October 24, 2022
A series of listening bars and spaces have opened across London, offering a social music experience that is an alternative to clubs. Jumi Akinfenwa spoke with the founders of three such venues–All My Friends, System and Jumbi–to understand the growth and aims of these spaces.
At the beginning of 2022, the North London club, The Cause, closed down. First opening its doors in 2018, the closure of the temporary venue, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, signalled the end of an era for some. “We’ve had a lot of uncertainty within our organisation,” says Stuart Glen, the club’s co-founder. Because of the precarious nature of the nighttime economy, the team started looking into “all sorts of other activities”, which led them to launch All My Friends in East London’s Hackney Wick.
Initially open for three months (“we want to feel out how the site will work and how it will operate,” Glen explains), it is one of several new openings in the capital that seem to adopt a more laid-back approach to the ‘big night out’ without compromising on audio quality and music curation.
“The key bit is the Tannoy,” reveals Jojo Mathiszig of System, a few miles north, in Islington. “I thought it was such a beautiful speaker. I was looking for three years before I could get a pair.” Dating back to 1976, the sound system is a focal part of this late-night hangout spot that operates out of a butcher shop, Stella’s, two nights a week. With a nightly rotation of selectors, the idea for the bar stemmed from the listening bars that Mathiszig stumbled across on his travels.
“There’s this place called Bar Martha, and a place called JBS in Japan and they’re a lot different from what we do, but I guess that was probably the first introduction I had to listening bars and that kind of environment.” Whilst the concept of the listening bar isn’t a new addition to the London audiophile landscape, for Mathiszig the existing venues did not directly cater to him and his demographic. “Those places sometimes seem almost quite uptight. There is that air within listening bars, right?” he suggests. “Sometimes it actually isn’t the most welcoming place, so I thought it’d be great if we could have somewhere a little bit more casual, a little bit more fun.”
Though touting themselves as a “hi-fi rum shack,” rather than a listening bar, Jumbi similarly adopts an open-door policy that is better suited to their community. “If you go to a listening bar in Japan, you’re not allowed to talk,” co-founder Bradley Zero says. “There are obvious parallels, but [Jumbi] is a talking space, a dancing space, a hearing space, a meeting space. It’s a drinking space.”
Situated in the South London neighbourhood of Peckham, which has seen rapid gentrification over the past decade, the team felt it pertinent to include those who made the area what it is today, with much of the staff comprising those who grew up in the area but didn’t feel welcome in other bars. “There’s this risk that it’s going to have a negative impact in the community in the long term,” he suggests of new bars in gentrified areas. “So the way to approach it is by platforming and providing space for these communities that are at risk of not being included.”
With one turntable that faces a wall of Zero’s own record collection, Jumbi has taken an “anti-performance” approach that encourages “deep listening”, as he coins it. “When it gets busy, people are cheering between songs and giving a round of applause,” he says gleefully. “The audience is actually, ironically, a lot more engaged.” Rudi Minto de Wijs runs Jumbi’s cultural programming and points to the range of selectors who have come through its doors, such as Haseeb Iqbal, Shy One and Ruby Savage, but stresses that DJing experience isn’t essential–just a good ear. “You don’t have to be able to mix,” he says. “Without meaning to sound too conceptual, essentially people are storytellers, whether they’re picking records from Bradley’s collection or bringing their own.”
Similarly, not constrained by a music policy, System hones in on their selectors, giving them the freedom to play whatever they wish–typically records they wouldn’t play in clubs or on the radio. “We want to make the focus on the DJs as well,” Mathiszig says. “That’s why there’s a different person every night. You’re coming to hear someone’s selections.” With most of the DJs also having shows on Mathiszig’s radio station, Kindred, there is a readymade community at System, adding to its pared-back feel. Glen points to The Cause’s extended family as the real catalyst for the venue. “It’s literally a collaboration of all our friends coming together,” he says. “All the friends we’ve met so far and all our friends we’re yet to meet.”
Unlike its club predecessor, this latest venue asks less of its visitors, offering a place for them to take in as much or as little as they want. “It’s a place you can come in, and you can stay as long as you want. You can come in to say hello to people. You can drink if you wish to drink. It’s completely up to the person coming down,” Glen says. With the current cost-of-living crisis in the UK impacting venue owners and attendees alike, providing non-committal spaces to listen to well-curated music without having to pay a premium seems to be a more attractive option for many. “It’s fucking expensive to live at the moment,” Mathiszig exclaims. “But that’s also why it works. The best thing about us being in the butchers is that we’re sharing the cost of the rent.”
With this new wave of bars ushering in a low-pressure way to listen and interact with new music and fellow music lovers, could we be seeing the dawn of a change of pace? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, but for Bradley Zero, the beauty lies in the uncertainty. “The nice thing about what we’ve created is that some of it wasn’t really planned,” he says. “I’m already blown away by how the space is being used and really excited to see where it will grow.”
Words by Jumi Akinfenwa