Once upon a time, just outside Soho in central London, there was a legendary hive of musical energy. It was centred on Denmark Street – Britain’s Tin Pan Alley – a strip of shops selling instruments and sheet music, with clubs and bars and such things as production facilities and agents’ and managers’ offices on the upper floors, where new-in-town fans and nascent musicians could mingle with stars. Everything to do with music – writing, producing, performing, listening, selling – could be done within its short length.
Many hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of construction later, there is still a street of musical instrument shops, plus new venues and production facilities, plus a “radical new technology-driven marketing, entertainment and information service housed in a super-flexible, digitally enabled streetscape”, plus much else. There will be “busking points” and clubs. The Astoria has gone, but a new 600-seat theatre called @sohoplace is on the way, on a site next to where it stood.
On paper, then, its mix of uses is like that of the past, but in spirit it is utterly changed. It is built on the obvious paradox that a culture fuelled by rebellion and chaos should now be channelled through the processes of large property owners. Anarchy in the UK it is not. Or, rather, it is a new kind of scaled-up anarchy, where the boys making all the noise are big businesses.