Local Portrait: Andrew Bunsell, Dalston Music Festival

Written by: Claire Holly Davies

In our ‘Local Portraits’ series we get to know the Inner North London personalities doing amazing things in our corner of London.

Andrew Bunsell immediately strikes us as earnest. A genuine enthusiasm to create something worthwhile and support his local community emanates from his pores. Despite being less than two weeks away from this year’s Dalston Music Festival, he appears almost unnervingly calm. The chaotic nature of organising a multilayered public event is only hinted at when the odd member of his team bursts into the room, each one a ball of fervent energy and urgency but still bright-eyed and smiling. Starting out as a musician himself, Andrew set up his own studio eight years ago in Old Street before moving to Gillette Square (N16) in 2013. Andrew took over an empty shell of a space and turned it into what is now Dalston Studios, featuring five floating rooms used as recording, rehearsal and production studios.

Arriving in the area as a new business Andrew encountered suspicion. The difficult economic climate had fostered a lack of cooperation and a disjointed community. Further tensions were rising with the influx of new people and businesses to the area, Dalston Studios being one of them. In an effort to get to know his neighbours, Andrew began to introduce himself to those working in and around Gillette Square. Recognising that a shared cause could go some way to bring the community together, whilst helping to stimulate local culture and commerce, Andrew had the idea of curating a festival.

We started meeting with the local community and realised there was conflict. Dalston Music Festival was about getting businesses talking and building bridges

Andrew set out on his mission to build relationships with the local councils and organisations, finding some businesses slightly reticent before realising his good intentions.

It was about speaking with people and letting them see I’m genuine. Initially, people were like ‘well, who are you?’

After some early communication problems, Andrew built healthy relationships with the local community creating a common goal for the venues, businesses and inhabitants to all work towards together across the central hubs of the area: Bradbury Street, Gillett Square and Ridley Road Market. Parts of the neighbourhood that were almost at war with one another now see each other as friends instead of competitors.

Although not entirely dependent on funding (much of the festival is financed through money generated by Dalston Studios), it’s with the help of the Vortex Foundation, Arts Council England and Hackney Council that the Dalston Music Festival manages to progress whilst managing to hold onto a certain amount of freedom. Financing such a big endeavour is always a worry. As an increasing number of venues fall victim to the plague of closure, partly due to rising rents and the inability to self-sustain, the future looks bleak for British independent music culture. Andrew explains that he has attended many meetings about nightlife economies and seen firsthand the worry and stress experienced by venue owners and workers.

It’s partly because of these problems within the industry that Andrew insists upon paying each musician who performs at the festival. It’s a worryingly unusual attitude, the industry is rife with ‘pay to play’ or play for free events. As musicians struggle to be heard above a sea of other artists in our internet age and fail to generate enough revenue to make music their career, business models such as the Dalston Music Festival offer some relief.

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What’s really going on underground is not reflected in mainstream music and media

Many of the musicians performing at the festival are Dalston-based and have been helping the music scene thrive for tens of years. Newton Dunbar, for example, has been particularly supportive. Newton set up the Four Aces Club, a legendary local hub of music which had the likes of Bob Marley and The Prodigy gracing its stages before its closure in 1997. The Four Aces was central to infusing some of the Caribbean vibes into the British music scene and was an integral place for the development of London music and culture.

The music scene in Dalston has traditionally been very jazz-centric with Caribbean and electronic influences. Andrew comments: “you’ll find real mixtures, from synthesisers to Caribbean rhythms to jazz melodies. As music evolves and the diverse communities inform each others’ styles, music making is becoming more flexible, particularly with recording equipment more accessible.”

It means you can be at home or in a small home studio and you can afford to make beautiful mistakes. That wasn’t an option before because recording studios were so expensive

The festival straddles two postcodes, it’s essentially where North meets East with the more highbrow Stoke Newington on one side and the grittier Dalston on the other. The festival is largely Dalston focused however – although both sides of the coin are well known for their music and artistic scenes. The neighbourhood around Gillette Square has suffered from rising rents and triple dip recessions. As property developers and corporations start to take over, we discuss the strength of the local community in keeping the area vibrant.

Andrew describes the ecosystem in Dalston as balancing on a knife-edge and imagines there’ll be uproar if things aren’t done in the correct way. He wants to keep the conversation flowing between the three different parties concerned with neighbourhood development: the property developers, the council and the community. Gillette Square itself is an example of successful development, where all three parties were consulted and lines of communication fostered.

It’s a brilliant model. If that’s something that could be replicated throughout London or the country, that would be very beneficial. Maybe it takes longer to make decisions because there are more voices to be heard, but you get something very positive at the end of it.

We asked Andrew how local businesses can help Dalston Music Festival and get more involved with the event. He believes they already are doing a great deal, with a number of venues, food traders and record stores all involved with the festival. Over the next couple of years, Andrew wants to invite more local artists to join in by using interesting curators who will pick great local talent. Culturing creativity and supporting the local music and cultural scene is more important to him than expansion for the sake of expansion. He has no real desire to turn the event into a monolith, to him musical evolution and nurturing a strong community takes precedence over growing a mainstream festival.

The ethos of the festival is getting local people, communities and different cultures together. It’s about celebrating diversity in music and culture and having a great experience with brilliant music.

Photographs: Michael Barry

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