Over the decades it has become common for seemingly insalubrious areas of London to rocket up the indices of respectability, desirability and credibility as they attract shiny new businesses and preposterous new property prices.
But Kings Cross? Who signed that off? Then again, maybe it was inevitable. It is, after all, wedged between rock n roll Camden and chi-chi Islington. But still: Kings Cross?
A couple of decades ago, it really did not show much promise – just an awful lot of threat. It was associated with drugs, prostitution and a dirty great railway terminus. Not necessarily in that order.
Now though, thanks to Europe’s biggest-ever urban regeneration programmes, it is very much the place to be – and to work, and to live, and to eat, and to drink.
It is already home to PRS for Music (along with the MPA and BASCA) and Central Saint Martins art college, and will soon(ish) welcome Google and Universal Music.
Most either are, or will be, in the ‘official’ regeneration site, 62 acres north of the station. This is the mapped, planned and paid for renewal project. Keep going, however, past the Guardian’s offices, past the swanky new ‘living spaces’, and just when you think maybe the cool kids haven’t ventured this far, that the terrain is maybe slightly too rough for micro-scooters, you hit Tileyard Studios – the most vibrant creative hub in the entire postcode, an expanding cluster of musicians, producers and writers as well as a myriad of music businesses including labels, publishers, management companies and design agencies.
This is part of the organic commercial and creative swell around the central surge. And it’s attracting more occupiers and interest with every passing month.
Two members of the team helming the development (and the associated Tileyard Music management and publishing company) were originally in a 90s boy band called Ultra.
Michael Harwood (guitar) and Nick Keynes (bass), enjoyed some success in this spotlight (they sold nearly half a million albums), but ended up getting dropped (twice, in fact) and having to work out how they could stay in the business and continue to be creative, one or two steps behind the frontline of stardom.
Together with ex-bandmate and former business partner Jon O’Mahony they ended up creating a company called Goldust, writing and producing for a host of pop artists in the early 2000s including, Natasha Bedingfield, Liberty X and Kylie, as well as branching out into soundtrack work.
Keynes recalls: “We were working out of our homes and really needed to take the next step, but everything we looked at was either really ropey or really over-priced. So we thought we’d be better off building something ourselves.
“We bought a building in West London and created six studios: we took the top three and rented the bottom three out to help balance the books. And what happened was we inadvertently created this mini-hub, which was really the catalyst for Tileyard. It was a warm-up for Tileyard.”
The other catalyst came via an introduction to a property developer called Paul Kempe, who ended up investing in their business.
Keynes stresses that, although Kempe comes from a property background, he has always had a huge passion for music and the creative arts and that perhaps the two bonded because, “I’m reasonably entrepreneurial, for a creative guy – probably because I’m not such a natural creative as Michael, so I sit there thinking, I need to bring something else to the table and try to come up with a new angle”.
Kempe owned a light industrial estate just north of Kings Cross. And when Keynes and Harwood needed a decent size space to host an A&R event that couldn’t be accommodated at their West London HQ, he suggested they come up and have a look.
“At that time it was deserted”, recalls Harwood. “There was some manufacturing, some storage, no theme, certainly no creatives. It was pretty unsexy.”
But, it offered a space that suited, it was relatively cheap – and it worked.
“We ran a few of those events, and the cogs started turning for all of us. We were happy out west [Acton, to be precise], the industry was out that way, but we thought here was an opportunity to start afresh, to build a community around ourselves.”
“I also think it was a time when the industry was becoming less closed off, moving away from working in silos with the majors as the gatekeepers.”
So, in January 2011, they moved in and, in partnership with Paul Kempe, who had agreed to commit significant investment to the project, took control of the complex. “We started calling people up, getting them to take a look. There was a lot of, ‘errr, okaaayyy…’ But over the course of about six months, we got four people to commit to studio space, one of whom was Wayne Hector, which was quite a coup at the time.”
The site grew rapidly, soon expanding to include businesses as well as writers and producers. “We knew we needed access to the industry”, explains Keynes. “Create an inner circle of creative talent, with ancillary industries round the outside. When that concept started to come together, we knew we were onto something.”
“The two companies key to making that happen were Sound Advice and JHO Management.”
“We brought Jho Oakley and Robert Horsfall up here, they took one look and said, Yep, we love it. Jho said, I totally get it, this could be the next Brill Building”, says Keynes. “I remember saying to Paul at the time, this could be the game-changer. We’re all forever grateful to Robert and Jho, for that belief and vision.”
Keynes says that another key reason Tileyard works for artists and creative businesses is an inherent understanding that their workspace isn’t just a space in which they work – it’s integral to what they do and shapes how they do it. “What we don’t do is ever build a space and try and fill it. Never. We work with clients, we get to know them and understand their requirements. With studios, that’s absolutely essential, but we take the same approach to offices a well: What do you need? We’ll make it happen.”
Tileyard has now grown to 82 studios and over 125 business clients. It covers 150,000 sq ft and welcomes around 800 people every working day. 60 per cent of the businesses work directly in the music sector (from management and publishing, to live agents and vinyl manufacturing), others are involved in fashion, film, digital marketing and increasingly the world of creative tech.
“It’s become more of a campus,” says Keynes, “with a shared ethos and culture spread amongst quite an eclectic mix of companies. And everything’s on hand, from great drummers to amazing social media agencies. Tileyard’s the fourth major! We – as an entity – can genuinely do anything a record company can do, from writing and recording to manufacturing and marketing – and write the contracts!”
Harwood continues: “Whatever you do, you don’t really have to leave here. I think we’re harking back to the business as it was in the 50s or 60s, working as a cottage industry, doing things for yourself, but also in collaboration with like-minded people.
“You go into the café or to an evening event, and you’ll bump into someone who is going to be either interesting to you, or useful to you, or more likely both.”
The key now is to expand without compromising the culture on which Tileyard is built. There is constant additional investment being made to continually improve the complex as well as acquiring further buildings to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for space at Tileyard. Keynes says: “Within the next five years, we’d like to have 2 to 3,000 or so people here, maybe across as much as half a million square feet. But the mix of companies will still be curated in exactly the same way and everything we build will be built specifically for, and in conjunction with individual clients.”
Another key area of expansion is education.
“We want to help find and teach the industry’s next artists, producers, managers, designers and publishers here. We’ve looked at what’s out there and in some cases we didn’t think it was especially relevant to the music industry today, so we really want to make education part of the mix.”
Tileyard is the name of the creative hub of studios and offices north of Kings Cross – and it is also where you’ll find Tileyard Music, the management and publishing company run by the team behind the development.
Tileyard Music is actually their home turf, in terms of skill sets, on what is now their home patch. Apart from Kempe, the other three partners, Keynes, Harwood, and Charlie Arme, all have backgrounds in writing, publishing, production and management. It is the sort of company that they always planned to run – they just didn’t plan on running it within London’s fastest growing collective of creative companies and studios, or if they did, they sure didn’t figure they’d own that too.
Even while it was being built, however, Harwood says that he “always had a Tileyard Music hat on” and was thinking how they could grow a vibrant music business.
Harwood recalls: “Nick was building studios and offices, and pushing that side of the business; I was making records, writing songs and developing talent with a couple of writers we had signed; the missing piece of the jigsaw was Charlie Arme.”
Ironically Arme was actually based at Tileyard before Keynes and Harwood arrived and was renting a small office in the facility, but wasn’t really sure what direction he was going in until, in true Tileyard style, he bumped into the then just-arrived Keynes and Harwood in the on-site café. Harwood recalls how on their first meeting they all just completely clicked.
Arme adds: “The more the three of us talked, the more the feeling was: let’s do something here. We can manage, we can publish, we can write and we can produce, and every week that goes by there are more and more brilliant, creative people right on our doorstep.”
Arme’s background had been as a young A&R scout at Relentless, Virgin and B-Unique. He worked with You Me At Six and Bastille, as well as discovering Ella Eyre, who he still continues to manage today.
So, in 2013, Arme was brought in as the fourth partner, and together with Harwood, they set about building Tileyard Music. It now has a staff of 13 and publishes 11 songwriters as well as managing a host of artists including: Sigala, Ella Eyre, Tiggs Da Author, Sondr, and Tiggi Hawke.
Arme says, “Sigala is a great study of how Tileyard, the place and the company, can work with someone from start to finish, especially if they engage with everything around them”.
Sigala initially worked within the Tileyard complex as a writer/producer making records for other people. “He was a bit down one day”, says Harwood, “and so I said, have a few beers and make some music for yourself, make some music that makes you happy. And he came up with Easy Love.”
Arme takes up the story: “We’d already had some success with Ministry of Sound, so I called them up, asked them what they thought and they came back straight away and said, It’s a smash, let’s do it. With over 2.5m records sold for the first three singles, he’s got a studio here and is collaborating with loads of other artists based at Tileyard. It works.
“Another great story is the writing camps that we run here”, says Harwood. “We started running these 4 years ago and they have been a constant source of generating great music. We have had a host of great cuts from our writers that have been written on these camps, including last year’s international hit by Kygo – Stole The Show. That record has now clocked over two million sales globally, reached over 500 million streams, and gone platinum in several territories.”
The final piece of the jigsaw for Tileyard Music has been the recent formation of its own label, Tileyard Records. Arme says: “We are finding the talent and developing them, so the next step seemed obvious – to put records out.”