Interview: Jimi Scandal updates us on Brixton Hill Studios’ battle for survival

Last month John Clay spoke with Brixton Hill Studios proprietor Stephen Gilchrist about the South London rehearsal space and recording studio’s battle for survival in the face of a 136% rent increase (read their conversation here). Today he catches up with studio employee, member of Joyzine faves REAL(s), Gabi Garbutt & The Illuminations and The Stephen Evens Band, and the man behind a petition which garnered more than 5,000 signatures calling for the studios to be saved, Jimi Scandal.

Brixton Hill Studios has a small window in which to try to secure new premises. Ideally a brownfield site, where a new building can be built. One that will not be beholden to landlords and ‘market’ pressures. One where we can live our creative dreams and visions, in perpetuity.’

Jimi Scandal – musician and employee of Brixton Hill Studios

John Clay: Greetings Jimi. We at the zine hope you’re having a wonderful day. For those out of the loop, give us a short summary of what’s gone down with Brixton Hill Studios in relation to their run in with Lexadon corp?

Jimi Scandal: Hey there, I’m great. Feeling fresh after a weekend of music both local and international. Celebrating Joyzine’s 20th anniversary and seeing Boygenius at Gunnersbury Park. But yeah, let’s give you a recap of what’s happened up to this point.

Back in 2013 Brixton Hill Studios signed a 10 year lease to be at 126 Brixton Hill. At some point during the lease Lexadon Property group became owners of all the units (1/2/3) at 126 Brixton Hill.

Fast forward to during the pandemic, many years later. The studio was preparing for rent increases, whilst also battling to keep the studio open and alive during numerous lockdowns. While also trying to keep clients safe, and navigate the slew of mixed and nonsensical regulations placed on businesses to stay open.

Much financial help was obtained from the local council at Lambeth, and Arts Council England, without which we would have surely sunk without a trace.

John: Funny old game that socialism.

Jimi: Yeah. We knew that a rent increase was being proposed by the landlord so pre-emptively asked what that increase might look like. But somewhere along the line negotiations, for pandemic reasons or some other unknown cause, we experienced what one might call radio silence. The expected rent increase never materialised.

John: Hmmm, bit mysterious.

Jimi playing with Gabi Garbutt & the Illuminations at the 20 Years of Joy weekender – photo by Nina Fritsch

Jimi: Moving further forward, 12 months before the end of the lease. Being prudent again Stephen contacted Lexadon Property Group, to negotiate terms for a new lease. Knowing that if a deal was not to be had, at least the studio would have plenty of time to find new premises and tear down the old premises without a break to our service. Calls for an update and calls for negotiation were ignored for around 6 months with the only information to go on from the past that the landlord was happy with the studio as tenants, and wished to keep us on at the unit.

With slightly under 6 months to go before the end of the lease, the studio was informed by a private agency that they were to be in charge of negotiations and rent price setting.

The studio received a short visit from a property management graduate who estimated the ground rent for all 3 units at 126 Brixton Hill. The agent found that of the 3 units, unit 1 (the studio) would be the most valuable unit, considering its general state of repair and facilities. Now here’s the kicker: this new ground rent would increase the rent from what it was prior, up a whopping 136%. Much more than either of the other two units in the same locale.

John Clay: Fuckers.

Jimi: Whilst acknowledging that a rent increase was indeed due, and after not having an increase in some time, despite asking what an increase might be a long time before, and very much willing to pay.

That was it, with mere months to go and bearing in mind that it would take at least 1 to 2 months to dismantle the studio. We were faced with a landlord that was proposing an insane rent increase, one that would quickly bankrupt the business even at full capacity. With no acceptance of negotiation at all.

We had to do something, us as artists and as a creative community. We had to fight the clever and calculated property developers, doing everything in their power to price out an important cultural service in the community.

Jimi playing with The Stephen Evens band at Cafe Totem, Sheffield for Buds & Spawn – photo by Aitch Nicol

John Clay: Well, you can’t leave it there. Care to resolve this cliffhanger for those who don’t know what happened next?

Jimi: I think we had a little over 6 weeks, to put together a concerted effort to try and get Lexadon round the table or at least garner some support to help find somewhere to go. 

The first thing I did was get a Change.org petition together. If anything that gets people behind a cause, it’s a good old change.org petition on Facebook and Twitter (as it was then).

Just to briefly jump ahead, the petition ended up being presented to both Lexadon Property Group owner Jerry C Knight and to Labour MP for Streatham the rt. hon. Bell Ribeiro-Addy. 

John: Infatiguable and sharp as fuck.

Jimi: With 5,800 signatories within 10 days of the petition being up, which is truly staggering to me. Lambeth council did an impact assessment on the closure of the studio, and the studio is now recognised as being the only facility of its type for miles around, and of key importance to the culture of Lambeth.

I reached out to press, both local and national in my capacity as a studio user, musician and employee. Some London publications really got behind us and rallied around to really push the narrative of greedy landlord pricing out independent culturally important business.

The studio managed to get the attention of BBC London, and of a few councillors in Lambeth and at the GLC. One of which was councillor Olga Fitzroy, formerly of the Music Producer’s Guild, so she really knew the territory. It got full on between us and the Lexadon Property Group. Even coming down to personal emails and tweets shared between myself and Mr J C Knight. It did get heated, I can’t lie, and I may have said things I’m not proud of, but this was our way of life under threat. Under threat for little more than a bigger number on one of a huge stack of balance sheets.

We had everyone we possibly could behind us, from international touring artists, to Westminster politicians, to the Musicians Union, to local food bank The Brixton Soup Kitchen, and many many more.

John Clay: Sounds like a lot of people really care about your studio. A proper community. Care to drop any other names that helped out? A certain Tony Visconti of Bowie fame rings a bell.

Jimi: You know, I always forget how many people there are to thank. Yes, Tony Visconti’s rant was picked up in the London Dailies, however there are many more people. Steve Albini also sent a supportive email, and also this John guy too you may know, along with some stellar re-share work from his cohort, and grunge faves Colossus bassist Rob Homewood. I’m sure there’s a ton of people I’m forgetting but I would like to give special thanks for the whole team at Brixton Hill. Nick Howiantz, Jenny Macro, Alessio Costa, and Louis Gomes.

‘Stephen is a really awesome boss. He really tries to look after the staff at all times, with the way rota-ing and holiday pay works. Pension schemes, sick pay, etc. There’s even plans of moving over to a German model of staff representation on the board. It’s really good to work at Brixton Hill, Stephen really goes above and beyond to make sure the staff are cared for and have a voice in the workplace.’

Jimi Scandal

John Clay:There were quite a few name artists. Blur, Charlotte Hatherley, Tribes and Heartworms, not forgetting Tim at Brixton Windmill and the unstoppable walking myth maker that is Lou Smith. The question is thus: was it all worth it, or are you packing down as we speak?

Jimi: So… the jury is out on what tipped the balance, what actually got Lexadon out of their ziggurat on Coldharbour Lane.

Jimi: But we were granted an extension on our lease, however the extension is still financially crippling and limited. It was a win, and should be celebrated as such. Bringing so many disparate groups of people together is what places like Brixton Hill Studios do best. I’m immensely proud of everyone and what we can achieve if we push back hard enough.

Without going too far into the weeds of the actual numbers and dates, Brixton Hill Studios has a small window in which to try to secure new premises. Ideally a brownfield site, where a new building can be built. One that will not be beholden to landlords and ‘market’ pressures. One where we can live our creative dreams and visions, in perpetuity.

John Clay: … And there’s an opportunity for people to help out with that which we’ll move on to at the end. For now, give us a bit of insight into your experience of the studio. What makes it unique as a job placement for you?

Jimi: Unique as a job placement, that’s an interesting thought. I guess every studio has its own vibe and to be honest I believe that comes down to the layout and the number of studios to some extent.

The studio I used to manage in Holloway, Strummers (R.I.P) had a lounge in front of the reception desk and only 3 studio rooms. So most of the time you’d get all of the bands booked hanging out with me in reception sharing stories of shows, and stories of inspiration.

Brixton Hill has a large free car park area and also a large clear reception area. So the friendly feeling of co-mingling between artists exists there too. There are 5 rooms, some big enough for 3/4 people all the way up to a room that can hold 8/9 people. So at any point there could be 22 or so people using the studio at any time. Even double that when it’s our busiest changeover times, when people are leaving and arriving.

It might sound like a small thing, but having nice musical equipment that works is really good for clients and staff alike. Just the overall experience of a smoothly running studio is very gratifying as a staff member.

On a more personal level, and not to dig too deep into employment contracts and such, Stephen is a really awesome boss. He really tries to look after the staff at all times, with the way rota-ing and holiday pay works. Pension schemes, sick pay, etc. There’s even plans of moving over to a German model of staff representation on the board. It’s really good to work at Brixton Hill, Stephen really goes above and beyond to make sure the staff are cared for and have a voice in the workplace.

Jimi playing with The Stephen Evens Band at Joyfest 2018 at The Windmill, Brixton – photo by Paul Maps

John Clay: Amazing. The public awareness has never been so focussed on worker’s rights so it’s good to hear of a job where such privileges are well catered for, especially in an industry where it’s often a breeding ground for exploitation. Tell us more about this German model.

Jimi: Basically we’re looking into having worker representation on the board for the studio. Where one member of staff takes on the elected roll of board member and liaison between worker and director of the company. This is not to say that workers at Brixton Hill Studios can’t directly approach the director with any issue, but more so a way of the workforce being able to have a say in the future and the running of the studio. Being able to influence and enact initiatives normally reserved solely for the directorship of the company.

John Clay: This is amazing. What aspects of this initiative have to be ironed out and when do you reckon it’ll be put into action?

Jimi: Obviously the staff will have to nominate and vote in a representative between ourselves. Beyond that there’s very little that needs to be done to move over to this company structure. Stephen already did the legwork of consultation prior to putting this to the staff. As for implementation I expect we’ll be moving very soon on this, however there has been a period of letting the dust settle for everyone at the studio. Seeing as how close to the wire it came to us closing and the emotional toll that had on all of us at the studio. There’s been a period of coming to terms with not losing the studio, our jobs and our creative community. All of that has had a massive psychological effect on us, Stephen most of all. I think he feels immediately and very directly responsible for all of us.

John Clay: It must be great to have a boss that is so in tune with the staff’s needs and wants. How did you first meet Stephen?

Jimi: As with everything in the music industry, it’s all very tight knit. I play in a band with Gabi Garbutt, when she started her solo project I was invited to come onboard. The musician and now good friend Sean Read was helping produce and develop Gabi’s solo material. From his network of musicians and bandmate with Rockingbirds, he pulled Stephen in to play drums for Gabi. Working with Gabi, we became fast friends eventually leading to me playing bass for his band Stephen EvEns. I took on the workshop above the studio when (Hot) Steve Firth left for Germany, and made myself available for shifts at the studio during short staff times. Now I’m a fully integrated part of the Brixton Hill family.

John Clay: Amazing how these things work on a friendship basis first and foremost. What advice would you give to anyone looking to work at a studio? What do you wish you had known starting out?

Jimi: I always say ‘don’t’.

Don’t go into the music business, there’s no money in it and no job security. If you’ve got a passion or an aptitude for literally anything else, go do that. It’ll be much more rewarding and better for your mental health. I wish I’d known what exploitation looks like when I was starting out, and wish I knew that there are a load of different ways people take advantage of you that aren’t immediately obvious. Lastly, I wish I had more respect for work-life balance. Turning down work as a self employed worker is a whole thing I won’t get into, but do allow yourself time off and time to relax.

John: Considering the nature of the business it’s no surprise as to the chancers it attracts, creates and nurtures continually. 

Lastly, it sounds like the issue regarding turning down work might be just the kind of article that self employed workers in the industry would relate to. Another time perhaps? Thank you for your time Jimi, and may Brixton Hill Studios go from strength to strength.

Jimi: Thanks John, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you, I’m not that jaded in real life. Come say hi when I’m working, and you’ll see I’m actually really nice, and always trying to help smash the glass ceiling in the industry. 

Interview and Brixton Hill Studios photographs by John Clay

Link to a survey on Brixton Hill’s idea of a publicly owned creative space: http://tiny.cc/APerfectPitch

More from John Clay: https://chemicallysinister.myportfolio.com

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