Really impressed by what I saw of Bass FM during my visit this week. As well as entertaining and informing local listeners, in partnership with the Bass Festival, the station provides a safe, legal environment for presenters, researchers and technicians to learn, and hone, the art of running a radio station. Crucially despite the professionalism it’s got the right kind of ‘edgy’ feel to set it apart from mainstream radio. Broadcast on 87.7FM in the Birmingham area, and found on the web here, Bass FM will be on air until 30th June. We could really do with something like this (i.e. proper, music lead local radio run by local people) as a permanent fixture – surely that could work in a city the size of Birmingham?
If you’re not currently up to speed with the Milford Place planning debacle and the potential threat to the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath, then I recommend you give this post a read on the excellent Radio To Go blog. Building a two bedroom apartment over an alleyway, 18m away from one of the most vibrant live music venues in the city is obviously a daft idea and it was encouraging to see common sense prevail at the planning committee at the end of last year, when the application was unceremoniously thrown out. No doubt the hundreds of objections from residents, the concerns of local councillors and the constituency MP, as well as the petition signed by 3,000 people all helped to focus the committee members’ minds. And we’re all (surely?) well aware of the problems that were caused in the past to music venues such as the Fiddle and Bone, The Spotted Dog and The Rainbow as a result of new build flats and subsequent noise abatement orders.
It only took a few weeks however for the Milford Place planning application to come back, with a report this time suggesting that the committee’s previous decision may not be defensible at appeal and that ‘costs’ could be awarded against the council. Members were ‘respectfully invited’ to consider the application again. They did, and this time it was passed. Further, the city council’s decision document makes it very clear that there is NO third party right of appeal.
No one wants the city council to lose on appeal and to have to pay costs to a developer because of a failure to take account of the law when making a planning decision. But was there really nothing that the council could have done in this situation? If an application goes in for housing next door to a late opening, busy, industrial premises would the potential disruption to residents not be sufficient grounds for refusal?
The Hare and Hounds, of course, does not stand in isolation on Kings Heath High Street and it already has neighbours that it has to take into account, however giving planning permission for a new flat just 18m away just doesn’t make sense. And should there be any objections to noise as a result of this new application then it’s absolutely essential that Regulatory Services take into consideration the fact that the Hare and Hounds was there first. I also hope they remember that plenty of people warned them that this was the wrong place to build a flat.
Andy Hamilton MBE, who passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning, at the age of 94, was an huge figure in jazz in this city. And his career which included playing on Errol Flynn’s yacht, setting up a host of clubs and venues in Birmingham, his adopted city, and signing a recording contract at the age of 72, was incredible even by jazz standards. This commercial success led to invitations to play festivals and venues all over the world but he stayed in Birmingham, continuing to play regular spots at Bearwood Corks with his band The Blue Notes and inspiring a generation of young musicians through his project The Ladywood Community School of Music. Through his music and his community work Andy Hamilton made a huge contribution to life in this city and will be sadly missed.
The new administration at Birmingham City Council has obviously been working for some time on their plans for how the city is governed. It’s good that they’ve taken power with the energy and determination to – at least on the face of it – shake things up and run the authority differently. Whilst I’m proud of a lot of what we achieved over the last eight years, I wouldn’t pretend for one minute that the systems we had in place were perfect. However, this new approach – of no longer having Cabinet Members tied to one department, but rather, having them working ‘across’ the council to direct policy – means we no longer have a figurehead at the council for Leisure, Sport and Culture.
I think this is a huge mistake, though I would love to be persuaded otherwise. It strikes me that L,S&C is a ‘department’ that really benefits from having a focal point for national and local organisations to deal with, someone to champion the sector and take the flack for when things go wrong. I chaired the corresponding Scrutiny committee last year (now ‘deleted’), and worked on the ‘Music Birmingham’ report, and time and time again it came up that a clear, single point of contact at the city was essential in terms of knowing who to lobby and ask for support and advice, whether it was in terms of funding or dealing with other council departments.
And that was at a time when we had one politician overseeing the portfolio. Now it seems we have the following: the Deputy Leader – sharing with the CM for Commissioning, Contracting and Improvement – responsibility for management of assets and grants; the CM for Social Cohesion and Equalities overseeing major community and cultural events of citywide, regional or national significance and, potentially, the relevant District Committee Chairmen looking after community arts, libraries, and the local sport and leisure service. This is far too confusing and doesn’t offer the clarity that I believe many people involved in arts and culture in this city are looking for.
I’m sure the new administration recognises the importance of the creative industries sector in this city. After all, city based cultural organisations contribute over £270m to the region’s economy every year – though of course, with the right level and quality of support, this could be so much more – and the strength, or otherwise, of our cultural offer is one of the key drivers for people deciding whether or not to stay in or move to our city. And I’m not interested in making party political points out of this issue. However, they need to identify someone in the city council to champion arts and culture, ideally at cabinet level, and they need to do it soon.
Fantastic to see the Birmingham music scene featured in the NME today. Anyone interested in music in the city will be aware of the buzz that’s around at the moment. And it’s not just about great up and coming bands such as The Carpels, Peace, Swim Deep, Jaws and numerous others, it’s also down to forward thinking venues such as The Rainbow, the Hare and Hounds and the Bulls Head, expert and influential media such as Brum Notes and Counteract and smart promoters such as Birmingham Promoters and The Catapult Club. Local labels such as One Beat Records, who are putting on an event at the mac on 22nd July showcasing some of the best local bands in the city, prove that there is a growing infrastructure to support great music in Birmingham. If a scene is characterised by people doing their own thing but also working together, for the benefit of all, then Brum really can stake a claim as the ‘hottest place in UK indie’ at the moment.
Artists interested in performing/showcasing their work at this year’s ArtsFest have until 10 a.m. on Monday 23rd April to apply. There’s no stage in Centenary Square this year, and, as usual, nobody gets paid or will have their expenses covered but…there’s potentially useful benefits promotion wise with everyone performing being allocated space on the website and in the event programme. There’s also the possibility of being able to perform in venues such as the Town Hall and the Symphony Hall, which could be a good experience for emerging artists. Performers also get the use of an ‘information stall’ on New Street to use as a base for distributing flyers and building up mail lists. Anyone who needs more information, please get in touch, particularly if it’s not an event you’ve been involved with before.
The event takes place in Birmingham on the 8th and 9th September 2012.
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.
I have to admit I struggled to find the substance, at first, at yesterday’s launch of Birmingham’s Creative City initiative. It was gratifying, of course, to hear Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, talk in such glowing terms about the cultural ‘offer’ in Birmingham, and reassuring to hear Andy Street, Chairman of the LEP, acknowledge the hugely important role that the creative industries have to play in the city. And the ‘delegate pack’, too, included lots of good news: a nice brochure about the new Birmingham Library, as well as a booklet outlining a ‘vision’ for Birmingham’s new museum quarter at Curzon Square. Huge credit, incidentally, must go to Cllr Martin Mullaney, and others, for getting this initiative off the ground: a museum of contemporary art (an ‘Ikon 2′) and a space to exhibit the extensive collection of photography we have in Birmingham would hugely increase the opportunities to display art in this city.
As the panel members got up to speak, it became clearer: the launch was about inviting businesses to invest in a fund to help make initiatives like the Curzon Square Museum Quarter actually become reality and, given the involvement of the LEP, about linking cultural development to wider economic growth in the region. And crucially, there does appear to be some extra money on the table from the city council with £5m being earmarked for ‘cultural regeneration’ in the city.
This is to be welcomed, especially at a time when the huge savings that the city council is having to make mean difficult decisions are being made with regards to funding. What concerns me, however, is this: given that there were less than a dozen representatives from the ‘independent sector’ at yesterday’s launch (from a delegate list of 116 people), and much of the ‘mood music’ at the event was around cultural assets like the Symphony Hall, the Hippodrome etc, how do we ensure that this £5m gets to be evenly distributed amongst both big and small organisations? For example, one of the ideas coming out of the popular music review that my committee is conducting is for there to be a ‘development fund’ for local bands, so they can actually be paid – or ‘topped up’ – a modest amount for performing in small venues. Given the scarcity of cheap (and legal) sites to put up posters and the regulations around leafleting, it’s difficult for bands to sell tickets outside of a loyal circle of family and friends. A fund to help bands promote future gigs and help pay for rehearsal space would go a long way towards providing encouragement as much as anything else. This wouldn’t take a huge amount of money, but supporting musicians at the onset of their careers could be one of the best investments we make given the huge importance that popular music has in improving people’s perceptions of a city and sustaining jobs. Details of the £5m fund will become available next month and I hope that this is where at least part of the substance of yesterday’s event lies and that the allocation of the money will be truly representative of the whole of the cultural offer in Birmingham.