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O2 Islington Academy: A decade in the arcade

Ensconced in a north London shopping centre, the O2 Islington Academy celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. PSNEurope drops in.

“A lot of bands experience that ‘Spinal Tap moment’ trying to find their way around…” says Tom Watt, technical manager of the O2 Islington Academy, drawing upon the famous ‘Hello Cleveland!’ scene in the film where the rock band becomes lost in a maze of tunnels beneath the stage.

“It takes time to get used to the different entrances and exits here.” Watt has no such problem of course: he’s been there for nine years of the venue’s operating life.
It was 19 September 2003 when the Carling Islington Academy, part of the Academy Music Group (AMG), opened its doors in the former premises of the Marquee Club. (Dave Stewart’s ill-fated plans to run a venue there had failed after only four months.) The Alkaline Trio were the first act on the stage in the 850-capacity main room, cranking out their spikey punk tunes through an EAW rig.
The KF730 line-array boxes – four a side, with SB750 subs – has put in some sterling service here; apart from the addition of SB730 subs to beef up the bottom end, the PA system is much as it was in 2003.
The venue was the first in London to install a Digidesign (now Avid) D-Show Profile console FOH. “Both Mixracks [stageboxes] are front of house too, hooked up to the stage via an analogue multicore onstage,“ explains Watt. This analogue approach is AMG group technical manager Ed Jackson’s witty solution to future-proofing his venues in an age of competing digital networks.
“We’ve still got the lovely old Midas XL3 at the monitor position,” continues Watt. “It must be 20 years old, and needs the occasional service, but it’s great.”

(Photo credit above: Jim Ellam)
The Kings of Leon, Def Leppard (pictured) and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have all graced the Academy’s stage: do many bands bring their own kit? “We seem to get a week where everyone brings their own desk, then you won’t get it again for another quarter of a year,” replies Watt. “But we don’t do full production here so we’ve never taken out the PA, even with Eminem or Kiss…”
The technical manager has had plenty of time to tune the main room to perfection.
“We’re happy with how the cross-over points are set,” he agrees. “Some American engineers want a bit more sub, and we can sort that out, but most people are happy to do their tweaks on the Profile’s graphic EQ.” It took a while to establish the Academy as a ‘go-to’ venue in the face of local competition such as the Garage and the Scala, comments head of PR Louise Kovacs. The location in the shopping centre has worked both for and against them.

Creating an identity for what is effectively a concealed structure has not been easy, especially when the group is attracted to more traditional buildings (Kovacs cites the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Brixton Academy). But the shopping arcade brings advantages too, says Watt: “For the younger crowd, kids can see the gig while parents watch a film in the cinema next door, or go to Wagamamas… plus there are toilets opposite, and it’s under cover!”
Established itself it has: and over the decade, the likes of Biffy Clyro, Muse, D12 and Kasabian have all been through the doors. Of course, AMG’s shareholding structure which includes Live Nation, SGM and Metropolis must have its benefits; and since O2 came on board as a sponsor in 2009, publicity and marketing has got easier too. “But when I think of all the bands we’ve had, it’s not been bad for a small venue,” says Kovacs.
(Photo Credit above: Daniel Gray)
The venue’s second smaller downstairs room is the Academy2. This serves AMG’s strategy of developing fresh talent, notes Kovacs. “We set up Academy Events to look at the emerging market for young bands, where they can play a really good gig of the quality of a main room, but in a smaller space.”

An in-house production team means bands are looked after, rather than just turning up and “plugging into a box”. Hence every Academy venue now has an additional ‘Academy2’ room – some even have three. “It’s all about the development as a Group and supporting new music,” she says, recalling a night some years ago when a upcoming band called the Arctic Monkeys played the to a capacity crowd of 250 in the Academy2.
Downstairs, a Soundcraft MH3 sits FOH: “It has everything a main room board needs, in a smaller desk,” says Watt. “When we upgraded with the Profile, it gave us a surplus of analogue outboard for the small room – Klark Teknik EQs and all the pro gear you’d get in a bigger room.” Sound reinforcement is again EAW, this time “a speakers on sticks set-up, essentially”.
Watt says the XL3 in the main room is the inevitable next upgrade at the Academy. “I would love to get a Studer Vi6,” he adds. “The preamps sound amazing as well so we could have a choice between that and the Profile… but the Avid is a lovely desk, it’s really intuitive. If an engineer says he can’t make it sound great, then he’s not doing his job.” As PSNEurope September goes to press, the O2 Islington Academy – one of over a dozen Academy/Academy2 operations around the country – will host a 10th anniversary party for promoters, record labels and friends. Headline band on the night is, once again, the Alkaline Trio.
Kovacs and Watt will be there to toast the place: “When you get in here, it’s amazing,” she gushes. “It’s still one of my favourite venues in the Group.”
As perhaps the ultimate endorsement, Watt recalls how, when Kiss (pictured) were due to play there in 2010, they sent a representative from Clair Bros – the American PA giant and Kiss’ usual production team – to check out the Academy in advance. “They said it sounds brilliant, we can’t do much in this room that’s going to make it sound better,” says Watt proudly. “I just wish they’d given us a certificate that says ‘Islington Academy: approved by Kiss and Clair’…”
(Photo credit above: Daniel Gray)
Story: Dave Robinson