A midweek evening at The Water Rats, a live-music pub in King’s Cross. This former music hall has quite a cultural pedigree: Bob Dylan, Oasis and Katy Perry have all performed here. Karl Marx and Lenin used to prop up the bar. Tonight’s crowd is typically eclectic — an expectant rabble of art-school goths, tattooed tank girls and fedora-wearing soul boys.
Among them are two movers and shakers who arrived on gleaming Harley- Davidsons, drawing envious glances from the shivering smokers outside. They are Albert House tenants Ben Newton, 33, and his younger brother, Jake, 27, whose Live&Loud online platform is transforming the music industry at its grass roots.
“The easiest way to think of it is as a dating site connecting local venues and local artists,” says Ben, whose background is in artist management (it runs in the family: the brothers’ dad, Mick, managed Steve Winwood). Already signed up are more than 500 venues, from pubs to pizza parlours, and more than 10,000 artists, from grime MCs to Beatles cover bands. Venues pay a monthly subscription of £200, but it’s free to join for the acts. There’s also a pay-as-you-go plan for venues that host entertainment less often. “I want to give every artist an opportunity,” says Ben.
It works like this. A venue decides to put on a night and creates an event page on the Live&Loud site, listing the types of music it will consider and what it will pay. Then the site’s “very clever” algorithm alerts every local act that might fit the bill. Those who fancy it click a “request” button and the venue receives their details (including YouTube clips and their gigging history) before making its choice.
Next, both venue and chosen artists receive prompts to share the gig details on social media: they simply fill out a few boxes and Live&Loud does the rest. There are also templates for flyers and posters, “because the old-school methods are still very effective,” notes Ben, and the site can even line up replacements if an act drops out at the last minute. Afterwards, both venue and performers can rate each other, Uber-style. More than 3,000 gigs have been arranged this way in the past 24 months.
The starting gun for Live&Loud was the deregulation of UK licensing laws governing music performance in 2012. Before, only a few hundred venues were permitted to host live shows. After, the number of potential venues — including hotels, cocktail bars and restaurant chains — exceeded 100,000. The possibilities gave Ben a “lightbulb moment” for a site where “even if you’ve never hosted live entertainment before, with our onboarding process and customer-management team, we can get you set up within weeks”. So he teamed up with his dad, Mick, to launch Live&Loud in 2014; Jake joined them the following year.
Tonight the brothers are here to watch one of their acts, a flame-haired, guitar- slinging singer-songwriter called Jo Burnz. He takes to the stage in the back room as it starts to fill up; his slow-building, atmospheric repertoire (he calls it “shadow soul”) gradually draws people in.
We catch up after he has finished his set, and he tells me his story. A 23-year-old songwriting graduate from The Institute for Contemporary Music Performance in Kilburn, Jo has been gigging for the past two years. He has done more than 50 shows through Live&Loud, ranging from festivals to restaurants willing to pay £150 on an otherwise barren Tuesday night. “It’s given me a lot of opportunities,” he says, “to play my own songs and get paid for it. That’s a huge confidence booster.”
And herein lies the rub. As the music industry grapples with a streaming culture in which consumers pay nothing, or next to nothing, for its product, budgets have shrivelled. Meaning labels have much less to invest in developing artists over the long term. Live&Loud offers young musicians a chance to earn while they learn, without being pressured to deliver hits.
The potential has not been lost on Sony Music. The entertainment behemoth is Live&Loud’s main financial backer in a global deal that will see it launch in “four or five” cities across Europe later this year, as well as in America before “the big guys in Silicon Valley” have a chance to muscle in. “Sony sees us as a great A&R tool for the future,” says Ben, “because we capture how frequently artists are gigging and whether the venues are starting to get bigger. We can feed through all this information.”
The Newtons have departed by the time the riotous headline act, a glam-rock band called Bang Bang Romeo, turns the entire back room at The Water Rats into a mosh pit. The brothers have a late appointment with another potential backer, I have an appointment at the bar. The future of live music looks pretty good from here.