As Brixton Academy returns after tragedy, live execs look to the future for the iconic London venue

As Brixton Academy returns after tragedy, live execs look to the future for the iconic London venue

Sixteen months after the tragedy that forced the closure of the venue, O2 Academy Brixton is open again for concerts.

Music Week has spoken to live executives about the return of the iconic venue and its importance for the touring cycle for artists and live music in London. 

Fans attending the venue, and artists booking in for shows, will see a transformation at Brixton Academy (as most people still know it). As well as a new high-class PA and lights system (acts previously hired their own equipment), the upstairs will be ticketed rather than the general admission free-for-all that meant early arrivals could previously secure a front row seat.

Academy Music Group, the venue’s owner and operator, spent more than £1.2 million on maintenance and improvements while it was closed. 

The company has recently appointed the former Wembley Stadium director Liam Boylan as its new CEO. One of his first tasks will be overseeing the return of Brixton Academy. AMG did not comment for this article.

The Metropolitan Police continue to investigate the fatal crush at the venue in December 2022 during a show by Asake. Gaby Hutchinson, 23, and Rebecca Ikumelo, 33, died during the incident when fans without tickets forced the doors. A third person has been critically injured in hospital.

Following the closure, Police had urged Lambeth Council to remove the Academy’s licence. But following a hearing, it was allowed to reopen if it met "77 extensive and robust new conditions", including stronger doors, secure ticketing and a better queuing system. 

Test events for Brixton Academy’s new safety measures begin this weekend with tribute bands Nirvana UK and The Smyths (April 19), followed by Oasis tribute act Definitely Mightbe and UK Foo Fighters (April 26). 

The venue will then return with established acts next month including Editors (May 2) and a three-night run for The Black Keys (May 7-9). 

Brixton Academy in December 2022 (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Speaking to Music Week, live music executives have welcomed the return of the venue, while stressing the importance of safety measures following the tragedy that led to the closure.

“A venue of that calibre and size is a very important part of the live concert landscape in London and in the UK generally,” Matt Bates, managing partner and CEO at live agency Primary Talent International, told Music Week. “We don't really have anything that replicates it. Fundamentally, it’s very important as part of the touring cycles for many artists.

“The most important thing is always going to be the safety of the customer going to these concerts. Although I welcome the return of anything that enhances the live music industry, it has to be done in a way that is always going to be safe and create a safe environment for fans to go and watch their favourite stars. That's the most important thing to really stress here – yes, we need 5,000-capacity venues in London desperately, but more importantly, venues must be safe, secure and provide the right environment for people to comfortably watch artists.”

Emma Banks, music agent and co-head of CAA’s London Office/co-head of international touring, gave a memorable Strat Award winner’s speech at the Music Week Awards 11 months ago calling for the authorities to allow the venue to reopen. 

Banks has already booked in Brixton shows for The Black Keys next month, two confirmed dates for Arcade Fire in July and Bleachers in August.

“What's important is that it is reopening, there are shows on sale and they're selling well,” Banks told Music Week. “That's positive, that's important. And if it took this long to make it right, then again, that's important. The last thing that anyone needed was for this to be rushed through, or corners to be cut, and then for something to have happened – that would have been a catastrophe. 

“I trust the process. I'm sure that test gig [this weekend] will go really well. We've got three Black Keys shows in there [next month] that are selling phenomenally well. We're fully supportive of the venue and it's a really important venue for London, as I said in my speech. I'm thrilled that it's been able to reopen. There are some changes that have been made to it and I'm sure they’re for the better.” 

It's a really important venue for London… There are some changes that have been made and I'm sure they’re for the better

Emma Banks

With a long history of putting on live music in the capital, Communion ONE managing director and promoter Mazin Tappuni has a strong association with Brixton Academy.

“It's amazing to see it back open,” he said. “I was born and raised in South London, I lived up on Helix Road in Brixton for eight years. 

“I understand and acknowledge the tragic events of that night but I’ve got the utmost confidence in the AMG venue management team when it comes to show delivery and safety.” 

He added: “They've always delivered shows really safely for us, and it’s really important that the venue's opening and that we get people back in. I'm sure that they've made some great changes and maybe changed the sticky carpet that’s been drenched in beer. So I'm excited to get back in there. And the fact that they've also added a PA [system] and lights in there, which makes it even easier for the artists now, is really exciting.” 

With an upcoming show from Picture This promoted by Communion ONE, Tappuni said he feels confident about the safety measures put in place.

“We've never had any crowd or security issues at any of our AMG-operated shows, and that's down to really thorough processes and strong search policies, security have always been proactive in monitoring customers inside the venue,” he added.

“Whenever I promoted shows at any AMG venue, I've always found that they've prioritised safety. I’ve been demoed metal detector scanner systems by venue management, for instance. We’re always getting regular calls and updates from their team about improvements being made across the AMG network.

“We’ve put on countless shows at Brixton Academy. I feel like the team there are incredibly knowledgeable, respectful and professional, I’ve got a very good relationship with them. I really hope that the opening goes as smoothly as possible.”

Agents and promoters agreed that the venue’s closure has had an impact on artists and touring in London and the UK.

“It’s absolutely vital for the London music ecosystem,” said Steve Tilley, promoter and director at reigning Music Week Awards champions Kilimanjaro Live. “Selling out Brixton in London is a moment in your career, especially the first time you do it, that almost every act wants to do. So to take that away, you were literally removing such a huge vital step [for artists]. 

“Hammersmith [Eventim Apollo] is the other comparison, but the standing floor at Brixton is much bigger. So it's just a slightly more rock & roll venue than Hammersmith. I love Hammersmith as well, but we need Hammersmith and we need Brixton. In an ideal world, we'd have another 5,000-cap option as well. But I think Brixton is hugely important, not just for London but for the British music business. So I'm absolutely delighted to see it coming back.”

“In terms of the last year or so when Brixton has been off the landscape, it certainly has been more difficult to tour certain artists with that missing [venue],” said Primary Talent’s Matt Bates. “Either people were having to do multiples [dates] at smaller venues, or maybe go into slightly bigger venues that they wouldn't normally go into and not selling them out. 

“[5,000 capacity] is a fairly standard size venue to have in a major city in the world that we've missed. And the important thing about Brixton compared to other venues is that 4,000 of it is standing, which for a rock & roll gig is very important to have that kind of capacity.”

Bates suggested that configuration made Brixton Academy a unique opportunity for artists in the capital.

“The [Eventim] Apollo's seating is a much higher percentage of [total capacity] compared to Brixton. Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which is much smaller at 2,000, is 50-50 between standing and seating. For some audiences, that's absolutely fine. But you tend to find for younger audiences, and especially for artists I tend to work with, which are guitar bands, kids want to go and jump up and down and be involved in it. They don't want to be in the seats, they don't want to be on the periphery of it, they want to be in the action. So there are not many venues that can really cater for that in London in the way that Brixton can.”

Communion ONE’s Mazin Tappuni suggested that the absence of Brixton Academy for 16 months has meant that UK tours were not viable for certain acts.

“Eventim Apollo has seen so much unprecedented demand since the closure of Brixton,” he told Music Week. “It was nearly impossible getting a date at that venue, which led to more challenges for artists, managers, agents and promoters to plan touring at that level, because there just isn't really any other venue at that 5,000-capacity in London. 

“For artists that are planning touring at that level, that London show really is the anchor. They'll get paid three or four times what they're getting paid on the regional run for that London show. They use the money that they make – the profit from the Brixton show – to essentially build the tour in the UK. So what we saw was lots of acts not being able to do that anchor show and so actually not being able to do any UK touring full stop. So the pipeline is vast. It's not just London that’s being impacted and it's not just Brixton Academy, but we were seeing the whole UK regional platform impacted by the closure of that London venue, Brixton Academy.”

Brixton is an institution, not just for London but for the UK and for the global landscape

Matt Bates

The famous venue in SW9 is a rite of passage for bands in the UK, as well as a key metric of achievement for the music industry to chart an act’s progression.

“Brixton is an institution, not just for London but for the UK and for the global landscape,” said Matt Bates. “I think you'd find it very hard to find any really big artists that didn't come through the doors of Brixton at some point. It’s iconic, It's important, it's steeped in history. I've probably put more shows on in Brixton in my 20-year career than at any other venue. 

“It’s almost like a measurement in the music industry. You talk about bands and their size and you literally go, ‘They’re a Brixton Academy band, they’re an O2 band,’ it's a form of measurement like centimetres and metres. It's a gauge of the level a band is at that you refer to them as a ‘Brixton Academy level band’. It has that kind of importance to the DNA of the live music industry that it is perceived in that way. We have survived without it and would survive without it. But a 5,000-capacity venue in the capital city is a very important thing to have.”

In its present form, Brixton Academy opened in 1983. While arenas have been busy and new venues such as Here @ Outernet have been staging gigs in central London during the period that the Academy has been closed, agents and promoters suggested that Brixton would still be the stage they want to appear on. 

“I think bands still want to play Brixton,” said Bates. “Playing in an arena is a very different thing to playing Brixton. There’s obviously a much higher capacity, much higher costs, and much higher production values needed. Selling arenas is much harder because you've got lots of seats to sell compared to a Brixton [show]. There hasn't been an obvious replacement [for Brixton] and the Apollo has become very, very difficult to get [availability].”

Emma Banks gave a speech in support of Brixton Academy at the Music Week Awards 2023

CAA’s Emma Banks said there was a need for more medium-sized venues like Brixton.

“The reality is that for a city like London, with the population size that we have and the importance of the arts and culture, it means that we just need the extra capacity for a start,” she told Music Week. “And there are a lot of acts that struggle to sell beyond 5,000 tickets, so getting into an arena, getting to Wembley or to The O2 can be tricky. But you don't want them to keep doing the same [venue] over and over again, so even having two 5,000-capacity venues in Hammersmith and Brixton, which can draw from different parts of the city, is a real positive because at least we have two [of those venues].

“I was talking to some promoters from Italy the other day, and certainly in Milan there's nothing to play between 3,500 [capacity] and the arena which is 10,000. So we are blessed with Brixton and Hammersmith. Then there are all of those venues that are 2,000 to 3,000-plus – the Forum, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the Roundhouse and Troxy. We've got a really great array of venues still in London.”

Banks added: “I think that the 5,000 to 6000-capacity venue is so important. It’s important for acts as they're building, because the difference just in stagecraft and production between playing 5,000 [capacity] and playing an arena is night and day.

“We miss that 5,000-capacity venue outside of London, we don't have them. That's why you see a lot of acts these days doing maybe a couple of Hammersmiths or a couple of Brixtons or three Roundhouses, and then they have to go into cut-down arenas around the rest of the country because the venue capacities aren’t there.

“Every venue is busy. You’re hard pushed to get easy availability at any point. Arenas obviously are not only hosting concerts, they're hosting comedy shows, they're hosting conferences, they're hosting all kinds of stuff. So I think there's an absolute need for [Brixton’s return]. We were missing it.”

Brixton Academy is just one of the most celebrated venues in London, if not the UK

Mazin Tappuni

While Brixton Academy is back, it will be a different experience for fans following changes implemented by AMG following the tragedy.

“We now have a balcony that has reserved seating in it, which we've never had before,” said Banks. “That may come as a bit of a surprise to some people. But I actually think in this day and age that, probably, people quite like to know where they're sitting and what they're doing. And having the reserved seating in the balcony means that you can be a bit more clever with your ticket pricing and maybe have a few rows at a premium price.”

AMG has also invested heavily in an in-house PA and lights system, which means it’s effectively plug-and-play for artists, who will no longer have to hire and move equipment into Brixton Academy.

“I was talking to someone recently and they said they had literally got the best of the best,” said Steve Tilley. “There’s a hell of a lot of money and energy wasted loading in a PA and lights day in, day out, with the crew hours and the loading times. It seems inefficient to be open every night of the week and have a different set of monitor desks, monitors and PA speakers being loaded in each day. It doesn't make any sense at all. So I think it's actually a very sensible thing they've done to install a top-of-the-range PA and decent lighting rig. 

“If you want to augment the lights for your own production with screens and lasers or whatever else you want, then that's up to you. But I know I can hire the place, put a band on, stick up a backdrop and deliver a great sounding show, and it's all included in the rent now. Of course, the rent has jumped but it's only really jumped by what I would have had to contribute towards the PA and lights anyway.”

“It’s a bit more expensive, but I actually think it's a net saving to the artists because you don't have to factor in that many crew and riggers,” said Mazin Tappuni. “So it will make a [positive] impact on the P&L.”

The Black Keys at Brixton Academy in 2010 (C Brandon/RedfernsGetty Images) – the band return to the reopened venue in May 2024

Although it is returning to stage gigs, with agents and promoters usually booking ahead several months in advance, the diary for Brixton Academy will be light throughout 2024. So far, it has just 20 dates booked this year although more are to be announced.

“We all book so far in advance on tours now, and we go up on sale a long way in advance, that it's quite difficult when you don't know for sure when a venue is going to reopen,” explained Banks. “So it will take a little minute for it to get back to full capacity [in the schedule]. But Brixton is now absolutely in the mix for everything.”

“I've got multiple pencils and things over the next year or so, things we're looking at putting in there,” said Bates. “I think a lot of people just want to ensure that the opening is a success and it's safe.” 

Tappuni is planning for more extensive programming of Brixton dates in 2025.

“I've got four or five-night runs for artists next year and people are excited to get back into the room for sure,” he said. “Whether that’s arena-level acts looking to do residencies or new acts coming through, Brixton Academy is just one of the most celebrated venues in London, if not the UK.”

For creatives in the area, it’s also good news that the venue is back.

“Whilst the area will always adapt with tenacity, to have Brixton's local businesses buzzing once again as the Academy reopens its doors is something we've been counting the days to see,” said Olivia Hobbs, founder and director of creative, marketing and digital consultancy Blackstar. “It's our home – and home to more independent creatives, artists and entrepreneurs than anywhere else in London.”

Selling out Brixton is a moment in your career

Steve Tilley

Tappuni stressed that the Academy is a focal point for the area.

“I’ve always understood the importance of Brixton Academy to the local community, culture and economy,” he said. “For every week that venue was shut, the economic impact on the local area was vast. Those local independent businesses rely on that trade.”

Following the tragedy and long period of closure, it still remains to be seen if Brixton Academy can return to its former status.

“I think it can,” said Bates. “It's got a wonderful pedigree and history. Although something tragic has happened there, it shouldn't also completely eradicate the decades of glory it’s had. They have just got to learn from that.”

While the test events will determine the effectiveness of the new measures in place at the venue, agents and promoters are confident about the safety of shows.

“I think the venue is in good hands,” said Banks. “Quite clearly, the council and Health & Safety and everybody else are going to be looking at it very, very closely. God willing, nothing bad ever happens there again. A lot of issues happened [to cause the tragedy in December 2022]. It's obviously not for me to comment or speculate on that. But it would seem to me that Brixton Academy is going to be opening as a venue that is as safe as it possibly can be.”

“What happened was very tragic and that should never happen at any concert anywhere in the world at any time,” said Bates. “You go to concerts for an uplifting, fun, safe experience. You don't go there to feel in danger or to come into harm. So of course, if any positive comes from such a terrible, terrible incident, you'd like to think it's that it won't happen again [anywhere]. 

“So I'd like to trust that the people who are involved, any new people with Brixton or at any other venue around the world, are taking into account these situations and ensuring that we never have a repeat. That's the most important thing here is that we never see a situation like that ever occur again.”


MAIN PHOTO: Joseph Okpako/WireImageGetty Images


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