The hearing that will determine the future of London’s O2 Academy Brixton continued today (Monday September 11), with the council being told about the venue’s refusal of racial profiling and their plans to improve ticketing and safety.
Kicking off this morning with a defence of the iconic gig space’s “economic and cultural importance” and “not being one of those venues that’s on the police’s radar”, the two-day hearing at Lambeth Council will determine whether or not the Academy Music Group can continue to operate their licence at the building. The venue was forced to shut its doors following a fatal crowd crush that occurred at an Asake concert back in December.
The event — which left two dead and one in critical condition — ultimately led to the Academy having its licence suspended. The Metropolitan Police have since claimed to have “lost confidence” in the safety of the venue and made a push for the location to close its doors for good.
In the later afternoon session of today’s hearing, Philip Kolvin QC was defending AMG when it was revealed that there were plans in place to have meetings “at least monthly” with police, as well as going into detail about their processes of risk assessment which “make no reference to genres”.
“My client is probably the leading host of music of Black origin in this country,” said Mr Kovin QC. “That’s a position that it values and would like to continue to be.
Of the 13 different risks assessed by the Academy, he said that “none of them are racial”.
“They’re all specific events: overcrowding, crushing, collapse of balcony, burn injuries etc,” he said. “The risks are disaggregated and they have nothing to do with racial typing.
He continued: “What we are not saying is, ‘This is a hip-hop artist: beware’. We’re moving away from a genre-based risk assessment. That’s really very crucial.
“We might be looking at artists in terms of things like lasers, use of pyro, special effects, artists climbing the scenery, entering the audience, etc – but it’s not, ‘Oh it’s this type of music, we’re shunning this in Brixton’. We’ll just say that plenty of pop concerts could be high risk, depending on the factors.”
It was also assured that “no event that is assessed to pose a significant risk of crowd misbehaviour shall take place” and that “no shortcuts” would be taken when it came to audience safety.
“On about three occasions over the last five years, 2018-2022, my client met with the police, the police said, ‘We’ve got intelligence about this show, we are concerned about you running it, please don’t run it’, and my client did not run it,” said Kolvin QC of The Academy’s co-operation with local law enforcement.
“My client is not going to cut across the advice of the Metropolitan Police. If they say, ‘People are at risk from this show’ – and they might have some terrorism intelligence – but we trust them as partners to use that advice sparingly.”
Mr Kolvin QC went on to discuss how the venue would always be willing to work with police if they have “intelligence” on security risks, adding: “If the police say jump, my client will say how high.”
“It’s not a question at AMG of, ‘The show must go on’,” he said. “If there’s a mantra at all, it’s that ‘a safe show must go on’. We don’t wish to take unnecessary risks and will not be doing do.”
He went on to discuss suggested improved admittance procedures at Brixton Academy, and how gig-goers would be “removed rapidly” from the queue without the correct ticket if the venue were to re-open.
“There were some allegations made in this case, which may well be investigated by the SIA, that people were being allowed in by security without tickets,” said Mr Kolvin QC. “We don’t have evidence that it was happening on the night, but we have [security operators] Showsec in – who are a different company – and now the ticketing is done by venue staff so my client has total control of the operation, using the new Safe Tix system developed by Ticketmaster, which is the most secure way of checking people in yet because it uses a revolving barcode.”
He added: “Between Showsec and my client, there will just not be a way into this venue without having an appropriate ticket.”
As well as the condition that “no one gets into the venue unticketed”, Mr Kolvin QC also explained how they had installed 16 new CCTV cameras outside the building and would be looking to increase the base number of medical staff at gigs, improving their radio communication between staff, having security with body-worn cameras, and strengthening the doors of the venue among other sweeping improvements regarding queuing and barriers.
“I’d ask you to view what we’ve produced as a framework of control, enabling you to have confidence in my client,” he said. “My client really means this. This is done with intent. It means to operate it properly as a venue that it and you can be proud of and have confidence in.
“My client is a very good operator, which has applied its mind and the minds of some very good people with the objective of running this venue as safely as anywhere else in the country.”
Concluding, Mr Kolvin QC explained how The Academy Group “will never walk away from this fantastic heritage venue”.
“It is the pride and joy of Brixton, and it is the heart of my client’s estate,” he added. “My client wants to re-open and wants to continue its work there with the community of artists, music lovers and and local people who look to the Academy as a place of celebration and national importance.”
A number of figures from the local community and live music industry were then invited to speak in defence of Brixton Academy, starting with agent Michael Harvey-Bray from Wasserman Music Limited who explained what a rote of passage it was for an artist to play the venue.
“There are others at this capacity size in London, and the one that we always want to put artists into is Brixton Academy,” he said. “Why? It’s culturally important, but it’s so easy to work with Academy Music Group and, to us, it feels like best in class. Obviously it has a slight antiquated charm to it in terms of the architecture and the fact that it’s a listed building, but also we’ve put on so many events in that space and they’ve always been very, very successful. Artists like working with the venue, the agents, the promoters, the crew, find it a venue that is leading.
He continued: “The easiest point to cite is that before the venue closed and the incident occurred, we had an artist called Fred.. Again perform three nights there. He’s probably the zeitgeist artist in electronic music at the moment with huge demand and huge interest. There was only one artist we wanted to put that artist into and that was Brixton Academy. Why? Because AMG are very good at what they do and we’ve never had any issue with them for our clients.”
Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, spoke of how having reviewed the Academy’s proposals, it would be unlikely that any potential future operator would come up with a safer plan for re-opening.
“It is our view that the operation plan before you today for consideration, is an exemplar of best practice,” he said. “It has been specifically developed and tailored to take account of the layout of the building, the nature of the surrounding area, and significantly enhanced measures for event management, which address possible future usage.
“It fully addresses the risk identified by the terrible tragedy in December 2022, and provides a comprehensive approach which mitigates and manages those risks to the fullest extent possible. It does so with full acknowledgement of the duties of the operator. It is therefore our professional opinion that no other operator would put forward an operating plan which materially exceeded the risk management and safety measures contained in the proposal before you.”
He continued: “It is unlikely that this committee would see any future plan proposed, either by Academy Group or any other operator, which contains provisions for safety as comprehensive as the current proposal before you.”
Davyd then went on to explain how “the continued closure of this iconic venue space is having a significant detrimental impact on the local, regional and national economy”.
“Our representative organisation has particularly concerned itself with the eco-system of live music, of which at our level Brixton Academy is the pinnacle for most artists,” he said. “This is specifically true, and goes to our conversation earlier, of artists from diverse backgrounds.
“A show at Brixton Academy is the aspiration which motivates the careers of such artists and there is no other venue operating such a role in the UK. ”
Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, agreed – and went to describe Brixton Academy and the Academy Music Group as “a professional, competent and compliant operator delivering several hundred shows safely every year.
“They are a trusted and safe partner for some of the biggest agents, promoters and show organisers across the world, and have an excellent reputation within the industry,” he said. “As an operator within Brixton, they have played a huge part in shaping communities, providing an outlet for youth and grassroots culture, as well as an accessible, inclusive and safe space for people who live, work and seek entertainment and leisure within the area.”
Talking up how the venue plays “an important part in the emotional, physical and mental wellbeing of the Brixton and London communities,” Kill also explained how the Academy has also “aided the police and local authorities to manage and prevent public nuisance, mitigate crimes like anti-social behaviour, noise and disturbance to the peace.”
He added that AMG’s plans “robustly mitigate against the chances” of a tragedy like that of December 2022 from happening again, urging the council to “allow this iconic space to reopen, for the sake of London, the UK, and more importantly the economy from a community perspective in Brixton.”
Mazin Tappuni from record label, publisher and concert promoter Communion Music, explained the far-reaching impact of Brixton Academy being forced to close.
“This doesn’t just impact us as promoters, but the whole of the UK music industry and the pipeline,” he said. “It also impacts the wider UK economy – no shows mean no fans, no fans means no revenue – whether that’s a fan picking up a train ticket to a gig or picking up food from a local independent restaurant or picking up merch or drinks at the venue.
“We’ve also got to think about the cost implications from the other side – artists cancelling a UK tour means a loss of income in flights, accommodation, visas and so on. There is just a greater impact across the whole landscape of the UK economy.
Being born and raised in South London, Tappuni said that he “understood the importance of Brixton Academy to the local culture and economy.
“Every week the venue is shut, the impact on this venue is vast,” he explained. “What will happen to all the local independent businesses reliant on that trade?
“It is worth noting that these businesses won’t have the same level of returning trade for a long time. For a tour or a show of this level, we tend to plan 12 months in advance, so it is safe to assume that the venue diaries will not be close to pre-closed levels until 12-18 months of reopening.”
He added: “This is simply too important a venue to be permanently shuttered, not just for the UK music industry, but for fans across the country and the wider economy.”
For the local economy, George Squires spoke out on behalf of Brixton businesses as the boss of the neighbouring Department Store bar and restaurant.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that it’s because the Academy closed that one of our businesses failed and we had to close doors, but I can assure you that we had a restaurant that was very close to the Brixton Academy, we relied quite heavily on patrons coming and going from the Academy, we did a lot of pre-gig drinks and a quick bite to eat, and we relied quite heavily on the pre-gig traffic that the Academy brought in,” he said.
“I know that there are others in our building and in the local hospitality community that also rely quite heavily on the traffic that the Academy brings in.”
Stuart O’Brien, meanwhile, was the music fan behind an online petition launched to counteract the closure of the venue, that has since attracted over 116,000 signatures.
“I want to start by saying that I can never overstate the loss of Rebecca and Gaby,” he began, honouring the two who lost their lives in the crowd crush. “Nobody should go to a gig or to work and not come home.
“I started a petition to save Brixton Academy, and it has subsequently been signed by over 116,000 people like me, that do not want to lose this iconic music venue. I started the petition because I am a music lover, and have been going to Brixton Academy for many years. I have many fond memories of attending. The first time I took my younger brother to a gig was there. The last place we went together before he passed away was there too.”
O’Brien continued: “These memories will stay with me for a lifetime. Millions of people have passed through those doors without any harm coming to them. They will all have memories of going there, and going home with stories to tell. I want to be able to continue making those memories.
“I want to be able to take my son there, so it is as important to me as anyone that I can continue to do this faithfully. No venue can mitigate every risk, but it appears to me that Brixton Academy presents no greater danger or risks than what happened.”
The music fan argued that while we should “insist on improving safety” at the venue, “closure would be a disproportionate step”.
“We don’t close sporting venues when tragedy strikes. What we do is take measures nationwide that keep everyone safe when attending those events,” he went on. “The same needs to happen here. It is not the building that is to blame for this tragedy, and providing the owner acts on the recommendations that are put to them, I’m sure we can maintain a safe environment for everyone in the future.
“I’m not here to portion blame for what happened back then. I’m here as one voice among 116,000 other people me, who wish to see Brixton Academy continue to host live music, and hosting it safely.”
The hearing concludes tomorrow.