Last year’s UK Music report, ‘Destination UK’, was the ‘most comprehensive study ever undertaken on the power of music as a tourist draw’ and the first of its kind to quantify the economic value of ‘music tourism’ to the country’s regions. It also laid down a challenge to public bodies, locally and nationally, to ‘realise the potential of this considerable economic asset’. And the Scrutiny Committee that I chair in Birmingham has responded to that challenge, coming up with a series of recommendations for city council approval – in our scrutiny report ‘Destination Birmingham‘ – that I hope will send out the clear message that we see popular music as being of huge importance to the cultural and economic life of our city.
We felt it important to focus the review on ‘popular music’ – difficult though that is to define – rather than classical music, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there have been several attempts over the last few years in Birmingham to make more of this ‘cultural asset’ – however, much of it has been ad hoc and has lacked the formal support of our city council. In contrast, classical music is widely valued and recognised and is supported and promoted with public funds.
There has also been little done in terms of quantifying the economic value of popular music to Birmingham – unlike classical music and cultural activities in general. However, with the UK Music report showing that major concerts and festivals in the West Midlands result in an annual spend of over £138m and our own research showing that five independent festivals alone in the city bring over £5m into the local economy every year, clearly this is an area worthy of serious attention.
We also wanted to focus on popular music because of its diversity and appeal to such a wide range of people. Birmingham is one of the youngest cities in Europe and although this is a huge generalisation, popular music is often the culture that younger people are most interested in and it is sometimes seen as undervalued. And the success of our bands – whether from the past – such as UB40, Black Sabbath or Duran Duran – the present, or the future – such as The Arcadian Kicks and The Carpels - adds greatly to the international profile of the city. You only have to look at cities like Manchester and Liverpool to see how popular music helps in terms of marketing a city as a culturally exciting place for people to visit and set down roots. This indirect value is hugely important. The success of its local bands in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, led to Manchester University being one of the most sought after universities in the country, boosting the city’s media and creative industries and generating huge interest in its musical heritage.
We followed three particular lines of enquiry during the course of our review:
Firstly, heritage: One of UK Music’s recommendations in ‘Destination Music’ is that ‘tourism authorities and LEPS should capitalise on the unique musical strength and heritage of each region’. And we know that from our own experience here in Birmingham that musical heritage can be a significant component of the tourism industry. Last year’s Home of Metal exhibition produced by Capsule and held in the city’s main museum generated £1.6m for our local economy and attracted an unprecedented level of media coverage. It was covered in every paper from the Sun to the FT, was broadcast on the BBC and CNN, and the subject of a 30 minute documentary on Sky. Many commentators expressed surprise that we hadn’t shown off this element of our past before, with The Sunday Times reporting: ‘this is Birmingham. They do things indifferently here.’ And ‘Brummies don’t like to shout about what they do’. Yet, clearly, there is much that we could be shouting about. As well as heavy metal, Birmingham is the birthplace of British reggae and bhangra, home to some huge international bands, and a city where significant music events have taken place. Our report, then, comes up with a number of recommendations as to how we can better celebrate the diverse musical heritage of our city.
The second area we looked at was in relation to the current industry: what are Birmingham’s strengths and weaknesses; where are the gaps? At the heart of this issue are the creators and performers of music and whether they are able to flourish here in Birmingham. We know that there is a quantifiable ‘music industry’ in this city, including a range of promoters, venues, and festivals; artists, labels and managers. What we lack, however, are the crucial support networks that have national recognition and support by the industry in comparison to other cities. A local, unsigned band made it very clear to us that this strong support structure is often needed to enable a band to grow and reach the next level. The absence of this support can mean that many bands with aspirations leave the city as the lack of infrastructure and necessary contacts hinder progress. Unlike some other cities, there is no discernible voice advocating for the independent sector in Birmingham – yet co-ordination and the ability to articulate the sector’s needs is vital if we want to help support new bands and retain talent here.
Finally we looked at what our city council could do practically to help. Very few of the people we spoke to asked for direct funding from the council and everybody saw the dangers of us being in the position of ‘talent spotting’ or ‘picking winners’. However, it’s clear that we ought to be doing more to support this sector particularly with regards to setting a strategy and priorities, as well as providing a clear point of contact within the council for those wanting to put on events or gigs, or develop their music business in Birmingham. This role could involve providing support for funding applications, helping establish better links with the media to improve coverage of local events and taking responsibility, with our partners, for providing business advice. Several years ago our council took the decision to install and fund such a point of contact for those to come and film in the city and the key recommendation from our report is that we create a similar role, a ‘Music Birmingham’, for the popular music sector. This would send out the clear message that we recognise the huge value of popular music to our city.
And this isn’t about the city council saying for one minute that it has any particular expertise with regards to the workings of music industry. What the city does have, however, are extensive networks, contacts and clout and given the huge importance of this sector – culturally, economically and as a way to improve perceptions of the city – the council has an important role to play in terms of finding out what the industry considers to its priorities and then being responsive to them. And sometimes of course, this may simply be about us getting out of the way. I hope that other councils across the UK pick up the challenge.