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Despite much nostalgic affection and an ongoing campaign to save it, London's famous Tin Pan Alley - Denmark Street - looks like it may slowly be being laid to rest. Phil Ryan explains why...

This is an all too typical London story for 2015. It’s a familiar tale really. Here’s a little background. 

In 1911 Laurence Wright, a music publisher, opened offices at 19 Denmark Street, London WC2. From that moment onwards the burgeoning British music industry began to truly blossom. The street acquired its nickname of ‘Tin Pan Alley’ in the 1920’s, which borrowed from its famous American counterpart. Songwriters, publishers, agents, and studios filled every floor in the street. Over the next thirty years Denmark Street became synonymous with all aspects of the music business. Between the wars British band leaders such as Bert Ambrose, Henry Hall and Joe Loss came here to buy and sell songs. 

Britain’s first weekly music newspaper the Melody Maker started here in 1926 to be followed in 1952 by the NME. Five years later British rock ‘n’ roll began in Denmark Street when manager Larry Parnes created characters to rival Elvis in the shape of Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, and Tommy Steele.

By the 1960’s it was a focal point for the major bands of the period. It also filled up with music managers, agents, music shops, guitar repairers and guitar makers. From that moment onwards and up until the early part of 2008 it buzzed with musical activity. Throughout its long and colourful history it was the epicentre of the British music industry.

Then the London ‘property effect’ took hold. The owners of the street (I understand they purchased much of it in 1996) began to submit grand plans to ‘regenerate’ the street to tie-in with the massive Crossrail developments at Tottenham Court Road situated only a few hundred yards away.

By November 2013 the local authority Camden Council had approved the demolition of 17th century Denmark Place running behind Denmark Street, the demolition of levels 1 to 2 of 21 Denmark Street (the former Saxophone Shop) and the complete demolition of nearby St Giles’ High Street.

The word ‘regenerate’ is open to interpretation. However, Denmark Street was, and still is, due for ‘regeneration’. In this instance it means let’s create luxury flats, hotels, and a conference facility above nice new retail spaces. The old version of Denmark Street is now earmarked for a slow death. In recent years it’s struggled through a recession, the rise of Internet shopping, the fall in the number of people attending gigs, while the surrounding area became a large building site.

To walk its streets is to now enter a shadowland. Empty buildings co-exist beneath four floors of empty offices amid a general air of cosmetically polished neglect. Many of the business leases in the street such as the 60 year old recording studio, a 20 year old drum workshop and a 25 year-old award winning music venue, were not going to be renewed at the time of writing this article. Soon these will be gone forever.

As for the remaining businesses they now run on short leases. In case you’re wondering why this is relevant to this article, short leases mean businesses cannot plan for the future. It is highly unlikely that any bank would want to lend or financially support any business with a short term lease for the simple reason that they could quickly be without premises due to that short lease. In this case some leases have eight weeks’ notice to vacate.

The current landlord-developer owns four fifths of the buildings in the street and will of course therefore own the new version of the ‘regenerated’ street space. They have already submitted various plans to Camden Council, which have been approved. These include their being permitted to knock down buildings, build luxury flats, a hotel, a subterranean conference centre and newly developed retail spaces.

Interestingly, the property developers have told a local Protection Campaign and Camden Council of their avowed intention to preserve the street’s character, heritage and music history. Quite how they are intending to do this in the face of what is already happening for all to see, is anyone’s guess?  

The street is being broken up. Slowly. Business by business. In a street that was once fully occupied by music-related businesses in its five and six storied buildings, approximately 14 music-based businesses remain in 2015.

The general appearance now is of boarded-up shops and empty offices. The whole place looks neglected with a paucity of operating business. The slow stripping away of its vibrancy and attractiveness to visitors has now become a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy. No-one goes to a dying place. And it is clear to anyone that Denmark Street is dying a slow death. Once the noisy and dusty building works gets underway with scaffolding, Lorries and all that goes with large scale city centre builds, the street is likely become a difficult place for any business to operate. To the best of my knowledge the music businesses in the street will not be compensated during this process. 

A tiny glimmer of hope exists via a legal clause insisted upon by the planners at Camden Council. Known as a ‘Section 106 Clause’ it enforces the rights of music related businesses to operate in Denmark Street. Essentially, music-based businesses get first consideration to purchase leases before any other types of business can be considered. However, the truck-sized hole in this legal document ensures that the property developers have to offer new premises to music businesses at what is termed ‘Tin Pan Alley market rates’. What the 2017/8 market rate will be is anyone’s guess? It will probably neither be ‘cheap’ or ‘reasonable’.  More pertinently if the small music businesses relocate or are moved out from the street at their own expense, why would they want to return? 

It is unlikely that they could afford to or would want to. With no music businesses ‘interested’ the developers can then offer their leases to whomsoever they please. 

So start saying goodbye now to Denmark Street. It’s slowly dying or, to be quite frank, it’s slowly being killed.  As I mentioned earlier, if you look around London, this is a familiar tale. 

If you want to help save Denmark Street, it may not be too late SIGN THE PETITION HERE



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