My First Moustache @ 229

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After traipsing around Great Portland Street, passing many lively pubs and some great street performers, I found where I was supposed to be, the venue, 229.

The entrance was a tunnel that slopes into the ground below pavement level —  a sub-pavement grotto. This portal was guarded by a tall man swaddled in a thick black coat and beanie hat. Our encounter was reflective of that between the ugly troll and the smallest billy goat in the tale of the of the three billy goats gruff. “Can I see some ID?” he growled, doesn’t he know WHO I AM? As an almost automatic response, I handed him my dishevelled passport and went on my merry way. After all, the grass is greener on the other side.

A wall of heat enveloped me as I trotted down the stairs into the unknown. My friend Elli, who was putting on the event pulled me towards her magnetically for a unious embrace. My free ticket in. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know — by the way…

The venue was dark, as you would expect, you know, being underground.

One side of the room was padded back to back with brown, ramshackle couches with a coffee table between each — water stains apparently being part of the interior design. The other side sported a bar supplying heavily overpriced lager (£4.50 for a pint of Carlsberg I’ll have you know). It’ll be a tap water for me thank you, sir.

A low standing stage is slotted in the top corner of the room next to the entrance, so when you arrive your eardrums are instantly scorched with fiery blasts from the speakers. Convenience is great, I didn’t want functioning ears anyway. It’s great banter having to say “What?” about five times after someone speaks.

Fast forward about two hours from my arrival and I’m two drinks in (a rum and coke and a pint of Carlsberg, IF YOU MUST KNOW). My First Moustache (MFM) are finding their feet on the shallow stage.

Some space had opened up between them. The stage was not as cramped as it was since I last saw them, in fact it looks rather empty. This could partially be explained by the fact that the stage I last saw them on was going on microscopic, but it was apparent that members were missing. Two members are gone, and only one has been replaced. You know what they say, if they’re slowing you down, cut them off. Or in the case of MFM, let them fly away to Amsterdam to go and study art.

I can’t think of the words to describe them. MFM are Jack’s racing pulse. MFM create a rampage. They perfectly capture the essence of a stampede of elephants being preyed on. Their sound is utterly outrageous. My eardrums were blown away— hello permanent tinnitus. I stood on a table to try and escape the ruckus happening below me as ‘lads’ lads’ bombed and darted around the room smashing into each other like a group of juggernauts and rhinoceroses.  

Despite being experts of exhilarating, face-melting guitar riffs and complex drum rhythms, I would say that MFM are quite the musical chameleons. Their setlist leaps from hardcore to something along the wavelength of dream pop and I simply could not keep up with it. One minute I wanted to punch everyone in the neck, the next I just wanted a good cuddle and chocolate covered strawberries.

Once their had finished their set (I don’t know how they knew they were finished as they had no setlist), the crowd roared for more. A little peer pressure never hurt anyone, and they succumbed. Having run out of songs to play, they opted for a very jazz, improv, “jam” type thing. For me, this made it clear who wears the trousers and what the state of the inter-band relations are. I almost felt bad for the new guitarist who was utterly excluded from this three-way bonding session between the lead singer, drummer and bassist. He just stood there awkwardly trying not to make it obvious that he had no idea what was going on, but this was pretty clear. He almost melted into the background. To be honest about it, that was probably the best for him as their little “jam” was nothing to boast about. It was long boring and repetitive.

It was nice to see them smile were nice though.

What ever happened to….all of the record stores?

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I was stood awkwardly outside 53 Rupert Street in Soho. Maybe 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have looked quite so strange donning my bulky, black Sony headphones and an unironed Rolling Stones t-shirt. But here I am in 2018, gawking through the glossy windows of the pint-sized Italian restaurant that calls itself ‘Mister Lasagna’.

Rupert Street is an offshoot of Berwick Street. And Berwick Street used to be famous for its abundance of record stores. And ‘Mister Lasagna’ used to be a record store called Cheapo Cheapo.

According to my sources, Cheapo Cheapo used to be the place to be — a something for everyone, “I’ll give you the lot for a tenner”, sink your teeth into this record kind of shop. Alas, the only thing you’ll be sinking your teeth into at 53 Rupert Street nowadays is a hearty, layered, Italian pasta dish with an icy pint of Peroni to wash it all down.

The air is different in Soho today…quite literally. Berwick Street is bulky, stuffed wall-to wall with street food market stalls, each sizzling intensely with the scent of different parts of the globe, inflicting a frenzy on the nose and mouth-watering mayhem on the tongue. Berwick Street once was a parade brimming toe-to-toe with record stores (and as I envisage it, discs of vinyl flying everywhere). But the reality is, things aren’t as they used to be. Like the great David Bowie once said, “Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes”. Where there once was 16 record stores has now turned into 4.

Unfortunately, like Cheapo Cheapo, this is the tragic fate of many of Soho’s record stores. How is it that during this time of vinyl record renaissance so many record stores are floundering? What is it that the record stores that are still standing (maybe only on one leg) are doing to stop from toppling over into the pit of nothingness that so many other stores have fallen into?

Standing boldly amongst the fallen, one of the three musketeers of Berwick Street is Sister Ray Records.

I must have walked aimlessly up and down Berwick Street four or five times before I finally found the record shop tucked snugly between a rather flashy looking dental surgery and your bog-standard plumbing store. There’s something so utterly refreshing about entering a record store — it’s like time has stopped, you’ve slipped into a vortex and have been transported to somewhere completely ethereal. The chaos from outside has waned away. The sound of traffic is distant. But most importantly, it doesn’t smell like kebab and burnt chicken. Some sort of electronic dance music pulsed away profusely in the background as vinyl record enthusiasts stalked the shop flicking through the different bright sleeves like lions hunting for their next meal.

Co-owner and manager of Sister Ray, Phil Barton, was sat discreetly, tucked away in a crowded office. The room, which was basically a closet, was stacked high with vinyl and cardboard boxes, one of which was pragmatically called “faulties and shit”. The door was open, probably because they couldn’t actually close it.

“The only thing that has saved the independent record shops in the recent years is the rise of vinyl” said Phil very matter-of-factly. “There’s no need for us to exist without vinyl.” And it’s true, without this rise in the sale of vinyl, not even the longest standing record stores would still be around. In fact, the sale of the LP is on the incline, increasing every year. Between 2015 and 2017, the volume of that records sold doubled. DOUBLED. It can only be assumed that the trend will follow suit in the upcoming years.

Running a record store in 2018 is blatantly difficult, as Phil puts it, “these are difficult times”. Honestly? It really doesn’t come as a surprise with all this fancy streaming and Spotify malarkey, meanwhile forking out small fortunes on rent and fending off the monstrously ugly, capitalist consumer giants such as HMV.  “A lot of people have opened stores up and are finding it incredibly tough because you have to have a reputation and you have to have a history before people y’know really lock on to you” Phil adds. For many people who open record stores today, it’s all guesswork and many cannot sustain their business because they have no idea what they are doing. Phil says he fears for these people who one day decide “I’ve had enough of being an accountant, or butcher or something and I’m gonna open a record shop” because “it’s really, really hard to make money out of records if you don’t know what you’re doing.” Hey, they might not succeed but hats off to them for giving it a go. “It looks really cool but it’s bloody hard work.”

The principle source of income for all record shops is physical sales and we’re not talking about cafes that sell vinyl on the side. Yes, the sales are going up, up and up, but it’s still not enough. So I did my own digging.

As well as obvious inexperiece, record store closure can be linked to something in retail we like to call ‘customer conversion’. It’s really not as fancy as it sounds however it is a crucial cog in the big old, whirring business machine. What it means is, the amount of people who come into a shop and are converted from a visitor to a customer. In the case of our poor, little independent record stores, it would seem that the conversion rate is quite low.

I asked my peers some questions to get some insight (of course this isn’t solid data but it’s not totally invalid). 63% of them said that they did vinyl, however, only half of these said that they only go to any record store a few times a year. Even then, who is to say that they are actually buying vinyl every time they go? Dare I say that I discovered a trend occurring in their answers. The question was, ‘Do you enjoy visiting record stores?’, and the answers (almost identical) were: “It’s fun to browse and see what they have”, “I like going with friends to see what looks good”, “It’s fun to look around and see the album covers etc”. Oh yes, there it is. Many going to the stores but not purchasing anything. Do you remember doing charity bake sales at school? Do you remember when people would have a look at your cakes that you spent two hours making and then move on to buy from the person who got theirs from Tesco? I can only imagine that’s what the people who work in record stores feel like.

I then asked, ‘Do you think there is any need for record stores today?’. The majority said yes, because visiting record stores is nice, they are “authentic”, “they are unique”, “they are cool and bring a piece of the past back to life”. These are all lovely things to hear, but like I said before, it’s just not enough. Record stores cannot stay open just because people think they are nice.

The proof is in the pudding — independent record stores need supporting and record lovers young and old need to be there.  Berwick Street is probably never going to be the mecca for vinyl enthusiasts that it once was but that’s completely alright. Phil says, “You can’t look over your shoulder and go “eugh well it was better then”. Because it was different. It doesn’t mean it was better it was just different.”

At the end of the day, the real reason record stores are closing is because people are visiting and visiting only. Next time you go, do something different. Find a cover that has really cool album art. Delve into a genre you’ve never heard of before. Adopt a record that has a roughed up sleeve, because that means that it was loved and listened to over and over. Turn your pockets inside out, tip out the contents of your wallet and buy something with whatever amount you have, lint and all. Get the record that you’ve wanted to buy for ages.

You betcha I’ll be going back to Berwick Street. I’ll see you there. 21st April, yeah?

Being a successful music photographer: Sarah Louise Bennett’s journey

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Her work has been published in major independent music magazines such as Upset, DIY and Dork. She manages to juggle a jam-packed workload as house photographer for O2 Brixton and a part-time job at a pharmacy two days a week. She is Sarah Louise Bennett – a music photographer best known for capturing live shows, festivals and editorial portraits.

I caught up with her to talk all things photography in Workshop Coffee, a favourite spot of her’s just off Regent Street.

Bennett’s love for the art blossomed young, after taking her camera to her first gig when she was 15. “I didn’t really clock it was a thing until I saw a photographer,” she remembers. This was the moment that set her off on a career path that followed her passion. She went on to take a photography A-Level at the Piggott School Sixth Form – her year was the first cohort to study photography at the institute. The college failed on promises to provide certain necessary equipment, however, this encouraged her to pursue photography to degree-level at Nottingham Trent University.

Her university choice was influenced by her upbringing. Bennett grew up in Reading, a stone’s throw away from London. “I knew I wanted to go to a city – that was non-negotiable for me. I needed somewhere where there was music going on,” she explains. Despite being so close to London she was drawn to Nottingham by the vibe of the university and the various different music venues the city has. From the independents like Rock City, The Rescue Rooms and Bodega to the Motorpoint Arena and the Theatre Royal for bigger shows, Bennett knew Nottingham had a diverse and vibrant music scene that would offer a lot of interesting subject matter to photograph.

After graduating, she felt it was necessary to return to London to further her career. “To be honest if you do photography you’ve got to be close to London. There’s a certain amount you can do a bit further out but you’re going to be travelling down a lot,” she says. Bennett moved back to her hometown and started photographing for The O2 Academy Oxford. This, plus shooting various shows in London and portraits for different magazines, was the start of her career in music photography.

“I wouldn’t have thought ten years ago I’d be where I am now,” she admits. Bennett has come a long way from being a frustrated photography graduate trying to get photo passes for shows to now being lucky enough to be picky about what she shoots. Her advice for any aspiring music photographers: “Be patient!”

She also recommends using initiative and being prepared to start small. “Go shoot local shows, message bands on Twitter and Facebook. Start with smaller bands, get a portfolio together and then start contacting publicists, smaller websites and management. “Get shooting and talk to people. It’s terrifying, but talk to people,” she adds.

She may be photographing big bands at major venues these days, but Bennett still gets anxious before a shoot sometimes. She remembers one particularly harrowing experience taking portraits backstage at Wembley Arena for Fall Out Boy (one of her favourite bands).

“I grew up watching their videos and listening to them, I love that band. I borrowed some lights for it and found everything out, and then I missed my train, so I was running late.” Despite this she still arrived at the venue on time but missing the train had set her on edge. “I get panic attacks, I was like ‘stay calm’, I managed to hold it together and get through it,” she says.

While Bennett was setting up the lights Patrick Stump, the lead singer of Fall Out Boy, was being interviewed for a feature. He happened to be talking about getting stage fright before a show and how he was a reluctant front man. “This guy that I’m terrified to meet has the same worries that I do,” Bennett says. Hearing that helped her appreciate that “everyone is just a human being at the end of the day, we all do the same stuff”.

After this experience Bennett’s nerves started to fade a little every shoot. Although she doesn’t get as nervous now, she still feels like she needs to psyche herself up before a portrait shoot. “It’s a lot of extra energy; you have to run a room full of people and hold their attention and keep on the ball. I just pop some tunes on the train and get my head in the zone,” she reveals.

‘The zone’ is somewhere Bennett needs to be pretty often as she’s a self-confessed workaholic; constantly filling her schedule with live shows, portraits, editing and her pharmacy work. Although quite a departure from her photography work, by having a part-time job providing regular income she can pick the work that she chooses to do. “I get enough stuff but it’s not always stuff that makes your heart sing. I didn’t want to kill the love of it [photography, by accepting lots of jobs she dislikes],” she explains.

As well as battling her anxiety, Bennett has also come up against gender equality issues. This is a big thing within the music industry right now as well as wider society. “I feel like it’s very rare that you come across a photo pit full of women,” she points out. Bennett also highlights the (currently) very male-orientated nature of the pop punk scene. “I feel like it is improving but again if you look at the bylines in magazines it does tend to be mostly men at the higher level.”

She went on to explain about a Twitter account, which tweets every week about the percentage of women with major bylines for each publication globally. “It’s really interesting to see what publications are balanced. None are completely but there are some that are getting there. It’s not something you think about otherwise,” she says.

It’s clear that Bennett is passionate about setting a great example for future female photographers. “I think with photography there’s the mentality that young women are going to be fan girls. But there’s nothing wrong with being excited about a band’s music.”

Catch Bennett’s work here in the latest issue of Upset magazine.

Words by Natalie Lloyd-Shaw.