Birmingham City Council seems determined to keep sticking its proverbial head in the sand when it comes to supporting the independent ‘popular’ music sector in this city. When I was chairman of the Leisure Scrutiny Committee last year, I felt it was time we made a real effort in promoting and supporting this hugely important branch of our creative industries and with the help of some brilliant council officers we instigated a review that came to be titled ‘Destination Birmingham: Birmingham, A Music City’. With industry revenues totalling nearly £4bn in 2010 and with over 100,000 people across the UK making a living from the business there’s a strong economic interest in taking our local music industry seriously. In the West Midlands alone, major concerts and festivals mean ‘music tourists’ spend over £138m a year – five independent festivals alone in this city bring over £5m into the local economy every year. We weren’t the only local authority, or public body, in the country ignoring this hugely important sector – something that UK Music identified in their report ‘Destination Music’, published just before we conducted our review. One of the council officers and I went down to London to meet Feargal Sharkey and Adam Webb from UK Music and they were hugely supportive of what we were trying to do here in Birmingham.
Over the course of several weeks, the committee met with musicians, venue owners, and promoters as well as record labels, academics and people involved in promoting music heritage in the city. Every one we spoke to was incredibly helpful and generous in giving up their time. And pretty much all of them told us that whilst they remained positive that the city council had instigated the review with good intentions, they felt very much that they’d ‘been here before’. This time, I said, things would be different.
The final report was extremely well received, attracting a huge amount of positive media coverage. The chief executive of UK Music expressed her ‘delight’ at what we’d done, hoping that ‘other regions of the UK would look up and follow Birmingham’s example.’ We were shortlisted for a ‘good scrutiny’ award and although we didn’t win, officers from another council asked if they could get in touch as they were keen to produce something similar. It was even covered in the NME, and I got to mention Tom Waits at a full council meeting (both ‘career’ highlights for me).
Full details of the report are here, but in essence we wanted the city council to send out a clear message that popular music mattered to the city. We recommended that it establish a Music Birmingham office to act as a single contact point for the industry, to bring together different aspects of the council as necessary and to be the external ‘face of the city’ – supporting funding applications and establishing better links with the media to support coverage of local events. We also recommended that we ought to be doing a better job of marketing our diverse musical heritage – not just with regards to heavy metal but also in relation to our history as the birthplace of British reggae and bhangra. And, given the scarcity of legal fly-posting sites we argued that the city council should make it easier for smaller venues and events to promote themselves.
And now, several months later, how is the city council getting on with implementing these recommendations? Perhaps predictably enough, they’ve either killed them off or buried them so deep in bureaucratic language that they’re virtually unrecognisable:
For instance, that recommendation to set up a Music Birmingham office and to establish a single contact for the independent music sector? The city council considers that the idea has ‘merit’, which is encouraging, however the recommendation has been well and truly booted into the ‘can’t be done’ long grass. No plans to implement at a later stage or to seek alternative funding (which would of course be essential given current finances) – just marked down as being beyond the control of the council and ‘not achievable’.
The proposal to celebrate the reunion of Black Sabbath this year? This couldn’t be brought to fruition in the summer but apparently discussions are ‘ongoing’. Given the entrenched opposition to recognising the band as ‘Freemen of the City’, I’m wouldn’t recommend that anyone holds their breath.
The recommendation to develop a digital music archive in the new Library of Birmingham? Not achievable it seems.
There are a few areas where the city council is suggesting that it has achieved the recommendations but whilst it might technically have done so, they’ve been significantly watered down. The proposal that, along with partners, we provide advice and support for local businesses to have a presence at the industry event MIDEM, for example, has been signed off as ‘achieved’ purely on the basis that if any businesses approach the chamber then they will be ‘signposted’ to the right people to talk to. Not exactly the proactive approach that we had in mind.
It’s disappointing that the city council has chosen to largely ignore the good ideas that came out of this report. There remains a real opportunity for Birmingham City Council to do something different here and to start backing the kind of music that I would argue most people in the city – given our youthful ‘demographic’ – are into. Everyone knows that money is extremely tight at the moment but if the will was there then I’m convinced that something really positive could come out of all the hard work that was put into this piece of work. It would be incredibly frustrating if this report was just left to gather dust and we watched as other cities across the country did all the kind of things that we know we ought to be doing here.