If Amy Lamé feels bruised by calls for her to quit her job, she is determined not to show it. The UK’s first “night tsar” has faced brutal criticism ever since she was hired in 2016 to champion London’s night-time culture. Nightclubs and music venue owners have claimed they do not know what she does, while at least one music magazine has asked what is the point of Lamé.
Now, with the capital’s cultural life facing catastrophe, the industry is taking out its frustrations on Lamé. Last week, a petition with several hundred signatories from the nightlife sector was submitted to the mayor of London, demanding she be removed from her role, and that the position be re-evaluated.
The complainants wrote that Lamé’s response to Covid-19 “has been extremely disappointing and has not inspired any confidence in why she receives a salary of £83,169”. The petition claims that she did not understand the infrastructure of the music and arts scene and has failed to adequately advocate for it in a crisis.
“People will have their opinions, but I will be judged by the work that I do,” she says. Speaking to the Observer via video call, with a press officer from City Hall sitting in, Lamé admits the hostility is “unpleasant” but says she is getting on with the job. “Different people have different ideas of [how to do] it, but I’ve got 25 years-plus experience in running my own business, my own nightclub. My background is in advocating for venues: I helped save what is perhaps the most iconic LGBTQ+ venue in the country.”
While working full time in the night tsar role and as a frequent radio host on BBC6 Music, Lamé also presented Duckie, one of London’s most celebrated club nights, which until lockdown had run every week for more than 20 years. In 2018, she helped secure the future of its host venue, Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which has been a centre of gay culture for decades. Now, of course, it is just one of thousands of London institutions battling to survive.
More than a dozen club owners, promoters and nightlife workers who spoke to the Observer believe Lamé has achieved little in the post and has in recent months been absent. The criticism was unanimous, but none would go on the record for fear of damaging already fraught relationships with City Hall.
Bigger clubs have employed professional bid-writers to apply for loans from the government’s £270m culture recovery fund. Meanwhile, smaller pubs and spaces are relying on crowdfunding to save their future: The Gun in east London raised £30,000 in less than 24 hours to avoid going under; and last Friday, independent venues EartH and Village Underground launched a campaign hoping to do the same.
“All I can do is listen,” says Lamé. “Like I did with the guy who started the petition: I called him up and said: ‘Let’s talk’. I have a kind ear and an open-door policy. If we can help, we will. If we can’t we will signpost you towards where to access that help.”
Lamé’s is arguably a powerless role: she has no influence over the regulatory and licensing decisions that affect the city’s night culture. When she was appointed, London had lost more than half of its nightclubs and more than a third of its live music venues between 2007 and 2017. That tide appeared to have been stemmed – there has been no net loss of music venues during Lamé’s tenure. Then Covid-19 hit. But in the pandemic, hers is just one of multiple voices lobbying central government. Plus, she says, the nuts and bolts of what she and her team do are misunderstood.
“If we were busy before lockdown, we have been quadruply so since. Nightclubs are a part of my job, but it is not all of my job. In London, we take a very specific view of life at night. Everything that happens between 6pm and 6am is part of the night-time remit – it’s not just the hospitality industry.”
Night-time planning is an emerging field: more than 40 cities around the world have appointed night mayors, managers or tsars since Amsterdam pioneered the idea in 2014. Earlier this month, in Manchester, the city’s night-time economy adviser, Sacha Lord, was key to stopping the permanent closure of live music venues Gorilla and The Deaf Institute. In lockdown, Lord also set up a live streaming platform for local DJs and artists which raised just under half a million pounds to be distributed to local nightlife workers unable to access the furlough scheme or government grants.
In 2017, Sadiq Khan set up an independent Night Time Commission. Lamé was not involved in producing its landmark report but it is now her job to implement its 10 recommendations. Does she feel she is doing a good job?
“Well, there is a hell of a lot more to do. I guess my question is, what do people expect a night tsar to do? What are their expectations? If you want a night tsar that will be out partying every night, you’ve got the wrong night tsar.”
But that’s not what her critics are asking for – they want her to loudly advocate for night culture, answer their emails and make a stronger impact on local authorities and central government. Lamé is frustrated: “I believe that I’m doing the best job I can to support the businesses to survive the pandemic.”