called for the venue’s licence to be revoked, which would mean permanent closure for O2 Academy Brixton. The local authority will decide whether to follow the police advice or to reopen it.

The details of that tragic night in December are shameful, such that the venue’s owner Academy Music Group (AMG) must investigate, though according to the BBC AMG had made proposals to enable it to open the Brixton venue safely again. The safety and security of any public event is paramount. But the police’s suggestion that the venue should simply close is unimaginative and narrow-minded, pitting the state against culture.

[See also: The death of the groupie]

O2 Academy Brixton – which first opened as a cinema in 1929, became a concert hall in 1983 and has been run by AMG since 2004 – is by no means the area’s only live music spot. The Electric, the Windmill, the Blues Kitchen and Hootananny all put on gigs, showcasing multiple genres of music in Brixton. But no venue nearby has a comparable capacity or is as renowned as Brixton Academy, which hosted the last-ever Smiths show in 1986 and has seen historic performances from Madonna, Kraftwerk, Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols. More recently it has been home to multi-night residencies from the 1975 and Phoebe Bridgers.

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Compared with the rest of the UK, London is well-served for live music venues. (Although the picture as a whole is not positive: in the decade from 2007, 35 per cent of its grassroots music venues closed.) But south London, where Brixton is, is generally underserved. With a capacity of 20,000, the O2 Arena in Greenwich is a very different type of concert space. There are small pub rooms and club spaces in Peckham, Deptford and Camberwell. But there is nowhere else that might host the prominent yet not quite arena-ready acts that the O2 Academy has long welcomed. Its closure in Brixton would mark a deep loss to an area with a vibrant cultural history.

The live-music sector needs support to stay afloat. It was almost obliterated by the pandemic and there are recent reports that suggest the industry is yet to recover. The cost-of-living crisis means that fewer music fans have the disposable income to spend on concert tickets. Meanwhile venues are battling rising energy costs, with the Music Venue Trust reporting that average expenditure by grassroots venues was up 40 per cent in 2022 compared with 2019. By suggesting that O2 Academy Brixton simply be closed, the police shrugs its shoulders at a struggling industry, preferring to do away with a problem rather than face up to it.

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It also doesn’t make sense to close just one O2 Academy venue – AMG runs several across the UK, including in other areas of London. The police said it has “lost confidence” in the operator’s ability to run O2 Academy Brixton and this venue has had its licence suspended. Live events elsewhere are proceeding as usual, and it is not known whether AMG has revised its security practices.

Closing Brixton would stop any problems in Brixton, but not any that might exist in AMG venues elsewhere.

[See also: HMV is coming back to Oxford Street – music fans should rejoice]