Culture Wars: Creative tensions in Brick Lane
The government's flattery of the 'cultural industries' often seems bizarre to those of us who work in them. Struggling with cashflow and running costs, the overriding culture in the 'cultural quarter' is a million miles away from the image of fast-paced thrills.
Brick Lane in east London, especially the Old Truman Brewery, has received a lot of attention as a hub of activity for the cultural industries. Three years ago, the area between the Bengali restaurants and the bagel shops was desolate. The Vibe Bar flagshipped the Truman Complex which now houses almost 200 SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises). The majority of SMEs are one or two-person businesses with very limited resources, working long hours in an extremely competitive environment. The people I spoke to, all of whom have been at the forefront of their areas for the past few years, reflected the reality gap in 'Cool Britannia'.
Derek Richards runs Hyperjam, a multimedia company with clients such as Silverfish and Gordons gin. Hyperjam was responsible for the first transatlantic live linkup over the internet in 1994 and, more recently, live video streaming in between London and Ireland. 'The idea being put forward is that we don't need shipyards when we've got art and culture. But who's got art and culture? When we achieve something in a hostile economic environment, the marketing department of Britain plc is quick to colonise it.'
Dominic Spreadlove, dj and producer, recently remixed George Michael's track 'Outside', creating Aegean's first-time success in dance music. He is currently working with a range of international artists, and his was the first recording studio to set up in the new cultural complex in Brick Lane. 'As far as any government initiatives go, I've never seen any.'
Em Foundation organises the PR for film premieres such as Hilary and Jackie, My Name is Joe and Prometheus. Angela explained that, in a two-person outfit, 'getting pregnant or sick is not an option. The government provides major financial incentives to certain big key corporations while companies like ours are struggling'. Em Foundation has just taken on a new British-based (and American-financed) film called The Last Minute, and while they are building a fine reputation, the ability to grow is hampered by a lack of capital.
Despite the pressures that exist, the amount of talent is certainly impressive: particularly when a company like Audio Rom, which has received both a BAFTA award and the first Milia Games Award at Cannes, has to move out of its business premises back into the bedroom due to financial pressures. While the drive and determination to succeed is beyond question with all of these SMEs, the reality is that the cultural industries are often a far cry from the creative-sounding boasts of New Labour. But with the lack of any clear vision of progress in the cabinet or industry, a bit of cheering from the sidelines is probably the best most companies in the creative quarter can ever expect.
Alan Miller is the MD of Vibe Promotions, an entertainment company that spearheaded the development of the Old Truman Brewery and The Vibe Bar
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999