7 Things You Need to Know
There’s so much music in London that you could do something new everyday of the year and still not have run out of bands to see and concerts to go to.
Classical music fans have come to the right place. England doesn’t have quite the same compositional heritage as, say, Germany or Austria; but we do have some of the world’s best orchestras.
The London Philharmonic are residents at the Southbank Centre, so it’s a good idea to go and catch a glimpse there. But for something a little cheaper, we suggest looking for smaller orchestras and discovering where their residencies are.
The London Mozart Players often offer free lunchtime concerts at venues in Croydon, for instance. They’re a fantastic orchestra and they don’t only play Mozart.
Churches tend to have organs and, therefore, organists. Many – such as Southwark Cathedral – have wonderful concerts on regularly that are either free or extremely cheap. Some are simply wonderful places to go to hear the organist practice or take in an extremely profound concert.
Our particular recommendation for this is Temple Church, one of London’s most historic churches.
If you want some free concert tickets, apply on the website for a BBC Radio 3 for their lunchtime concerts. This is an application and can’t be guaranteed.
Prestigious music colleges, such as the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music and Guildhall offer free concerts showcasing their up-and-coming talent (and a very talented bunch they are). This is probably our best recommendation for seeing free, spectacular music.
As everyone knows, pop music is manufactured to have the highest profit-making possibilities it can. Therefore, it’s not cheap to experience it.
That said, London has some of the biggest venues in the UK and no act worth their salt would dare do a UK tour without doing at least four nights in London.
Wembley Arena, the 02 in Greenwich, Hackney Empire and many more play host to the world’s best acts and secure thousands of fans for their concerts. Despite the fact that they’re absolutely enormous, tickets do still sell out very quickly – so if you’re going to see your favourite band live, make sure you book the tickets early.
Older pop bands of some musical note tend to play London and the suburbs’ concert halls. One notable venue is the Union Chapel in Islington, which gets some fantastic older acts. The Fairfield Halls in Croydon is another that offers a great variety of acts from the past and present.
London’s jazz scene is arguably where it falls off the map as “best city in the world”. One might suspect that a city as big and cosmopolitan as London would have an amazing jazz life, but sadly this isn’t the case.
That’s not to say there isn’t good jazz on, but it’s just not of the calibre of, for example, Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Stockholm.
But there is a great deal of good venues. Most are quite expensive, but offer a variety of concessions to help you save money.
The obvious venue is Ronnie Scotts, however it’s become an unbelievably corporate venue offering business-lunch atmosphere with good but showy music. The upstairs bar, which showcases newer acts and offers a twice-weekly jam night, is cheaper, has a warmer atmosphere and usually turns out to be more fun.
On the nearby Dean Street is the Pizza Express, and this is one of London’s better jazz venues. It, too, is a little on the pricey side, but drinks are cheaper and the music is world-class.
The Haggerston has excellent Sunday evening jazz that starts late and goes on even later. The house band are one of London’s best and you’re guaranteed a good night.
The 606 in Chelsea, the various Boisdale Clubs, Vortex and The Oval Tavern (on Sunday lunchtimes) are some of London’s better venues, however all by the last on that list can see prices rising. They’re not in the same price league as Ronnie Scotts, though.
London’s folk scene has been getting stronger and stronger in recent years.
As folk music becomes increasingly popular, the capital’s following suit and providing more and more venues for gigs.
Cecil Sharp House in Camden is the home of folk music in London. As well as offering a monthly Ceilidh (pronounced Kay-lee) dancing night with a phenomenal house band, the downstairs bars and areas are dedicated to various different styles, groups and workshops. It’s a great opportunity to see some rarer music than you’d get elsewhere, too.
The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith occasionally offer a high-flying Celtic band from the Old Country which will blow your socks off. Once upon a time, they had music constantly, but it’s become rarer lately. If you are lucky enough to be in London whilst they’re hosting Flook or Lughnasa, then it’s a moral imperative that you go.
The Green Note in Camden offers some downbeat, grassroots fun and a good world music representation, and is always a good place to start your search for some good folk in London.
A few of London’s Irish pubs will have occasional gigs too; and again, The Oval Tavern has a firm place on the folk circuit.
But your best bet to find folk is to follow acts. Artists such as Will Pound are more or less continually playing London’s folk circuit and they’re schedule should give you a great idea of where best to go, even if the act isn’t playing themselves.
There’s a decent blues scene in London, with a few bars monopolising the circuit. In true blues tradition, most of them are free or cheap (except for the beer and whisky, obviously).
Oxford Street hosts Ain’t Nothin’ But, probably London’s most authentic blues venue. It’s a bit run down, not very big and absolutely wonderful.
There’s also the Blues Kitchen. There are two of those, Shoreditch and Camden and offer music every night of the week.
Round Midnight up in Angel have nightly servings of hot blues, soul and some jazz and pay tribute to the great jazz standard by Thelonius Monk.
Blues is the go-to music of weeknight jams at rock venues. The Oval in Croydon has a weekly Blues jam, and many other pub-venues have a great Blues scene. So, in true Blues tradition, your best bet is to sniff it out yourself.
Most people would be forgiven for thinking of festivals as a gurning, swampy mass of people infront of big marquees, but that’s not always the case. London’s festival scene is massive; there’s a festival for literally any activity you can think of.
We have a lot of music festivals too. The London Jazz Festival runs throughout November every year in a range of venues – some famous, some tiny. We do lots of cultural festivals that always have a great deal of music (check out our Things To Do pages), and these are usually free. Just search for “London (insert preferred genre here) Festival” and you’ll find what you’re looking for.
There are always smaller, boutique festivals at pubs or areas (Notting Hill Carnival is a prime example – and exception – to this) which are worth seeking out too, and they can run for weeks at a time.
We do also have the muddy-feet variety of festival, too. Events like “SE4” on Clapham Common are run like conventional festivals (that one’s dance) and are ticketed as you might expect. Holi Fests, which started as a Hindu colour festival and has become the trend of recent years, are being run with increasing frequency. So if you like being splattered with multi-coloured dust whilst dancing the day away, they’re definitely for you. We list them all.
7. Where to stay for music
This one’s easy: Camden. While you could stay anywhere and likely find some nearby live music, nowhere else in London has the variety of genres on its doorstep as well as a subculture literally built with music industry money. The area is a hive of activity all day, every day and the bars, clubs and dedicated venues offer you anything you could want.
We’ve got a great number of budget hotels, hostels and B&Bs in the Camden area, so there’s no reason you can’t sort yourself out a sweet deal and save a penny to see some of the best bands you’ll ever see.
What’s more is that Camden, because of its musical reputation, attracts the best up-and-coming acts as well as well-established names in music. You’ve got everything from people cutting their teeth at the Hawley Arms to the greats of the rock world at the Electric Ballroom – and absolutely everything in between. What’s more is that, if you’re a player yourself, you’ll be actively encouraged to get up onstage and jam with great players whilst making some life-long friends in the process.
Music is an international language, and London is fluent. That said, however, it can be very tricky to find the best music venues. Finding a venue is easy, but finding the best is hard. It tends to be musicians themselves who have the easiest job of finding them (maybe because that’s how they earn their money), but with our help and a little know-how, you’re well on your way.