BAMM In-Depth: The Music Of The Olympics

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Olympic spirit

On a still summer’s day you would have no idea that the world’s biggest circus is landing in this part of town. But the past five years has all led up to this point, and whether you have tickets to the main event or not, there is a strong sense of anticipation. Since the announcement of the 2012 Olympics, millions have been plunged into places like Dalston, and amidst dilapidated buildings such as the Chinese on the corner, next to the station, there are shiny new ones with empty windows and draped pictures of model nuclear families. While the developers want to attract new blood, the cultural drive of the area hasn’t changed. E8 has the biggest concentration of music venues in East London,and every night of the week sees check-shirted Converse-wearing queues and crowds blocking up the area’s narrow pavements. Music lovers who want to escape the official pomp and hardline commercialism of the Olympics could find this place a refuge. On the other hand, London is the self-declared home of live music and there is no better time for the music industry to showcase this. So has it been able to benefit from Olympics funding? The world’s biggest temporary tourist attraction provides a great test case of how musicians and bands interact with promoters, brands and old-school arts funders.

Despite the tangible gains in terms of development, there is a distinct air of a wedding that no-one wants to go to. You might have a good time in spite of yourself, but there’s a pervading sense of doom. Funding cuts have hit culture the hardest, but the Olympics offered the chance of a possible recoup, with money being allocated to unique, large-scale projects.

On the Olympics website, the official angle is: “The Olympic and Paralympic brands are incredibly powerful. They evoke the emotion, excitement and values of the Games. The London 2012 brand is fundamental to the Games. It is how we identify the Games, how we communicate our ambition, and how we drive excitement and enthusiasm for the Games.” Most of the run-up to the Olympics have been marred with stories about planned lockdowns and deployment of police to prevent the unauthorised use of the Olympics logo, or related mentions. Companies are not allowed to use any combination of ‘London’, ‘Olympic’ or ‘Games’ in conjunction or separately, meaning that numerous companies including Easy Jet and Mercedes have been forced to pull new advertising campaigns.

The impact of the branding exercise has been felt by those not traditionally associated with balaclavas and placards. The Musicians Union (MU) has been one of the most vocal about how the protective policy is affecting their work. More professional musicians have found themselves being approached for free work, according to the organisation. The rules of organising an event next to the Olympics is that it cannot be affiliated with anyone but official sponsors of the sporting event. With most professional music events being funded to the hilt (in the absence of government funding), it’s nearly impossible for professional music organisers to affiliate their events to the Olympics because of branding clashes. Horace Trubridge,of the MU, says that the Olympics have not given any tangible returns to musicians – and is unlikely to leave a legacy.

The main beneficiaries so far have been local acts who are able to adopt the ‘Inspired By’ slogan. The protectiveness over the use of this has frustrated professional musicians, who have lost out on potential income from not being able to stage events with the Olympics brand, the union claims.

Another issue has been the decision to stage the opening and closing ceremonies with pre-recorded music. The MU believe that this element has not been left to chance, because the organisers have instead focused their energies on the other elements of the spectacle. Trubridge described the decision as “pure laziness”. He said the biggest gains had gone to professional musicians who ironically are recording music to use for the live ceremonies – because of the policy against live music.

The Olympics may even have hastened the death of the festival scene. Trubridge said: “The festival scene is suffering a double hit and taken a lot of interest away from the festival scene – Hopdown and Sonisphere – a lot of the smaller festivals have been pulled this year. It’s really hard to see a balancing side, when you don’t see any return.”

The very event itself is unlikely to bolster the actual music it does showcase, given that it’s not live. For the Musicians Union, that sums up the failures of the cultural policy of 2012’s Olympics. Trubridge said: “Live music should have been the most important aspect of opening and closing. That’s what this country is famous for, but it’s been ignored to accommodate what’s considered most important. People in the UK don’t like recorded music in any event – we like reality shows because they feature live bands. We’re going to see a spectacular show without live music so we’re struggling to see any benefit.” Most recently, it was claimed that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has an official policy of not paying musicians as they benefit from “exposure” by playing at the events (even though they’re not playing live).

It appears there’s a dark cloud over the events already, given the difficulties in coming to mutually satisfying agreements with many of its non-sporting performers. For many musicians, it could be difficult to forget the way they’ve been treated at a time when there should have been more than enough work to go around.

Returning to East London

And what does it mean for musicians in the epicentre of the city’s musical scene? It’s business as usual for most. Dalston’s music scene is busy, with the attention given to its venues balanced by a steady and loyal flow of regulars. Cafe Oto has been one of the most feted venues, with its strikingly leftfield roster which has seen it host artists from all over the world. Newspapers and magazines such The Guardian and Italian Vogue have described it as among the most culturally relevant music venues in the country. Despite the international praise,the cafe situates some of its ethos in the immediate community, and has fostered links with local projects such as radio station NTS. Its new clientele haven’t changed its goal or its vision of itself. John from Cafe Oto said, tongue-in-cheek: “We do get people who look cool coming in. But we don’t turn them away. They get bored easily and usually leave anyway.”

NTS interestingly features archival pictures of Dalston as the backdrop on the site, showing a side to the place that many of its listeners might not know. It features shows from local tastemakers and established DJs, covering a huge range of genres, possibly creating as much musical diversity as most of Dalston’s venues put together. More new venues are opening up replacing the makeshift ones which disappear, while Turkish bar owners are opening up venues in their basement to host more low-key nights.

For some, the changes in Hackney and Newham have only impacted in the most superficial way. The entrepreneurial spirit which made grime take off in the first place isn’t that far removed from that spirit which is behind the burgeoning digital industry of the so-called Silicon Roundabout. Elijah Butterz, owner of the grime label Butterz and Rinse FM DJ, told us how the perception of this East End-born music has changed radically since some of its musicians have become national award nominated. “We used to be seen as criminals, not entrepreneurs,” he said. But the landscape has changed, especially given the need to branch out into different mediums – and the cheapness and ease of exploring those with the rise of mobile technologies.

But the Olympics, he adds, is something that’s just there in the background when he’s near his home, rather than something that’s impacted on his life. He added: “I have two friends who lost their jobs this week. I don’t think it’s a priority for them. I don’t think I know anyone who has gained anything out of it.”

He also concludes that the exposure of the music had actually taken it out of its postcode, to other parts of the country, so now it’s impossible to tell where the music is from – whereas previously it was all about locale. So East London’s looking outwards, suitably, at a time when millions of people across the world will be paying attention to it.


BT River of Music is a massive showcase of free music from both established and emerging talent. It takes place the weekend before the opening ceremony, so could be a good way of saving your account balance beforehand. The best thing about this is that it takes place across London so visitors don’t have to schlep across the capital for entertainment. Given the branding restrictions, there’s less likelihood of seeing professional musicians playing, but there is a chance to check out more idiosyncratic local groups and see how grassroots music develops.

Alternatively, it might be easier to stay at home and watch the musical events from your hotel or rented accommodation television. The BBC has – at time of severe cuts to other public services – spent millions on televising concerts celebrating the Olympics. Interestingly, one of the films commissioned is by Julien Temple, the director of The Great Rock and Rock Swindle which features ‘God Save the The Queen’-singing Sex Pistols. As well as staging the annual British proms, it will also be televising several concerts including Radio One’s Hackney Weekend 2012. Ironically, the television may be the only place where people get to see live music. The BBC has described it as the biggest ever free-ticketed live music festival it has ever hosted.

Residents of the Olympic boroughs saw one tangible return in the form of the the later concert. The curation here is probably the most contemporary and fun of all the events – Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna and Azealia Banks feature in the extensive list of credible acts. Those lucky enough to get free tickets are probably saving hundreds on seeing the acts perform on tour.

The most heavily branded of all the events taking place around the Olympics is Coca-Cola’s Olympic Torch Relay. Coca-Cola has organised a series of concerts marking the delivery of the Olympic torch to the borough, starting from Land’s End. The Olympics seems to cause musicians to abandon any credibility they once had. Katy B and Mark Ronson are teaming up for a Coca-Cola song created especially for Olympics titled ‘Anywhere in the World’.

Blur’s fixation with Britishness has paid off, as the band will be headlining the closing ceremony in Hyde Park – the site of their last major reunion in 2009. Let’s ignore the fact that it looks like Britain hasn’t had any era-defining bands in the past ten years, and that they are irrevocably associated with the more plentiful Labour government years. Despite their early battles with Oasis, they’re now a non-controversial crowd-pleaser (and credible with it).

Lead singer Damon Albarn is also reconvening his Africa Express through the Barbican and taking it on a tour around the UK, hitting up the other musical cities in the country such as Manchester and Leeds. It’s easy to forget about the nationwide impact of the Olympics funding on arts events – and how much more innovative or daring these can be, away from the cultural capital. The contemporary arts centre received a huge injection of funding to hold events because of its location within the City of London. It has already hosted a number of landmark shows including a staging of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. The area itself is a great place to experience the juxtapositions of this part of London. Walking around, it’s like a who’s who of the news – visitors can walk from the former grounds of Occupy St Pauls up to the banks and then finally arrive at the famed Silicon Roundabout.

The Olympics is often used to highlight world events, and this year’s celebrations are not any different. One of the major musical celebrations will start off in the former danger zone of Londonderry. The Peace One Day concert in London is a culmination of events organised across the world, called Global Truce which countdown to what it describes as the biggest reduction of global violence across the world. Singers at the event will include Pixie Lott and Newton Faulkner.

The New Music 20×12 Weekend might appeal to anyone with more experimental taste in music. Organised by the PRS for Music Foundation, the event brings together new and rising talent performing specially commissioned pieces. It’s also cross-platform, incorporating dance and film.


Olympics music occupies that strange place – unlikely to be in the most ardent sports-lovers record collection, it nevertheless remains culturally resonant for years. We know it when we hear it, but would otherwise be stumped to name our favourite. For your benefit, we’ve put together some of the anthems and songs inspired by the world’s greatest show of strength.

1. Koreana ‘Hand in Hand’/1988 Seoul Games

Possibly has had one of the longer lifespans of any Olympics song in its home country. The video is quite something, and sums up why Korean pop has such a cult following abroad. It’s impossible not to feel lifted by this ridiculously anthemic number – despite being horrified by the 1980s hairstyles. The spectacle in it has to be seen to be believed, which is the Olympics’ mandate. Hundreds of dancers in red costumes swirl around each other in perfect co-ordination.

2. Celine Dion ‘The Power of the Dream’/1996 Atlanta Games

Celine dedicated all the money for this saccharine power ballad to Canadian athletes. The global star has been known for her left-wing gestures and her fierce loyalty to the French-speaking Canadian cause. The song extols the power of the collective imagination.

3. Gloria Estefan ‘Reach’/1996 Atlanta Games

The Latino singers contribution may have been inspired by her own experience of paralysis and her fight against it. The song was nominated for a Grammy. It’s a slow-burn song.

4. Tina Arena ‘The Flame’/2000 Sydney Games

Tina Arena was a huge star in her native Australia, and her presence with this song was a testimony to the country’s many home-grown but internationally undervalued stars. Interesting, the composer of The Flame went on to become the musical director of ‘Australian Idol’. It builds up to an epic second half following an average start.

5. Bjork ‘Oceania’/2004 Athens Olympics

Bjork was an unexpected choice – but if there’s an artist who is good at providing spectacle, then it’s the Icelandic singer. Her dress folded out into a 100,000 ft map of the world, which billowed like a giant cloud on the aerial view of the stadium. She was forced to sing to a backing track after the track without her voice was damaged, but refused to mime on stage. Despite that, the performance was one of the rare ones where there was a sense of intimacy, created by the fragile delicate voice. If only more cities had the same sense of adventure when it came to choosing performers.

6. ‘You and Me’ Liu Han/2008 Beijing Olympics

The Chinese anthem was sung by Huan and British opera star Sarah Brightman, both hugely established and popular in their native countries. It’s typically saccharine but that’s a minor point next to the city’s spectacular opening ceremony for the event.

7. ‘Barcelona’/1992 Barcelona Games

This was originally composed and sung by Freddie Mercury, who died shortly afterwards. The song also became somewhat of a national anthem which seems to be rare among these Olympic efforts. It was also played at UEFA games for several years after its release.

8. ‘Spinnin’’ Tinchy Stryder & Dionne Bromfield/2012 London Games

The 2012 Olympic anthem for London marks a departure from the traditional ballad aimed at older record-buyers. Stryder and soul singer Bromfield collaborate on this upbeat number, which still carries the traditional Olympic message of unity and goodwill.

9. Amigos Para Siempre/Sarah Brightman and Jose Carreras/1992 Barcelona

This song was performed at the Spanish premier’s funeral. Composed by the most British of composers Andrew Lloyd Webber, it was sung by operatic stars Sarah Brightman and Carreras. Like the other Barcelona anthem, it proved popular beyond the event.

10.Church Bell Music/ Martin Creed – 2012 London

This harks back to the art competitions that were held within the Olympics before the second world war. Conceptual artist Martin Creed (responsible for the on-off light switch which won the Turner Prize in 2001) proposes that bells everywhere in the country – from churches, to bikes, to that of town criers – are rung simultaneously on the first morning of the Olympics.


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