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Caught between rock & a hard place

Social distancing and intimate venues are not exactly best friends. So what does that mean for Camden Town’s global reputation as a music destination?

25 September, 2020 — By By Dan Carrier

Crawdaddy night at the Fiddler’s Elbow

One Friday a month for the past 10 years, Gary Crossing has put a selection of records in a bag and made his way to the Fiddler’s Elbow in Chalk Farm. He promotes and DJs at a night called Crawdaddy – a much-loved gig that features Northern Soul, Rocksteady, Ska and Motown.

Since March, Crawdaddy’s 10th anniversary celebrations have been on hold due to Covid-19. The DJ is one of many of the entertainers that make Camden Town globally renowned for music – and have had to come to terms with the threat to much-loved small venues, and the sense of loss when they are no longer able to perform.

A music journalist, Gary has collected records all his life and has run the popular monthly events at a number of venues over the years, attracting a wide and dedicated following. “We have about 100 regulars we always see and they are of all ages,” he says.

Crawdaddy! DJs – from left – Danny Watkins, Lucienne Cole and Gary Crossing

The Northern Soul world attracts an obsessive fan base and for many it is a vital part of Camden’s cultural landscape.
“You realise just how much it is an important part of my life,” he says. “It isn’t a living, but a passion that is not there at the moment. I miss all the people, the whole Crawdaddy family. We have known each other for more than 10 years. People used to cheer each other when they arrived and came in through the door.”

The Fiddler’s Elbow, run by Dan Maiden and Nancy Wild, has yet to reopen. Having been home to live music for more than four decades, it too holds a special place in Camden’s music history.

They have received limited support to help pay debts and the landlords, Enterprise Inns, have now given their venues monthly appraisals which can lead to rent demands being waived. But with no income the future is still unclear.

“The small, grassroots venues, the ones who struggle with social distancing, are losing money,” says Dan. “Many will close down. If you can’t figure out a way of social distancing, you can’t comply with the rules, and with bands and DJs, you can’t do it. It will be about a vaccine being found – or we have nothing.”

Added to this economic worry, for Dan and Nancy the Fiddler’s is much more than simply a livelihood.

“It is a special venue,” he says. “We have such diversity. Everybody is welcome. The people we have in who run their own club nights and are our family. And we let everyone come and have a go – you don’t have to be the best band, the best DJ, the best club night – it is all about giving people the opportunity to share their artistry. Small venues do not make a good profit. It is all about just keeping your head above water. Music is my life. It is my passion – and it is that passion that makes our industry.”

James Bay at the Fiddler’s Elbow

Both Gary and Dan say there could be a lost generation of musicians and DJs due to grassroots venues suffering so badly. Out of 900 registered with pressure group the Music Venues Trust, more than 700 have yet to reopen.

“I worry about there becoming as void in people’s musical development, musicians as well as punters,” says Dan. “And for younger people, hearing music out is a crucial part of growing up.”

Other DJs and venues who make up the bedrock of Camden Town’s music reputation also recognise how the service they provide means more than just a night out to so many. Cottons in Chalk Farm Road has been running for 37 years – and offers customers not only the chance to eat fine Caribbean food, but listen to DJs.

Charlie Brown has been playing a mixture of Caribbean and Black Urban African music at the venue since 2013 on Saturday evenings. As restriction eased in early July, they returned to place needles on records for one evening – but decided to hold off doing anymore.

“They had opened for food to eat in for small groups with no music,” he recalls. “We had one Saturday night where we tried it, but we found it wasn’t easy to social distance so we knocked it on the head.”

Charlie Brown at Cottons

He said that while he accepted things can change, he added that playing music at Cottons – as so many DJs across Camden have recognised – was an integral part of his life.

“It was important to me. I know things move on and I have to try and look at the situation as broadly as possible, but playing out is almost part of caring for my mental and physical health. Sharing and enjoying music with people is so important – and it isn’t just the social side, it is the physical side too. You jump up and down for four hours, you keep people entertained, you are happy, welcoming.

“There is a lot of energy that goes into it. You see the smiles on people’s faces and how happy they are at the end of the night. It is part of my holistic health.”

And he added the crowd they attracted – which ranges from 18 to 80 – is particularly suited to smaller venues.

“Venues are always under pressure, always trying to keep heads above water,” he says. “It is a worry that things will not go back one day to how they were. Cottons is a smaller venue and because it is smaller, that’s what makes it so special.”

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