koko london

Exclusive: KOKO CEO on the reopening of the legendary Camden venue

When Arcade Fire played KOKO on the 29th of April, they joined a long list of legendary artists to rock the storied venue in Camden, North London.

But for the venue itself, Arcade Fire’s show was possibly even more significant than the times that the Rolling Stones, Prince, Madonna, AC/DC, Blur or Amy Winehouse strutted their stuff on the stage. Because it meant that KOKO was finally back in business.

For CEO Olly Bengough, it was vindication for 18 years of blood, sweat and tears. He first took a 50% stake in the venue in 2004 alongside Loton Corp, then took sole ownership in 2016.

KOKO closed for refurbishment in 2019 but, in 2020, a fire and the subsequent water damage destroyed its roof before the pandemic intervened and meant that KOKO – formerly known as The Music Machine and Camden Palace – was suddenly far from the only shuttered venue in London.

Bengough, however, stayed the course and the all-new KOKO is a stunning live venue, and so much more. As well as the celebrated main theatre, it now boasts a private members club, an in-house studio, a pizzeria, vinyl listening rooms, a rooftop bar and several other performance spaces, all lavishly appointed. It might still be in Camden, but its days as a sticky-floored indie fleapit are clearly behind it. It even <<smells>> nice.

KOKO is also re-embedding itself into the London live circuit, once again pulling music fans to Camden against the tide that has seen the scene shift east and south in recent years. The likes of Gabriels, Lianne La Havas, Jorja Smith and Pete Doherty have all played since the re-opening, while Flume, Yola, Jessie J, Cat Burns and Beth Orton all have dates scheduled.



AMI sat down with Bengough to learn how his KOKO dream finally became a reality…

Audio Media International: How difficult have the last couple of years been?

Olly Bengough: It’s been really difficult for everyone in the live industry. It’s been the most difficult era since people can remember. But on a positive note, you can see that everyone has missed it and it’s incredible to see how great the appetite is for live.

Audio Media International: Trying to do the refurb and fix the fire damage during the pandemic must have been tough…

Olly Bengough: I’ve had so many challenges along the way, the pandemic and doing construction through that was massive. But my team stuck together and sometimes that pushes you to look at things differently. We found a new venue called the Fly Tower during that period, so being delayed allowed us to see new spaces in the project and build new elements in. In some ways it’s added to the creative dimension of the whole new space. We’ve turned it into a positive.

Audio Media International: Why was it important for the venue to have so many different spaces?

Olly Bengough: The vision is, we live in a new world where everyone is looking for unique experiences. Koko will allow artists to create one-off, limited-edition events through the physical space and one-off digital events. Artists can take their fans on a journey that’s never been done before. That’s the vision – to allow artists creative freedom and a dynamic new way of entertaining and monetising their audience. They can play seven different, beautifully designed venues under one roof in one day. Their fans will get the incredible opportunity to watch them perform in the theatre or the Fly Tower or Ellen’s, which is a small hidden speakeasy, the penthouse, the radio station or the roof terrace. Fans will be able to experience a new type of innovative storytelling that only creates a deeper connection with the musicians.

Audio Media International: Are you hoping lots of artists will go for more ambitious projects rather than just playing a gig in the main room?

Olly Bengough: Artists can now create limited edition experiences online and offline. I don’t think anyone’s ever brought that to musicians in the way we do. It allows them to create one-off events and that’s got to be great for the musicians, because there aren’t enough spaces that really allow them to do all of that under one roof. The fact that they can decide how far they want to take their creative expression is great for them. That will lead to them creating different ways of monetising and connecting with their fans.

Audio Media International: How important is the venue’s history to the new KOKO?

OB: We’ve always broken musicians at an early stage of their career and then what’s amazing is, they then come back when they become stadium acts like Prince, Ed Sheeran or Madonna. We’ve got to focus on doing what we always do, championing and empowering future musicians, and curating the ones coming through well. Then when those artists have a good connection with us, of course we’d love having them back. We’ve built a radio station which helps us to promote new artists. We’ve got smaller venues they’ll be able to play and it’s really important that we talk through, what does a new act in London need in the future? What facilities? They might need a smaller venue so we’ve built one, they might need some green screen or promotion, so we built a radio station.

Audio Media International: Is this the future of live music venues? Will they all have to be multi-purpose in future?

Olly Bengough: No, I love basic spit and sawdust venues. But what has definitely changed is, everyone is looking for these multi-tiered experiences. The fans of tomorrow are looking for places where you can eat and drink, in beautifully designed spaces, listen to music with incredible audio and have an independent feeling. We live in a world where everything is so tech driven and actually you need a break from that and to feel like you’re part of something authentic. We’re bringing in an innovative approach that hasn’t been done before. But I don’t think you have to take that approach, you can have both.

Audio Media International: Ultimately, what will constitute success for KOKO five years down the line?

Olly Bengough: For me, success is working with a lot of talented creatives to host amazing musicians and find incredible new ways for those musicians to tell their stories to music fans. If we focus on that, hopefully eventually people will recognise Koko as something truly unique that’s never been seen before. That’s what success looks like.


Welcome to issue 7 of Audio Media International